Glad you’re not here

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A year after she got married, Julie Harren of Orono, Minn., did something that raised a few eyebrows: She took a vacation without her husband, Lee.

For those of you thinking, “And? … So?” consider this: Harren wed in 1974 and taking a vacation with her two sisters to Acapulco was, she said, “not socially acceptable.”

It hardly stopped her. Over the past 30 years, Harren, 56, has hiked the Grand Canyon, strolled the streets of Paris, skied in Park City, Utah, and sunned in the Bahamas with her sisters, friends and, later, four daughters, now grown.

And Lee? He saw his wife return home happy, refreshed and flush with adventure tales and did what any self-respecting man would do: He, a few longtime friends and his brother-in-law launched their own trips: fly-in fishing in Canada, big-game hunting out West, turkey hunting in Arkansas. These separate vacations have never, however, replaced trips that Julie and Lee, 57, an accountant, take together every year (after tax season). They’re simply an acknowledgment that one person’s spa weekend is another person’s house arrest.

“It’s better,” Julie said. “It just gives you some space. I tried fishing and hunting. He tried going to Mexico with me. He sat under the umbrella and drank beer. It was forced time together.” A separate vacation, she said, “just gives you some space. It enhances the relationship.”

While couples traveling together still dominate leisure travel (61 percent, according to the 2007 National Leisure Travel Monitor), followed by adults traveling with children (31 percent), the hunger for female-only and male-only getaways is growing.

Travel expert Marybeth Bond, founder of the Gutsy Traveler Web site (Gutsytraveler.com) and author of “50 Best Girlfriend Getaways in North America,” (National Geographic Books, $16) reports a 230-percent increase in the number of women-only travel companies over the past six years. Type “girlfriend getaways” into your search engine, and choose from hundreds of dreamy options, from spa vacations to surfing camps to golfing and hiking.

Girlfriend trips, Bond said, became fully acceptable about 10 years ago, as societal attitudes shifted. No more days of seating women traveling alone at the back of the restaurant near the kitchen. Besides, women have their own disposable income. And if they have a man in their lives (an estimated 32 million single American women traveled at least once last year, according to the Travel Industry Association), he’s usually highly supportive of her plans (and probably a little relieved that he doesn’t have to go).

Josh Lesnick, co-founder of www.imin.com, a gender-based group travel site, is tracking the trend. “Activity from moms’ groups on “I’m in!’ has doubled since we launched last fall,” Lesnick said. “We are seeing a tremendous amount of interest in women’s two- and three-day trip itineraries … from spa to extreme outdoor adventures. Women traveling in groups is the evolution of Girls Night Out.”

Amy Close, 38, of Edina, has been taking girlfriend trips since college. Even after her daughter, Abby, was born four years ago, she continued to travel annually on a spa and shopping trip to Scottsdale. Husband Toby, 50, is completely on board, she said. “Toby and I support each other to do things,” she said. “He goes on ski trips with a group of guys. It’s really good for there to be balance in your life, and that includes being connected with friends.”

Manly trips

Besides, guys have … “mancations,” loosely defined as a way to engage in “guy” activities involving, in no particular order, sports, camping, gambling and drinking.

After first hearing the term in Vince Vaughn’s romantic comedy “The Break-Up,” Michael Sprifke of Sacramento grabbed the name, and created the Web site, Mancations.com, on which men share feedback and YouTube-ish clips about trips they’ve taken. The site is also full of links to guided fishing tours, houseboating, backpacking, RV trips, NASCAR packages, golf and father-son trips. You can buy a mancations T-shirt, too.

“It’s a great opportunity to provide a place for guys to go and say, “Here’s what we liked, didn’t like,”‘ said Sprifke, who is keeping his day job as general manager of an auto auction company.

Lee Harren, a mancations kind of guy, understands the appeal. “A lot of these places I go, there is no outside phone contact,” he said. “There’s more living in the moment, no responsibility.”

Of course, women could say the same thing. In fact, Bond did say the same thing. “When we travel with women,” said Bond, 55, who has been married for 22 years, “we’re not responsible for anyone. It’s a very different trip than taking a trip with children or a husband. We talk a lot. We laugh a lot. We get silly. We tell our stories. No one has had the perfect life we thought they did. Travel with girlfriends is therapy.”

Janet Schwahn, 64, a part-time secretary at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minn., took her first girlfriend trip in 1998 with her two best friends – her sisters, both from South Dakota. They went to New York City, saw shows, laughed their socks off. “Here we were, sleeping in the same room again. We used to meet at my dad’s house but we never did anything together. You almost lose touch, the closeness.”

Mary Lilyquist, 55, has been going on girlfriend trips for 13 years and says that even now, it’s not easy to leave her husband, Doug, behind as she travels with friends and her sister-in-law to countries such as Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Germany and France. “But the opportunities are wonderful and it’s exciting to share all I’ve seen.”

And frankly, it’s fine with Doug, 55, chief financial officer for Viking Materials, if he misses the shopping, sightseeing, beach walks and tennis. “I love ’em,” he said, “but I’m not traveling with four women.” Instead, Doug skis annually with two of his kids and buddies he met through ski patrol at Trollhaugen in Dresser, Wis.

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Separate ways?

For couples weighing the pros and cons of separate vacations, here’s some advice: Think “we-ness.” That’s the advice of John Buri, a psychologist and professor at the University of St. Thomas, and author of “How to Love Your Wife” (Tate Publishing, $14).

Buri, who has been married 35 years and is the father of six children, ages 21 to 30, would discourage separate vacations if couples weren’t also finding enjoyable shared activities. “The opposite of love? It’s indifference,” he said. He has interests that his wife, Kathy, doesn’t share, but when he scouts for a high school boys’ basketball team, for example, she goes along. She’s even learned a little bit about the sport. “Over time, slowly, couples do need to find those things they have in common,” he said.

The key, Buri said, is to develop “not two mes, but a we.” Taking separate and together trips, he said, “could actually work well as a healthy way to negotiate these particular personal preference differences.”

Mary Lilyquist agrees. Their separate vacations “are never done as an escape.” This fall, she and Doug will fly to Italy together.

And Julie Harren has discovered one additional perk to finding the right balance. When Lee travels with friends, she sometimes gets the best vacation of all:

“The house to myself.”

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