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Women Over 40 Who Vacation - Their Way

Marion Stoddart's worldwide outings range from walking tours of Wales to white-water rafting in Mexico

FIFTEEN years ago, Marion Stoddart made a list of all the things she wanted to accomplish in the remainder of her lifetime.

As an internationally recognized conservationist, she had already accomplished the major conservation goals she had set for herself. So, as she puts it, "It was time to do some other things.

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"I wanted to travel, and I wanted to see some things and do some things I'd never done before. I wanted to provide a service to other people, and I decided the people I'd like to service would be people like myself - older women."

This year Ms. Stoddart is celebrating the 10th anniversary of her service and business: Outdoor Vacations for Women Over 40.

More than 1,300 women from 44 states have participated in Stoddart's vacations, which range from walking tours of Wales to white-water rafting in Copper Canyon, Mexico.

"I put together the kind of trip that I would like to do," said Stoddart with a grin, during an interview in her home. Her living room resembles a ski lodge with its huge fireplace and view of a long, sloping, snow-covered backyard. In a few days she would lead a cross-country ski trip in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.

Most of the women who go on her trips are looking for new adventure in their lives, Stoddart says. They want to have fun, meet new people, be active in the outdoors, and do some things they may have never done before. "The people who are expert cross-country skiers, for example, are not the ones that go on my trips," Stoddart notes. "They are more beginners and intermediates."

The 1993 vacations brochure features canoeing, skiing, hiking, biking, rafting, sailing, even whale-watching. A cross-country ski weekend in New Hampshire is $350. Ten days of hiking, snorkeling, swimming, and exploring in Belize and Tikal National Park in Guatemala is $2,995, including the airfare from Belize City to Flores, Gautemala.

The groups that vacation with Stoddart are fairly representative of the general population of women over 40: A little more than half are married, and the other near-half breaks down into those who are divorced or separated, widowed, or have always been single. Ages range from 40 to around 83, the average being 57 or 58. "We find that age is not the factor, it's mostly right up here," says Stoddart, tapping her temple.

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"You hear about men who go off on fishing and hunting trips and leave their wives because they're not interested," she says. "Well, there's a group of women who want to do these [outdoor] things who are married to men who don't. If my husband enjoyed doing these things, I'm sure I would never have started this business."

Stoddart, a mother of three and grandmother of four, uses words such as "enriching" and "freeing" frequently when describing vacationers' experiences. One gets the feeling she considers herself one of her own clients. "It's very interesting to have these different women from different backgrounds come together; it's very enriching," she says. "There's a lot of laughter."

Rhoda Barker of Wellesley, Mass., has been on numerous Stoddart vacations, including ones to the Galapagos Islands, Switzerland and France, Turkey and Greece, and the first Stoddart vacation to Yellowstone National Park.

"They were all very fine trips," she says. "Part of the great excitement of these trips is meeting new people." Of Stoddart, Ms. Barker says, "Marion I greatly admire. She's very giving of herself ... and is most interested that her people have just what they want out of trips."

Although Stoddart stresses that she's not in the business of "transforming people's lives," she acknowledges that that is often the result. "I don't make an issue of `this is going to be good for you,' " she says. "When people's lives are enhanced, that's great. Mostly the women I hear from who tell me it's changed their lives are people who feel that it's enabled them to do some things in their lives that they had never thought possible before, or appropriate."

After one trip, for example, one woman quit her "mediocre" job and found something better. Another became a serious outdoor enthusiast.

The trips also help foster friendships among the women: "Those that are most challenging are the trips that really cause the greatest bonding, camaraderie to develop."

Fears and concerns are always addressed before and during trips, Stoddart says. "Maybe they're terrified of narrow trails with shallow dropoffs. Maybe they're afraid of water. But some of the fears are fears you wouldn't even expect. It might be a woman who's concerned about leaving her family or her husband. Many of these women have never left home, themselves, to go on vacation.... Husbands and families are usually supportive, but not always."

Perhaps the biggest concern or hesitation among perspective vacationers is about being physically fit. "They're concerned that everyone else will be in better shape than they are," she says, "and they're concerned that they may be left behind, won't be able to keep up; and their worst concern is that they may hold other people back.

"I try my very best to reassure them that they don't need to have those concerns, that we don't expect that everyone will be in the same shape." On a hike, for example, the 12 or so women might divide into three groups: fast, medium, and slow-paced. "We'll all end up at the same place for dinner," Stoddart says.

Stoddart is particular about whom she hires as guides and leaders. She prefers women who are naturalists or who have strong environmental backgrounds. She herself has an inner hope that she is instilling in her vacationers an appreciation of the places they visit and the environment. "I don't really come out and say this, but that underscores everything I do," says Stoddart, who received the United Nations Environment Programme's Global Award in 1987.

Stoddart says her vacations are still evolving. She would like to extend vacation opportunities to more women - women from other countries, for example, would help promote more international understanding, she says. Offering more budget vacations would be good, too, she says: "Some women can well afford these trips. Others can't."

More immediate goals include filling every trip and not disappointing anyone, she says. "Success, to me, is designing a wonderful trip where we have great guides, and we're in beautiful places, and there are lots of different kinds of activities and wonderful challenges that people will take and meet and have a wonderful time."

* Outdoor Vacations for Women Over 40, P.O. Box 200, Groton, MA., 01450.

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