The envelope comes in the mail a few days before the big event. Virtually every 49-year-old in America gets one.
If you're a typical woman in denial about what, exactly, this well-timed blow to your ego means, you take one look at the return address, drop the thing as if it's crawling with spiders and let out an internal scream.
"Aargh! It's from AARP!"
We're talking 50, of course. The big Five-O. The end of denial about being mistaken for a gal in her 30s. The time to quit squinting in the mirror to see whether you've developed wrinkles because you don't need your reading glasses (if you can find them) to see that you have. Hate that gray? Wash it away, baby, but smile while you do it because you've come a long way.
Not every woman is willing to advertise the fact that she's lived a half-century.
But my friend Koleen Hamblin does everything with a flourish. She's also a supreme organizer and so skilled in the art of persuasion that she probably could arbitrate a Mideast truce with a flip or two of her pert blond locks and a well-placed compliment or two.
If Koleen says, "C'mon girls, it'll be great," you can bet your next highlighting appointment that it will be. So when she announced a girlfriend getaway to Park City, Utah, to mark her 50th birthday, 13 of her closest gal pals, including me, took the bait.
Girlfriend getaways are one of the fastest-growing segments of the travel industry (or were, before the recession). Female friends love to get together to gossip, file their nails, flash their credit cards and get down with some good bonding exercises (i.e., eating, drinking, shopping and talking, talking, talking).
Why Park City, one of the West's best-known ski destinations? Koleen is an avid skier, but others on the list had never strapped on a pair of boards and weren't about to spend the weekend dusting snow from their derrires and nursing bruised pride. Besides, it was doubtful whether some of those from Southern California even owned a coat.
"Honey, I don't ski, and I'm not starting now," Susan B of Santa Barbara said. "I like to eat. I like to drink. I like to shop."
Park City was, in fact, a carefully considered choice. The home of the Sundance Film Festival and 2002 Winter Olympics events doesn't live by celebrities and snow alone. This former mining town of 7,400 is all about sophistication in a mountain setting, offering options galore for lodging, fine dining and activities beyond the obvious sport of riding up and sliding down.
Another plus: Park City has a free public transportation system so extensive and efficient that it's possible, if not preferable, to get by without a car. We managed just fine with one Chevy Cobalt between us, but we didn't use it for much except trips to the supermarket and the state liquor store.
It's no easy feat to organize a weekend for 14 women flying in from multiple cities for differing numbers of days. The birthday girl made order out of potential chaos by reserving a block of rooms at the Marriot Summit Watch, chosen for its walk-anywhere location on historic Main Street and a short stroll from a chairlift serving Park City Mountain Resort. Those who didn't sign up with a roommate were matched with one (or two), if desired.
To keep the weekend from deteriorating into an exercise in cat herding, Koleen provided each guest with a "Zippy@50" itinerary detailing times and locations for group meals and gatherings. She also offered lots of suggestions for skiers and non-skiers alike. Examples: "Adventure at The Canyons with Hottie Guides!" "Buff and Puff at the City's Newest Spa!" "Snowshoe Explorers!" and "Park City Pub Crawl."
It was enough to make those of us on the receiving end feel exhausted before we'd even packed our bags.
Koleen's research paid off. Sybarite that she is, the Queen of the Weekend scheduled two days of skiing and three group meals at Deer Valley Resort, probably the most luxury-laden ski resort in the nation, if not the world. (The skiers in the group also sampled two other laudable resorts, The Canyons and Park City.)
The group highlights were many: a fireside, alpine-style dinner at Empire Canyon Lodge; a ski-in Champagne brunch in the Glitretind Restaurant at Stein Erickson Lodge; and, as the grand finale, a birthday dinner "roast and toast" at the Mariposa at Deer Valley Resort, rated by Zagat as Park City's top restaurant.
"Dress warmly and wear flat shoes," was the only hint the women got before that final meal.
Turns out the secret plan was for us to snowshoe to dinner.
A handsome young man named Spencer Byrne and his equally good-looking sidekick, whose name I can't recall, met us at the appointed time, drove us to an unknown location in the woods and outfitted us with the latest in high-fashion snowshoes. Off we trudged, laughter ringing into a crystal night spangled with stars.
About midway through the 40-minute trek, the guides called a rest stop, reached into their packs and produced bottles of Champagne. As we sipped and toasted, savoring the moment, a soft boom sounded in the distance, and fireworks filled the air.
It was all coincidence. The pyrotechnics were part of a World Cup ski event taking place at Deer Valley, but the timing couldn't have been more perfect.
What a way to turn 50.
Take that, AARP!
Janet Fullwood is a freelance writer in California.
If there's one thing to remember when planning a girlfriend getaway, it may be that girls will be girls.
"Women don't necessarily want the same things men do when they vacation with their female friends," says Marybeth Bond, author of 50 Best Girlfriend Getaways in North America and Best Girlfriend Getaways Worldwide (National Geographic, $16 each). "We look for comfy lodging, terrific food, a variety of activities and stunning scenery."
Bond offers a few tips for anyone contemplating a getaway with gal pals.
Canvass the group to learn what everyone wants to do.
Assess the participants' budgets and the amount of time they have.
Designate one person as the lead organizer.
Have everyone contribute a nonrefundable deposit of $100 to be used for reservation deposits. (After money is committed, few will cancel.)
New travel Web sites offer surprisingly sophisticated assistance with choosing a destination, figuring out what to do when you get there and booking accommodations as a group.
, , Trazzler.com and , for example, ask you to complete a short survey or choose from a list to narrow your interests and define a budget.
The sites return a list of suggested destinations based on that information, along with reviews, maps, costs and other relevant content. TravelMuse also provides tools to help members of a group collaborate.
When it comes to hotel deals, try , a site that finds hotel deals and analyzes them (amount off rack rate, date limitations, etc.) so that you don't have to read all of the fine print.
After you know where you're going, , a site by Microsoft, will help you create a travel pack of maps, photo-illustrated restaurant reviews and tips culled from across the Web.
To keep travel arrangements straight, turn to , which organizes the information you provide into a master itinerary that can be customized with maps, weather information and driving or walking directions.
integrates travel plans into your calendar. It also can be used to create customized, downloadable guidebooks.
And don't overlook , which specializes in family reunions and wedding-related travel but works just as well for girlfriend getaways. It's an all-in-one group travel site where members of a travel party can collaborate and book online.
Park City is an easy 40-minute drive from Salt Lake City International Airport. Shuttle service is an alternative to renting a car. Tip: Skiers who take an early flight can spend arrival day on the slopes free. Registration is required: (click the "ski free" photo).
Historic Main Street is at the center of the action. Park City Mountain Resort (), directly adjacent, is the oldest of three neighboring ski areas. Deer Valley Resort () is two miles away; The Canyons Resort ( ), five miles.
Where to stay
The choices include condos and hotels to suit any budget. Among notable options:
Washington School Inn, 1-800-824-1672; . A 15-room historic gem a block off Main Street. From $140.
Newpark Hotel, 1-877- 649-3600; . About 10 minutes from the center of town. New. Stunning architecture with great value. Standard rooms, $99; suites with balcony hot tubs, $139.
Grand Summit Hotel at The Canyons, 1-866-604-4171; . Ski-in, ski-out convenience. AAA four-diamond condominium property with impressive outdoor pool. Special rates from about $200 per night.
Marriott Summit Watch, a Marriott Vacation Club property, 1-888-236-2427; . Luxury in walking distance of Main Street lift. Late spring-early summer rates from about $130.
Treasure Mountain Inn, 1-800-344-2460; . First hotel on Main Street; still a favorite. Spring rates from $145.
Where to eat
The choices are many. Two suggestions from our girlfriend weekend:
The "fireside dining" experience at Deer Valley's Empire Canyon Lodge is novel, memorable and a great value at $52 for adults, $28 for children. Offered 6 to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday. Four Alpine-style courses served from stone fireplaces. In winter, many guests arrive by horse-drawn sleigh or snowshoes. Reservations required: 435-645-6632; .
The Zagat Restaurant Guide rates the Mariposa restaurant at Deer Valley tops in town, and we'd agree. Tasting menu, $85. Two-for-one coupons for weeknight dining are published in the local newspaper. Drawback: the Mariposa is open only during ski season. .
Main street finds
Burns Cowboy Shop, featuring high-end boots and Western wear.
La Niche, a housewares store with an espresso and gelato bar.
Schirf Brewing Co., a microbrewery with casual dining.
No Name Saloon, known for late-night partying.Outdoor activities
All Seasons Adventures can arrange summer and winter outings such as snowshoe tours, fly-fishing, hiking and mountain biking. Contact: 435-649-9619; .
Utah Olympic Park, home of the 2002 Olympic bobsled, luge, skeleton and Nordic jumping events (435-658-4200; ). Free museum. Facility tours led by athletes, $7. Often possible to see Team USA practicing. On Saturdays in summer, aerial freestylists perform. For $200, experience the 5 G's generated during a bobsled ride. (This could have been a gift for our birthday girl.)
Park City Chamber: