Mon Feb 19, 7:32 AM ET
Author Stephanie Elizondo Griest hit the literary scene in 2004 with her critically acclaimed coming-of-age travel memoir, Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana. Her newest book, 100 Places Every Woman Should Go, is a fresh and insightful look at destinations for the female journey.
Yahoo asked Griest to share some of her travel recommendations. Here are eight of her favorite picks for women wanderers:
1. For inspiration and enlightenment: Hawaii Volcanoes National Park
Goddesses reign supreme in Hawaii, and the most venerated is Pele, who presides over the volcanoes. Legend has it she secretly envies Poliahu, goddess of the snow, and the two quarrel often — especially over menfolk. Poliahu usually wins, causing Pele to erupt in fury, and Poliahu gets stuck cleaning the mess with her ice afterward. (Indeed, traces of lava have been found seeping through glacial ice caps at various epochs in Hawaiian geological history.) Even when Pele triumphs, she soon tires of her lovers and sends them racing down the mountain, trailed by her hot, molten lava. To see her in action, head to the Big Island. Lounge upon the white-sand beaches at Kona Coast and the black-sand beaches at Puna district, then soak in thermal pools set in lava rock at Ahalanui Beach Park. Pele dwells in the Halema'uma'u Crater Overlook of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Devotees leave her offerings of flowers, gin, and ohelo berries. Then pay homage to Poliahu atop Mauna Kea, the world's tallest mountain (when measured base to peak). Linger til sunset to see why Hawaiians consider their homeland to be Earth's connecting point to the universe.
2. For indulgence: Lingerie shopping in Paris
Every woman should have at least one fabulous piece of lingerie tucked inside her drawers — even if there's no one around to show it to. Slipping on a chiffon babydoll and dimming the lights is, after all, the best way to turn a lonely TV dinner into a romantic dinner-for-one. To spice up your collection, fly to Paris, where they claim to have invented it. Herminie Cadolle went down in fashion history for "freeing" women by slicing the stifling corset in two in 1889, thus creating the world's first bra. Even today, her Parisian boutiques — currently run by her great-great-granddaughter — remain among the finest places to buy one. Cadolle specialties include Victorian corsets, bodices, and a broad collection of hand-sewn brassieres, but to truly indulge, make an appointment for a satiny, made-to-measure something at 255 rue Saint-Honoré (Metro: Concorde or Tuilleries). For her ready-to-wear collection, visit 4 rue Cambon.
3. For purification and beautification: The banyas of Moscow and St. Petersburg
The Russian banya is a Slavic Eden: a steamy, womb-like place that will tack years onto your life. According to folklore, these baths are haunted by mischievous spirits that bewitch clothing worn inside, so strip down all the way. (Most of the baths are gender-segregated.) Rinse off in the shower and enter the steam room, where scores of women will be massaging salt into each other's pores, swapping beauty secrets, and gossiping. Grab a branch of birch leaves and slap it against your body. Roast. When the heat becomes unbearable, proceed to the pool room and jump in immediately. (Some are kept as frigid as 42 degrees; stick a toe in first and you'll lose your nerve.) Get out before hypothermia kicks in and return to the steam room. Repeat as many times as possible: your skin will glow afterward! In Moscow, visit Krasnopresnensky on Stolyarny Pereulok 7, near the Ulitsa 1905 Goda Metro. In St. Petersburg, try Mitninskaya Banya at Ulitsa Mitninskaya 17/19 near the Metro Ploshad' Vosstaniya.
4. To celebrate powerful women and their places in history: Frida Kahlo's Mexico
Mexican artist Frida Kahlo is one of history's grand divas. A tequila-slamming, dirty joke-telling smoker, she hobbled about her bohemian barrio in lavish indigenous dress and threw dinner parties for the likes of Leon Trotsky, poet Pablo Neruda, Nelson Rockefeller, and her on-again, off-again husband, muralist Diego Rivera. Half a century after her death, her work fetches more money than any other female artist's (Madonna is said to be an avid collector), and she was the first Latina ever featured on a U. S. postage stamp. Visiting her cobalt blue home in Coyoacan is like stepping inside one of her fantastical paintings. The walls are awash with color and mosaics; a Day of the Dead altar yields pastries, flowers, candles, and papier mâché skeletons; the courtyard blooms with tropical flowers and cactus. Her personal effects are displayed throughout the house, including her pre-Hispanic jewelry, sketchbook diaries, love letters, artwork, and corset-like body cast. (Stricken with polio as a child, she shattered her spine in a bus accident at age eighteen.) Frida t-shirts, computer mousepads, and coffee cups are sold in the gift shop, and you can sip a café con leche in the tranquil café. La Casa Azul is located on Londres 247 and accessible by the Coyoacan Viveros Metro Station in Mexico City.
5. To celebrate struggle and renewal: Arts and voodoo festivals in Benin
Traveling in West Africa is empowering for women — precisely because it is challenging. You must utilize every available resource to make it through the day, and when you finally find that market or village you are seeking, it is like unearthing rubies. The warmth and hospitality of its people make Benin especially welcoming. Upon arrival to any town, visit the mayor's office and ask for the local women's group. A guide will likely take you to the local crafts cooperative, where you can buy directly from the artisans. Also explore the world of voodoo, a belief that natural forces like rain and wind have spiritual forces behind them. Practitioners build shrines out of small mounds of earth and offer their gods alcohol, flowers, food, and the blood of animals sacrificed in their honor. On National Voodoo Day — January 10 — partake in dancing fueled by copious amounts of sodabe (a local palm liquor) at the vibrant festivals in Ouidah. Look out for the Mami Wata worshippers, who dress in all white. Mostly women, they are considered very powerful and are often feared.
6. For womanly affirmation: Belly dancing in San Francisco, New York, or Austin
Belly dancing dates back to pre-Biblical times, when it was performed as a fertility-cult ritual. In ancient Arab tribes, midwives assisted women in labor by dancing around them, rolling their stomachs to imitate the contraction of the uterus. It was also performed as entertainment throughout the Orient by and for women who stayed home while their husbands were out. Not only a great physical workout, modern belly dancing will get you in touch with your earthy self. Communities can be found in every corner of the United States. San Francisco is home to Fat Chance Belly Dance, a renowned tribal dance troupe. Take a class at their studio at 670 South Van Ness Avenue. In New York City, look up legendary teacher Morocco of the Casbah Dance Experience, or Sarah Johansson Locke of Alchemy Performance. Austin, Texas is the place to be on full moons, when Lucila Dance Productions hosts Haflas, gatherings of dancers and drummers who snack on grape leaves as they dance barefoot beneath the stars. Down some wine if you feel inhibited: it's the best hip lubricant around!
7. For all-around wonder: Mongolia
Mongolia. The word might conjure desolation, but this "last frontier" is actually steeped in ritual and tradition and surrounded by stark, natural beauty. Come to race a pony (or yak or camel) across a grassland speckled with wildflowers, to meditate in hidden Tibetan Lamaist temples, to bask in the legacy of Mandhai-Setsen, the Wise Queen who re-unified her turbulent nation by leading her troops into battle in the fifteenth century.
In the countryside, hospitable families will welcome you to their ger (wood-framed tent) with a small bowl of vodka (if you're lucky) or a potent brew of fermented mare's milk called airag (if you're not). Drink every drop and hold the bowl upside down over your head to prove it. Then explore the surrounding area on horseback, which could mean Sherwood-like forests, Ghobi desert, or tundra. The best month to visit Mongolia is July — not just for the sunny weather, but for Naadam, a three-day, Olympic-style festival celebrated throughout the nation. The wrestling division features 300-pound wrestlers clad only in boots, briefs, and sleeves who clutch each other for hours (and hours) until their strength wears out and they knock each other over. Like sumo, but sexier.
8. Just for the fun of it: The Bahamian island of Eleuthera
Nearly every sea culture has tales of lovely maidens who propel through the ocean with fish-like tails. A few believe mermaids help steer ships from harm's way, but most claim they are seductresses who, like the Sirens of myth, lure sailors into the water with their songs and then sink their ships. One place where mermaids are thought to be alive and well is the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Locals say that if you rise early enough, you can sometimes catch them washing their golden locks on the rocks of Whale Point, an old swimming hole. Bahamian children believe that their parents have seen this, and they will too someday. If your own sunrise outing is in vain, become one yourself: there is little to do here but splash in the water. Eleuthera's beaches (in particular, Harbour Island) have crystalline waters filled with colorful reefs, eagle rays, octopus, and dolphins. Whales migrate through annually. Then pass the night at Elbina's in Gregory Town, where locals gather to sing along to live Southern Caribbean music. Ask the old-timers about their own mermaid encounters; you'll hear some great stories.
Stephanie Elizondo Griest's 100 Places Every Woman Should Go (Travelers' Tales, $16.95) debuts in bookstores this month.