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Strength in numbers for sober travelers

By Katia Hetter, Special to CNN
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Thu March 15, 2012
Key West may be known as a drinking town, but one local agent regularly arranges trips for sober travelers.
Key West may be known as a drinking town, but one local agent regularly arranges trips for sober travelers.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Many recovering addicts find it helpful to travel with others in recovery
  • Companies organize group trips that cater to sober travelers
  • Vacationing independently can be challenging for newly sober travelers

Editor's note: Many people in recovery from their addictions choose to follow the tradition of anonymity, which is why most of the people interviewed for this story declined to have their last names published or chose pseudonyms.

(CNN) -- Sue and her husband loved to go on ski vacations, skiing on the slopes all morning and starting their drinking at lunchtime. Sue, who asked that her last name not be used, wasn't always sure the next morning what she had said or done -- or if she had apologies to make to anyone.

When the Maryland couple first got sober about 23 years ago, they thought they'd never take a ski vacation again. They both agreed that sobriety -- and remembering what they had done the night before -- was worth giving it up. Then they read about a sober ski trip to Copper Mountain, Colorado, written up in the local paper.

They decided to try to see if they could vacation alcohol-free with Sober Vacations International, a Sherman Oaks, California-based travel agency offering sober vacations on land and at sea.

"It felt a little bizarre initially, since our ski trips had always involved drinking at lunchtime as soon as we came off the slopes," said Sue. "But we were surrounded by other people in recovery, so there was no temptation to drink."

Since that first sober ski trip, Sue and her husband have gone on 27 Sober Vacations trips, buoyed by the workshops, meetings and community they find on trips that put their recovery front and center. They have also traveled throughout Europe and elsewhere by themselves, but they love the fellowship they find on sober trips.

Sue seeks out the newly sober travelers, knowing how difficult it can be to get through the day without alcohol and drugs -- never mind trying to do new things in a strange location among new people. The fear among many is that they'll return to drinking or using.

"When we go on these sober trips, I'm the one meeting the new people," she said. "I tell them to be sure and go to this kind of meeting and be involved in this kind of thing so you don't feel isolated and alone."

Steve, the owner of Sober Vacations and a recovering alcoholic, realized what he was missing on vacation when he used to drink after going to a Club Med resort. Instead of drinking, he went water skiing for the first time, attended a show and could remember both events. But he lacked the community he counts on to stay sober.

"We drank for a reason," said Steve, who didn't want his last name published. "How do we learn to have fun without getting drunk? How do you get the sea legs to go to a party without a drink in your hand?"

That's why his trips have workshops about adjusting to sober living, speaker meetings, meditation sessions and impromptu meetings organized by attendees. It's what people in recovery say is essential to staying sober: a ready-made community of people supporting each other in the shared goal of staying clean.

In 1987, Steve booked half of a Club Med resort in Ixtapa, Mexico, and sold all 200 spots. Now known for his annual "Sober Village" winter trip (this February in the Turks and Caicos) he has been renting and selling out an entire resort ever since. When he books the entire resort, Club Med puts away the alcohol and stocks only nonalcoholic drinks.

"All resorts kind of push drinking to loosen up vacationers and to (make) money," said Steve. "It's certainly challenging for a newly sober person to vacation."

Steve organizes five or six trips per year, which for the remainder of this year will include a New York-Bermuda cruise, a golf trip to Utah and a Mediterranean cruise.

Snow P. started arranging sober tours within mainstream cruise lines after going on a cruise with her family 20 years ago. She was the only person who showed up to a posted "Friends of Bill W" meeting. (That's a reference to one of the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, and a common way to discreetly advertise a meeting on a cruise or at a conference or resort).

"Sober travelers need other people on the journey, to share the joy of traveling sober," said Snow, whose Fort Lauderdale, Florida-based Sober Celebrations company's 2012 schedule includes a May European cruise, an Alaskan glaciers cruise in August and an Eastern Caribbean cruise for her annual Halloween trip. She books a portion of a cruise ship's rooms, reserves an alcohol-free section of the dining room and organizes meetings and fun events for her group.

Activities that aren't soaked in alcohol and drugs wouldn't seem to be evident in a hard-partying town like Key West, Florida, but longtime radio personality and travel agent Loretta Modern (not her given name) has introduced the nondrinking side of Key West to a growing sober clientele. Modern started Clean Getaway Travel three years ago for a different purpose: to organize sober trips to Italy.

"I couldn't find any trips that didn't drive you directly from the airport to a vineyard," she said.

She's organizing a wine-free trip to Rome for September that will focus on the city's art, history, music and food, but her clients seem more interested in coming to Key West.

"My clients like to have structure, and they like to have a support group," said Modern. "They come here and already have a friend. I can take them around, pick them up and give them meeting lists. It's a planned out, worry-free trip."

Just as many people who drink prefer individual trips to group travel, so do many sober people. For them, more planning is necessary if they want to work on their programs of recovery while traveling. Their fellow group members aren't around, their usual meetings aren't available and their supply of recovery literature must fit into a suitcase.

Marilyn from California has been sober more than 20 years. She always carries travel-size recovery books and phone apps that will tell her where the closest meetings can be found, even when she's not traveling. When Marilyn (not her real name) knows no English-speaking meetings can be found wherever she's planning to go in Europe or Asia, she participates in online meetings and gets daily e-mails from recovery groups.

"If I know someone living where I'm going who is sober, I e-mail and ask them to recommend a couple meetings," said Marilyn. "I have gone to conferences and gone up to the bulletin board to see if there are any signs for a 'Friends of Bill W' meeting and gone to a meeting with people I didn't know."

If there are enough meetings for a particular recovery group to support a regional office, local phone books and telephone information will list a central office phone number that can offer meeting times and locations.

People in recovery can visit the Alcoholics Anonymous website to find one of the 108,000 meetings around the world or to find an online meeting. "AA members plan ahead and find their meetings," said an AA spokesperson. Al-Anon Family Groups lists its meetings for friends and families of alcoholics at its website.

With meetings, literature and calls to fellow members of their program, people can stay focused on their recovery instead of negative thoughts and the alcoholic drinks at the bar.

Newcomers stepping onto a plane sober for the first time should be gentle with themselves, Marilyn said. "Treat your sobriety like a newborn, fragile and precious."

Have a similar experience or tip? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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