Friends travel together for 20 years

By Katia Hetter, CNNUpdated 24th December 2013
The exhaustion of new motherhood forged a friendship -- and a travel tradition.
After the birth of Laurie Benken's son, Jonathon, she was totally worn out in the way only a new parent can be. When he was 7 months old, two friends in her new water aerobics class gave her a much-needed break: an overnight at the nearby Sheraton Cobb Galleria in Georgia.
"I remember sitting on the side of the hot tub, pumping, and drinking my whiskey sour," Benken said. "It was so much fun."
That was December 1993.
In December of the next year, the friends decided to make it more of a vacation. They took a long weekend in North Carolina, stopping at quaint towns along the way to eat, drink, shop, be merry and rest for a few days.
Twenty years later, Benken, Linda Wade, Audrey Schoninger and Linda Plevyak have headed to North Carolina nearly every December for an annual ladies weekend. They started this year's trip on December 12.
Benken, 51, and Wade, 61, who met at the exercise class and later learned they both worked at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, have taken the trip every year.
The two women are usually joined by Schoninger, 58, another water aerobics classmate alum and now a water aerobics instructor; and Linda Plevyak, 49, Benken's sister and a science education professor. A few other friends have come and gone, but this core group remains. Aside from Benken and Wade, they don't live in the same place. They stay in touch via e-mail and phone calls -- and most importantly, this trip.
After 20 years of driving, shopping, hot tubs, drinks and Christmas cheer, what makes it work? Here are lessons we've gathered from these women about how to keep a travel tradition going.
Loyalty is golden -- in shopping as in friendship
After they pile into one car and make their first stop for boiled peanuts and a beer at Jaemor Farms in Alto, Georgia, the four women head into North Carolina for the weekend.
While exploration is always part of the journey, it pays off to visit a few old favorites. The friends have become such regulars along this route that one business owner opens especially for them. That's Ray of Ray's Florist shop, which sells flowers and home décor. They discovered Ray in 1995 at his old location, next to the grocery store in Sylva.
Now they often call the shop before they visit, and Ray sometimes invites his cousin Ginny to help out and say hello. Or maybe he does that just for Linda Wade, who has been known to shop so much she fills her trunk and has to mail some purchases home. Pheasant Hill Design in Waynesville and Mud Dabbers pottery studio in Balsam are often regular stops. And they often spend the night at Jonathan Creek Inn in Maggie Valley and cross the street to J. Arthur's for dinner and Christmas decorations.
December getaways = built-in festivity
Despite the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, traveling right before Christmas has managed to work for this group most of the time. Because only Benken has children, she's the only one who has had to work it out with her husband to take that weekend off. (But he's used to it by now.)
Seeking out Christmas luminarias and other holiday regalia became part of their tradition after they saw a particularly beautiful display in Dillsboro in 1994. One year they posed for pictures on the town of Sylva's fire truck during the Christmas parade. Another year, they soaked up Waynesville, North Carolina's, holiday open house and light display.
"For a Florida girl, it's nice to feel the Christmas spirit with a serious chill in the air," wrote Schoninger, via e-mail, who moved from Atlanta 13 years ago. "And when it snows, it's all magical!"
Booze is essential, luxury is not
The group's big splurge was the Biltmore House Christmas tour and wine-tasting in 2003. Everyone agreed the Biltmore, the one-time home of Cornelius Vanderbilt in Asheville, was worth seeing but a little pricey.
The foursome's celebrations have tended to be more casual, revolving around food, drink and fun. Everyone remembers a wild night at a Waynesville bed and breakfast. The inn was hosting a private Christmas party, so the women couldn't use the front door after hours. It was a snowy night, so they ordered pizza delivery but didn't get enough beer before settling into their room. So they climbed out the window to get more.
When they returned, they put their hats and shoes all over the fireplace to dry off and wrapped themselves in Christmas runners and material they had bought on the trip. Other years, hot tubs have been a highlight.
"We have had some pretty wonderful times in the hot tub under the stars when the air was below freezing, but we were TOASTED drinking Laurie's famous frozen whiskey sours," said Schoninger, via e-mail.
Do not mix drinks with politics or religion
Every group getaway is bound to have testy moments. Is it more important to be right or happy?
This crowd has weighed that question. Benken recalls the time they argued about politics or religion sometime around 2003, but she's mum about what started that argument. It was an unpleasant night, but the women didn't give up on their annual trip -- or their friendship. They just tend to steer clear of subjects where liberal and conservative views clash.
The trip is short, and their love for each other is more important. "It's not worth it to bring it up," said Benken. "We still want to be friends," said Wade. "We all get along so well, we have enough to talk about. Religion and politics -- none of that matters," said Plevyak.
No men of a certain age
All four women are married, and they all leave their husbands behind for this annual trip. But it's not completely true that male folk have never been included. They laugh about the 1999 trip, when Benken was still breastfeeding her younger son, Joseph, who was only 3 months old. So along came baby.
And male guests are allowed. Remember the older son who inspired the trip in the first place? Jonathon is all grown up, a junior at nearby Western Carolina University in Cullowhee. Starting his freshman year, the women met him for lunch once during the trip. "Fun time!" says the proud mama. They plan to see him again this year.
It's the people, not the place
How important to a tradition is visiting a particular place each year? Not that important, the friends decided a long time ago. Although North Carolina has been their tradition, there was one year when they went to Tennessee.
Now Plevyak, who always flies from her home in Cincinnati to start the trip in Atlanta, may be moving out West with her husband sometime in the next few years.
No Lin? That's not an option, said her three traveling companions.
Spending time together -- not where they go -- is the point. "We could meet somewhere else to continue the tradition," said Benken. "If we need to change the venue to continue the tradition, we would do that," added Wade.
"I don't really care where we go," wrote Schoninger. "I just love the excuse to get together and spend quality time just hanging out and catching up."
That means a lot to Plevyak, who originally came on the trip to spend adult-only time with her sister.
"I look forward to Ladies Weekend every year because it gives me the chance to be with three wonderful women who I cherish," she said via e-mail. "We easily fall into conversation like we were together just last week. Sometimes we tell the same stories, but that never seems to matter as we enjoy them the second time around just as much!"