Annual golf, spa getaways still thriving

By Vera Gibbons

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Every year, 54-year-old William Palumbo, of Bronxville, New York, takes a week-long golf trip with three of his closest buddies. For the last several years, he's gone all the way to Scotland to play at the "Home of Golf," St. Andrews, one of the oldest and most prestigious courses in the world (not to mention, a "favorite" of legendary golfers from Bobby Jones to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods).

It's an expensive trip - Palumbo estimates it costs them each about $8,000 (plus food and drinks) using one of the area's top tour operators - but he simply makes it happen. "It's something we plan for six months or a year out so we make that commitment early on. The thinking is: just save your pennies and go!"

Newcomb Cole, of Boston, Massachusetts, echoes that sentiment. He, too, travels regularly to the UK with his buddies - no questions asked.

While many Americans are now forgoing lavish trips and vacationing closer to home (if at all), this is one luxury that avid golfers like Palumbo and Cole, 45, refuse to give up.

And they're not alone. An online survey of Golf Digest magazine's readers shows that 65 percent of the more than 2,600 respondents take an annual buddy trip despite the down economy; 44 percent said they would still go even if their household income dropped by 25 percent; an astounding one in 10 said they would go even if their income fell by half.

The big draw? 59 percent say it's about camaraderie, according to the survey. "Golf is the reason for the trip, but being together, and doing something everyone enjoys doing is important, too," says the magazine's senior editor, Peter Finch. "It's a blast."

As men hit the links (an estimated 80 percent of buddy trips are taken by men, says Finch), women hit the spas only for slightly different reasons. "We all work really hard to juggle everything the kids, our work and we give ourselves permission to 'pause' because we deserve it," says Lynne McNees, president of the International Spa Association. "We're not willing to compromise on anything that alleviates stress and recharges our batteries."

Just ask 55-year-old Diane Beck. Every year, Beck and a group of her closest friends head to Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona. They have been doing this for eight years now sometimes with goals (to lose weight; get fit, soul search; become more 'centered'); sometimes without.

While at this destination health spa, they take classes, eat nutritious food, attend guest lectures and enjoy a multitude of treatments from massages to facials and everything in between. "It's a beautiful place," says Beck. "It's all about 'me' and my friends have that same attitude. Me, me, me. The whole experience makes it worthwhile."

And it's this overall "experience" that justifies the cost, says Debra Koerner, executive director of the Destination Spa Group. Trips to the nation's top spas can easily exceed several thousand dollars a week. "It's about making an investment in ourselves to look and feel better."

That's not to say we're not making sacrifices along the way in order to ensure that these group outings happen. For example, Finch says that golfers are doing any number of things to lower costs, from staying fewer nights to finding cheaper lodging (Newcomb Cole stays with local friends) to playing fewer rounds to sleeping two to a room and even two to a bed (!). Koerner says that spa goers continue to look for value.

What makes these trips worth every penny? The return on investment. "My daughter tells me I always come back a whole new person - much more relaxed, happy, and accepting," says 55-year-old Debra Matthews, a personal trainer from Los Angeles, California, who has been going to Miraval Resorts every year for the past 11 years.

"Some people go fishing or hiking and others chase gorillas, but our thing is golf," says Newcomb Cole. "It's our outlet; guys being guys. Golf, golf, and more golf and we wouldn't want it any other way."


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