By Donna Cornelius
Life’s a trip – especially when friends are along for the ride.
Susan and John Kidd, Peggy and Jim Lee, Carol Sue and Chris Mitchell, Lee and Mark Rives and Lowell and Ken Adams have found that it’s fun to vacation together. The couples have traveled en masse to Europe and, most recently, to Wyoming, laughing pretty much all the way.
“We all love to eat, drink and laugh,” said Susan.
The Kidds, Lees, Mitchells and Adamses live in Mountain Brook. Lee and Mark are former Vestavia Hills residents who moved to the Highland Avenue area.
The globetrotting group started with the men, golfing buddies at Birmingham Country Club who often went on golf trips together.
“We got pressure from the women to take them to Europe,” Jim said.
Convincing the husbands to include their wives wasn’t really that hard, Peggy said.
“They’ve gotten older and understand they sometimes need help,” she said, laughing.
“They want us for our organizational skills,” Lee added.
The group’s first scheduled outing never got off the ground. The departure date was Sept. 11, 2001.
“We’d planned to go to Barcelona and take a cruise to Rome,” Peggy said. “We were listening to the radio when the first plane hit the World Trade Center. We were about to pull up at the airport to unload our luggage when the second plane hit.
“Obviously, that trip was canceled.”
Their next venture had a happier outcome. In 2006, Jim’s sister, a journalism professor at the University of Kansas, was in Italy for her second professorship swap. The Lees had visited her there previously and thought it would be fun to do so again – and this time, to rent a house and invite their friends to join them.
The Mitchells weren’t along this time, but the rest of the group had such a good time that they decided to make traveling together a regular thing.
Next up was an excursion to France, where Susan found a charming house to rent in Provence, where her brother Joel Maxwell and his wife, Linda joined them. The third trip, to Scotland, came about when Susan happened to talk with a couple visiting King’s House Antiques, her shop in Birmingham.
“I met a man and his wife who said they lived in Charleston for half the year and Scotland the other half,” Susan said. “I asked if he rented his house in Scotland. He said he did, for two weeks a year.”
The man met with Susan and her friends to “interview” them, Susan said. Evidently the Mountain Brook group passed the test with flying colors, because the man agreed to let them rent Eskadale, his manor house in the Highlands.
“It came with two housekeepers and a cook, and they would lay a fire before dinner in the drawing room,” Susan said. “You had to dress for dinner.”
On the last night, members of the group all wore Scottish plaid and listened to a live performance by a bagpiper.
The men usually aren’t encouraged to take their golf clubs on the trips, but the women made an exception for this visit to the birthplace of the sport.
When the group travels, daily agendas usually include at least two meals together, Susan said.
“We eat breakfast in, leave at about 9 a.m. or so for a day trip and then gather at 5:30 or 6 for a cocktail hour. After that, we cook in, bring food in or go out. We have some good cooks in our group.”
The friends often take advantage of local fare, Peggy said.
“In France, every village has a market on a certain day,” she said. “We’d plan our schedule so we could go to those.”
The couples have almost as much fun sharing their memories from each vacation as they do on the road. Often, said Peggy, one incident will provide a “theme” for the trip.
Mutual friend Tommy Lane – or T-Lane, as he’s better known — had joined them in Italy, where the group’s rented house presented a few challenges.
“It was a typical old house that had been added onto over the years, and it had three different staircases,” Peggy said. “Everyone’s always tired that first night, so we all went to bed – except for Mark, who said he was too keyed up to sleep and wanted to stay up and smoke a cigar.
“The next morning, T-Lane said he’d been asleep in bed when he heard a soft voice saying, ‘Dear, are you there? Are you up there?’
“T-Lane said, ‘Mark, is that you?’ ‘I can’t find my room,’ Mark said.’”
Lee said with Tommy’s help, her husband eventually ended up in the right room.
“But it took both of them to find it,” Lee said.
According to Peggy, “Dear, are you there? Are you up there?” became the byword for that vacation.
Also in Italy, Jim insisted on thanking everyone he met by saying “gracias” rather than “grazie” despite repeated corrections from his fellow travelers.
“I texted Jim’s sister to tell her we were so proud that Jim had finally said ‘grazie,’” Peggy said. “The only trouble was, we were in Paris by then.”
The group’s recent trip to Yellowstone National Park may have yielded the best stories of all. Jim had made arrangements to stay at a business associate’s ranch house near the park’s north entrance. In this case, the saying “getting there is half the fun” proved to be wildly inaccurate.
Stopping to stock up on food – “We’d been told to get groceries before we got there,” Peggy said – they called the ranch’s caretaker, who told them they were about 45 minutes from their destination.
“We started on a nice little two-lane highway that turned into a gravel road,” Peggy said. “We kept going up and up. The road was narrow, vertigo-inducing.”
On one side of the road was a steep drop-off, so driver Mark was strongly encouraged not to look down, according to his wife.
“On some of the hills, all you could see in front of you was sky,” Lee said.
With no cell phone service, the travelers weren’t sure they were headed in the right direction.
“Finally, we were able to call the caretaker, and he came and met us,” Lee said. This eased the trauma of the trip a little – for the women, at least – because “he looked like the Marlboro Man,” Susan said.
Several of the travelers said they wanted to kiss the ground when they finally made it to the remote ranch.
“There was this incredible view, but there were hoses everywhere because we were in a fire zone, and we were warned not to go outside because there were grizzly bears,” Susan said.
Undaunted, the group stuck to its plans.
“We traveled out every day, so for six days, we maneuvered that road,” Carol Sue said.
“We were told that in the winter, the owners have to access the house by snowmobile,” Chris added.
The group decided Jim had had his last turn as accommodations chairman.
Peggy, however, isn’t in danger of losing her position as music director. She makes a CD for each trip, including one with a memorable playlist for Scotland.
“I think it’s safe to say that was the first time ‘Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother’ has been played at a 1790s manor house in Scotland,” Peggy said. “One of the housekeepers became enamored of that particular tune. I left her the CD, and you’ve never seen anyone so happy.”
For their next destination, the friends are considering Costa Rica, said Susan. Other ideas are a visit to the southwest part of France or a European river cruise.
“We might want to go someplace where the women don’t have to cook,” Susan said.
“We might have to have a discussion about that,” Jim said.
Tips for Travels with Friends
The Mountain Brook crew has learned what’s likely to work and what isn’t during their joint vacations. If you’re thinking about a group trip, here are some things to consider:
“From a cost perspective, we do a lot of research,” Carol Sue said. The shared cost of renting a house can be less expensive than staying in a first-rate hotel, she said. Two websites used successfully by the group are www.justfrance.com and www.rentvillas.com.
The friends take turns planning day trips. “In Italy, we missed some opportunities because we didn’t plan well,” Peggy said. Now, each person is responsible for one day’s activities. “If you don’t like the plan, you’d better keep quiet, because your day is coming,” Chris said. Peggy added that sharing in the plans “makes everyone more interested in the trip.”
Make it a requirement to eat dinner together, Susan advised. Otherwise, people may go their separate ways, taking away the fun of traveling together.
There’s no point, however, in taking togetherness to the extreme. “Each couple has to have its own bedroom and private bathroom,” Susan said.
Lee’s tip is to get plenty of rental cars. “We’re not connected at the hip,” she said.
It’s often impractical for everyone to book the same flight since, group members said, most of them often like to add side trips either before or after the main event.