The life of a road warrior is certainly no picnic, but for Brian H., it proved his undoing. For years, as a pharmaceutical salesman shuttling throughout Asia, eating alone at night in hotel bars and with access to a generous expense account for boozy client entertainment, he slid deeper into
A relentless series of shameful moments led him to what the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous describes as "pitiful and incomprehensible demoralization." Utter despair. And then an embrace, finally, of the truth: His life had become unmanageable.
Today, Brian H. (who, following AA rules, declines to reveal his last name) is focused on a key tenet of recovery, which is to reach out to fellow addicts. He's opened a new "sober" resort in Bali exclusively for alcoholics and drug abusers who are sufficiently recovered and want to stick together when they vacation to continue the fellowship that helped make them whole.
There are no statistics tracking the rise of "sober travel," because monitoring people's habits runs contrary to AA. But a
search yields 2.4 million results for subjects as diverse as sober music festivals, camping,
retreats and cruises, vacation rentals and resorts, and volunteer-run websites, such as
, with abundant how-to resources.
Twelve-steppers have unique logistical concerns, such as needing to attend AA meetings wherever they go, said Jeannie W., a recovering alcoholic, travel agent and owner of Sober Concierge in Los Angeles. "It's not just about traveling some place that doesn't serve alcohol," she said. "Instead of hanging out on the beach and then going clubbing, we want to go to [an AA] meeting on the beach; we just speak a different language."
Sober travel starts with a great agent, typically found through word of mouth or Google, who can research AA meetings abroad or brief tour operators on a client's condition or be a sober companion for travelers needing that extra safeguard against temptation.
California Sober Travel even accepts layaway-style payment, because people in recovery often struggle financially. "They're working themselves out of a nasty situation they've created," said owner and AA member Mary Ann M., but travel is worth their investment because they learn they "can have a really good time and create memories that last a lifetime without being on drugs and alcohol." (
Sober Vacations International of Sherman Oaks is another established agency that organizes ski trips, golfing, rafting, cruising and Club Med vacations ( 762-3738).
Sober Concierge's Jeannie W. acts as a personal assistant and guide for sober travelers to L.A., advising, for instance, on music venues that don't serve alcohol or where to find AA meetings at
during Laker games. (
Jeannie W. also brings groups to the International Convention of Alcoholics Anonymous, held every five years, plus smaller annual get-togethers such as MauiFest VII (
). Twelve-steppers have been globetrotters ever since the first ICAA in Cleveland in 1950, when membership approached 100,000; last summer, 59,000 gathered in San Antonio to mark 75 years of AA. The next ICAA is planned for Atlanta in 2015. They are jamborees celebrating sobriety, with 12-step meetings, guest speakers, music, banquets, dances, sightseeing and usually a "sober city" of souvenir and food vendors.
Most cruise lines discreetly offer rooms for "Friends of Bill" meetings — Bill Wilson founded AA in the 1930s — whereas "sober" cruises are an organized affair: Groups book a block of cabins, dine, sightsee and attend 12-step programs together. Bob K.'s In This Life Custom Getaways (www.inthislife.com), in Cambria, Calif., offers a Baltic capitals cruise, July 6-18, aboard the
' Mariner. The Sober Cruises Committee, helmed by Brett and Lisa S., is planning four cruises for 2011, including a seven-day New Year's Caribbean sailing on
' Victory, beginning Jan. 9 (
Kim Welsh of OceanaSurf has taught surfing for 11 years near her Santa Monica home, and with 21 years of sobriety, she leads clean and sober surf getaways to places such as Costa Rica, Bali, Zihuatanejo and Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (
). Sober Concierge directs travelers to ski-in, ski-out AA meetings at mountain resorts in Park City, Utah, and for hikers, recommends the Great Outdoor Beaver Meeting (
), an annual
weekend AA "campvention" in Beaver, Utah, or the Camping Trip, on
weekend in Bangor, Pa. (
Hikers should also check out Dennis D.'s Sunset Beach Trudgers, an AA group that holds meetings in Southern California wilderness areas every second Saturday. The group hikes to places such as San Gorgonio in the morning, pitches tents and stays overnight (
Casual beach-and-bonfire 12-step meetings are held at Newport Beach (
) and at Queen's Beach, Honolulu, through a Hawaiian AA chapter that calls itself 12 Coconuts (
Retreats and yoga
Serenity Retreats offers four-day retreats for sober tourists and separate "respite weekends" for family members, in cottages along Ireland's Maharees Peninsula. Packages include daily bed and board, and meetings led by owner Claire O., an addictions counselor (
Jeannie W. directs clients to Yoga of Recovery (
, which sets up retreats at Yoga Farm in Grass Valley, Calif. (
, and ashrams in Chicago, New York, Florida, Vietnam and the Bahamas.
Among the many vacation properties advertised online, Jeannie W. vouches for Hull Bay Cottages near St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (
, whose owner, George M., has a history of family in recovery.
Resorts are a relatively newer addition to sober travel. Jeannie W. has sent clients to the Fourth Dimension Resort (
) in Costa Rica, and in Bali, to Sober Haven Bali (
), Brian H.'s boutique property, which held its sold-out grand opening in October, scheduling daily 12-step meetings between spa treatments, hiking to a nearby volcano, golf and surf lessons. True to AA, the newly minted hotelier believes in a higher power, a spiritual dimension to "sober travel," just as years before, on Oct. 2, 1984, a certain salesman adrift in the world was guided back to sanity and restored to hope. "Here is the home he sought," reads Brian H.'s favorite passage from Somerset Maugham's "The Moon and Sixpence," "and he will settle amid scenes that he has never seen before, among men he has never known, as though they were familiar to him from his birth."