Four gifts geared toward girlfriend getaways

How about a little self-indulgence before getting lost between cookie sheets, holiday card lists, blinking lights and check-out lines? Consider pampering yourself, or a woman you love.

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”Women of Wings” is the title of a sister-state cultural exchange program that will be May 15-24, 2003, to Chiba, Japan. Organized by Wisconsin-Chiba Inc., a nonprofit organization, the trip theme will be “Exploring Chiba: Women, Writing and the Arts.”

”We are seeking women whose work or hobbies involve writing or the arts,” says Charlene Sexton of Madison, who led the 2001 delegation to Chiba, which is near the center of Japan, east of metropolitan Toyko, and has 5.7 million people. Its attractions include Tokyo Disneyland.

Thirteen delegates from throughout Wisconsin were on the 2001 trip, which involved homestays with Chiba families, sightseeing and receptions with political dignitaries, including Chiba’s woman governor, Akiko Domoto, who remains in office. The agenda included theater, potlucks, educational forums, tours and shopping.

The cost for 2003 is about $2,000, which includes transportation, admissions, lodging and most meals. Some participants obtain sponsorships from corporations, employers or associations.

These cultural trips to Chiba have been every other year since 1999. The sister-state relationship began in 1990.

The deadline for applying for the trip is Jan. 3; Wisconsin-Chiba Inc. announces the finalists in March. Participants should be willing to help organize other Chiba cultural exchanges. For more information, send a fax to (608) 258-3413 or write to Chiba — Wisconsin Women of Wings, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, PO Box 352, Madison, WI 53701-0352.

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If physical work in a remote but scenic area is more appealing, consider one of the noble options from Global Volunteers, an organization that consults with the United Nations to coordinate work for about 150 projects in 19 countries per year.

Volunteers are needed to do construction and maintenance work at a women’s craft cooperative in Santa Elena, near the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica. Although it wasn’t this organization that lured me, I can vouch for the country’s natural beauty, lush terrain and rugged living, having visited it about three years ago.

Through Global Volunteers, based in St. Paul, Minn., Katie Lovejoy and Robin Theye of the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse last year were in a group of 15 volunteers who gardened, painted and worked on crafts in Santa Elena. The co-op, started in 1982 by eight women, now has 140 members.

”Women and their families gain some financial security and are able to continue living in their small mountain villages,” says Barbara DeGroot of Global Volunteers. “The co-op helps them maintain their traditional way of life, which revolves around stewardship to the land and respect for the fragile ecology of this area.”

She says the co-op also “has given Costa Rican women new self-confidence and a sense of economic independence, which is very important in this traditionally ‘macho’ culture.”

The organization’s next trip to the co-op will be Dec. 14-28. If you’re not that spontaneous, the 2003 dates are June 28 to July 12, Sept. 6-20 and Dec. 27-Jan. 10, 2004. Volunteers pay for their airfare; there also is a program fee of $1,795 (for nine days) or $1,895 (for two weeks), which covers food, lodging and ground transportation. Both expenses are tax-deductible.

For more about this trip or others through Global Volunteers, call (800) 487-1074 or go to www.globalvolunteers.com. DeGroot says Costa Rica is one of the organization’s more popular destinations – not a surprise to me, because of its friendly people and inviting climate.  

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For an unapologetic definition of self-indulgence, consider the “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” package at Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel, the only Midwest property to earn top ratings from both Mobil and the American Automobile Association.

The cost? It’s $1,175 per night for a Deluxe Family and Friends Suite, which sleeps up to six. The package also includes a welcome basket with chick flicks, CDs and spa products.

”Spend the day with our partner Neiman Marcus and receive a complete makeover and a bountiful gift bag of cosmetic goodies,” adds the press release. “Plus, receive clothing tips from a private fashion shopper.”

The hotel concierge, at an additional cost, can customize the visit by obtaining tickets to see Oprah’s show. She also can arrange a private tour of the Merchandise Mart (the largest design space in the country), or make sure you are able to attend anything from yoga classes to a gourmet cooking class.

If you’re hellbent on breaking the bank, add a daylong spa party for 10, “in a private location with dramatic Chicago views.”

For more, call (312) 280-8400 or go to www.fourseasons.com/chicagofs.

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I also can’t resist recommending the annual Old World Christmas Market at The Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake (Sheboygan County), which is 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, through Dec. 15. Although I have a vested interest in this four-diamond AAA property, that’s not what drives my enthusiasm for the wares of the 100-plus seasonal artisans.

The assembly of German lace, Czech tree ornaments, steaming grog, ethnic sweets and European giftware come from retailers in towns large and small. It’s all displayed under a huge, heated tent that has an atmosphere more festive than it appears from the outside. Admission is $4.

During a mini-reunion of college housemates last year, we underestimated the amount of time we wanted to spend here. I had saved this attraction for the end of the day, figuring it would be a good way to fill an hour or two. A couple of us returned for additional gawking and shopping the next day.

If you make it a family trip, there are holiday workshops for children at the resort. For more about the market and other off-season activities, call (800) 876-3399 or go to www.osthoff.com.