Blindfolded, 1,500 miles from home, 70-year-old Paul White was being driven along a twisting mountain road to an unknown destination.
No, it wasn’t a kidnapping, or even a mystery novel. It was a mystery vacation.
From the moment White left his house in East Sandwich, Mass., until well into the 15-day vacation his wife spent two years planning, he didn’t know where he’d be going or what he’d be doing.
The same thing happened to Heather and Brian Cornwell, of Jacksonville, Fla., after her father arranged a 10-day "scavenger hunt" vacation as a wedding gift. Ditto for the hundreds of women who have traveled with Pink Bus Mystery Tours out of Fargo, N.D.
But a mystery vacation isn’t for everyone. While some laud it as an adventure free from the hassles of trip planning, others say it’s unnerving giving up so much control.
White is one of those who love it. His wife, Karin, organizes their mystery getaways, which have lasted from a day to two weeks. She has whisked him off to England, Mexico, Maine, Rhode Island and, most recently, Colorado, Arizona and Utah. She tells him in advance how long they’ll be gone, then does the rest, including packing.
In October, the Whites flew from Providence, R.I., to Washington, D.C., before continuing to Denver. Karin White threw in a red herring by telling him they were only overnighting in Rocky Mountain National Park, then leaving Colorado.
The next day, White assumed they were heading back to the airport, until his wife "stopped the car, ran around and said, ’I’m blindfolding you."’
A few minutes later at the YMCA of the Rockies, the blindfold was removed to reveal 23 family members who had come from North Carolina, Florida, California and Colorado to celebrate his 70th birthday.
After a four-day reunion, they traveled to Sedona, Ariz., where they went hot-air ballooning. They then helicoptered over the Grand Canyon, and stayed in the same room on the North Rim where they had stayed after their wedding a dozen years ago.
"I don’t think she told me the rest of the trip until we left the North Rim," White said, explaining that he then participated by mapping out a leisurely drive to Arches National Park in Utah.
They spent two days there before returning home from what White described as a practically "perfect" trip. The blindfold "was the only little bump," he said. "That startled me."
Heather Cornwell, 34, was given a choice for a wedding present: cash or an all-expense-paid trip to Colorado. The Cornwells, who juggle family obligations, full-time jobs and university studies, liked the idea of having someone else make the plans.
"We wanted the trip to be fun and exciting," said Chuck Wright, Heather’s father. "We came up with the idea of a twist on a scavenger hunt."
The first stop was a lodge in Riverside, Wyo., accompanied by Wright and his wife, Linda.
That night, Cornwell recalled Wright telling them: "Tomorrow you need to wear clothes that can get wet. Bring Ziplocs for your camera." But she added: "We had no idea what we were going to be doing."
After a day of fly-fishing, the Wrights returned home to Fort Collins, Colo., leaving the Cornwells to continue solo.
"We couldn’t sleep that night," Cornwell said. "We were very excited."
The next morning, the proprietor handed them an envelope and a map of hiking trails. The instructions told them to drive to Steamboat Springs, Colo., shop for three days’ worth of food, and continue to a lakeside campground in Routt National Forest. (Wright had packed their truck with camping gear.)
The letter also told them to leave two days later, stopping by the Ranger Station in Yampa, where another set of instructions had been e-mailed. Those led them to a hotel in Glenwood Springs, Colo., for two nights, and then to the REI store in Denver by 5 p.m. on the third day, where the Wrights were waiting in the parking lot with tickets to a Rockies-Red Sox game.
Cornwell said the trip was better than their honeymoon to Scotland and Ireland because of the "excitement," "adventure," and "love" that went into planning it.
"As an adult your life is all about where you have to be next and what you have to do next," she explained. "It was such an amazing thing to relinquish control of your life for a minute."
But not everyone loves that feeling. Lynnette Cashman said she felt "a little out of sync" during a 30th anniversary surprise planned by her husband, who normally leaves travel arrangements to her. She knew something was up two months ago when she saw credit card charges for a four-day trip to St. John’s, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but that was all she was allowed to know.
"I felt more shut out than anticipatory," she explained.
Although she appreciated her husband’s efforts, thought St. John’s was beautiful and the trip relaxing, she said she felt "annoyed at times" and "detached" at others.
"I’m not a go-with-the-flow person," said Cashman, a retired accountant from West Chester, Pa. "I like being in charge."
Still, others are so intrigued by mystery tours, they sign up for them on their own. Women pay $200 for a four-person room and an unknown adventure with Pink Bus Mystery Tours from Saturday morning until Sunday night.
"It’s sisters, or sisters and moms, or high school friends that have gotten together and they decide to go for a weekend together," explained co-owner Debbie Carriveau.
Activities have included boating, train rides, winery visits, belly dancing, cooking demonstrations, pottery factories, dairy farms and more.
Clients receive a post card with a suggested packing list, which will sometimes include a teaser, like "bring an apron," she said.
The company has offered six to eight weekend trips annually for four years departing from the Fargo area, but they’re now attracting so many participants from elsewhere that this year a full tour originated in Milbank, S.D., 140 miles away. And next year, Pink Bus will try something new: A flight to a destination revealed in advance — California’s Napa Valley. To preserve the mystery element, though, participants won’t be told the itinerary or activities.
White says that for him, mystery trips are the only way to travel. As a sculptor with employees, he said he would find it impossible to focus on planning a trip.
"I think it’s fantastic. It fits my personality," he said. "Once I leave I’m fine, but it’s very difficult for me to get out the driveway."
His wife’s subterfuge is so good that once, after driving for five hours, White thought they were lost somewhere in Maine — until they got out of the car and into a boat for a trip across Chesuncook Lake to a bed-and-breakfast. On another occasion, without telling him they were going to England, she tricked him into getting a passport by having his daughter tell him that she was getting one, and he should too.
"I sometimes wake up and realize this isn’t fair. I’ve never taken her any place and she loves to travel," White said. "But she also loves to plan."