Doni Belau is an entrepreneur and travel expert who has joyously worked, played, laughed and eaten her way through over eighty countries. Her travel company, Girls’ Guide to the World, specializes in lavish, upscale women-only tours. Born from the indescribable sense of wonder that travel instills, Girls’ Guide works to remove the intimidation factor of travel and connect women with immersive cultural experiences in some of the most beautiful places on Earth. Their tours are led by local expert women guides, and of course, they save plenty of room to enjoy the finer things in life.
In May of this year, Doni’s suitcase struggles were at an all-time high, so it felt like kismet when an email from Sherpani landed in her inbox. Sherpani has since been a proud partner of Girls’ Guide to the World - we’re also big fans of Doni herself.
Within a few minutes of talking to Doni, you can tell she is a natural-born leader who has worked hard to create a life that revolves around travel. She reasoned that she shouldn’t have to choose between what she did and what she loved, so she started her company to reconcile her tireless work ethic with her thirst for adventure. Today, Doni splits her time between New Orleans, Louisiana, and France, where she has homes in Paris and Bordeaux that double as luxury vacation rentals. She also enjoys a floating residence - her sailboat Relish.
At Sherpani, we have always said we make bags for women who define their own meaning of success. After recognizing how aligned Doni’s life has been with our mission, we sent her our award-winning Soleil bag to accompany her on her adventures.
Recently, we caught up with Doni and asked her where she has taken her Sherpani bag so far. In the past six months, here’s where Doni and her Soleil have been:
- Sailing off the East Coast (Stonington, Connecticut to Block Island, Rhode Island)
- The Galapagos Islands
- Charleston, South Carolina
A pretty impressive mix! We asked Doni to share some of her top travel memories from these amazing destinations.
Her mind first jumped to snorkeling in the Galapagos islands, where she had planned her husband’s birthday trip on a private charter with a group of their friends. Doni has snorkeled in many iconic destinations, including Hawaii and the Great Barrier Reef. Yet she insists the Galapagos is as good as it gets, especially when it comes to wildlife.
There, a snorkeler can spot hundreds of species of tropical fish native to the area, along with so much more. It’s home to the fascinating Marine Iguana, the only lizard in the world that forages underwater, feeding off algae. Galapagos Penguins also live in this exotic paradise, one of which actually brushed up against Doni while she swam! The sea lions, though, seemed to be the creature that really stole her over. Curious and playful, they darted about, encircling and entertaining Doni’s group.
“If I could have laughed out loud underwater, I would have.”
Our conversation shifted to one of everybody’s favorite travel topics: food and drink. The flavors of Europe brought a reminiscent smile to Doni’s lips as she recounted her time in France, Italy and Portugal.
Though she could easily have gone on about the pasta-focused cooking class she took in rural Italy (and we could easily have listened!), Doni opted instead to shed some light on Portugal's food and beverage scene, which she feels is somewhat overlooked.
“Portugal doesn’t get enough accolades for its food and wine.”
Doni was in Portugal on a wine tasting tour with Girls’ Guide to the World. We aren’t strangers to the Portuguese wine scene (in fact, we wrote a whole post about it!), and neither is Doni. The world of wine can be intimidating, so Doni brought along a trusted sommelier to help guide her group to the perfect sip! This is the kind of upscale touch you can expect when you travel with Girls’ Guide.
Here is a nugget of wisdom Doni shared for when the wine tasting gets overwhelming: “If you like it, it is good.” She fairly pointed out how we should all take ownership of our own taste buds.
Her tour group visited the Douro Valley, where one can sip vino and enjoy the accompanying views of steep cliffs and winding rivers. Yes, please!
When it comes to France, Doni is a true expert. At seventeen, she visited Paris for the first time after scraping together enough cash via a garage sale and combining it with her graduation present from her older sister. She was enchanted by the city; it was the first time another culture had shown her that there was more than one way to do life.
On her second visit to Paris, she remembers flinging herself onto her hotel bed on the final day. She grabbed a hold of the bedpost, anchoring herself to the city, and dramatically proclaimed that she was never leaving. She didn’t understand why anybody would ever leave a place as beautiful as Paris.
We feel you, Doni.
Today, little has changed. Doni is still enamored with French culture and has always dreamed of living in France full time. In fact, Girls’ Guide to the World, which now offers tours in forty countries, started as Girls’ Guide to Paris. Though Doni doesn’t spend all her time in the country that holds her heart - it’s a big world, after all - she manages to get there often. This year, while spending a month at her home in Bordeaux, she celebrated the milestone of her sixtieth birthday.
She confessed to us that as a woman with all she needs, she doesn’t enjoy receiving gifts much. Instead, she has always encouraged those close to her to show their affection by simply writing a card. Her daughter took this to the extreme for her sixtieth by collecting responses from all her friends and compiling them into a book titled “Why We Love You.” This touching story is a reminder that not all travel memories are about the destination.
As for her travels within the United States, Doni spent some time with friends in Charleston, South Carolina. She says it’s a charming place, perfect for riding around in a golf cart and looking at the beautiful, historic buildings of the South. Her favorite time of year to visit is in the winter. If you are wishing you had planned a getaway this holiday season, Girls' Guide takes women to Charleston each December, and the 2024 trip will be announced soon.
Doni was also eager to speak about her time sailing off the East Coast. It hit us hard when she spoke about the connection one feels with nature when sailing on the big blue highway.
“Sailing is almost a spiritual experience,” she shared, as she spoke of soaking in the natural world and traversing the sea on the power of the wind, “every time it feels like a miracle.”
We know what she means. The Sherpani founders, Maria and Ed, share Doni’s passion for sailing. Their first-hand account of the ocean plastic problem is what inspired the use of recycled materials in our travel bags. Doni reiterated that our sustainability story is a pivotal part of why she loves Sherpani.
If you want to experience the magic of sailing, now is your chance! In April, you could be on a forty-five-foot catamaran, exploring the beautiful islands off the coast of Thailand with Girls’ Guide.
We asked Doni about her experience with plastic and sailing. She agreed that plastic was present on nearly every beach she’s ever set foot on, but reminded us that you don’t have to be in the middle of the ocean to encounter the stuff. She told us about meeting Jessica Nabongo, the first black woman to visit every country on earth, whose speech Doni attended at Women’s Travel Fest in New York City a few years back. According to Doni, Nabongo opened her speech by saying, “Plastic, we have a real problem.”
By the way, Sherpani is sponsoring the 2024 Women’s Travel Fest, which will be happening in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico, in February. How’s that for kismet?
Of course, we had to ask Doni how her Soleil bag served her during all this globetrotting. She enthusiastically hopped up to get it, not wanting to forget about any of her favorite features while she gave her review.
As someone who values style (did we mention Doni’s original Paris trip was during fashion week?), she spoke to the bag’s sleek design, noting how she purposely chose her color to create a matching set with her Sherpani luggage. Moving on to functionality, she shared with us that her favorite features were the three water bottle holders and the luggage pass-through, which is the feature that lets you slide the Soleil over the luggage handle of your suitcase. She also shared that she regularly carries the bag in all three ways: crossbody, tote and backpack.
When we asked about the Anti-Theft features of the Soleil, Doni confessed that the concern of theft is rarely on her mind. Well, that’s exactly why we created our Anti-Theft Collection! So women could worry less and travel more. Sherpani Anti-Theft technology includes RFID protection, a ReturnMe tag, a slash-proof fabric bottom, zipper locks, a chair loop lock and our proprietary wireless slash-proof crossbody strap.
We want to thank Doni for sharing her time and stories with us. After our conversation, she sent us a follow-up message with some more thoughts about traveling as a woman, and we had to include this bonus wisdom from our friend:
“This is the first time in history that women can travel without waiting for a chaperone or a husband to say yes and pay for it. Those days were not that long ago, and many women of a certain age still struggle with the idea of going solo. I cannot tell you how many people I speak to who have to ask their husbands first or are trying to imagine how to travel without them.
I believe that solo travel (which includes going with a group of people you don’t know) is empowering for women. Once you do it, you realize how easy and how liberating it is.”
This is what women have to look forward to when they book a trip with Girls’ Guide to the World. It’s no wonder that Girls’ Guide and Sherpani are so aligned: we are both paving the way for women to travel the world with freedom, confidence and security.
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By women for women, the Sherpani Travel Blog talks about all things travel. With a new post every week on Travel Tuesday, our blog is the go-to place for unique travel guides, general travel tips, personal travel stories from women in our community, and more!