Geri Swanson of Plymouth seems perplexed. Standing in the courtyard of the tony downtown Minneapolis Chambers Hotel, she's studying the late British sculptor Angus Fairhurst's massive gorilla. More accurately, she's studying the ground in front of Fairhurst's bronze beast, where its severed left arm lay still and useless like a discarded tree branch.

"I don't know. ... " Swanson says, cautiously formulating her opinion. "I'd like his arm up where it belongs."

It's a good bet that before 9 a.m. on this sunny and crisp Saturday in early May, 70-year-old Swanson of Plymouth wouldn't have guessed she'd be considering the deeper meaning of one-armed gorillas. Nor would she guess that wine (lots), a hand massage and hula dancing were in her near future.

But that's the fun, and the point, of Girlfriends' Mystery Tours, a business founded three years ago by veteran sports and event planner Joyce Myers of Apple Valley. Myers' mission: get women out of the house for a full day of sightseeing, risk-taking and pampering that they'd never experience otherwise. "Women are so busy," Myers said. "When do you get a day to escape and just forget it?"

About six times a year, Myers weaves together a mind-boggling array of mystery stops (the women never know where they're going next) throughout the Twin Cities and beyond. Trips have included boat cruises, salsa dance lessons, a karaoke party, a walk onto the Guthrie Theater's Endless Bridge and bus rides to Rochester and Lanesboro, Minn.

Today, more than 50 women, ranging in age from 29 to 73, load a bus in Apple Valley at 9 a.m. First stop: Pahl's Market in Apple Valley, with a presentation on pot-gardening, before moving on to savor a lunch of roasted pepper soup and a sampling of wines at Sage Wine Bar and Market in Mendota Heights.

From there, it's on to the Aveda Institute for hand massages, the Chambers for a private art tour, Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop for a lively improv show and Babalu, a Latin-Caribbean restaurant just north of Minneapolis' Warehouse District, for hula lessons and dinner.

Whew. But, wait! There's more.

They'll round out the day with a shopping stop at Zida Boutique in Burnsville before heading home around 7 p.m. "Girlfriends always want to go shopping," Myers said.

Practice makes perfect

Myers, who served as program director for the Minnesota Youth Soccer Association and spent five years managing programs for Alan Merrick's Soccer Academies, is a vision of calm and poise. She herds her curious cats from locale to locale (with the help of two assistants, Vicki West and Cathy Blair), seldom getting even five minutes off schedule. Underneath, though, she's praying.

"My nightmare is that we drive up to a place and the 'Closed' sign is on the door," she says laughing, before admitting that she loses sleep in the planning process. "For that reason, I call everybody a day in advance. I tell them, 'I'm not going to stalk you, but I'm going to see a lot of you.'"

She plots out bus routes online, checking for road closings. She visits every venue at least four times to get comfortable with the owners and to feel confident that the space is big enough, and the servers skilled enough, to feed or pamper her crew and get them on their way in a timely fashion.

She also considers minutiae that would slip past the rest of us. Yes, the four-story Aveda Institute in Minneapolis features beautifully appointed stairways. But does the building also have an elevator in case a "girlfriend" just had knee surgery?

The businesses, not surprisingly, bend over backwards to accommodate, some offering discounts or opening their doors when normally closed. In today's queasy market, there's nothing quite like the sight of 50 women with big smiles and open purses coming your way. At Sage Wine Bar, for example, a wine suggested by the owners sold out at their wine market within minutes. "Women talk," Myers said. "If you know a good place, you're going to tell somebody."

She charges $125 a person and hopes to keep that price steady through the fall. "I always make money [on the tours]," she said. "The biggest challenge going forward is gas prices and food prices."

Returning for new mysteries

Joan McBride of West St. Paul is one of many women making a repeat trip. This is her third mystery tour; she enlisted her daughter-in-law Pam Swanson, 49, of Lakeville, and Swanson's mom, Deloyce Goode, 73, of Bloomington to join her. Goode thoroughly enjoyed the improv, she said, but the wine stop may have been her favorite.

Annette Ruzicka, 41, a dental hygienist, went on a tour last fall, then persuaded her bosses at Main Street Dental in New Prague to make Girlfriends' Mystery Tours the Christmas gift for their 14 employees. Eight women have joined today's tour (the other six will partake in the fall), including office assistant Julie Novak, 29.

"I love it," Novak said. "I'm coming out of my shell." She left her kids, ages 5 and almost 4, at home with Dad. "He loves it when I leave," she jokes. "He tells the kids, 'We can do whatever we want.'"

Barbara Bauer, 50, of Hampton, Minn., took a tour in December. Today, she's brought along six of her sisters-in-law.

Vicki Swan, 55, of Burnsville, signed up alone to combat complacency. "I don't get out enough, I really don't," said Swan. Since her divorce, Swan says, she's "too much of a hermit." She's glad she came. "We're running into things I never even knew were in our city and we're not even half done!"

One big seller for the women, most of whom hail from suburbs, is that they don't have to worry about imbibing, getting lost or finding parking. That's left up to good-natured Mike LaDue, owner of On Eagles Wings charter bus service of Lakeville. The father of five daughters has chauffeured all but one of Myers' nearly 20 trips and has earned the title "Best Girlfriend." His most memorable stop, he said, was to see "Menopause: The Musical."

"I was the only guy in the room. I knew I was in trouble."

Myers hopes that all of the women step off the bus at the end of the day feeling full, tired and happy. But she knows she can't please everybody at every stop.

"I've come to the conclusion that everybody has different impressions," Myers said. "Some love a play; others love shopping." The best feedback the girlfriends can offer, she said, is, "Wow! I just didn't know these things were here."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350