The first time I went on holiday on my own was in 1987. I had just been employed by Warner Music, all my debts had been paid via my Polygram ‘retrenchment’ package, I had a little left over and I had three weeks until my new job started.
So I took myself off to Eilat to learn to scuba dive. This being 26 years ago, dive schools were few and far between in Israel, but it had the best weather at the time, I could afford it and the local London BSAC club told me about a school run by some ex Israeli Military divers – “brutal but excellent. Plus the water’s warm and you won’t be diving in dark cold mines like you will here”.
I booked myself in at the King Solomon Hotel, the English chaps had advised: “stay somewhere nice, you’re going to need it.” Got frisked at the airport by a very toned Mossad fellow and headed off.
And never looked back. Once camparigirl moved to America – our schedules no longer converged – so my holidays had to be taken alone. Plus (camparigirl excepted) I travel best that way – various misadventures with other much-loved pals over the years have put our friendships sorely to the test. What I consider relaxation – others consider a mix of boredom, slumming and just-plain-weird sightseeing (think Rasta-Ital village in the Blue Hills, Jamaica).
On most trips – I was the only single person around. Very occasionally I would spot another independent, and we would have a chat over a coffee, then go our separate ways. But it wasn’t until the growth of yoga-holidays and Asia as a safe destination, that I would regularly bump into singleton gals on their way somewhere.
But that’s all changing. The other day, sofasister sent me an article from Grazia magazine – apparently the fastest growing sector of the travel industry is solo females. (Men, interestingly, seldom go on holiday alone.) Young women with money, taste, curiosity and passports: who head to Thailand, Vietnam, India, Stockholm, Rome, Barcelona … places where there are things to do, art/culture and good shopping. Safe destinations with hip, luxurious boutique hotels or quirky backpackers.
“Sounds like what you’ve been doing forever”, she said.
I am lucky – I don’t get lonely. I can talk to anyone, and I can always find something to do. I checked into a hotel in Chiang Mai for a long weekend once, and stayed 10 days – figuring out a rhythm that suited my mood. Wandering around the city in the morning, lunch at a stall in the market, reading by the pool in the afternoon and a cocktail followed by dinner (included in the room rate) in the evening. I didn’t make it to view the hill-tribes (intrusive I thought) or go Elephant trekking (up and down a hill, why?). I know most of my friends would have (understandably) wanted to shoot themselves by day three – but it worked for me.
Solo travel forces you to embrace what is around you – there’s no easy out. If you want diversion: you have to create it yourself. I was in Eilat for three Friday nights, so I joined in the Shabbat observances at the hotel – standing in reception with the other guests as they held candles and prayed. Climbing eight flights up to my room because the elevators were switched off (I was the only foreigner in the hotel). Then eating dinner on Saturday with everyone else in the dining room. Each time called over to join a family table.
I once spent a most excellent Saturday afternoon at a cricket match in Dominica. The pitch was bisected by a country road that I happened down, and a Rastafarian ‘long-on’ asked if I would “mind waiting up for a minute or something like” until the over had been bowled. That minute turned into a couple of Red Stripes, a fish bbq and a little bit of a boogie as the sun went down. For the rest of the holiday, I was recognised wherever I went – “Miss Sue, Miss Sue – how’s you?”
Another time I went snorkling with some fisherman off Lamu Isand in Kenya. I had met a woman on the beach, she was selling kingfish samoosas and ice-cold home-made gingerbeer. Despite my hotel’s warnings, I took a chance on lunch and was rewarded with an invitation to her daughter’s 11th birthday party, and the boat-trip. (Not to mention the most delicious samoosas I have ever eaten.)
In Hawaii – I went diving with a film crew I met at a local bar. They were studying the mating rituals of the ‘Spanish Dancer’. I will never forget driving across Kauai as the sun set, kitting up and falling into the dark phosphorescence to watch the nudibranch dance for their mates. Afterwards we devoured home-made macadamia nut fudge and drank whisky-coffee with the boat-skipper and his wife.
You have to show up when you travel solo. The openness to experience local life enriched my holidays – and I have never been treated with anything but welcome and respect.
I have a couple of solo travel rules I stick to religiously. So, in case you are thinking of heading out on your own – here they are:
1. No drugs, ever. Just don’t.
2. If you wouldn’t date him at home, don’t have sex with him on holiday. Stay away from local women’s guys. Whether they are brothers, or husbands or lovers or sons. The man may see you as an out – but your dalliance with him could destroy a family.
3. If something doesn’t feel right – it probably isn’t. Smile and walk away.
4. Always take more money than you think you will need. And a credit card. When you travel alone – don’t travel on the bones of your financial ass. If you get into a pickle… money and an American Express card will be your best friends.
5. Dress appropriately for where you are. The women will respect you. And that makes life much easier when you are traveling alone. Or need help.
6. Respect local customs. This is their country, not yours. If they say “no drinking on the beach”, don’t drink on the beach. If they say “cover your head in our place of worship”, cover your head. If you can’t do that – go somewhere else.
7. Smile, say thank you, smile. Learn a few words of the local language. Use them at a normal decibel level. Stumble over them. Smile. Say thank you.
8. Always take a book. Take two.
In 26 years I have never come unstuck. And there have been some moments where things could have gone horribly wrong. Have a sense of humour about yourself, be patient and unfailingly polite – even when you are pissed off. Lastly, manage your expectations: you can’t control everything. And laugh … nothing connects humans better than a shared giggle.
(All images copyright campari&sofa.)