Updated on July 9th, 2020
“I was on a boat in Borneo when I had an epiphany that I was at my most content when I was travelling, going into the unknown, facing the challenge & dealing with whatever the world chose to throw at me.”
Anywhere…within reason!!! I believe the world is our oyster & now, more than ever provides opportunities for all of us to see & do whatever we dream of.
As a young woman in my 20’s I started travelling solo as I wanted to explore the world & my friends weren’t available to come with me. Things were less accessible back then. I was determined, bloody-minded (& ignorant?!) enough to give up my job & go it alone. I was lucky to have a loving mother who never told me not to, just that she was proud of me and I will never be more grateful to anyone. She was amazing & never let on how scared she was. After joining a tour to Africa, I then started going solo for the first time – inter-railing through Europe then backpacking in Australia & Indonesia.
Now I’m in my late 40’s & was hit with the tragedy of losing my husband 3 years ago. He was my best friend, my partner in crime & my faithful travelling companion. I left my job after 18 years. I felt everything needed to change because everything had changed.
“I was on a boat in Borneo when I had an epiphany that I was at my most content when I was travelling, going into the unknown, facing the challenge & dealing with whatever the world chose to throw at me. To learn more read my About Me page.”
Terry (my husband) & I had always made the most of our 25 days holiday every year, stretching it to its limit. We specialised in beach & cities. When I now found myself alone, I was driven by one thing – to do things on holiday which I wouldn’t have done with Terry. Create different memories. With this as my mantra, I realised there are a lot of things you can do as a solo traveller which don’t necessarily mean you need to be on your own. There are times when I want to ‘get away from everyone’ and not speak to a soul, times when my history can be anonymous & I can pretend that life’s normal & there are times when I feel comfortable to share. Over the last 2 years, I have used all of these in my healing process & the concept of ‘Sue Where? Why? What?’ has grown from there. You choose which one suits your needs best…
What have I done so far?
There is such a wide choice available for anyone who wants to go solo, here is a snapshot of what I’ve done so far…
1. Learning a Skill
I have always held the belief that I’m not a linguist but the final continent (before the Antarctic) left to visit was South America. I had heard that it’s much easier if you can speak Spanish so after a few 1-hour lessons at home I immersed myself onto a 2-week language course in Havana (3 ½ hours every morning, 1:1 – intense was the word!).
I was living with a host family but effectively this was an apartment set up to take a group of us as we attended classes locally. Breakfast & dinner were provided & on a few occasions our hosts took us out for the evening to a local salsa club or tourist event. I also took advantage of being in the home of salsa to take lessons every afternoon which was a great way to refresh the brain after the tough mornings.
“I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made. I loved Cuba, it came at the right time for me, I made some amazing friends & had a lot of great nights out. Probably most importantly, my Spanish improved in leaps & bounds, enough for me to then go solo for 2 weeks, staying with other host families, often who only spoke Spanish.”
I enjoyed it so much I am off to repeat the experience in the Dominican Republic. I’ll keep you posted…
Back in the days when I was backpacking in Australia I learnt to scuba dive on the Great Barrier Reef & even progressed to the dizzy heights of ‘Advanced’! Then I returned home & met Terry. His previous health issues meant he was not allowed to dive so that marked the end of my scuba career. Over 20 years later, on a mission to make holidays different, I decided to try again.
“Having a long career in sales has made me good at ‘faking it’ but I felt maybe underwater with an air tank on my back wasn’t the right way to demonstrate my skills! I decided to start from the beginning again.”
I booked onto a course to take my PADI in Cairns, Australia. The course was for 5 days in total, 3 days in the classroom followed by a trip to the outer reef on a liveaboard boat for the last 2. As I was now over 45 I had to take a medical beforehand to certify my fitness. Rather than have this interfere with my training (& highlight how old I was!), I decided to complete this in Sydney before I started the course. I congratulated myself on this decision after I met my fellow divers, all backpackers in their 20’s!
The course was fantastic! My buddy, Ronelle & I became firm friends from day 1 & the group I trained with were great fun. After completing the course, we had the opportunity for a couple of dives on our own on the reef & a night dive amongst the sharks.
I learnt to dive with Divers Den in Cairns.
When I had my epiphany for travel in Borneo I was on a boat & realised that this is also where I feel at peace. What better way to explore this further than learning to sail? I initially wanted to go to an exotic location to learn but having been told that the Mediterranean wasn’t tidal & the best courses were with the British RYA, I opted for Lymington in the UK, a lot closer to home. The great thing about learning here is that you literally have everything thrown at you – other yachts, ferries, container ships & when we were there an American aircraft carrier, as well as almost every weather system, all in the course of a week!
The training was 5 days long & we lived on our 40’ yacht, mooring in marinas each night to allow for showers, restaurants for dinner etc. As the only woman aboard, I was given a room to myself which was a luxury (or as I affectionately called it “My Coffin”). You can read all about my experiences in my article Learning to Sail – Competent Crew.
I have broadened my experience since, sailing in Chicago, Turks & Caicos Islands & on an ocean crossing from Florida to The Bahamas. I am planning on using the next 6 months to build on this further around the Caribbean & explore different ways learning to sail can facilitate amazing holidays. Watch this space for more details.
In Nov 2017, I spent 2 weeks volunteering at a wildlife sanctuary in Namibia. It was a unique experience where I was given the opportunity to get up close & personal with semi-wild animals. If you are an animal lover then I would wholeheartedly recommend the experience.
The sanctuary had about 60 volunteers at the time I was there, the vast majority female & seemed to be either in their 20’s (travelling, gap year, career break) or late 40’s onwards (many going it alone for the first time). The minimum stay was 2 weeks but some were there for up to 3 months. As a way of sharing an unmatchable experience with a group of like-minded individuals, it would take some beating!
“During the 2 weeks, I walked alongside cheetahs in the wild & spent an afternoon in the enclosure with them purring loudly beside me as I measured & photographed their footprints. Every morning, the first thing I did was go & say “Hello” to a group of 7 young cheetahs who were housed between my tent & my breakfast.”
I was groomed by baboons, caught them as they jumped into my arms from a tree & walked while they wrestled over who was sitting on my shoulders.
I was bitten by a meerkat while trying to get them to safety from a nearby fire & spent my last evening firefighting to protect the local farms & the sanctuary from it spreading.
I slept the night on a platform while protecting the lions from poachers, watching the shooting stars & being woken up by them roaring next to me.
I learnt how to create a trap for guinea fowl & relieve aches & pains and other ancient skills from the direct descendants of the first tribe in Africa.
Overall an amazing experience which I would recommend to anyone & am already planning to add volunteering holidays to my annual to-do list (next stop sloths in Costa Rica?).
You can read lots more about my experiences in Namibia in my blog posts.
I organised my trip with The Great Projects.
3. Go on a Tour
The first trip I took alone was a 3-month overland safari through 9 countries in Africa, from Kenya to Zimbabwe. I loved it and was able to see so much more in a ‘protected’ environment as a 22-year-old naive & inexperienced traveller. To learn more about some of my adventures see my article 5 Ways to Avoid Being Attacked by Lions. A tour would have been Terry’s idea of hell but in the interest of research for my new blog, I went back to my roots.
In spring 2017, I spent 2 months in South America which included 2 different tours – 12 days in Bolivia (read more in my article A First Timer’s Guide to Bolivia) & 21 days in Peru. My Video Diaries tell the story of some of the amazing experiences I had.
There are pros & cons to taking a tour & I remain undecided as to how many of these I will do in the future.
“If you are in any way unsure about the country or travelling alone for the first time then I can’t recommend this option enough. This is the ultimate in travelling alone but not being alone. I met some amazing individuals & will keep in touch with them for a long time in the future.”
The guides I had for both tours were incredible! Having them there makes the whole travelling experience easier. For us there was no need to know the language, we had practical advice on everything from where to get your laundry done to what to order for the most authentic meal in a restaurant, there were no worries about losing your bus tickets, & they could even chase up lost luggage on our behalf. All this & you have a person with a great sense of humour on tap to answer any questions & overall enhance your experience.
The whole purpose of a tour is to give you the highlights in as short a time as possible. If time is your challenge, then this is clearly an advantage. After 3 weeks in Peru, I was starting to find the pace a little too relentless with no time to catch my breath & really get to know a place. After the 2 tours, I decided that this was too long for me – I need a little more space to breathe.
So, what are the other downsides from my perspective? I guess the most important thing is that your experience will depend on the group you are with. There is always that awkward moment in the first few days where everyone is finding their place & working each other out. I shared a room which gave me an automatic partner in crime but you can pay more for own privacy if you would prefer. As a solo traveller, the company has a huge impact on your experience & I was lucky both times.
Our guides were great at translating & managing our communication with the locals but for me, that meant I had been learning Spanish & barely really used it beyond ordering my dinner. There is always the offer of talking to the guide to practice your language skills on the long drives though, should you choose to take up the challenge!
Overall, I enjoyed the tour experience (although I struggled with my lack of independence) & think 12 days is closer to the time I would do in future.
I recently also spent 6 days on a trip to see the highlights of Namibia (keep your eyes peeled for more on this). One Day tour options are always great to share the experience, meet people but not be committing to them on a longer-term basis. For example, see my article 2 Different Wine Tasting Tours in Australia
4. Travel with friends & family
The important thing to note is that I didn’t start solo travel because I see myself as any kind of adventurer or loner, I just have a determination & feel happy in my own company. If I have the option to be with people, for the most part, I will do it.
“After I lost Terry I made a pact with myself to say ‘Yes’ to everything. Staying home was not a coping mechanism that felt like it would work for me. I needed to face things head on. When I’m away from home I can pretend that life’s normal. I realise that I am effectively running away but whatever your opinion on my psychological reasons, this has served me well.”
One of the first offers I had was to go skiing with my friend Vikky. As with scuba diving, this was another activity which I had learnt & then not practised for over 20 years. When my grief was less than a month old, I found myself on the nursery slopes in Canada.
Over the rest of that year, I accepted invites to see the orangutans in Borneo, went on a camping trip around Oregon with my friend & her daughters, island hopping in Greece with my sister and discovered Hawaii with family & friends.
All of these gave me an opportunity to do things I would not have done if I had been left to my own devices. I loved them all, along with my friends & family who got me through that first year. The downside is that where you go & what you do will always be a compromise or on another person’s agenda, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need.
5. Just do it!
There’s no substitute or any reason to be scared of taking the plunge & just going it alone. Some of my most memorable travel experiences were when I’ve been solo. I always tend to talk to more people, learn more things & generally interact more.
“In my opinion, the joy of travel is not where you go but the experiences you have & the people you meet along the way. Some of them are transient, some of them stick with you for a long time after you’ve parted.”
The biggest consideration when going it alone for the first time is ‘Where?’. The most important piece of advice I can offer is choose wisely & don’t make things more challenging than they really need to be. My suggestions would be:
- South East Asia – I would consider starting with Thailand but in my 20’s I spent 2 months in Indonesia alone (Bali to Sumatra). Vietnam is in my sights to explore further and if you have the temples & Angkor Wat on your Life List then see my First Timer’s Guide to Cambodia for practical advice.
- Australia & New Zealand – In 2016, I hired a car & spent 2 weeks driving around Western Australia alone & it was beautiful. Watch this space if you’d like more information. I would say that if you are travelling solo in Australia it depends ‘Why?’ & ‘What?’ you want. If it’s to have time alone I’d recommend it but if you are planning on meeting people, I found it more of a challenge.
- The USA – If meeting people is your priority then this is easy! In 2016 I spent 3 weeks in Hawaii – 1 week on Oahu with family, 1 week on the Big Island with a friend & 1 week alone in Kauai’i & I loved it!
- Cuba – In 2016 after my 2 weeks studying Spanish in Havana, I took another 5 exploring Cuba & island hopping in The Bahamas alone (Grand Bahama, Nassau & Great Exuma). Cuba is a challenge without Spanish but not impossible & once you get in the ‘system’ for staying in Casas Particulares (rooms in local homes), activities & onward travel is easily organised. Socially it is also great as all you need is to take a salsa lesson & everyone is your friend. In my experience, all Cuban men will tell you they teach salsa so it’s not hard to find a teacher! See my First Timer’s Guide to Cuba for more information.
I have a lot of advice to share for those who do want to go it alone, but that’s for another time. The one thing I would say is to think about where you stay – Airbnb is my current favourite for interaction & great local advice.
I have a unique opportunity over the next 6 months as I am renting my house for the first time. My plan is to explore the Caribbean & Central America, clocking up a few more countries & experiences along the way. So far this includes a fitness & yoga retreat & Spanish course in the Dominican Republic, followed by options to take part in sailing regattas in US Virgin Islands & Antigua, volunteering with sloths in Costa Rica, skiing in Canada & sailing in Belize. We’ll see what the future holds & where the wind takes me but I’d love to have you along on my journey!
What do you think?
Where would you recommend for a first-time solo traveller?
What suggestions do you have on solo travel without being alone?
Where & what would you recommend for me to do in the future?
What are the best things to do in the Caribbean or Central America?
What other volunteering projects have you been part of?
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