Standing outside the closed door of the bar, I could hear a din inside. I took a deep breath and walked in, battling through the crush of tanned, tousled yacht crews of various nationalities. Hearing a British voice, I tried to talk to the young woman it belonged to but she gave me the cold shoulder. So I pushed my way to the bar to order a drink.
Sailor after sailor started chatting to me; by the end of the evening I’d been ‘adopted’ by several crews. Drink after drink had been bought for me (well, it would have been churlish to turn them down…) and I’d been offered a place on the next leg of a couple of the yachts.
It would have been all too easy to stay in my room with a good book rather than venturing alone into the legendary Café Sport in the Azores. But then I’d have missed out on one of the most memorable and enjoyable evenings of my life. And I reckon that if I’d been with a partner or a friend, I wouldn’t have had nearly such a momentous time.
The thought of travelling alone can be daunting, whatever age you are. Although the popular image of a solo traveller is a young backpacker, first-time solo travel can occur at any age.
Many of the newbie solo travellers I’ve met over the years have been, ahem, mature; on a Thai hill trek I met a white-haired 70-something on her first big adventure. Whether divorced or widowed, or simply wanting to do something that their partner isn’t so keen on, more and more people are taking to the road on their own.
Solo travel doesn’t have to mean ‘alone’. If travelling independently you’ll almost certainly meet other independent travellers, especially if you stay in guesthouses, lodges or hostels. If it’s the locals you want to meet, try family-run B&Bs, homestays or community-run accommodation.
Another option is to travel with a small-group tour company. If you’re prepared to share a room with someone, many of the tour companies that promote themselves via Wanderlust waive the single supplement. The majority of participants on special-interest trips, such as cooking, painting or photography tours, tend to be travelling solo, whether they are single or not. And expedition cruises and certain safaris tend to be sociable and ideal for solos. Try our Tripfinder tool to find the trip for you.
Travelling solo (Shutterstock)
Even if you don’t want to do the whole trip with a tour operator, it is worth starting off with a group – this will give you a chance to acclimatise and gain confidence. You may find that other members of the group are doing the same, so could be future travel companions. Several websites specialise in finding travel companions.
If you’re booking a group trip, don’t be afraid to ask about the mix of clients – and what happens at dinner. Talk to anyone who has travelled solo and it is always the evenings that cause the most angst and can be the loneliest part of the experience.
Eating alone or having a drink in a bar is OK. Honest. You can always write your diary, read a book, read your emails, check social media, or simply people-watch. But it is rarely as much fun as when you’re with some stimulating company. Not every evening has been as successful for me as the one on the Azores. There have been the times in anonymous hotels where no one would catch my eye, let alone speak to me. But I have got experienced at selecting where to eat, and where to sit - whether in a corner where I can people watch, or at a seat at a bar, where I can feel part of the buzz.
Yes, there are downsides to travelling solo. Homesickness and loneliness can strike. But then you can feel even lonelier if trapped with a travel companion who doesn’t share your outlook on life.
And there are definite benefits to going alone. You can do what you want, at the pace you choose. Want to spend a few hours in that gallery? Well, you can. Can’t be bothered to visit the cathedral or yet another temple? You don’t have to!
What’s more, you’re more receptive to new experiences, more likely to be looking outwards than focused on a companion. You’re also more approachable, so it’s easier to meet new people. Most of the friends I have made overseas have been made when I have been travelling alone.
At the end of the day the hardest thing about travelling solo is making the decision to go. Once you’re on your way, you’ll feel great about it. I know I still get a buzz when I head off on my own. Just try it – you will too.
Main image: Walking solo (Shutterstock)
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