From intrepid adventures to wellness retreats, our experts suggest the best ways to go it alone – in good company.
For intrepid travellers
It was 5.30am and I found myself standing alone on the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, watching amber rays of dawn light bounce haphazardly off red rock walls. Having walked 30 paces from a small tent where I spent the night, I clutched a freshly brewed cup of coffee and was still proudly wearing my Superman pyjamas.
More satisfying than the view and the blissful solitude, was the fact that I arrived at the edge of this natural wonder entirely under my own steam, by bicycle.
There is a lot to be said for being an intrepid traveller like me, keen to explore by boat, bike or on two feet. I always find it to be a fully immersive experience. I am catapulted back to a time when pioneers and explorers would have made their own first journeys across wild and unknown terrain. There is less to separate me from the landscape, too.
I am open and exposed to the elements. I feel every mountain range in my lungs and in my legs, and do my best to breathe through the soup-like air of each hot and humid forest. I get a real sense of what it means to live in each place I travel through, because I am now a part of it too.
It’s this same sense of vulnerability that seems to make the locals more likely to take an interest in me. Like the man in Bolivia who brought his llama to my tent for breakfast. Or the farming family who gave me shelter from a blizzard in South Dakota, offering me a taste of life as a real cowgirl. With each of these random, authentic exchanges, my faith in mankind is restored. I am once again filled with a sense of wonder for all the planet has to offer.
Solo intrepid travel needn’t be all about swashbuckling and struggle and strife – it is simply a willingness to embrace freedom and travel with eyes wide open.
1. Immerse yourself in a Greek Odyssey
Mainland Greece is steeped in history and architectural wonder, but if isolated beaches, dramatic coastlines and dinner with the locals is more your kind of thing, then you must head to the islands instead. Submerge yourself in a week-long swimming journey through the Greek Cyclades. Fuelled by dolmades, fried cheese and the catch of the day, you’ll island-hop from one quaint village to the next, exploring the sea caves of the Mediterranean along the way.
Visit the Greek Cyclades from £940 for seven days, including accommodation and some meals. Price excludes international flights. Departures between May and September 2018. Swim Trek (01273 739713; swimtrek.com)
2. Experience the high life
Any journey that starts with your plane landing at 1,300 feet (4,000 metres) above sea level is sure to get your heart racing and your lungs burning. Experience the changeable landscapes of beautiful Bolivia with a multi-day trek from the sprawling city of La Paz to the humid lowlands of the Yungas. Follow an ancient Inca pathway, traversing misty hillsides and passing through isolated villages into lush green jungle.
Journey La Paz to the Altiplano as part of a trekking tour of Peru and Bolivia, from £2,956 for 18 days, including accommodation and some meals. Excludes international flights. Departs year round. Journey Latin America (020 3553 6441; journeylatinamerica.co.uk).
3. See the Northern Lights
If you’re eager to see one of the greatest spectacles of natural wonder, then it pays to let nature be your guide. Head off in search of the Northern Lights and explore the untapped wilderness of Finland from the back of a sled, pulled by your very own team of huskies. Master the subtle art of mushing and learn wilderness skills to thrive on a journey between remote cabins, through the postcard perfect arctic scenery of Pallas-Yllas National Park.
Finland Husky Safari from £1,865. Eight days, including flights from the UK, accommodation and meals. Departures available between now and April 2018. Responsible Travel (01273 823700; responsibletravel.com).
4. Pedal through alpine paradise
The lakes of the Swiss and Italian Alps are a playground for those willing to use pedal power to explore. Enjoy sunshine and fresh mountain air as you cruise past snow-capped mountains, grass covered hillsides and alpine flowers in full bloom. You’ll want to travel slowly here, stopping as often as possible for a dip in one of the pristine lakes or to indulge in the many varieties of local ice cream and chocolate.
From £1,399 for an Italian and Swiss Lakes cycling tour from Exodus (020 3811 5301; exodus.co.uk), including flights, accommodation and some meals. Bike hire included. Departures between May and September 2018.
5. Horseback riding in Argentina
Roll up your sleeves and live like a local at Estancia La Rosita in northern Argentina by spending a week pitching in with the running of a 10,000-acre estate. Ride out across the surrounding wetlands on horseback to visit neighbouring estates and get to know the 140 horses and few hundred sheep also in residence – on hand to help you discover what life is like when you are a real gaucho.
From £3,795 for a 10-day Argentina tour from Wild Frontiers (020 8741 7390; wildfrontierstravel.com), including accommodation and meals. Excludes UK flights. Departures in October 2018.
For people lovers
Sitting on disused railway tracks, the warm metal under my thighs, I gazed at the great orb of the Australian Outback sun as it melted into the earth. I took a sip of a cool beer and watched silhouetted kangaroos jounce by. What a sight. But there was no one to share it with.
Travelling alone has its perks, but once you’ve “found yourself” it’s nice to have a bit of company, isn’t it? Someone to guard your bags while you go to the loo, take pictures with, and read the map while you’re navigating new roads.
Group travel eliminates the hassle, so there’s nothing to worry about except enjoying the destination. A tricky border crossing? Groups are often allowed where solo travellers are not. Getting from A to B? A crowd can hire a private minibus, so you don’t have to share your seat with a chicken on a 13-hour bus ride.
Furthermore, studies have shown that sharing experiences – even with a complete stranger – make them much more intense than if they’re experienced alone. Indeed, the joy can quickly fade if it can’t be relived with fellow travellers who were there.
And that’s the key: you meet people you’d never normally mingle with, possibly forge lifelong friendships, and pick up skills you’d never usually consider. On a painting safari to Zambia earlier this year, I made friends with women whom had a 30-year head start on me. The experience opened up new conversations I might not have had otherwise. Similarly, on a yoga retreat in Bali, I made an unexpected buddy. Before we arrived, the instructor sent an introduction email to all the participants. I responded asking if anyone wanted to share a taxi from the airport in Denpasar to Ubud. “I’ll join you!” came a reply from a woman living in Reykjavik. Three days later we shoehorned ourselves into the sweaty backseat of a Balinese cab. That’s all it took. We stepped onto the streets of Ubud thick as thieves – a friendship further cemented by our equally questionable sun salutations.
6. See living history in Ukraine
It’s been more than 30 years since nuclear reactor number four exploded at Chernobyl in Ukraine – the largest radioactive disaster ever recorded. But in 2011 the area was declared safe enough to be recognised as a tourist attraction. Spend a long weekend exploring the Exclusion Zone – still haunted by the abandoned fairground, hospital, school and football stadium – and meet a “self-setter”: one of the few people who chose to return home after the accident. And, as proof of its safety, wildlife in the area is thriving. The close-to-extinction Przewalski’s horse can be seen, as well as moose, deer, beavers, owls, brown bear, lynx and wolves. After a long day, get to know your companions better over a Ukrainian meal and pepper vodkas.
From £799 for a five-day trip, including flights, accommodation, transport, meals and guide. Departures year round. Explore (01252 883616; explore.co.uk)
7. Meet the tribes of Papua New Guinea
A ground-breaking 16-day itinerary offered by Wild Frontiers – whose compact groups are mostly made up of solo travellers – that explores the untrammelled lands of Papua New Guinea.
With large swathes still unexplored, its people speak more than 850 languages and many retain their animist beliefs. You’ll visit the crocodile people of the Sepik river, spend two days living with the colourful Huli people of the Hela Province, look for the extravagant bird of paradise in the Western Highlands and witness the Goroka Show – one of the world’s most spectacular tribal festivals – and conclude on the coastal settlement of Tufi for snorkelling and a beach barbeque with new friends.
From £6,995 for 16 days, including accommodation with all meals, guided excursions and transfers. Departures in August and September. Wild Frontiers (020 3603 7961; wildfrontierstravel.com).
8. History in the Balkans
Jules Verne offer a single supplement-free tour of Albania aimed at solo travellers. With Greek, Latin, Turkic and Slav influences, the country’s dense history is spread everywhere: from Ottoman fortresses and prehistoric dwellings, to ancient citadels, mosques, rock-hewn tombs and Roman cities.
Highlights include visits to three UNESCO World Heritage sites: Butrint, Gjirokastra and Berat. It may have taken a while for the country to find its feet after the collapse of communism in 1990, but today its ranked 13th on the Happy Planet Index and offers landscapes and culture unspoilt by mass tourism.
From £865 for seven nights with no single supplement, including flights, accommodation, some meals and a guide. Departs November 6 and November 13. Jules Verne (020 3130 6944; vjv.com).
9. Mingle with singles in Japan
Don’t want to travel solo in a mixed group? Solos have launched Solos Group tours for 2018 that comprise only singles. Brand new is their 13-night Journey through Japan tour that starts amid the bright lights of Tokyo, visits the old Samurai castle of Matsumoto, includes walking a section of the Nakasendo Way – an old trading route that featured on the ITV series Joanna Lumley’s Japan – tea with a Geisha in Kyoto, and a ride on the Bullet Train.
Best of all, your luggage is always sent ahead to the next destination, so no struggling with suitcases.
From £4,589 including flights, private single room, most meals and a tour leader. Departs June 1. Solos (0844 815 0005; solosholidays.co.uk).
10. A mountain trek in Corfu
Trekking experts Walks Worldwide have a brand new eight-day group tour along the Corfu Trail designed specifically for solo travellers. Spanning 125 miles (200km) in total – from mountainous Cape Ayias Ekaterinis in the north, to the rolling landscapes of Cape Asprokavos in the south – it takes walkers away from the coastal tourist hubs, through inland villages where tourists are still a rarity, and past ancient manor houses and byzantine monasteries.
It can be tackled in its entirety or in bite-sized chunks with walks averaging 10-12 miles (16-19km) per day. At the end of each day, walkers can wash off the sweat with a dip in the Ionian Sea, followed by convivial dinners at quayside tavernas.
From £969 with no single supplement for seven nights’ half-board, including walking notes and luggage transfers. Departures in April, May, October and November. Walks Worldwide (01962 302085; walksworldwide.com).
For wellness junkies
After a week of cycling in the Dolomites, rising at ungodly hours to get in the saddle and make it to the next destination before the sun set, I was ready for another holiday. This appeared to be a recurring theme in my life: holiday followed by the need to go on another break. Surely, I was getting something wrong. So, I resolved to go on a “proper” pampering getaway – where switching off and doing nothing was the main aim. This, coupled with meditation, nature walks and time at the spa, ideally somewhere where the views – whether of looming mountains or the calming sea – were as commendable as the treatments. Oh, what bliss!
Of course, there is something to be said for an active break – whether that involves hiking and riding or kitesurfing and snorkelling – but there is also a time and place, especially come New Year, for learning to sit still and making time to listen to our bodies and halt, at least momentarily, the constant whirring of our minds. Our brains, as well as our bodies, need rest too.
The first time I went on a solo wellness break was in Marrakech. I was both anxious and excited – and even more of the former when I realised that the HIIT workout and belly dancing classes complete with gold coin-trimmed skirt was mandatory for everyone – men and women. Still, this didn’t change the retreat’s overall effect by the time I left. I returned to London feeling refreshed, recharged and as if I had been on a proper break.
I’ve been on far too many healthy holidays, more than I might care to admit: from England and Europe to Asia, Africa and South America – from simple thatched-roof retreats to hi-tech medispas.
And I must say, there is something life-affirming about ditching the itinerary, slowing down and being in the present – even better if that involves someone kneading the stresses and strains of your back as you look out onto the snow-capped Atlas Mountains.
Many wellness specialists offer retreats that can be as laid-back or active as you like. So you can choose to lie horizontal by the pool or take part in activities from Nordic walking to island hopping if you feel so inclined.
11. De-stress on the Costa Blanca
The grand dame of medispas, SHA Wellness in Alicante on Spain’s Costa Blanca has a treatments list that is as long as an Asian Fusion restaurant menu. Would you like a dermatology-grade facial? How about DNA testing? A brain scan? Perhaps acupuncture? A stress-management session, sir? If you can think of it, SHA probably does it – and in an impressively expert way. From neuroscientists to aesthetic doctors who’ve dedicated their careers to anti-ageing research, the impressive roster of specialists is world-class. Of course, let’s not forget that a stay here is set against a most pleasant backdrop: the glistening blue Altea Bay and the little resort town of Albir. And the food, designed to keep you in trim shape, is surprisingly good.
From £4,877 for single occupancy for a seven-night stress-management programme at SHA Wellness from Wellbeing Escapes (020 3735 7555; wellbeingescapes.com), which includes treatments, meals and flights.
12. Detox retreat in Gozo
Far from the madding tourist crowds of Malta, the small island of Gozo is quiet and ruggedly handsome. Tucked away in a small village called Ta Sbejha is Amchara, a health retreat focused on “change for good”. Interiors are down-to-earth: apartments are made in traditional Gozo stone and travertine tiled floors, but it’s the treatments that are the real highlight, from hot stone massages to organic facials.
If you’re looking to do a detox in the New Year, this is an excellent choice: you can opt for a juice, raw, vegan or healthy cooked diet, which a nutritionist will discuss with you. There are health talks by specialists, morning seaside walks and boat trips to the island of Comino to see the Blue Lagoon. Compared with other health retreats, both in the UK and the rest of Europe, it’s cheaper – and, in my opinion, just as effective.
A three-night stay at Amchara Gozo (01823 475438; amchara.com) starts from £897, including full-board. Flights and treatments cost extra.
13. Philippine jungle escape
The Farm in the Philippines is a five-star jungle retreat surrounded by coconut trees, waterfalls and gardens where peacocks including a white peafowl roam idly. Yes, this is the place to go for a general wellness holiday (A-list visitors include Woody Harrelson and Coldplay), but it’s also equipped to deal with serious health issues, such as diabetes management and recovery from chemotherapy. Whatever your reasons for coming, rest assured that the tropical setting in itself – shades of green at every turn, jade mountains in the backdrop – has positively healing effects.
From £3,360 full-board for single occupancy. Price includes a wellness programme, flights and transfers. Health and Fitness Travel (0203 397 8891; healthandfitnesstravel.com).
14. Mindfulness in St Lucia
Is one of your New Year’s resolutions to be more mindful? I’m certainly guilty of living in my head rather than in the moment. If you’re the same, the Bodyholiday in St Lucia has a Mindfulness Retreat to combat the constant need to strive. How could you even consider doing anything or contemplate anything other than the here and now when the Cariblue beach and rainforests are right on your doorstep? Clinical studies have demonstrated the mental health benefits of mindfulness. Couple that with spa treatments, communal dining and group activities, and you’ll be a Zen master in no time.
From £4,141 full-board for single occupancy, including flights, transfers and all activities. The Healthy Holiday Company (0208 968 0501; thehealthyholidaycompany.co.uk).
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15. Thai fitness break
Kick-start a new fitness regime at the famous beachfront retreat Chiva-Som in Thailand. Resistance and TRX suspension training may not exactly be what one looks forward to on holiday but Chiva-Som’s personal trainers make the experience not just fun and motivating but also sustainable. You’ll come back home with a bespoke exercise plan that you can do on your own, well after your tan has lost its golden glow. It closes on May 1 and re-opens on November 1. If you’re looking to book in between these months, try Kamalaya (kamalaya.com) in Koh Samui.
From £5,630 full-board single occupancy for a seven-night programme from Healing Holidays (020 3372 6945; healingholidays.co.uk) including flights, spa treatments, PT sessions and classes.
For experience seekers
As a solo traveller, the seeking out of “experiences” has always been the driving force behind my adventures. But I use this term in its loosest sense; I will hold my hand up and say I have never bungee-jumped or wing-walked or swum with dolphins. I have, however, motorcycled across the Sahara, had my chocolate biscuits seized at gunpoint in the Congo, and sung The Final Countdown with an army general in Iran. By experience, I mean finding myself in situations that are as far removed from my everyday life as possible – and the more bizarre, the better. As a kid I was always secretly pleased when plans went awry on our family holidays – when the car broke down or we got lost, I was thrilled by the possibilities of the unknown, the sense that I didn’t know what was going to happen next… that anything could happen. It probably wasn’t as much fun for my parents with three kids in the back of a Morris 1000 but it gave me a taste for the unpredictable pleasures and perils of a road trip, something that has never left me.
An experience seeker is just another name for the eternally curious, and curiosity is the key to a rewarding adventure. As the world becomes increasingly accessible and homogenised, with Big Macs and Starbucks to be found everywhere from Oman to Omaha, the true travel thrills come from seeking out the back roads, being open to the eccentric and the unusual, and, most crucially, talking to people who you would never otherwise meet. These days the likes of Google Earth and Trip Advisor may have taken the element of surprise out of travel – you can set off to the airport knowing exactly what your hotel bathroom will look like – but the one element the internet can’t foresee is who you will meet and what stories they will have to tell – and this is still where the most enticing travel experiences are to be found.
16. Dog-sledding in Finland
At night you sleep in cosy wilderness huts lit by candlelight and heated by a wood-burning stove. By day you learn to drive your own dogsled team across Lapland, travelling through forests and across frozen lakes, and hopefully catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. It’s a five-day physical workout, and an adventure that truly takes you off the beaten track, but if you’re a rugged outdoorsy dog-lover (it’s your job to feed and care for your team) it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend a week.
From £1,680 for a Husky Sledding in Finland tour from Mountain Kingdoms (01453 844400; mountainkingdoms.com), including accommodation and meals. Not including flights from UK. Departures in January, February and March 2018.
17. Georgia foodie tour
Discover the hidden secrets of this overlooked but fascinating country, poised at the cusp of Europe and Asia but still to this day, unspoilt by tourism. Defined by the rugged Caucasus mountain range and its lively bohemian capital, Tbilisi, this 10-day tour is perfect for foodies – Georgian cuisine is famous and its supras (traditional feasts) can last for days. Wine connoisseurs will also appreciate Georgia’s status as the birthplace of viticulture – the science of grapes.
From £3,700 for a Culture in the High Caucasus tour from Original Travel (020 7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk), which includes all flights, transfers, local transport, accommodation and meals. Departs May 28.
18. Chile road trip
Chile’s Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) is one of the world’s most iconic road trips. Completed in the early Eighties, this 770-mile (1,239-km)route is an impressive work of road-building that has opened up this formerly impenetrable region of fjords, glaciers and rivers. Hiring a self-drive four-by-four is possibly the finest way to explore this stretch of South American wilderness, allowing you to wind your way as you please through Chile’s stunning lake district and its ancient forests with picture-perfect volcanoes in the distance.
With plenty of gravel back roads and remote settlements to investigate, you will emerge after two weeks dusty and delirious with the pioneer spirit.
From £3,232 for a 14-day Carretera Austral self-drive tour from Journey Latin America (020 3131 7959; journeylatinamerica.co.uk), which includes accommodation. Flights from the UK not included.
19. Skiing in Iran
Founded by Shirin Shabestari, a British-Iranian mountaineer based in London, Persian Pursuits began leading adventurous hikers up Mount Damavand, the highest peak in the Middle East. They have since expanded into specialised cultural tours of Iran and their latest addition is this cross-country ski-tour, taking you deep into the stunning Alborz Mountain range. Led by one of Iran’s top skiers, you are supported by a four-by-four with your own chef who will make sure you end each day dining on the finest Persian cuisine among some of the wildest mountain scenery in the world.
From £2,600 for a Iran Ski Tour from Persian Pursuits (07882 929786; persianpursuits.com), including accommodation, meals and a day of sightseeing in Tehran. Flights and insurance not included. Departures in April 2018 (exact dates to be confirmed).
20. A walking tour of the West Bank
The adventurer, author and National Geographic filmmaker Leon McCarron recently walked 1,000 miles (1,609km) through the Middle East. This two-week walking tour of The Masar, an ancient trail through the West Bank, will be the most memorable hike of your life. Home stays are the order of the day; expect to traverse rocky mountains, desert gorges and the oldest inhabited cities on earth.
Walk The Masar with Leon McCarron: Edge Expeditions (edge-expeditions.com). From £2,900, including accommodation, meals and transfers. Flights not included. Departs October 22.
I don’t actually think of myself as a geek. In fact, I think of myself as the exact opposite. I’ve run rapids, climbed mountains, cycled coast-to-coast across America and ridden a horse across the Andes. I’ve even been charged by a lion in the African bush and lived to tell the tale.
But there’s definitely a part of me that revels in geekism. I like to learn, I like to understand, I like detail. When I go for a walk somewhere I’ve never been before, I like to interpret the contour lines on an OS map so I can read the lie of the land before I get there. When I’m in Rome – both literally and metaphorically – I like to do what the Romans do. And I like to do it properly.
Like many other keen solo travellers, I also enjoy acquiring new knowledge and learning new skills in the context of other cultures. Sometimes, it’s true, this means taking yourself outside your comfort zone. But it doesn’t last long and the upside is not only new knowledge but also the possibility (no, inevitability) of making new friends with whom, by definition, you already share an interest.
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Over the years I’ve made some enduring friends from learning tracking skills in the African bush, taking Spanish lessons in Colombia, and, most memorably, learning the basics of biodynamic agriculture on a WWOOFing experience in Australia. The latter organisation – it stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms – gives volunteers hands-on experience on organic farms, gardens and smallholdings around the world.
In recent years, many travel operators have responded to this trend for combining a holiday with learning something new, and now offer packages led by experts in their field from photographers and filmmakers to chefs and painters, as well as wildlife and survival gurus.
The range of options is huge, but here’s our pick of some of the best.
21. Salsa in Cuba
A dance holiday based in Santiago de Cuba, the home of traditional Cuban music and dance. The trip includes 30 hours of intensive dance tuition over two weeks, and everyone is partnered with their own professional dance tutor. There are also accompanied nights out to a wide range of music clubs and dance venues, from the world famous Casa de la Trova in the city centre to small local clubs in other neighbourhoods. Santiago, on the south-east coast of Cuba, has a unique cultural heritage and a relaxed, tropical atmosphere.
From £1,475, including homestay BB accommodation and dance tuition, but exclusive of flights. Responsible Travel (01273 823700; responsibletravel.com).
22. Survival skills in the African bush
EcoTraining has been teaching professional bush guides for nearly 25 years but now offers seven, 14 and 28-day courses where you will learn far more than on a traditional safari and at a fraction of the cost. Its tracking courses (held in both Botswana and South Africa) will teach you about track and sign identification, trailing and the survival techniques of different animal species. The courses are mostly led by expert Shangaan trackers and all are certified by the acclaimed Tracker Academy.
From £915 (seven days) and £1,620 (14 days) with tented accommodation and all meals. Departures February, March, June, July and August 2018. EcoTraining (0027 13752 2532; ecotraining.co.za).
23. Learn to dive in Zanzibar
The cold, dark seas of the UK don’t have quite the allure of white-sand beaches and a tropical sun when it comes to learning to dive. Matemwe Lodge is on the north-eastern coast of Zanzibar’s main island adjacent to the Mnemba Atoll (pictured below). The latter has the reputation of offering the finest diving in Zanzibar. You’ll spend your days completing the Professional Association of Diving Instructors’ expert training modules, while in the evening there are all the attractions of Stone Town (Freddie Mercury’s birthplace) and the rest of Zanzibar to explore.
From £2,200 for seven nights at Matemwe Lodge, Zanzibar, full board in low season excluding flights. Includes a PADI open water course with Scubafish (scubafishzanzibar.com). Asilia Africa (00 27 21 418 0468; asiliaafrica.com).
24. Volunteer on a farm or garden around the world
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), has spent more than 45 years giving volunteers hands-on experience on organic farms, gardens and smallholdings around the world – all offering food, accommodation and learning in exchange for practical help on the land. In the UK, there are more than 600 hosts all offering unique experiences. One example is Postlip Hall, a community of eight families living in a large Jacobean manor house in Gloucestershire, who welcome WWOOFers for a weekend once a month.
25. Wilfred Owen commemoration
As the centenary of the 1918 Armistice approaches, so does the anniversary of the death of the poet Wilfred Owen – just a week before the end of the war. This is a unique opportunity to learn about Owen’s poems and those of many other First World War poets. Led by Andrew Spooner, the historian who devised the tour, you will be accompanied by an actor who reads the poems, sometimes at the sites where they were composed and sometimes at the scene of the poet’s grave, death or disappearance.
From £1,430 including three-star accommodation, all meals and coach travel from London. Departs September 7-10. Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; martinrandall.com).