One recent morning, I opened Instagram, and up popped one friend with her husband in Barcelona, another friend with her husband in Iceland, and a third friend with her husband in Portugal. For context, that third one also just moved to Amsterdam after the couple spent nine months cavorting through Southeast Asia together. A year ago, the torrent of lovey-dovey selfies would've made me burn with envy-not because they're married and I remain in the online dating morass, but because these women have a buddy with whom to explore parts unknown.
A new survey from Intrepid Travel showed that only 40 percent of people feel comfortable traveling abroad solo, and I get it: The world really is set up for traveling duos. Hotel rooms start with queen-size beds, most organized tours charge a premium for solo travelers, and every damn deal on Travelzoo bases its per-person prices on double occupancy. Not to mention how nice it is to have a date to every meal, a plus-one to every cultural outing, and someone to help you navigate as Google Maps inexplicably decides that you just airlifted yourself off the freeway and chirps, "rerouting!" three times in five minutes. But something happened when I turned 30: I was single and there was so much of the world I wanted to see, I just said screw it, set aside more discretionary dollars, and began traveling with my own damn self.
And it RULES. There's no one at home I terribly miss or need to check in with. Every travel decision is entirely my own, and I wind up meeting so many more cool fellow travelers or locals when I'm not perpetually engrossed in conversation with someone I've been talking to near-constantly for years. I've hooked up with hot dudes in far corners of the world, and I finished my novel with my feet buried in Balinese sand. So many couples do all their traveling together, and no shade, but I can't believe I didn't figure this out sooner.
Don't believe me? Join me on but a few delicious moments from a recent solo trip to Hong Kong. Sure, I had periods of boredom and frustration and grouchiness sprinkled across my weeklong trip (who wouldn't?), but I also had the funnest, freeing-est few days in the company of...me.
Day 0: You know those couples on airplanes who make you switch seats so they can sit together, like they'll slowly begin to smolder and then combust if they're separated by more than a few feet for a few hours? They suck. I board my Cathay Pacific direct flight to Hong Kong (13 hours, baby!), slide on my headphones, and block out the world. Bonus: No one judges me when I keep ordering delicious Cloud Nines, the airline's specialty cocktail.
Day 1: I check in at the Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, where a welcome note, a box of pretty chocolates, and a few buttery cakes await. This is excellent news, as I love caloric things and dislike sharing. I sit in the window, taking in Hong Kong's most spectacular view (my room is on Floor 109, overlooking Victoria Harbour), and eat my treats one by one.
10 that night: It's late, but my confused circadian rhythm boomerangs around and I get an inconvenient second wind. I hate the idea of tossing and turning when I could be exploring (almost as much as I hate lying wide awake next to a blissfully passed-out partner), so I ask the concierge for ideas and wind up in a cab to Temple Square's night market, a blinky, blustery area with street food, well-dressed teenagers, and row after row of stalls selling tchotchkes and souvenirs. ("This stuff is all probably made in China," I think, eyeing seas of plastic crap, before remembering that makes it...local.)
I wander through, too jetlagged to trust myself to bargain in a foreign currency (just divide by seven!), and am about to hail a cab back when I spot an open-fronted, permanent store crammed with big gemstones, crystals, and spiritual-leaning antiques. I wander in and poke at some singing bowls, too shy to ask about prices. But the owners-a boisterous Indian man and a sweet, smiley Aussie who became friends in Ireland many moons ago-come jangling out from behind the counter to show me how to hold the bowl and wooden mallet, how to strike and then circle it to produce the resonant vibration. The duo brings big, 200-year-old singing bowls out from behind the counter, and soon we're playing those too.
My eyes light up at sparkly chunks of raw crystals, and patiently the owners tell me about the purported healing energies of tiger's eye, rose quartz, and agate. I spend a very long time sitting on the floor and sifting through bins of glittery baubles, staring hard to decide between one hunk of rock and another. (No boyfriend in the world would be patient enough to sit through this sorting process.) When I put a pile of chosen crystals on the counter, the Indian man shrugs and gives me a great deal. "The rocks are my children, so if I don't want to see them go I ask for much more," he tells me-perhaps a great salesman tactic, but one that made me smile. "I know you'll treat them well." I head back the first night clutching a bag of twinkly crystals.
Day 2: I lean into my tourist status and pony up for a day pass on the local Hop-On-Hop-Off bus tour. After all, the temperature is in the triple digits and air conditioning seems like my best bet for long forays to Hong Kong's fishing villages and seaside neighborhoods. There's only one open spot inside the bus, next to a grandma sitting across a little table from her grandkids, so while couples who board with me must tromp to the open roof deck for sun-blasted seats, I sidle in with the family and cheerily plug in my headphones for the audio tour.
Midday, I decide to depart from my red, double-decker chariot for lunch in Stanley Bay, a cool seaside town. The bus stop abuts a "lovers' patio" where countless couples before me have purchased little colorful tags, written both their initials, and affixed them to the terrace's fence-same idea as the "love locks" on Pont des Arts bridge in Paris. Briefly, I feel sorry for myself. Then I spot a McDonald's with unfamiliar food on the window decals and decide to go in; checking out weird regional variations in fast food is a hobby of mine. (Starbuckses in Taipei sell gelatinous tarts, and they are revolting.)
I order the cheesy champignon Angus burger and sit at a long communal table. The food is goddamn delicious. It tastes like a Shake Shack burger and mushroom stroganoff had a love-angel-music baby (with all due respect to Queen Gwen [prayer hands]). I consider returning to the lovers' patio to attach a tag for the champignon burger and me. Then an engineering student from Chicago sits down across from me and strikes up a conversation as I'm devouring my new love. He shares the interesting factoid that reclaimed land has narrowed Hong Kong's main waterway, speeding up the rushing river to the point where it grew dangerous for small boats. Fact: When you're by yourself, interesting strangers are much more likely to chat with you. (The same is true for creepy strangers, too, I suppose, but life is all about dualities.)
9:15 that night: It's a weird time to go to bed, but I'm tired and in control of all of the room's lights, so I call it and starfish in the middle of the king-size bed. Also, I do not shower even though I smell like fish market and sweat, because I personally don't find the smells repulsive, and I'm the only one with the good fortune of being in this feathery bed.
Day 3: I'm supposed to meet a friend - one who lives in Hong Kong now - for drinks, and I'm rushing around to shower off the day's layer of grime and book it to the SoHo neighborhood to meet her on time. My phone pings and I get an extremely apologetic message from her: She's stuck working late and can't escape for cocktails. I'm momentarily disappointed, and then incredibly relieved: I'm behind on my novel revise, anyway, and now I can have a leisurely dinner and drink as the sun sets over Hong Kong.
I grab my laptop and ride a special elevator up to Ozone, the highest open-air bar in the world (it's on the 118th floor!), where I order a fancy cocktail with a view. I relax and feel very Lost-in-Translation sexy (different city, fine) and get a shit-ton of work done. And guess what? I don't feel remotely bad about spending the evening in. Because it's just me, and I am spending my vacation exactly how I'd like.
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