Do you have post-holiday letdown or New Year’s Eve dread? Do you feel deflated — like a Christmas yard decoration lying in a heap upon the ground?
There’s a way to flip your mood, stretch yourself like a starfish, and feel happy as a clam. Ok, cliches aside…
Even if you’re not a beach person, celebrating the new year on the southwest coast of the Sunshine State has many benefits. Booking a stay in Fort Myers, Florida, “The City of Palms,” is a really great plan.
If you’ve joined my two-year expedition down the southwestern coast of Florida, you know that I’ve fallen in love with this area of the state. Here I’ve found the white sand and clear aquamarine waters that I played in as a child on the Panhandle’s Emerald Coast. But I’ve also found educational, historical, and cultural treasures. I’ve felt welcome in a community that still marvels at manatees and dolphins and salutes sunsets with bagpipes, conch shells, and guitars.
If wellness is a goal for the new year, multiple studies have shown that merely planning travel gives our mood an instant boost. Amy Blankson, author of The Future of Happiness and authority on health and wellness in the digital era, explains in Psychology Today:
The anticipation and sense of hopefulness for better times can keep us motivated and excited for the delayed gratification of a getaway. This ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ often has a long-term mood-boosting effect and can help us relax as it puts us in the mind frame of a more soothing future.
And about that light…
Sunlight provides Vitamin D and releases higher levels of serotonin which lowers anxiety while elevating mood, focus, sleep, and immunity. (I can attest to the power of perpetually sunny skies. While living in Marrakesh, Morocco, I felt happier and had more energy year-round.)
Travel is also a way to reconnect with people we love as we create shared memories of precious moments. Solo travel provides opportunities to reconnect with ourselves and Creator as we discover (or remember) our passions and purpose. It can also push us to make new friends.
A getaway provides escape into a new world where we can try on another life, explore, learn. It provides not only adventure but also perspective. Miles create distance from our problems, sadness, or stress. We can rest, recover, rethink, and reset when we see the Big Picture. Sometimes this means rising above obstacles and changing our focus literally. I’ll never forget the beauty I saw and gratitude I felt looking down from a balcony on a Spanish hillside or out from ramparts on the African coast. Morocco taught me the gift of rooftops whether places to gather or to be alone. I started 2021 by looking down on the lights of Sarasota from a rooftop New Year’s Eve party at Art Ovation Hotel. I ended it by looking down on Fort Myers from Beacon, the appropriately named rooftop of the luxurious Luminary, another hotel in the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International. (No surprise that their 2022 Rooftop NYE Party quickly sold out, but you can still see fireworks and the Ball Drop at the New Year’s Eve Downtown Countdown. )
Finds in The Franklin Shops on Main Street, Fort Myers, reminded me that travel inspires us to…
Why Fort Myers?
If you like winters with sunny skies and 70 degree temperatures… a walkable downtown with eclectic shopping and dining outdoors on rooftops, by the river, or along a red-bricked Main Street… art galleries, live music, museums, theatre, symphony, opera, or ballet… Spanish Floridian, Art Deco, or Modern architecture… inspiring and beautiful places like the Edison & Ford Winter Estates, … then this is your place. Seriously, the downtown area is one of the prettiest I have seen.
Other Reasons to Choose Fort Myers for a Getaway
Approximately 20 miles from downtown Fort Myers are Fort Myers Beach located on Estero Island, Sanibel Island, and Captiva Island with world-famous shelling, wildlife preserves, and an “Old Florida” feel. And if you’re up for a vast adventure, The Everglades, an UNESCO World Heritage site, is only two hours away.
Fort Myers Beach Photo Courtesy of Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
Attractions for All Kinds of Travelers in All Seasons
In 2021, MSN, Travel & Leisure, HGTV, Fodor’s Travel, Fishing Booker, Country Living, U. S. News & World Report, Yahoo Life, Coastal Living named Fort Myers, Sanibel, and Captiva as top getaways for many reasons, such as uncrowded family-friendly beaches and outdoor spaces, tropical beauty, charm, island living, wildlife, shelling, fishing spots, and other hidden treasures. And I can vouch for its allure for couple, family, friend, or solo getaways because I’ve experienced all of them there myself.
Located In the historic Downtown River District on the Caloosahatchee River, the AAA Four Diamond luxury property — the first in the area of the Autograph Collection® of Marriott International — first lit up the waterfront and city in late 2020. The hotel, decor, and restaurants are named for visionaries and innovators (such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford whose winter estates are within walking distance) who converted Fort Myers from a cattle town to a historical, cultural center. Today snowbirds, locals, and tourists flock to the 12th floor rooftop bar nightly to do what’s customary in these parts, watch legendary sundowns with a drink or meal. My room was perfect. I felt like Kate Winslet in The Holiday when she raised some fancy window shades with a remote, read in bed, and took a dip in the pool below. The shower/bathroom was the largest I’ve seen in a hotel suite and the branding throughout was very Gatsby.
Sincere thanks to The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel, Luminary Hotel, the Edison and Ford Winter Estates, for your hospitality. You fed my mind, body, and soul with art, beauty, random roaming, and coral skies of hope.
Feedspot is a content reader that simplifies life by combining websites and blogs you follow into one space. They also match brands with 100k influential Bloggers in over 1500 niche categories for marketing.
I’m honored and humbled to be listed with bloggers I admire for their adventurous spirits, humor, and commitment to inspiring and equipping those planning to travel or live abroad. Just a few mentions from the list…
Your heart knows the way. Run in that Direction.–Rumi
Write what should not be forgotten.–Isabel Allende
Travel to have more to remember.–Cindy McCain
Have you vowed that writing will be a priority in the new year? Do you have travel tales you would like to tell? Are you ready to make new memories and create the ultimate souvenir–remembrance–of a time and place you never want to forget?
Whether you are just starting to write or a pro honing your craft…wanting to journal your journey in a an exotic land or transport others with a travel narrative piece… this writing retreat is for you.
Though I’ve journeyed across 27 countries, nowhere like magical Morocco provides me with as much rest, adventure, and inspiration. While living there 2014-16, I fell in love with diverse landscapes, rich cultural experiences, and wonderful people. I returned Summer 2018 to some of my favorite writing spaces to prepare this retreat to share them with you. I hope you’ll join me for a Beauty Break for the Soul.
Journaling beside mosaic courtyard fountains, writing in the salon and outdoor terraces of a private riad, and reading your work on the rooftop overlooking the medina.
Truly, Morocco has been a creative hub for generations of artists, each meeting his or her respective Muse there. Edith Wharton, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles… Josephine Baker, Jimi Hendrix, Cat Stevens … Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, George Lucas. Here Laurence of Arabia, Indiana Jones, Gladiator, and Game of Thrones came to life. Teaching, writing, and wandering there, my life felt epic, too.
Join me in Morocco for my favorite local experiences from the Atlas Mountains to Marrakesh to the African coast. Choose what your soul needs:
photo walks with a community of explorers
prompts for journaling your journey
beautiful spaces to recharge, relax, reflect, create on your own
study of the craft of travel writing, analyzing works of master storytellers inspired by Morocco who infused elements of journalism, personal essay, narrative, and poetic prose.
workshop and instructor feedback
a rooftop/salon reading
5 Sessions: Craft/Prompts/Workshop with Feedback
One-On-One Session with Instructor
Rooftop or Salon Reading of Your Work on Final Night of Retreat
7 Nights in Private Suites (5 in Marrakech in Private Riad and 2 in Essaouira
Private Transportation to Essaouira and Berber home near Toubkal, largest mountain in northern Africa, for mule trek, class, and lunch on terrace
4 Dinners (one in the former palace of “Lord of the Atlas,” Pasha of Marrakech from 1912-1956)
Spots are limited. Contact me at email@example.com to reserve a place or ask questions.
Not Included in Package/Paid by Participant:
Proof of Travel Insurance
4 Lunches, 4 Dinners, Tours/Activities during Free Time
Local hotel tourist tax collected by riad and villa
*Signifies lunches and dinners not included in package price
Arrive in Marrakech by Noon
Transport to Private Riad/Welcome with Moroccan Tea and Pastries
Lunch together at Amal Women’s Center
Neighborhood walk (We are located near some of the best spas, shops, and restaurants in the Medina.)
Dinner Together at Riad
Breakfast at Riad
Guided Medina Tour/Photo Walk
Lunch Together at my Favorite Rooftop Lunch Spot near Koutoubia Mosque and Jemma el Fna Square
Dinner in the Former Palace of the “Lord of the Atlas”
Resort Pool Day with Lunch—Palais Namaskar or La Maison Arabe Cooking School/Country Club
*Dinner on own (May be ordered at our riad for 20 Euros. Many other options including fresh produce, local bakeries, groceries, mall food court, and restaurants/cafes at all price points. Next to our riad is the iconic La Maison Arabe and its jazz bar.)
Private transfer to Berber Village near Toubkal, highest point in Atlas Mountains and Northern Africa. We’ll mule trek to a Berber home where lunch and class will be held on the terrace.
Medina and ramparts walk (*Lunch on your own—many cafes and fresh seafood served at port stalls)
Dinner on Rooftop above the Sea
*Lunch and *Dinner on Own
Return to Marrakesh
Free day to write or explore/*Lunch on Own
Suggestions: Shopping, Yoga, Hammam/massage, Pool Day (resort or near riad near Medina), Jardin Marjorelle. Contact me prior to trip if interested in volunteer opportunities in Marrakesh, such as Project SOAR or Mule and Donkey Rescue .
Dinner together at Riad—Salon or Rooftop Readings of Your Work
Transfer to Airport
About Your Instructor:
I live in Nashville, Tennessee where I’m a writer and have taught university writing and literature courses for thirteen years. I’ve led educational trips abroad for over two decades, and my Travel Tales course at The Porch, an independent writing center for adults, has been a best-seller. Please see my portfolio for links to freelance publications and Southern Girl Gone Global collaborations with travel brands and tourism boards. Southern Girl Gone Global was named a Top 50 Travel Blog of 2016 in the UK and has been featured by Yahoo! Travel, US News and World Report, Expedia and Orbitz.
When not on the road or in the classroom, I’m spending time with my grown kids, the loves of my life; dancing salsa with friends; storytelling about my travels ; and writing my No-Mom-Left-Behind memoir, Roses in the Desert. More of my story here.
Know someone who may be interested in joining? Please share this post and brochure below.
When I told US friends I was moving to The Dominican Republic, several said they’d vacationed there and loved it. Most, like many of my coworkers and school community, enjoyed seclusion at Punta Cana’s resorts where they received five-star treatment. I get it; I loved this stay at Barcelo Bavaro Grand Resort last fall. Perfection…or at least one version of it. But like my friend from home, Sara, who said she had wanted to see the “real DR,” I also understand why many local friends love the Samana area for adventure and authenticity. I especially like Las Terrenas because of its “mom and pop” properties–private apartments and beach bars I remember from my childhood summers in Florida.
I’ve always been fascinated with expats reinventing their lives in faraway places, like folks I met in Marrakesh like Aussie Alexandra featured on this blog who are doing just that. Likewise, Samana has enticed many from North America and Europe to move to the Caribbean.
Something pulls people here–even if just for a weekend. Anyone who travels regularly from Santo Domingo knows the thrill of coming around this curve, parking on the roadside lookout point, and thinking I’ve arrived. Paradise pops in Renoir-rich blue and green until sunset softens the sky with Monet-muted purples and pinks. This place definitely leaves an impression.
Riding through the province of Samana is also colorful. Mountain homes teeter on cliffs and balance above deep ditches while motorcycles and cars careen around curves.
Last January I loved the villa where my friends were married and vowed to stay in such a place near the hub of town on my next trip. I had instead chosen an all- inclusive in El Portillo because I’d snagged a Daily Deal on Booking.com. I looked forward to pondering possibilities for the new year and not having to decide where to eat or what to cook sounded relaxing.
I left Nashville on a redeye flight after the holidays, had a layover in Miami, then a three-hour bus ride from the Santo Domingo airport. Seventeen hours later, I was excited to finally drop my bag in the room and head for the fridge. I’d planned to grab a beer, order room service, and take a hot bath in the Jacuzzi, but the fridge was empty, room service was not included, and the bath jets were dead. When I went to the terrace to regroup before making the trek back to the front desk, the sliding glass door’s lock fell to the floor. Two days and multiple hikes to the front desk later, I was moved to a room where everything but the safe worked. It was fixed a day later. But on the very bright side–where I like to focus–the weather was perfect, and I loved dancing/exercising at the pool with fun instructors, great music, and guests from Europe. Hearing French, German, Italian, and Spanish on the beach was sweet as was eating every meal on the water, Brazilian steak night, the Crème brûlée, and the French man who sang while couples danced in the dark (see video at bottom).
My next trip to Las Terrenas was in mid-March and amazing. Thanks to Sana we had a private villa, Casa Anna, with a pool she found on AirBnB; Italian owners, Allesandra and her husband , greeted us when we arrived. The perfect location, it is in a quiet neighbourhood just a five minute walk to the fisherman’s village, Pueblo de Los Pescadores, the town’s pulse where locals, expats, and tourists shoot pool, watch games, listen to live music, eat, drink and are merry. We started the weekend with dinner there; I had a whole fried fish and a mojito as lights blinked along the shore like fireflies and water lapped the shore near our feet.
The next morning we had coffee with the hummingbirds on the bungalow’s covered porch, then went looking for an American-sized breakfast on the beach. We found it at One Love Surf Shack. Owners, Barry and Chef Kari, served bacon, eggs, toast, and rosemary potatoes (delicious). Barry joked if we were looking for granola and yogurt we’d come to the wrong place. I enjoyed every bite but was too full to join the three generations of ladies doing Zumba on the beach beside us. Barry said to come back for Happy Hour, their signature burgers, and open mic night.
The Canadian couple scouted locations around the world to open their restaurant: Mexico, Ecuador, Galapagos Islands, France, Thailand, Panama, England, Indonesia, Costa Rica, Malaysia, Singapore, and Hawaii. Why did they choose the DR?
“Health care, title to own the property, exchange rates, tax treaties (getting their retirement money from Canada), basic amenities and infrastructure as opposed to ‘nice to have’ things which we placed on the bottom of the list. We tried to stay away from the ‘la-la’ happy things and focus on daily reality basic fundamentals when making our decision.”
It seems they made a great call… maybe even got it all… judging from the jovial crowd of back-slapping regulars reminiscent of buds who gathered every night at the bar Cheers. We watched the US play the DR in baseball. There was a whole lot of happy going on.
I’ll be leaving the island in June but will maybe return one day with a dance partner like these guys at El Portillo. Sana says she’d like to stay here with Steve and sell coconuts on the beach. No doubt business in Las Terennas will be booming.
Spring break may be in April this year in The Dominican Republic, but spring flings have been happening here for awhile. Every January-March humpback whales go rogue—migrating to Samana from Greenland and Iceland over 3000 miles away. Dr. Ken De Pree, author of Whales of Samana, likens their mating behavior in Dominican waters of Samana Bay, Silver and Navidad Banks to humans cruising singles bars. To attract the ladies, males croon tunes, form bromances to size up the competition, then brawl-it- out with up to nineteen rivals for the most fertile female. Breaching, tail slashing, body slamming each other– sometimes even drawing blood–there’s a whole lot of shakin’ goin’ on. Pregnant moms then carry calves for eleven-twelve months, give birth, and nurse another eleven months until their babies are strong enough to make the journey back to the North Atlantic.
Whale watching ranked top of my DR Bucket List since moving here in 2016. Thanks to my friend, Sana, who booked Kim Beddall, an English- speaking Marine Mammal Specialist with Whale Samana, and her husband, Steve, who booked a car to get us there, we set sail last Sunday on Pura Mia, a 55- foot custom whale watching vessel. We loved returning to beautiful Samana Bay.
Since humpbacks are the most active species of whales anytime, knowing our boat would be a bit bigger than creatures that average 40-50 feet and weigh 30-40 tons (the record is 59 feet and 60 tons) was reassuring. Even so, the traffic of an estimated 1500 whales—400 that congregate at one time in rough waters in Samana Bay– made for some rocking and rolling on the waves. The tour company offers Dramamine, but most, like me, who had never been seasick didn’t take it. A rookie mistake. Thankfully pressure point bracelets, Sprite, and crackers helped as an hour in many of us were turning green.
The company offers the next trip free should no whales be spotted, but we, thankfully, hit the motherlode—a 45- foot mom and her 15-foot baby girl that rolled and flailed right beside our boat. Mama Crochet, a regular to these parts named for her lace-like markings, shared her offspring (below) with us up close and personal for much longer than is usual.
Humpbacks are in the family of great whales and are named and catalogued by the unique patterns on their tails, or “flukes,” which power them through the water. These tail markings, like human fingerprints, are one-of-a-kind.
Their heads resemble those of alligators, making them seem prehistoric (the DR was scouted by Spielberg for Jurassic Park after all) as they peer at strangers with their eyes just above the water.
They have grapefruit-sized bumps, two blowholes, and an accordian-like gullet, chest, and stomach. Though they can stay underwater forty minutes, they never fully sleep, but take turns resting each side of the brain to avoid drowning. They have a dorsal fin as keel and body heat regulator. Their flippers are approximately one-third of their body length and their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae means “big wing from New England,” the place where they were first academically described, though there are drawings of them on caves in the DR by aboriginal inhabitants predating Columbus.
Mothers of newborn whales don’t stop moving but tow their calves in their slipstream because babies do not have enough fat or blubber to float and could sink and drown. Also, until they are ready to swim well, they could be attacked. When strong enough to travel north, the mom has to fight off Orcas. Collisions with cruise ships are sadly too common and should mom die in the first year of a calf’s life, baby will die too because it is still nursing, consuming fifty gallons of milk per day. Adult whales do not eat while in the Caribbean but live off their fat until they migrate home. Their daily diet–1.5 tons of fish and shrimp-like crustaceans during feeding season—is the equivalent of 12,000 MacDonald hamburgers. It takes energy to carry 1,000 pounds of barnacles—enough to fill a pickup truck—on their bodies.
I highly recommend Whale Samana. They observe safety regulations and $3 of the fee ($59 adults/$30 children under 12) goes to the Marine Mammal Sanctuary.
We spied two adult males and tried to catch up with them, but they stubbornly dove deep and reappeared ten-twenty minutes later in different directions farther away.
We were serenaded by a male’s song by way of a recording played on the ship. Only males sing and can hear each other twenty miles away. Jacques Costeau called them the “Carusos of the Deep.” Prior to 1952 when the first scientist captured their song on tape, sailors and whalers were spooked by haunting sounds from beneath their ships. Though that mystery was solved, there are still many unknowns about humpbacks and what lies beneath.
Sources: Whales of Samana by author Ken De Pree, PhD, who has studied humpbacks near Samana since 1987, and contributors Osvaldo Vasquez, a leader among Dominican scientists in the study of humpbacks and Kim Beddell, founder of whale watching in Samana Bay in 1984-85. Also special thanks to Kim Beddell for amazing information given at sea.
Though I am writing this on a Dominican Republic beach a couple of hours from Santo Domingo where I’ll return to work on Tuesday, I’m reliving the mountain escape I had while home for the holidays. I’m sorry I missed the snow in Tennessee that arrived just after I flew back to the Caribbean on Wednesday, but I am glad my son and I had clear roads for a trip to the Smoky Mountains while I was there. Cole moved to Knoxville last summer and with each visit I understand more why he likes the city where he chose to work. Nashville’s growth spurt since I’ve been gone has frustrated natives and longtime transplants with the high rise apartments and traffic chaos that came with it. Knoxville feels much like Nashville did before the boom and with the bonus of Gatlinburg one hour away and The Biltmore two (which we plan to see next summer when the gardens are in bloom), it’s a great destination for more than Vols fans.
Tennessee is a hiking and wildlife lover’s paradise. My first morning there while drinking coffee and looking out my son’s sliding doors I saw the usual–a cardinal, squirrels chasing each other–and then something moving in the brush behind his apartment that looked like a bobcat but larger. Then there were two of them. I grabbed my camera to zoom in and started snapping; while focusing and scanning the second creature disappeared.
Whether they were both coyotes (a growing problem in suburban Nashville as well), coywolves or one was a deer that took off like the roadrunner I am not sure, but one of these guys stayed and stared me down. The sighting seemed another sign that 2017 will be full of surprises.
Thrilled to be home for the holidays for the first time in two years, I had wanted to rent a cabin in the Smokies for our family, but with the recent fires we weren’t sure how much of the area had been destroyed and which roads would be closed. Instead we drove to Cade’s Cove and stopped for lunch at Applewood Farmhouse Restaurant, a hot spot for locals and tourists. We saw no fire damage and given the line of cars, neon lights, and ticket sales the Pigeon Forge “strip” was still going strong.
The good news about southern food is the comfort. The better news is there are gorgeous opportunities to hike it off. Living two years in the desert and the last six months in the tropics, I had so missed journeys amidst farmhouses hidden in hills; cows and horses in fields; and cold, crisp air on moss-covered banks beside mountain streams. My questions about the future, usually rushing like water over rocks, are hushed and stilled by a winter forest.
Later in the week Taylor drove up and joined us for some amazing Italian food and a day in downtown Knoxville at Market Square. I highly recommend Altruda’s for an authentic, family-owned atmosphere and The French Market for a quick trip to Paris.
As we took a shortcut to our car, we happened upon an alley of street art. Again, it seems, technicolor surprises are just around the corner this year.
We saw Arrival, nominated for 2 Golden Globes. Cole had already seen it and thought I’d like it. He was right. Among other vital truths, it stresses that we can’t survive without communication and global collaboration.
As I felt when the holidays were over with my children in London and as most moms feel when the world goes back to work and “reality,” (and though I am forever grateful for the beauty and adventure of the time spent abroad), nothing brings me joy like relationship. Translated: quality time spent with my kids/family. I loved Marrakesh, but it was too far from them. The Dominican Republic, though many hours closer, is as well. They are grown and have lives of their own, but my heart longs to see them more often. We are bonded across miles by blood and years, vacation times spent together, technology and our love for one another. And we’ve learned, or at least I have, that home is what we are to each other–not one place. Good to know since Taylor is in Nashville and Cole is in Knoxville now. (Likewise, my sis is in Nashville but mom is in Kentucky.) And though I’ve learned “home” is wherever I am at peace with God, as a southerner I feel tied to place, to roots, to people–my people–my kids, family, and closest friends. And so my journey back has begun. I look forward this year to following the path God charts to my dream destination.
I understand now why local friends kept saying they love vacationing in Samana. While Punta Cana on the easternmost tip of The Dominican Republic is better known by tourists for mammoth all-inclusive resorts, Samana on the north shore is more a Mom and Pop kind of place–pristine and private. The beach above, Caylo Levanto, is perfection– an isle off the main island in Samana Bay.
Griselda (left) whose family is from the DR arranged the weekend for Sana, Steve, and me. She said we wouldn’t believe how beautiful Samana province/peninsula is. She was right. Our van took off at 7 AM Saturday and by midmorning we were on a boat headed for paradise.
The afternoon I saddled up with my three amigos– all Jersey boys and girls–and we headed to Salto Limon. The ride was hot and rocky as the horses climbed up and down mountains through forests scented with coffee beans, coconuts, cacoa and pineapples.
The water was so cold it took our breath…but not as much as what we saw next…
Knowing all came up safely, I can now exhale looking at these photos, relax and relate. The last 2+ years have felt like diving headfirst–or on less scary or exciting days–plunging feetfirst into a life far from my comfort zone. I knew it was something I needed to do and though I’ve been lonely at times, God has never left me alone. I’ve felt my life is a cliffhanger for awhile now because I am not sure what’s next. But one thing is for sure. Wherever I land after this adventure, I’ll never forget these moments that have left me feeling very, very alive.
Long before Pinterest prodded us to create virtual vision boards, Instagram insisted we share in-the-moment bliss, and Facebook fostered travel posts of happy places far, far away, I cut out and saved a magazine photo of a couple walking in the surf of the Caribbean Sea. I was single again, sad, but looked forward to a day I’d be that girl, her cocktail dress blowing in the breeze, as she laughed and leaned into her guy’s shoulder, one arm wrapped around his, the other hand holding a champagne flute. I longed to share such a celebratory moment in paradise… one day (sigh)… with The One who was meant to be—whoever, wherever he was.
Though I still wait in hope to meet him, I have learned to cherish the many people with whom THE One, God, has blessed my life. And over the last twenty years, I stopped waiting to be in a romantic relationship to see the world or show it to my children. Money I have spent on traveling with my family, friends, and students strengthened relationships, made priceless memories, and taught us all something. Likewise, I’ve learned to appreciate solo travel which has given me confidence, courage, and peace I never thought possible. A mentor told me years ago that giving ourselves what we need models self-care to our children and is healthier than waiting for someone else to fulfill us. Travel rejuvenates and like a class taken to improve mind, body, or spirit, it’s an investment in personal growth which positively impacts us and those around us. Yet, though I’d traveled from Moscow to Morocco to Malibu and now live in the Caribbean in Santo Domingo, something inside kept saving the fantasy island resort experience for a hoped-for honeymoon. Until recently…
Though Punta Cana is known for love connections– the 2014 season of The Bachelorette was filmed here– and this 5-star mega-complex in The Dominican Republic is popular for weddings, family vacations,
and bachelorette/bachelor getaways,
the Caribbean haven cradles single women travellers with comfort. For those of us with grown children on their own journeys, going solo can provide rejuvenation and even reinvention as we navigate this new season of life.
I was impressed by the 85-year history of the Barcelo Group, a family company founded by Simón Barceló in Felanitx (Mallorca, Spain) and later expanded internationally. After scanning The Dominican Republic by helicopter, owners chose Punta Cana–a then deserted stretch of beautiful jungle and beach. Because they bought wide rather than deep as many property owners have since, this resort stretches two kilometres along Bavaro Beach rather than behind a small oceanfront area. The company’s hotel division now has over 100 hotels in 19 countries and its travel division has 685 travel agencies in 22 countries. These figures position it as the third largest hotel chain in Spain, and the forty-second largest in the world.
2) REST AND REVIVE.
Choosing an all-inclusive resort is the best way to rest before and during your stay since everything–where to eat, drink, swim, sunbathe, shop, be entertained, be active, and find transport–is provided. While I enjoy researching and plotting my own travel adventures from restaurants to excursions, planning takes energy and time. For those worn out from home/work responsibilities and constantly making grown up decisions, going with the flow of resorts that offer everything from a bowling alley to a soccer field
to a casino
to live entertainment can be freeing. For those flying into the Punta Cana airport, transfer service to the resort can be arranged as can car rental. Currency exchange is available and stores carry items you may have forgotten, like sunscreen. Upon arrival at reception, get a map to see the lay of the land, and if not interested in the buffet, make reservations for some restaurants which require them and any special services–such as spa or tee times (though you can call from your room to set these up later). I traveled less than three hours from Santo Domingo but was tired and upon checkin rested awhile, then showered before dinner.
Realize as the New Kid at Camp (seriously, the Barcelo complex feels like an amusement park/pleasure palace for adults), it’s normal to feel excited but also strange not having friends or family there to share the experience. A trip to the spa and Wellness Center with use of the private pool outside thanks to Premium Level (this upgrade also provides free internet and personal service in the Premium Level Lounge which serves food and champagne and early and late check-in/check-out when available),
Photos of me by Patirica Fuentes, Community Manager, Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort
a dip in one of the oceanfront pools,
an iced chocolate cappuccino in the coffee/cigar bar,
or room service, minibar, (courtesy of the Premium Club Suites)
and a movie –whatever you need to unwind–will help you relax, recharge and relish your evening and stay ahead.
3) BREATHE AND DWELL IN POSSIBILITY.
Before dinner at the seafood restaurant where I had lobster on the terrace (the Sante Fe Steak House also has seaside dining), I walked barefoot on sugar sand inhaling the sea air. I breathed…exhaled… under a full harvest moon. What would I reap on this trip? As always, I felt warm knowing those I loved to the moon and back were looking up, too. I thought of Van Morrison, Emily Dickinson, and the Creator of the most gorgeous clouds I’d ever seen. Truly, it was a soothing, surreal, “marvellous night for a moon dance,” a time to “dwell in possibility…the spreading wide (of) my narrow Hands To gather Paradise.”
4) EAT, DRINK, AND BE MERRY.
An all-inclusive (see under “Other Important Services”) vacation is NOT where we count calories. Healthy choices are always available, but dieting? No way. And since we first eat with our eyes… the ambience of open air tables set amidst lagoons, lakes, and gardens makes every meal a feast.
I slept later than usual thanks to the blackout curtains, had coffee on my patio where I was visited by a Moorhen, nicknamed the Chicken-foot Coot because its feet aren’t webbed and it steps high like a hen. Rested, I was ready to step out, too, so I headed to the nearest restaurant just around the corner for something I rarely get–a Southern-sized breakfast. The night before PGA golfers (The Dominican Republic is known for the best golfing in the Caribbean) gathered in the foyer bar –champagne, cocktails, beer and bachata music flowing. Now hushed except for the tin, hollow sound of clubs hitting golf balls, the course and sky met as a blue-and-green canvas for a new day.
From Dominican fare to all-you-can-eat buffets to a Buffett-worthy Cheeseburger in Paradise, culinary and beverage choices abound. My finest meal was at the French restaurant recommended by the concierge upon my arrival. I had to book for my second night because it was booked the night I arrived.
5) LET YOUR INNER CHILD PLAY.
Remember when you were little and you weren’t afraid to explore, concerned about “getting it right” or impressing others? An all-inclusive where you don’t know a soul allows you to follow Eleanor Roosevelt’s advice: “Do one thing everyday that scares you.” Of course, do what you love. For me, this was dancing bachata on the beach (Romeo Santos had recently done a concert in Punta Cana). Golf, tennis, volleyball, soccer, walking, swimming –do what makes you happy– but leave room to discover a new passion.
Maybe learning to like alone time is what you need. Or maybe starting a conversation to make new friends and not just because paddle boats take teamwork.
And I finally tried kayaking. It was fun.
So was meeting Harry Lee and Livvy Turner, Brits below who had just arrived. They were in the Caribbean for the first time and were looking forward to ten days of bliss. Harry said they weren’t leaving the property, that he was exhausted by city life. “I am a broken man,” he quipped, “but will return to London with more energy.”
6) LET YOUR INNER CHILD NAP.
Count ships, not sheep, under rustling palm leaves shading you from the sun. And if you can’t sleep, as my mother used to say, rest your eyes and your mind.
In Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert writes:
“Il bel far niente means ‘the beauty of doing nothing’… [it] has always been a cherished Italian ideal. The beauty of doing nothing is the goal of all your work, the final accomplishment for which you are most highly congratulated. The more exquisitely and delightfully you can do nothing, the higher your life’s achievement. ”
Last spring break I’d planned to practice this skill on The Amalfi Coast. Of course, I planned to write and photograph Positano, but that isn’t work to me. Circumstances prevented that trip, but I’m trying to learn the same lesson in the DR. This weekend was a wonderful teacher.
7) LOOK BACK IN GRATITUDE.
Recall happy times in the past with thanksgiving. If I’ve learned one thing from many Dominicans it is to laugh and sing more.
Too often we’re too tired to remember what day it is, much less yesterday or yesteryear. As has happened a lot over the last two years of living abroad memories of family flood me. In Punta Cana I remembered other beach vacations with women who have strongly influenced my life. The summer in Hawaii with my mom, sister, cousin, and aunt. Another summer in Florida with Mom and her mother, Mama Sargeant–single women for many years like me. I toasted to them with a Pina Colada, the drink my grandmother enjoyed when she became ill and mom moved in with her until she passed. I thought of a month earlier when my daughter, Taylor, and I enjoyed another DR beach together.
8) LOOK FORWARD IN HOPE.
As gentle waves lap the shore the clear, calm waters of the Caribbean invite reflection. Remembering happy times, even hard times, reminds us of all we’ve overcome to get to this place which strengthens us to face, even greet what lies ahead.
Scan the horizon knowing that good is coming. In studying Spanish I realized this week the roots for esperanza, hope, and esperar, to wait or to expect, are the same. Faith says to wait, to expect with hope.
What are you waiting for? Some things we can make happen. Others we can’t, so we must trust, wait, and watch. Traveling solo helps us figure out what we want and how, if in our power, to get it. What to hold onto. What to let go of. The beauty of this gorgeous globe gives us peace in knowing the One who created it can work all things together for good.
9) SEIZE THE DAY AS THE BEST SOUVENIR.
We must live in the moment. I agree we can take so many photos trying to capture special times that they truly escape us. Too much staging can kill just being, breathing the experience. And yes, people may laugh at your selfies, but deep down most of us want to remember times we recognize as special pieces of eternity. Even if you don’t typically like to have your photo taken, you will want to remember that you were once in a beautiful place and felt more beautiful for it. I promise. Just as a mom says if the house were on fire and all people and pets were out safely she’d grab baby photos first, one day you’ll want to see yourself in a Caribbean paradise where you grew, changed–even use the photos as your screen saver–so you don’t forget how important it was–it is–to get away and enjoy gifts of beauty and adventure you’ve been given.
While in Punta Cana I read an article in More magazine called, When Looks Fade: An Exercise in Perspective by Christine Lennon who interviewed “The Professionally Beautiful,” asking them how to age with grace. Molly Sims, author of The Everyday Supermodel said:
“It’s funny how I used to look at a picture when it was taken and think, Ugh, I look awful. You look at that same picture five years later, and you think, Dang. I looked pretty good.”
A friend in her 40s recently had professional photos taken to remember this time in her life. My mom did the same in her mid-30s. I get it. Even if you shy from the camera, the best souvenirs of any vacation are photos which capture living -in- the- now forever. At a Caribbean resort photo opps are everywhere and you’ll see many taking advantage of it. Don’t be shy. Help a solo traveling sister out. Ask if she’d like you to take her picture and ask her to take yours. Hotel staff will kindly oblige as well.
Whatever your age or style–girly girl, Bohemian Babe, or mermaid, wear something–maybe a new frock found in shops on the complex– that makes you smile. Though I brought a tropical dress with me–a TJMAXX special–I was thrilled to see new styles of two brands I fell in love with in Spain (Mele Beach in Tarife and Desigual in Vigo) sold at the Barcelo Punta Cana complex.
The beach is your runway. Get creative. Take the plunge. You’ll be glad you did.
10) TAKE A PEACE OF PARADISE HOME WITH YOU.
Peace. Going solo to a Caribbean resort will convince you of what research shows. Though too few people take enough time off, those who do vacation return rejuvenated and more productive. No matter the age. For some of us, the prime time to go solo seems to be when we are trying to survive, even thrive after the nest empties. We are “tweeners”and if we can’t take a gap year, a gap week works, too. Soon–assuming we stay in good health–we may be needed to care for parents and grandchildren. Doing all we can to stay fit–physically, mentally, spiritually–is vital for the ones we love.
We are as young as we feel. I loved seeing women my mom’s age doing Zumba in their bathing suits on the beach. And about those photos and the freedom on your face they will reflect…
Christie Brinkley, 62 year-old author of Timeless Beauty and former Sports Illustrated swimsuit model said, “Aging needs a huge rebranding campaign. People still think of 60 and picture a granny with a shawl and bun. We need to stop lying about our ages. Go ahead and say your number; then you’ll reshape other people’s images of that number.”
Likewise, when people ask in disbelief, You traveled to the Caribbean alone? say, Yes and smile. They may need to be freed, too.
Special thanks to Barceló Bávaro Grand Resort for an amazing experience. As always, the opinions here are my own.
Last Saturday I was home for my son’s graduation and my daughter’s birthday. We had lunch with family in the Tennessee hills and watched The Kentucky Derby, traditionally toasted with Mint Juleps.
This weekend I was back in Morocco where I had lunch with friends in the high Atlas Mountains and road mules to the Berber home where we were traditionally greeted with mint tea.
Last week I wished my dad could have seen his grandson graduate, and yesterday I wished he could have ridden with me in a land so rugged, so beautiful. Always interested in American Indian culture and nature, he would have appreciated the history of the Berbers, the indigenous people of the Atlas Mountains and Dades Valley—land like Colorado where he hunted and like Arizona where our favorite westerns were set. Seen from a saddle, the sweeping grandeur of Imlil made me feel like I was in a movie. No wonder. The village is where trekkers come to scale Jebel Toubkal, the highest peak in Northern Africa. Seven Years in Tibet was partially filmed here.
In Imlil, our host, Lahcen of Authentic Toubkal Lodge, met us with the muleteers at our car. He is a friend of Kate who had invited me to join her and her daughter, Amy, just arrived from Melbourne.
I’d been in a few Berber villages—one where I entered a rug shop, another a girl’s school, and a couple I’d trekked through with two other hikers, but this was my first private home visit. Just as medina walls can hide secret gardens, village houses made of mud and concrete– seemingly hard and dark–can shelter cozy retreats. Such was the case here. Up the stairs, past a formal salon, then down a decorative hall a door led to a paradise of pure light. From the comfortable, colorful terrace we saw snow-peaked mountains and heard the mosque’s call to prayer.
Full and happy, we rested before taking a tour of the house and the village. The rooms’ design details and thoughtful touches–plush blankets, slippers, custom showers and tile — as well as the food, view, and hospitality have earned the home top ratings on Trip Advisor and Airbnb. Though grateful, Lahcen says he doesn’t display awards to persuade customers. Instead he preserves the authenticity of the home where he grew up and is confident “guests will come– inshallah.” He adds that while “money comes and goes” what matters is offering people the best of nature and making them feel at home.
Whether wanting to explore Spain (and other countries’ roads that lead there), pursue a personal dream, ponder in peace, practice wellness through hiking or yoga, learn language, hear stories from travelers around the world, Spanish Steps leads the way in offering options. I fell in love with Spain last year, and experiencing that gorgeous country with Spanish Steps is now high on my Bucket List.
After hiking with Mònica Fernàndez, a talented Spanish and English teacher, through her native region of Galicia, in Southern Spain, and in the Sahara, I am excited to learn she will co-lead tours below with other dedicated members of Owner Judy Colaneri’s Spanish Steps staff including co-guiding with her husband, Alessandro Martinez, October 12-19.
All Camino tour dates in Spain, France, and Italy can be found here. Tours fill up fast so if interested take the step that leads to more here.