This essay appeared in the January 2016 issue of Hemispheres Magazine. To read the digital article, click here.
I know what it’s like to vacation alone. I did the Norwegian fjords on my own, and Cairo, too. The first was depressing. I kept saying, “Oh! Look at that waterfall!” only to realize I was talking to myself. The second was dangerous. And, the truth is, I spend more than enough time in my own company. I work from home. I’m roommate-free. I go days without speaking to anyone but my cat.
No surprise, then, that my trips have often involved a longing for companionship, maybe in the form of a boyfriend—a Jude Law look-alike, maybe, or a David Beckham. I’m not fussy. This is not to say that traveling alone is a bad thing, merely that certain activities lend themselves to having company. Lovers running and laughing through a rainstorm look romantic; a single person doing so looks nuts.
A couple of years ago, when I met Max, my hopes were fulfilled. I’d found someone who shared my wanderlust, who was keen not only to spend time with me but to do so in transit. Within a few months, we had spent lovely weekends on Shelter Island and in the Hudson Valley. He joined me in Vermont when I reviewed a hotel there, and for once I got to write an article using the pronoun “we.”
Cynics might observe that traveling couples are inclined to argue—the which-way-do-we-go imbroglios, the where-do-we-eat squabbles—and I can’t pretend Max and I didn’t have our moments; but the good massively outweighed the bad, not least because I now had someone to help me get my bag out of the overhead bin. But then Max and I broke up, and I was faced with the prospect of flying solo again.
It was around this time that I began recruiting travel buddies. First up was my friend Cynthia, who joined me at a Costa Rican rainforest resort. Had I studied its website more carefully, I might have noticed it catered to honey-mooners. The couples massage they laid on for us made me wish that I had.
Then there was the trip to Croatia I took with a newish friend last fall. We stayed in a sleek boutique hotel. Our room had one of those mod bathrooms, where everything is glass-encased and wide open. In fact, the bathroom didn’t even have a door. I cleared my throat more that week than I had in 10 years.
It’s not that buddymoons aren’t fun, but there’s only so much sharing you can do with a friend. That couples massage was a step too far. As soothing music tinkled and candles flickered, I tried to maintain a serene expression, but my head was filled with questions: How loud is my breathing? Whose hand is that? How do I explain to the masseuse, in Spanish, that this unclad woman beside me is just a friend?
Of course, not every trip requires romance, or even a companion. There were times, gazing out over those sublime fjords, when the solitude made the experience more profound. At such moments, we look inward as well as around, and this may be where the real alchemy of travel occurs. There is a sense, too, that travel should take us outside our comfort zones, freeing us from the routines and suppositions of daily life, and I felt this very keenly in that doorless Croatian bathroom.
But there will also be times when you want romance. Even discounting rainstorm-running, experiences tend to be heightened when you’re passionate about the person you’re sharing them with. The stars are brighter, the water warmer, the crooked streets more charming. Even the banal parts— waiting in line, confronting the minibar tab—are improved when you have somebody’s hand in yours.
But until I find another restless soul like Max, my travel options are going to be limited. As I get older, even the buddymoon is proving hard to come by. My friends are getting high-pressure jobs, entering high-pressure marriages, having high-pressure kids. Their trips are seen as family affairs or much-needed downtime, with no space for giggling singletons.
At times like this, family comes in handy, although same-surname travel can create an awkwardness all its own. Before he got married, my brother often joined me on trips, and we were always mistaken for a couple. But that wasn’t the worst of it. The worst of it happened at a restaurant in Pinehurst, North Carolina, where I was spending a weekend with my dad. “Right this way, Mr. and Mrs. Kerr,” the maître d’ said as we arrived.
I wasn’t sure whether to be grossed out or insulted, but on one point at least I was clear: Dad and I would be staying well away from the spa.