[As written for Travel Eye, hosted by The Huffington Post UK, September 2012]
Travelling alone is a funny old thing. I’ve done it (personally and for work) for over a decade now and I’ve never quite got used to spending days after day in my own company. Still, if you love to travel, you might not have a choice as to whether you do it alone. Like it or not, friends will have other commitments; there might not be an ‘other half’ on the scene as yet, and as we get older and babies and careers take over around us – doing things solo suddenly becomes a very real idea.
Also, we are the generation who grew up with gap-years. Some of us took to one; some didn’t, but now many of us want to take the adventure of travel forward with us in our professional worlds, although perhaps not in the same way. As we’ve grown up, we’ve kissed goodbye to those days when the Internet-friendly ‘singles holidays’ appealed – and for some reason, getting hammered on a boat and pulling the hot boy with a shell necklace may no longer seem attractive. Neither might sleeping in a hostel dorm full of booze-loving party-goers who want to play beer-pong until 5am every night.
Now, it’s all about the good food, good wine, interesting culture and great company. We want both men and women to stimulate us with tales of experience and good conversation; we want to learn something new; we really want comfort and cleanliness – and we don’t want to be playing single supplements.
Thankfully, there has been a shift in the ‘singles holiday’ market recently. Sure if you Google it, you’ll come up with plenty of companies ready to take your cash and book you on a party boat to the middle of a turquoise nowhere, but if you look hard enough you will come across something a little more special; a little more sophisticated and most-certainly suited to the professionals out there.
And that’s how I ended up in sunny Sicily last week, sipping velvet-red wine from Mount Etna and sampling local fish dishes. I was in the vibrant town of Taormina – somewhere I had heard of but not yet made it to. I’d always imagined Sicily to be full of flair and passion; for there to be dancing in the street and music playing softly in the distance. I dreamt of ravioli stuffed with creamy ricotta. Turns out, Taormina was even more vibrant than I had thought, and the ravioli came not only with ricotta, but also an incredible pistachio-blended sauce. Totally mouth-watering.
I was there after I’d come across a company called Fusion Escapes while trawling through the Internet. Founder Rachel Harvey had created the company back in 2009 and seemed very enthusiastic when I sent her an email asking for more details on what they did. Being a keen solo traveller herself, Rachel had decided to start her own business after many trips abroad had left her dissatisfied with the service she was given. Everything she came across was low-budget, and having worked hard for her buck, she could now afford something luxury. So she saw the gap in the market – and went for it!
“There was nothing for affluent single people, comfortable in their skin and with their single status who want to travel,” Rachel explained to me. “We want to provide for those people who want to visit the world’s coolest hotspots, stay in beautiful hotels, enjoy dining and highlights with like-minded people.”
So, that’s how I came to be in Taormina; on a trip firmly placed under the Fusion ‘Gastro’ section. I’d packed for a sunny six days, with a couple of extra outfits in case I really couldn’t get my jeans on at the end of the week (“five amazing courses for dinner each night takes its toll,” Rachel had laughed).
On arrival, I met the other five members in my group; on this occasion four ladies and one man (who seemed slightly daunted but secretly thrilled to be on such a female-heavy group). We all said our hellos and enjoyed our first evening meal together at the local Restaurant La Botte with our host, Marie. There were a lot of stories told of previous solo trips, jokes about the weather (well, we are Brits) and a general consensus that our first sample of Sicilian food was incredible. It was all small talk, but we’d only known each other for an hour or so. Naturally, it would take time.
The group were of varied ages. Everyone was over 30 and the range went up through to the mid-60s. Each person had a different reason to be there. “I didn’t want to spend my evenings eating alone,” explained life-loving 60-year-old Christine. While 40-year-old Martin concurred, “Exploring is absolutely fine when you’re on your own, it’s when you have to sit down and eat by yourself that you really feel it.”
Marie, our host, was there to make sure everything ran smoothly; she ensured the restaurants adhered to our reservations; that we were treated well; that the transfers ran on time; she was on hand if we needed anything extra, and of course, to enjoy a glass of wine (or two) with us.
Our hotel was the bright, airy and comfortable Hotel Imperiale which softly sat in amongst the Taormina Hills. We all had views of the ocean with the old town of Taormina just below us. Just a few minutes stroll away was the main promenade of boutique clothes shops and cafes. Round the corner, there were traditional Sicilian restaurants. Everything we needed was on our doorstep and our first morning was spent on an orientation tour with friendly local tour-guide Christina.
Christina knew exactly where to take us; she showed us the Taormina ancient Greek theatre, which was first built during the third to second centuries BC. It was rebuilt 300 years later and is still used today for concerts. In its backdrop, you can see Mount Etna. It really is a beautiful sight. Then she led us through winding cobbled streets so that we could get familiar with the little town on our doorstep.
We stopped for a delicious lunch at the incredible La Tavernetta, which served us up fresh fish and vegetables – and this is where I had my favourite dish of the trip; baked zucchini flowers stuffed with tuna and an orange dressing. I can’t even tell you how divine that was – it’s definitely one I’ll try out back home.
Taormina really was a photographer’s dream; there were overflowing window boxes with rainbows of purple, yellow and red flowers, stone steps leading to family homes, narrow paths snaking along to hidden bars and a wide open square surrounded by traditional pizzerias and jazz music bouncing along through the air. The locals were animated and friendly; restaurant staff inviting. Around every corner there was a local artist capturing the scenes in front of him with his water-colours. Every meal we had in the town offered us some extra amuse-bouche courtesy of the very kind chef. And yes, food featured heavily (well, it was a gastro trip after all).
It’s safe to say that we all struggled with the super-tasty five courses on the first day; platters filled with baked fish, freshly-made pasta, pan-fried Mediterranean vegetables and my beloved stuffed zucchini flowers peaked our taste buds, but we really were still novices. But by Friday, we were asking for more pasta, more veg’, more dessert and certainly more wine. Our stomachs (and alcohol tolerance) had been stretched – and I was glad I had brought my extra clothes.
We drank at the local bars – Bar Turrisi was a particularly interesting one (if you’re not too prudish to enjoy it), with great views over the neighbouring town of Castelmola. We ate at remarkable restaurants (the La Capinera Michelin Star open-air eatery down by the sea is a glamorous setting for dinner if you don’t mind the occasional steam train bustling past) and even sampled a few late night bars and clubs (La Morgana – they do love a bit of LMFAO there).
My highlight was a morning’s cookery class at the Melograna Restaurant. Head Chef, Massimo, confidently took us down to the local market to show us just how he picks his meat, fish and vegetables; then he welcomed us into his restaurant to begin our work. Four hours later, the seven of us sat down to a meal of Med-vegetables, stuffed sardines, ricotta-filled zucchini flowers, freshly-made macaroni in a tomato-based sauce and baked white fish rolled in breadcrumbs. It was delicious, even though we do say so ourselves.
Then there was the day spent exploring the active volcano Mount Etna. We took two 4x4s up the mountain; taking in the views over the Sicilian coast and looking on in awe as we saw how the hot lava had taking out trees and buildings (in fact, an entire ski resort) just a decade ago.
On the way down, we stopped at the Scilio Wine Estate for a wine tour and tasting before heading (slightly tipsily) to the nearby San Marco Estate for a home-cooked meal in the middle of nowhere on Etna’s vast terrain.
Our final day was a free day; some did some last minute gift shopping, some went for one last authentic Sicilian lunch, some laid by the sea, and then the pool, catching as much sun as possible.
Our six days in Taormina had been beautiful; all our senses had been set alive (in particular, our taste buds) and it was official, we’d all fallen in love with Sicilia.
The theory behind Fusion Escapes is if you do have a great love for food, fitness, clubbing or anything else in particular, you will enjoy the company of others who have opted for the same kind of holiday. Also, it does take a certain type of person to travel solo – so if you’re brave enough to do it, you’re already likely to be in a similar mindset to your co-travellers
I found this to be completely true. Despite the range of ages on our Sicily trip, everyone got along; bonding over trips they’ve been on in the past and those they want to take in the future. There were old stories shared and a lot of “What happens in Sicily, stays in Sicily” experiences. By the end, I felt I had got to know everyone pretty well. I even found out one of the girls, Claire, lived just five minutes away from me. We’ve already arranged to meet up for food, wine and debrief!
So if you’re after some company on your solo travels, this really is a good way to find it. There is no expectation (you don’t have to go out late, for example) and if you would prefer to spend your free time alone, you won’t be judged. The activities arranged are fun and well worth doing and there is something very relaxing about not having to think about paying the bill in a restaurant. This trip certainly provided a wonderful care-free existence for six days.
This luxury six-day trip to Taormina, Sicily with Fusion Escapes will set you back £2,200 per person and includes five nights bed and breakfast at Hotel Imperiale, an experienced host for the entire duration of the trip, all transfers in a private car and the majority of all meals plus wine. A full itinerary will also be included and everything on there will be calculated into the above amount – so you should only need extra notes for any late-night partying, extra snacks or shopping. Flights are not included but they will happily book the journey for you.
Find out more about Fusion Escapes by calling 0845 519 2655 or head to www.fusionescapes.com
If you don’t fancy Sicily, they also arrange holidays to other stunning destinations, under themes such as ‘discovery’, ‘active’, ‘nights’ and ‘R&R’ – so take your pick.
PICTURE CREDIT: KAREN EDWARDS