Florence with my Trusty Companion

One of my sure-fire solo travel recommendations is to tap into the growing market of ‘experiences’ available in any given tourist location. These excursions run from the traditional – history walks, guided tours in art galleries and food tours – to a new wave of exciting options, all based on what I’ll call the ‘learning economy’.

I have a friend who spent a week in a French chateau with her sister, on a knitting adventure. I was salivating at the thought of spending a week in such a beautiful spot, with like-minded artisans, partaking in the sights, tastes and sounds of the French culture. Sign me up! Oops, I don’t knit. 

There are similar opportunities across the globe. Hop on a cruise ship for a week with your favourite authors, musicians, or thought leaders. Move into a gorgeous Italian villa with your favourite painter or food guru. Many of the river cruise companies that slowly glide across Europe offer deals for single travellers. My to-go list is very long! 

I’ve always been a point-and-shoot photographer, with a deep admiration for and desire to be a real photographer. My trusty Nikon (ok, my son’s) was my travel companion on this trip. I must tell you that seeing a new place through the eyes of a camera is a very different experience. Instead of looking at the grandeur of a gorgeous city, I started to see details. It also allows you to be a bit bolder … in that ‘you aren’t really supposed to stare at people like this’ kind of way.

I was pretty excited to find a private photography tour in Florence. Here we are – our instructor Nathan and a fellow student – ready to head out on a lovely tour of Florence, from tip to toe.   

  

We meandered through squares, streets, and strange little places. We learned about composition, focal lengths, exposure, and all the funny little things that photographers know and love. Except it was in Florence!   

  

     

We hopped into a cab and travelled up to the Piazza Michelangelo, for a stunning view of the city. It was in the middle of a heat wave, so the skies were hazy. (I’ll need to go back in the off season to retake this!)    

 

My eye naturally travels to people and details.

     

        

It was a great day. Learned a pile of new things. Already wondering what I will do next! 

Carry On!

 

Driving tips for the solo traveller

I have a sweet set of wheels on this trip. Meet Ravenna, my Fiat500.

 

My Vespa is named Florence, so now she has a cousin. 

For many, the thought of driving in Italy is, well, ominous. The rumours are true. Italian drivers are aggressive, impatient, and they honk the horn incessantly. They are also 100x better drivers than 99% of Canadian drivers. Why? Because they are always on alert. Most learn to drive on scooters and motorcycles, which makes them instantly defensive drivers. (If you are driving here and getting angry … It’s you, not them!) 

I love to drive here, because it is fun and provides me with a great deal of freedom.  Well, here, as in everywhere in Italy but the Amalfi Coast, but that’s a whole other ball game. Twisty. 😖

Here are some tips to consider, when you are deciding on transportation options, if you are travelling on your own. 

  • Follow the signs. The Italians are superb with directional signs. Look, there’s a toilet down that road! Look, another church! 
  • Understand that you are a mere inconvenience to those on two feet or two wheels. I was stopped at a red light today and in the wee minute we were waiting, I was surrounded by no less than 8 scooters and motorcycles, all pulling rank on me. Scusi me! Also, jaywalking is a way of life – just like in Uptown Waterloo – so don’t ever assume that the pedestrians will actually use the sidewalks!
  • Take a look at your destination’s map before you arrive. Make note of key roads and general landmarks. Is there a castle? A duomo? An ocean? You will have a clearer lay of the land as you arrive in town. 
  • Be prepared to be lost, frequently. Today, en route to my hotel in Rimini, I took the same one way loop through town before I found my hotel … 6 times. Yup. 6 times. Made it! 
  • Consider being lost part of the adventure. Go easy on yourself. 
  • Be prepared to pull over and ask yourself for directions. Or your roam like home map app. Hallelujah for the Internet. 
  • If someone is driving aggressively behind you, pull over and let them pass. They may not be on vacation. 

If that sounds too daunting, remember that Italy has a fantastic train system. You can also hire drivers very easily – we did that in Amalfi and it was a brilliant choice. 

Speaking of vacation. If you arrive at your Italian hotel, nestled in the coastal city of Rimini, there may be one of these there. 

  
  And some of this. 
  
Enjoy! 

Benvenuto a Bologna

I have a new favourite Italian city. Well, until I arrive in the next one…

Bologna. Beautiful, gorgeous, civilized Bologna. 

Home of the oldest university in the world, I am lucky to be here during ‘Reunion’, their version of Homecoming. 

What did I do? 

I took a cooking class. Most Cities now offer cooking classes, food walking tours, photography classes … you name it. It’s a growing industry and is such a great way to jump into a culture. 

 

In which we used the freshest ingredients – including ginormous amounts of freshly grated Parmesan cheese – to make stuffed ravioli and tortelloni.

 
   

Yes, totally from scratch! Did you know that the Italians have special eggs for making pasta? The hens eat a diet that includes carrots, making the egg yolks an incredible dark orange in colour. That leads to that gorgeous dark yellow colouring in the pasta. Such a fun experience! I also made a delicious eggplant parmigiana and stuffed zucchini flowers. Yes, more cheese. 

Extra bonus, meeting a lovely mom & daughter travelling together from Denver. We had a great time cooking together and the two bottles of vino rosso we had with dinner was pretty good, too! 

Lesson of the day – travelling solo is always an adventure if you are open to doing new things and meeting new people. 

I finished off the night in the Piazza Maggiore – the main public square in Bologna – which houses the Basilica and all of the main public buildings. 

This guy lives there. You know who he is.

  
I joined about 3000 happy people for the nightly outdoor movie. Does it get better than this? It was incredible to be in this spectacular, ancient space … with a massive digital projector and a 100 ft wide movie screen. 

  
An incredible start to my summer travels. Ciao from Bologna!

Quiet, please.

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I am often asked why I choose to travel on my own. Aside from the simple answers – I enjoy my own company or I can shop for art all day long – there are some really sound reasons for embarking on a solo journey.

I am a big fan of Susan Cain, author of the book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.

I’m such a fan that I have owned three copies of her book – one I left on a plane, one is stashed in my iBooks, and another floats around the house for general perusing. I incorporate a great deal of her material into my teaching and I also like to gift the book to my favourite introverts.

Susan’s book resonates with me, as I identify as an introvert, with the twist of having an extroverted public persona. I find large social gatherings, small talk, and busy calendars over-stimulating, largely meaningless, and flat-out mentally and physically exhausting. I prefer policy puzzles to the inanity of politics. Pass me a book, please.

One of her challenges to introverts – and extroverts – is for us to spend time alone, away from the madness of our over-stimulated world. To remove ourselves from our daily expectation of interactions and obligations. To escape into our own head space, wherever that takes us.

The main reason I like to travel alone – with my camera and a book or three – is because I need to.

And I encourage you to try it, too.

– KS

Flying Solo: Choosing the Perfect European Hotel

In a few weeks, I am packing up my carry on bag and hopping on a late afternoon flight to Europe, kick-starting my 50th birthday celebrations – my gift to myself – in Italy.

I have spent a fair bit of time plotting my route, planning experiences, and picking hotels for my adventure.

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After years of experience – yes, I know I’m enormously blessed to travel as much as I do – I have developed a strategy for picking the perfect hotel in Europe, particularly if I am travelling on my own.

  1. Location, location, location. I always book hotels that are central to the historic hub of the city. They may or may not cost a bit more – simple economics – but the value of a central location is huge to me. If picked properly, I can step outside my door and be right in the action. European cities are wonderful at night – lots of pedestrians, window shopping, and excellent street lighting – and by choosing a centrally located hotel, you are safe and sound in the midst of it.  Don’t forget – dinner starts at 9 or 10pm. Picture yourself drinking wine and enjoying homemade pasta, while people watching from a cafe table in a beautiful public square.
  2. Single rooms.  Be prepared for the fact that European hotels are wonderfully different than our North American cookie-cutter hotels – they are quirky, particularly in historic areas. One of the good bits about that is the availability of single rooms … cosy, clean, and cheaper than a regular hotel room. I love this option!
  3. Use Google Maps.  I always pull up Google Streetview to see what the neighbourhood looks like. I like to know that there is a pizzeria in the immediate vicinity, just in case I am craving a late night margherita pizza. 😉 You can also make a decision – does this look like someplace I will be comfortable walking alone? You can also see where transit stops are on those maps – good info!
  4. Check in with Tripadvisor. A bit of a caveat: I consider Tripadvisor (and similar sites) to be a bit of a double edged sword. I will always check the reviews of my choices … with an eye to understanding that “Barbara from Houston” who is upset that her hotel in Siena’s historic district isn’t close enough to a Starbucks may not have the same travel goals as I do … and weigh my options. I do want to know if a hotel has horrible customer service or a problem with mold and/or mice. Other than that, I will likely book a room. These sites will also help you know if there are lots of tricky stairs to be navigated or if parking is a problem. Take a look at the ‘traveller’s photos’, particularly if you want to see what the loo likes like!
  5. Don’t let availability of parking determine your hotel choice. If you are choosing a hotel in the city centre – many of which are off limits to cars – there will be parking garages nearby. Ask at the hotel … its an easy solution and keeps you in the best part of the city.
  6. Set an average per night price that you are comfortable with.  This approach to booking rooms allows me a bit of flexibility when choosing hotels. In Italy, I find that an average of $100/night gets me into really nice spots – not fancy – that are safe, clean, and well-located. That’s what I’m looking for as a single, female traveller.

As an example, check out Hotel Alessandra in Florence.

It’s a lovely traditional hotel, set in the midst of Florence’s historic core. One block to the Ponte Vecchio, a few cobble-stoned blocks to the main squares, museums, and the Duomo. Everything you need at your feet.

You will see that there a multitude of room choices, from family rooms to singles. Last summer, I stayed in the pink single room for less than $100CAN (an early, discounted booking) including breakfast. It was perfectly clean and cosy, with a lovely washroom. The breakfast was great and – oh, Italy, I love you so much – they make your morning coffee to order.

I have started using Booking.com as my preferred tool for booking hotel rooms in Europe. It works for me – all of my booking information is collected in one online spot, making the traditional hunt for emails obsolete. My iPad and I love that! It also allows you to book early – without a deposit – and change your plans, as they emerge.

Finding the perfect hotel for you and your travel needs can be daunting … I hope you find these tips empowering.

Carry on!

Flying Solo

I love the freedom of flying solo – I find it to be a refreshing opportunity to think, check-in with myself, and plan my next steps.

Solo travellers often seek peaceful retreats for their disappearing acts. Small cabins on beautiful lakes. Hiking excursions. Luxurious spa experiences.

My favourite solo escape is a bit different.

Las Vegas! 

Vegas? Absolutely.

Here are some tips for solo travel to Las Vegas!

  1. Stay in the central part of the Strip. First choice: Caesars Palace. I love Caesars Palace because it feels less like a casino and more like a resort. Everything is top notch – the pool area, the spa, and the restaurants. A close second in the hotel department is The Miragewhich is right next door. In fact, the two resorts are connected by a leisurely stroll through the Forum Shops at Caesar’s Palace. By staying in this area, you are easily able to walk everywhere and experience all that Vegas offers.
  2. Walk everywhere. On my last solo trip to Vegas, I hit 12,000 steps a day on my FitBit. Yup, Vegas is good for your health.
  3. Check out the amazing entertainment. Here’s a bonus bit of flying solo: I always score last-minute, single seats for the greatest things. Broadway shows, sporting events, concerts, Donny & Marie at the Flamingo. This is a wonderful strategy if you are concerned about the “I’m travelling alone, what will I do in the evening?” conundrum.
  4. Check out the hotel sites for great pricing. Vegas is a convention destination, so hotel prices are quite variable. I will often find a lull in the pricing around the major events – check the availability calendars – and go for it.
  5. Expand your menu. You are travelling alone, which means that you can eat what you want, when you want to. That’s a gift! All of the restaurants have bar seating … as a solo traveller, you are ready to jump the queue and enjoy the company of an entertaining bartender.
  6. Get off the strip. Grab a cab to Fremont Street … otherwise known as Downtown Vegas. I haven’t been yet, but my next trip will include a visit to the Boneyard at the Neon Museum. I’ve heard the Factory Outlet Mall is also excellent. 

Las Vegas is a wonderfully weird, safe, and clean place to visit.

Perfect for the solo traveller.

Carry on! (I’m off to check the prices at Caesars Palace!)

Packing 101 for the Carry On Traveller

Whether you are hopping on a plane for a weekend in Paris or planning a month long trip across the continent, these basic packing tips will help you travel to Europe in style and comfort … with only Carry On luggage.

Yes, that’s right. A month in Europe with only Carry On luggage. 

Why on earth would anyone want to do that?

I have some great reasons from some really awful experiences with lost luggage. All leading me to decide to travel differently.

Here are the basic tips: 

The main goal is to minimize bulk, while maximizing options.

  • Always pack clothes that mix and match. I work with a neutral base of black, add some grey or blue, then toss in a pop or two of colour with tank tops or t-shirts and a multi-coloured scarf.
  • Pack clothing that is easy to wash in cold water and hang dry.
  • Plan to wear things more than once.
  • Pick the right purse(s). (I will write a separate blog post on this!)
  • Learn to layer. Wear your heaviest, bulkiest clothing on the plane.
  • Limit yourself to three pairs of shoes: I label them as shoes for walking, socializing, and relaxing.
  • If you are going to Europe – choose flats. Cobblestones are everywhere.
  • If you are going to Italy, choose flats that keep your feet from sliding around as you traverse ancient and endless staircases. I have many friends who have experienced flying spills in their flip flops. (You know who you are!)
  • If you are going to Europe, do not wear white running shoes. They’ve been banned in the EU. (Kidding, but perhaps they should be?)
  • Leave your real jewellery at home.
  • Electronics: Check your roaming packages before you go. Wifi is standard fare in European hotels and restaurants, so you may be able to make do without coverage.
  • Remember your adapter/converter.
  • My Waterloo hair stylist wrote a great blog post about travelling beauty needs. Great advice!
  • If you have favourite brands of over-the-counter medications (Advil, etc), make sure you take them with you. They often come in travel sizes, too.

You may be thinking … “Sure, that sounds great for a weekend in Paris, but a MONTH?”

Yup, a month. It works because you will keep things clean (hence the ‘easy to wash in cold water and hang dry’ requirement) and enjoy the simplicity of a minimalist wardrobe.

My special caveat/I like to shop rule in all of this … don’t be afraid to ship things home. Many retailers will offer the service and it is often more cost effective than checking a piece of luggage. On a recent trip to the Amalfi Coast in Italy, my friends and I shipped home a group order of incredible olive oil from a local producer in Sorrento and a crate of gorgeous Italian ceramics from an artist in Ravello. Both shipments cost us next to nothing.

Carry on!

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