In an age defined by being social, if only digitally, the rewards from travelling alone can get forgotten.
And why not? It can be a scary proposition to reach middle age (a sentence which could end there) and then to unplug from networks and family for weeks on end. But we should all do it: break the spell of what is familiar and secure, predictable and unchallenging. Time spent without being switched on and connected is the ultimate mental spa treatment. Life vivid.
The realisation about just how cautious and dependent existence can be came unexpectedly in my case. It was when a brother announced a move to China, a country with which he had no connection. He took with him my mild bemusement and a realisation that, despite the kinship, we had grown apart over the past 30 years or so.
Those thoughts fused into one and a determination to visit him; but also then to connect personally, to re-entangle our lives after decades apart focused more on others. And the idea came to do it alone.
As a mother juggling the demands of a family and challenging career, the thought of stopping the clock on both for a time seemed both preposterous and selfish. But as the idea settled, it also seemed necessary and natural. I was right to listen to that inner voice. The experience was worth every nervous, testing minute of self-reliance it required. Just heading off somewhere utterly unfamiliar on my own has boosted my energy and self-confidence.
Solo travel is a growing market. But a recent survey from Mintel suggested that 45 per cent of respondents still thought a ‘stigma’ was attached to travelling alone. Really? Some 17 per cent of UK adults took a holiday on their own in the last five year, the vast majority not travelling with a group. They presumably felt no stigma, and neither should they. We should applaud the independence of spirit and the obvious therapeutic benefits from taking control and being solely responsible.
Solo travellers can also be a lighter load on where they visit, fitting in rather than overwhelming. In many ways going alone seems a respectful way to visit a country because it largely exposes the traveller to local life as it is lived, not as it can be observed or avoided. There is nothing wrong, of course, with organised trips; and sometimes they are the very best way to see and experience somewhere that might otherwise be overwhelmed or threatened.
But there is a risk as the world increasingly seems to divide between tourists and toured. The most popular places on Earth are now little more than theatrical backdrops for ‘selfies’; and money is being made by a travel industry which can seem indifferent to the impact of its activities, as appears to be the case with Venice.
It would be sad if all of the travelling now done, where so much of the experience is herded, mediated and homogenised, amounts to know more than the equivalent to a night in watching the telly: no risk, no personal growth and an ‘off’ button if it looks tricky.
The true value of travel, I have now decided after many trips being herded, mediated and homogenised, is what it tells you about yourself not the place visited. My brother? We made a rewarding journey back to each other as well.