I traveled by myself and it made me happy

“Solo female travel.” It’s what all the cool kids are doing these days, so being the follower I am, I decided to board a plane all by myself.

Montreal

Everything kind of fell into place for this trip. I had a gift card to use on already cheap tickets to Montreal. I had a “spring break” for work. No friends or family were available to travel on those days. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision for me. The idea popped into my head in the afternoon, and after searching for a good destination, the flights were booked by that evening.

I had a great time in Montreal, despite the cold (although the locals kept talking about how warm it was). I was confused at first because I wasn’t sure if I should speak English or French. The first day I ended up not picking just one language, but instead I spoke in some dumbed-down combination of French and English, in the process sounding incredibly stupid. After that I made a conscious effort to stick with one language for an entire conversation.

Montreal

Here are some of my favorite things about traveling alone in Montreal:

Walking everywhere.

I think walking is the best way to see a city, and in Montreal, I walked over four miles every day. By myself, I was able to walk at whatever pace I wanted for as long as I wanted. I didn’t have to hear someone else bitch about sore feet or being cold.

Me, me me.

Related to point number one, I only had to focus on what I wanted. If I was hungry, I ate at the first place I saw that looked good. If I was tired, I took the bus back home. If I wanted to stay in and watch the French TV channel showing a program about puppies, I watched the puppies. I enjoyed not having to cater to anyone else’s needs.

Montreal

I got a lot for my money.

It was a cheap vacation, for a large North American city. My flight was under $200. I rented a room in an apartment on Airbnb for under $100 total, and I spent about $150 on food/souvenirs/ground transportation/attractions/beer. If my husband had tagged along, our costs could have easily doubled.

Museum time.

I’m a museum person, and traveling alone, I was able to take my time in the exhibits. I saw everything in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts over the course of two days. Again, no compromises: I saw only the museums I was interested in.

Montreal

Me time.

There was something restorative for me in walking around and observing a new place. No talking, no distractions. Just me, my thoughts, and old snow beneath my feet. I wrote every day and I read two books. Even though I didn’t do anything incredibly exciting on this trip, I ended every day in a good mood, and I began every day ready to see more.

While traveling on my own was a great experience, I think I would’ve enjoyed the city even if I was traveling with someone else. I’d do it again in the right situation, especially if I wanted some me time.

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A man and his Pillow Pet in Dublin

I can hardly think of a place more festive than the city of Dublin, Ireland, before Christmas. Music and laughter fills the air as people shop on Grafton Street. Pubs fill with merry revelers. The city glows with light from holiday decorations and exuberant holiday jumpers.

My friend and I drifted into a pub that night, bought a pint each, and found a cozy corner to watch the crowd. A joyful and noisy band was playing on the opposite side of the bar, and everyone sand along. It was a boisterous, tinsel-strewn party.

And then we saw him – belly up to the bar, next to a man wearing a homemade Santa beard. While waiting for his beer, he was loudly singing, hands raised above his head, bobbing a penguin Pillow Pet to the beat. He was also wearing a red onesie.

My friend and I couldn’t help but laugh. He was the most ridiculous thing we had seen in Ireland. We forgot about the man as we started talking again, but several minutes later, he walked toward us on the way to the bathroom. I guess he saw us laughing earlier, because he stopped in front of us, tapped my friend on the nose with his Pillow Pet’s plush beak, and said “Boop!” before walking away.

Nothing is more mysterious than a man with a Pillow Pet. Any other time, it would have been bizarre and awkward, but in a Dublin pub before Christmas, it fit.

When in Lille…eat dessert

I lived in Lille, France, for four weeks in the summer of 2012 and, like any place, it had its pros and cons. Although upon arrival Lille felt fresh and new, full of restaurants and bars, historical monuments and museums to explore, weeks of attending school there started to wear down on me. The weather especially left much to be desired, as it frequently was in the 60s and rainy during the summer. (When I arrived home in Raleigh it was sunny and a sweltering 102 degrees Fahrenheit outside – the kind of summers I’m used to!)

Lille, France

Remembering this, I basically expected the worst when I revisted in December 2012. I envisioned constant rain and freezing temperatures in this dreary city I’ve already explored. I was mostly right about the weather, but Lille revealed more of itself to me as a visitor than it had when I was just a student.

After catching up on sleep, checking in with family and grabbing a quick breakfast from the patisserie on the corner, my friends and I were ready to explore. Lille’s center is lined with shops and is very pedestrian friendly, so we spent an afternoon wandering through town.

Lille’s Christmas market had a cozy, small-town feel and sold everything from maple syrup to furry moccasins (and of course, the European Christmas market staple, hot mulled wine).

The next day we took Lille’s small but efficient metro to a neighboring suburb, Roubaix, and went to an art museum called La Piscine. It’s a unique and varied art collection placed in an old public swimming pool, even in the showers. A small segment of pool still remains in the center of the building, with sculptures and paintings surrounding it. La Piscine is certainly one of the coolest art museums I’ve been to.

Lille, France

Besides walking and shopping, we did a lot of eating in Lille. Because I wasn’t on a “student” budget in Lille this time, I felt that I could splurge a bit more on my meals (I ate in the cafeteria every day when I was a student because it was included in the price of the program). We stopped by Meert, a patisserie/chocolaterie near Grand Place one evening and splurged on chocolaty, sugary treats. The place had a line out the door and I felt so full afterward, but it was worth it.

On our last evening in Lille we had dinner at a small family-run restaurant called L’Etable tucked away in the old part of town. The regional dishes were delicious and you could tell they were cooked to order. My favorite part was dessert, of course: Speculoos mousse. Speculoos is a kind of shortbread/gingerbread cookie.

Lille, France

I had a very enjoyable visit in Lille the second time, even though the weather wasn’t perfect. It just goes to show that keeping an open mind, even when revisiting a city, might lead to something surprising.

I originally wrote this post for a local news website in Raleigh while I was traveling and blogging in Europe for 10 days in December 2012. 

Dublin: Guinness and good times

Even though I was exhausted from a combination of jet lag and dozing on buses and trains, Dublin was energizing and lively. Settled on the River Liffey close to the Irish Sea, the streets were filled with the sound of seagulls, dancing street performers and wheezing double-decker buses. A fairly rainy climate makes the city’s parks lush and bright green, a perfect place to walk when a weak winter sun warms up Dublin.

Dublin, Ireland

My friend and I discovered a company that offers free two-hour walking tours of the city, so we spent a pleasant Saturday morning strolling through the cobblestone streets. We saw the remains of Dublin Castle, which are still used as meeting rooms for important international visitors, Dublin City Hall, and the last remaining vestiges of an old Viking house that was discovered years ago.

The Irish were certainly in the Christmas spirit: all of the restaurants and pubs had lighted wreaths and garlands hung up, and many streets were decorated with holiday lights. At night (or, when the sun goes down, which in Dublin was about 4 p.m.) the streets were beautiful and packed with Dubliners doing their Christmas shopping.

Dublin, Ireland

Not so packed in this photo, which I think was taken on Sunday night.

The “12 Pubs of Christmas” tradition was in full swing on Saturday night. What looked like a city-wide ugly Christmas sweater party was actually alcohol-fueled holiday festivities. Someone at a bar explained it to me. All you have to do is go to 12 bars in one night, have a drink in each bar, and spend at least 30 minutes in each bar, all while wearing your best Christmas outfit (most of which involved sweaters with built-in lights, homemade tinsel jewelry and makeshift Santa beards, although we did see one guy wearing a reindeer onesie, complete with antlers and a tail). Sounds pretty easy, right?

A visit to Dublin wouldn’t be complete without going to the Guinness Storehouse and paying homage to Ireland’s liquid gold. After learning about how Guinness is made, looking at old Guinness advertisements and commercials, learning the proper way to pour a Guinness (it should take no less than 119.5 seconds) and learning the right way to taste a Guinness, I was craving a Guinness. At the top of the storehouse is the Gravity Bar, offering a 360-degree view of Dublin. It was the perfect place to end the day and enjoy a pint.

Dublin, Ireland

Most of our weekend was otherwise spent wandering around and hoping it wouldn’t rain (no such luck on Monday, though). However, the city more than made up for the cold and sometimes gloomy weather. The locals were friendly, the food was hearty and the city was inviting. I foresee another trip to Ireland in my future, but next time I definitely hope to see the countryside as well.


I originally wrote this post for a local news website in Raleigh while I was traveling and blogging in Europe for 10 days in December 2012. 

I’m thrilled to be heading back to Ireland in December 2015 for a Christmas vacation with my family! My mom has deemed me the “travel expert” of the family and has delegated all tasks to me…so I hope my family is ready for an “Irish Christmas by Caitlin.”

Any suggestions on what to do and where to go in Ireland over the holidays?

Into the unknown

Two different trips. Two different cities. Absolutely no planning.

Ghent, Belgium

I’m by no means a control freak, and I like going with the flow…to an extent. I have always enjoyed being organized. My mom didn’t even have to tell me to make my bed when I was a kid. My books are sorted into alphabetical order by author’s last name. I keep my keys, watch, glasses and wallet in the same place every day so I always know where they are. I usually do a lot of reading and some basic planning when traveling. I like knowing where I’m staying, how to get there and my options for public transportation. I don’t make itineraries, but I like to keep a list of places, museums, and attractions I want to see, their daily hours, and addresses so I can have that important information at my fingertips.

That’s why it was a nice change of pace to visit two cities, Florence and Ghent, without much prior knowledge or planning (at least for my style of travel). The experiences were as different as night and day, but both stand out as wonderful cities to which I would like to return.

Florence, Italy
Florence, Italy: May 2012

What’s one of the best things about traveling, especially in college? Meeting someone, becoming good friends, and getting invited to stay with her and her family during their annual trip to visit Italian relatives.

Big ass plates of pasta and walking helped me get over jet lag pretty quick, and soon we were ready to explore. One night, in the middle of dinner at her uncle’s apartment, we decided to go somewhere new the next day. We checked the rail website, saw Florence, realized the train left early in the morning, ran home, got in bed for a few hours, woke up, went to the station, bought the tickets (through her dad, who was translating) and hopped on board.

Florence, Italy

We were in this warm, sun-drenched valley city before I knew it. For simplicity’s sake, we bought a hop-on, hop-off bus pass so we could shuttle around Florence at our own pace and hit some of the major sights. Without a map or any information about Florence, other than some rudimentary “oh yeah, the Renaissance happened here” knowledge, we floated around in a warm sea of gelato, art, sun rays and hillside villas.

What a wonderful day! It passed by so quickly, even though we didn’t do much except enjoy the sights and whatever was happening at that moment. We almost fell asleep on the bus at one point, so we had a lazy coffee break. We looked at leather goods we couldn’t afford in our wildest dreams and said grazie mille to the wonderful saleswoman at Zara who let us use the bathroom after more coffee was consumed and we couldn’t find a public toilet.

Florence, Italy

This taste of Florence was just enough to whet my appetite, and I want to go back. Even a trip as spur-of-the-moment and fleeting as this one is no less memorable to me than any of my well-planned journeys. A good friend, a new city and a beautiful day – what more could you want?

Florence, Italy
Ghent, Belgium – December 2012

That winter I found myself once again in Europe, this time traveling with another good friend. We were visiting our BFF who was studying abroad in France. While she was finishing up exams, we were going to take a side trip to Belgium – starting in Brussels, we took a train to Bruges, a train to Ghent, and then a train back to Brussels.

We had our tickets and hostel booked, but that was about it. We had just finished up our fall semester, and with our jobs, exams, and final projects, there was not a lot of time to research what to do once we got to Belgium. We barely found the time to book the dang trip!

Ghent, Belgium

When we arrived in Ghent it was cold, raining, and the sky was dark…but the city itself was bustling, shining into the night, cobblestone streets shushing under tires. Ghent was already one of those “this is better than I expected” cities.

Taking the tram to our hostel, right in the city center, was a snap. We wandered around that first night and found some sort of music festival going on. We ate hot soup from a food truck and took it all in.

After a night in the nicest hostel I’ve ever stayed at (not that I’ve stayed in too many, but still) we took off into town for another rainy day of adventure. We had a map this time, but no real plans, so we meandered around the city looking at the castle, churches, chocolate shops, cuberdon candy carts, city markets, cute kids.

Ghent, Belgium

One of the best things we accidentally found was a “home video” museum that was a collection of old videos and voice recordings people had made of their families going on vacation, children’s birthdays, anniversary parties. The tapes were donated, found in thrift stores or yard sales and arranged in exhibits. It was intriguing to get glimpses into the lives of these strangers.

This trip could have, at first glance, gone miserably due to the cold, wet weather and our lack of local knowledge. But our “accidental discovery” of Ghent made the city even more spectacular. I would love to head back over to this surprising city.

Ghent, BelgiumHas anyone else had wonderful travel experiences while taking a random side trip?