I penned my very first bucket list when I was 17. I'd never traveled overseas and saved every dollar from my part-time job to buy a ticket to Thailand for graduation. Since then, that modest bucket list scrawled in a school notebook has become more of a grown-up wish list. Going on safari in the Serengeti and splashing out on an über-luxe island resort are just a few of the travel experiences I've dreamed of taking one day.
As I near my 30th birthday, I realize there's one major flaw in the idea of a bucket list, though: It's a "one-day" list. Every time I add a vacation, I mentally cast it aside as a trip I'll plan when I've saved more money/get married/can sync my schedule with friends. The issue? Unless I actively make that happen, it never will.
I'd been mulling over this mildly depressing realization when my email notification pinged. It was an invitation to go to Secret Bay, a boutique eco-luxury resort in Dominica, a tiny patch of paradise in the Caribbean. I'd been offered an outrageous opportunity to go on a once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon experience… alone.
My first response was that I couldn't. Shouldn't I wait until our actual honeymoon to take such a milestone trip with my S.O.? Then the devil's advocate inside me piped up: Self-care experts encourage taking yourself on a date. Isn't this just the next (maybe slightly indulgent) step up? Why should I wait to get engaged to treat myself to a luxe vacation?
Okay, I realize that going on "honeymoon" alone might seem a tad extravagant, but this trip turned out to be about so much more than just pampering. What I didn't realize at the time was that the four-day adventure would challenge and change the most important relationship: the one I have with myself.
This is what went down when I took myself on a romantic escape, and why you should too.
Dominica (pronounced dom-in-eeka) is a remote, 290-square-mile tropical island in the West Indies. Like the best exotic honeymoon destinations, it's hard to get to. The island doesn't have an international airport, so you have to fly to one of the neighboring islands, like Barbados or Puerto Rico, and then get a connecting flight. If I was traveling with my boyfriend, this might have seemed like an adventure. But I couldn't remember the last time I'd spent an entire day in transit with nothing but my own thoughts.
The first challenge arose when I arrived in Barbados. My flight was booked last minute, so there was a less-than-ideal six-hour stopover in the tiny airport. As the hours ticked by, I found myself getting fidgety. I honestly couldn't tell you the last time I'd been alone, but I now know how important it is for my own mental health. "Constantly being 'on' doesn't give your brain a chance to rest and replenish itself," explains psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter in an article for Psychology. "Being by yourself with no distractions gives you the chance to clear your mind, focus, and think more clearly. It's an opportunity to revitalize your mind."
After a few hours of scrolling through Instagram, messaging friends, and refreshing my Facebook feed, I was forced to embrace alone time. I switched off my phone, shut my laptop, and just sat in the lounge. It's so rare we get to just be, and when I sat alone without the ping of phone notifications or my S.O. to distract me, I realized that there's a difference between being lonely and being alone—and that I shouldn't avoid the latter.
When I arrived at the Dominican airport, the reality that I was alone on honeymoon sunk in. "Who are you traveling with?" the customs officer inquired quizzically. "Oh, it's just me," I replied. She looked up from the customs slip where I'd shared the name of my resort with raised brows. "But you're going to Secret Bay, right?" "Right," I told her. This was going to be interesting.
When I arrived at the resort, I was pretty much speechless, which is good because there was no one to gab to about my stunning suite anyway. I was staying in one of two brand-new Ylang Ylang villas, a giant treehouse-like structure that peers out among a thicket of rainforest fronds. There was a couple's hammock on the bottom floor, jaw-dropping stand-alone tub in the open-plan suite and open deck with an outdoor kitchen and dining space, presumably where my fiancé and I would have watched the sunset. Instead, I sat at the table set for one and took in the serenity of my surrounds in silence.
I once read that when you settle into a long-term relationship, it's easy to assume a role. When I was younger, I remember thinking that was absurd: Why would you act in a certain way because it's expected of you? Now that I'm just about to hit the nine-year mark with my boyfriend, I get it. He's the carefree, impulsive one who chats to strangers with ease; I'm the planner in the relationship who sorts out the logistics and never makes decisions on a whim.
When I decided to take this vacation solo, I didn't expect that it would shift my personality. Traveling without my boyfriend meant that when I entered new social situations alone, there was no preconceived idea about how I would or should react.
On the second day, we ventured into the rainforest to do "forest bathing," a meditative Japanese practice that involves exploring nature for health benefits. My guide describes as "re-wilding" and says it's a popular choice among newlyweds at the resort, as it can strengthen the bond you have with nature and each other.
A fellow resort guest stepped in to be my partner for the exercise. She covered my eyes with a blindfold and guided me slowly through the forest, stopping on occasion to encourage me to feel the spiny bark of a tree and absorb my surrounds, without sight.
Normally, I'd feel really uncomfortable doing this. I'd probably giggle with Andy, my boyfriend, and resist totally embracing the experience. This time, I couldn't do that. I'll admit that having a long-term boyfriend can be a crutch. We've been together so long it allows me to opt out of situations that make me feel uneasy.
Without him there, I let myself give into the experience and, yes, probably looked like a blindfolded idiot touching leaves in the forest. You know what? It was weird and out of my comfort zone, but it was also grounding and kind of amazing. I followed our guide's instructions to feel the warmth of the sun's rays filtering through the canopy, took my shoes off, wiggled my toes in the dirt, and remembered, after a year living in New York, what it's really like to be immersed in nature.
At the start of the trip, I couldn't really see the point of going to too much effort to indulge. Why run a bath with salts and oils if it's just for me? Why set the table when it's only for one? I found myself just mulling about my suite, not knowing what to do.
It took me two days to ease into being alone, but by the end of the trip, I'd embraced it wholeheartedly. It's easy to skip doing nice things for yourself, but it's so important to show yourself kindness, too. On my last night, I poured myself the best bottle of wine, played my favorite tunes while watching the sunset, and even took a skinny dip in my plunge pool at midnight (it's just me—why wear a bikini?).
Doing something for yourself, no matter how big or small, matters. It doesn't matter whether that means ticking that dream destination off your bucket list now, rather than "one day," or simply lighting those candles you've been saving for a special occasion when no one is home. It's about embracing the little luxuries in life, whatever that means to you, and learning that sometimes, it's important to treat yourself just cause.
Have you traveled solo before? Tell us what you learned about yourself in the process.
This press trip was paid for by Secret Bay. Editors' opinions are their own.