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A vacation of one’s own

More women are travelling alone - and the industry is taking notice. Catherine Dawson March leaves her family at home to see whether staying at a solo-friendly resort delivers the solitude of her dreams

Breathless Punta Cana offers packages for solo travellers, providing a lot of opportunities for ‘me’ time while lounging by the ocean.

Breathless Punta Cana offers packages for solo travellers, providing a lot of opportunities for ‘me’ time while lounging by the ocean.

amresorts

Punta Cana. The words are like a vacation in your mouth before you even arrive. Whisper “Punta Cana” and you can already feel the sand between your toes and the surf lapping against your legs. Inside the Dominican Republic’s biggest resort region, the party never stops – and, at almost any price point, all-inclusive indulgence is your everyday.

It’s what draws 60 per cent of the country’s 5.14 million tourists. It’s what drew me. And it’s what drew Amy Schwab earlier this month when she needed a solo escape from Chicago’s deep freeze. In her mid-40s, this wasn’t her first resort trip, but it still took her a few days at Breathless Punta Cana to snag a chaise longue by one of the better pools. Long enough to know that this spot – facing the afternoon sun, not too far from the bar or the beach – was prime real estate. That day she spread out her towel, smoothed on some SPF, pulled out her novel and settled in for a lovely day of rum and sun.

The sun was easy, the rum was trickier.

“I kept waiting for the pool server to come by my chair but he kept passing me to serve the couples nearby – even when I looked right at him, and more than once,” she said.

Amy walked over to the bar and got her own drink. But when it was time for another, she was loath to get up. She was at an all-inclusive – free drinks delivered to your deck chair is part of the experience.

“Eventually the pool guy came by,” she said. He asked whether she wanted another pina colada, then: “And what about your husband?”

In 2015, a TripAdvisor survey of more than 9,000 women from around the globe reported that 41 per cent had travelled alone; the number jumped to 74 per cent when combined with the segment of women who planned to travel alone later that year.

In 2015, a TripAdvisor survey of more than 9,000 women from around the globe reported that 41 per cent had travelled alone; the number jumped to 74 per cent when combined with the segment of women who planned to travel alone later that year.

amresorts

If there’s one thing you don’t ask a woman travelling alone, it’s, “What about your husband?” Especially when there’s a significant increase in females flying solo. In 2015, a TripAdvisor survey of more than 9,000 women from around the globe reported that 41 per cent had travelled alone; the number jumped to 74 per cent when combined with the segment of women who planned to travel alone later that year.

But it’s not just women. Visa’s Global Travel Intentions Study of 2015 reported that the number of affluent adults who vacation on their own has more than doubled to 32 per cent, up from 14 per cent in 2013. With those kinds of numbers, resorts, cruise lines and tour operators are responding with packages to attract them.

But it may take more than travel agents to get the message across once these women arrive. After the (unintended) slight, Amy just sighed. It wasn’t the first time she’d been asked that question during her stay – room service kept bringing her two breakfasts – but it stuck a pin in her mood every time.

An American 2014 survey on solo travel, noted that travellers report high satisfaction rates when they explore solo: 97 per cent of respondents enjoyed travelling on their own, and 81 per cent planned to do it all over again in the next year.

An American 2014 survey on solo travel, noted that travellers report high satisfaction rates when they explore solo: 97 per cent of respondents enjoyed travelling on their own, and 81 per cent planned to do it all over again in the next year.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

When Amy told me this story, it was a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one being ignored. I had left my family behind to relax – truly relax – on a quiet beach by a warm ocean. It was the kind of escape I’d often fantasized about: A vacation free from cooking and cleaning (hello cottage rental), the stress of navigation (ahh, the road trip), manual labour (our annual camping folly) and sibling arbitration (home and away). A vacation where the only finger I’d lift would be to turn the page of my novel? I’d waited years for this.

Breathless is one of Transat Vacation’s new Solo Collection resorts, about a dozen or so adults-only getaways from Cuba to Saint Lucia that cater to this growing segment of the industry. Vacationers who book through the Solo Collection program won’t pay more for travelling alone (there’s no single supplement), room service is free and the resorts have a set aside a communal table where solo diners meet and mingle.

When I arrived, I laughed when I saw the bottle of bubbly on ice – with one champagne flute. This time, the fun in exploring a new hotel room was mine alone: the enormous bed, the Jacuzzi tub on the balcony, the fridge full of pop, chocolate bars and Pringles I wouldn’t have to fight my kids for. And, as a woman travelling alone, I was impressed that the staff, from the bellboy to housekeeping to room service, always asked permission before entering my room.

My first morning, I wandered over to one of the restaurants closest to the beach. No one asked whether I wanted to sit at a table with other solo travellers, but to be honest, I didn’t want to. I was enjoying being on my own, even when the waiter automatically filled a second coffee cup at my place setting. I needed a double dose of caffeine anyway.

Santo Domingo, about a three hour drive from Breathless Punta Cana, was the first European city in the New World.

Santo Domingo, about a three hour drive from Breathless Punta Cana, was the first European city in the New World.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

I took a long walk along what felt like a good chunk of Punta Cana’s 50 kilometres of coastline. Beaches are public in the Dominican and along this stretch (a 45-minute drive from the airport) much of the land between resorts is undeveloped. I passed local families enjoying the sun and numerous souvenir shacks. Did I want a palm-leaf hat? My picture with a monkey? A massage by the sea? The shilling was persistent, but a simple “No, gracias” cut short the verbal assault almost every time. And when it didn’t, I just kept walking quickly. I never felt unsafe.

I could even indulge in my girlish selfie habit without my kids making fun of me (stunned that I was actually here, by myself, I whipped out my camera far too often).

By the time I got back to the Breathless beachfront, I was ready to collapse in a deck chair. I lost myself in my novel for a long time. But when I looked up to order something rummy and yummy, I realized I was invisible. Couples and groups were taking priority over my now not-so-subtle wave to the beach butler. I thought about sending signals with U.S. dollar bills tucked into the straps of my bathing suit, but then the booze butler arrived to take my order. Sated with a pina colada, and then a strawberry daiquiri, I turned back to my book. I had nothing else to do but read. Things were looking up.

That night at dinner (and the night after), the hostess did not ask whether I wanted to sit at the long communal table. As I followed her through the restaurant I noticed that four solo diners (seated alone at tables for two) were immersed in their phones and e-readers. I became the fifth.

Sometimes, resort beach butlers overlooked solo travellers in favour of thirsty couples and groups.

Sometimes, resort beach butlers overlooked solo travellers in favour of thirsty couples and groups.

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

By dessert, it occurred to me that I was having so much relaxing “me” time that nearly two days had gone by without talking to anyone but resort staff. So I picked up my crème brûlée and asked whether I could join the two women eating alone side by side.

Marcela, 40, from Brazil, had wanted to travel without her boyfriend and his kids, while Marie, 32, flew in from France to meet new people. And while we shared tips about the seven pools and off-resort gift shops, they confessed that, while Breathless was couple oriented (I found out later only 5 per cent of its business is solo guests), Marcela and Marie were enjoying having a beach vacation to themselves.

Their satisfaction is reflected in an American 2014 survey on solo travel, which (while aimed at older vacationers) noted that travellers report high satisfaction rates when they take the plunge and explore solo: 97 per cent of respondents enjoyed travelling on their own, and 81 per cent planned to do it all over again in the next year.

During my deck-chair reading I discovered that Santo Domingo, about a three hour drive, was the first European city in the New World. So the next morning I signed up for a tour. I figured I’d find a few kindred spirits among people wanting to leave a beach resort for a 12-hour cultural tour.

I was right: This was where I met Amy and other like-minded travellers. We shared resort stories over the long drive and when our guide walked too far ahead, we’d pass on our own observations about Diego Columbus’s restored palace, or the Parque Colon, with a statue of his father, and pointed out impressive 16th-century architecture in the continent’s first cathedral, Catedral Primada de America, then snapped pictures of one another along the cobblestones of Calle Las Damas. What a relief to get out of my own head for a while.

Taking a tour of Santo Domingo, we had a chance to sample local favourites such as mofongo (plantains, pork rinds and garlic), rice and beans and sancocho (a multimeat stew with vegetables and spices).

Taking a tour of Santo Domingo, we had a chance to sample local favourites such as mofongo (plantains, pork rinds and garlic), rice and beans and sancocho (a multimeat stew with vegetables and spices).

Catherine Dawson March/The Globe and Mail

I also had my first taste of Dominican food – mofongo (plantains, pork rinds and garlic), rice and beans and sancocho (a multimeat stew with vegetables and spices) – which I was thankful for; Breathless’s 11 restaurants were good and the meals artfully prepared, but it favoured more common international cuisine.

That night back at the resort, Amy and I shared a table for two ordering all sorts of tasty Middle Eastern dishes and laughing over the day’s events. We parted with promises to look each other up if we were ever in the other’s hometown.

But before I returned to my room to start packing, I slipped off my sandals and found a beach chair close to the ocean’s edge. I wanted another good dose of “me” time. Looking up at the stars, another drink in my hand, I realized that was the sweetest luxury I’d found.

IF YOU GO

Transat Tours’ Solo Collection is available at 18 resorts throughout the Caribbean at a variety of price points. Breathless Punta Cana is one of the better, 4.5 star ones. There is no single supplement, but there is free WiFi, free room service and – with any luck – a communal table to share meals. Ask for it when you arrive at the resort restaurant.

Solo Collection packages at Breathless start at $1,629 for five nights, upgrade to the Xhale Club (quieter beach, exclusive lounge, restaurant, pools, better booze, concierge service and so on) from $2,159. In the air, Transat’s Club Class (upgrade required) has all the usual airline-flight upgrades, but it’s all done in an intimate space of a dozen passengers. It’s like flying in a bar car – strangers actually turn and chat with one another. transatholidays.com

Air Canada Vacations also caters to the solo crowd with programs at 17 hotels and resorts in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and one in Hawaii. These resorts will drop the single supplement fee and offer various unspecified activities for those travelling alone. vacations.aircanada.com

Bring a lot of U.S. dollar bills for tipping and more for spending. The Dominican peso is accepted, but reluctantly. Also, be wary of resort “vacation club” marketing. Guests are often expected to attend a breakfast “orientation” meeting, but it’s really a hard sell to keep you coming back to the resort chain. Don’t lose beach time over it. If you’re interested, the sales desk is open every day anyway.

If you want to feel like a queen for a day, rent a cabana. Suddenly, the booze butlers will drop by regularly, and serve lunch at your beach bed. At Breathless, it’s a pricey (up to $100 U.S. a day) but heavenly extra. On my cabana day, I left this little palace only to swim or take a kayak out onto the ocean, where my solo status was noted again: “We only have double kayaks,” the beach attendant warned. I promised him I could handle it, and learned they’re actually easier to pilot on your own.

The writer was a guest of Transat Tours. It did not review or approve the story.

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