In August 2018 my world imploded. My husband wanted out of our marriage. In January he packed two suitcases and left. Destination unknown. We had been together for 26 years.
I was distraught. Devastated. Destroyed. My self-esteem smashed into a million pieces and I couldn’t conceive of ever being happy again.
Travel has played a critical role in my recovery, like CPR for my fractured heart
I dragged myself through each day, waking every morning with a knot of dread in my stomach to go through the motions of making breakfast, lunch and dinner for the children.
I was also desperate to escape. Physically I was exhausted. Sole parenting was tough. My heartache showed up in the physical symptoms of weight loss and a racing heart. Terrible nights, worse mornings.
Falling in love our brains are pumped with dopamine and oxytocin. When the opposite happens, those feelgood hormones crash out of your system.
I wanted to feel the sunshine on my face, literally and metaphorically. Writers such as Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) and Cheryl Strayed (Wild) travelled to make sense of their feelings – to grow and to heal. I too craved freedom from the domestic drudge, distraction from my pain, a sense of perspective that comes with distance and space. I needed to travel. I deserved a break. Or, erm, nine (sorry, Greta).
It was so bleak. Cold penetrated my soul. Day after day of grey. My friend Tania lives in Abu Dhabi and had been a constant source of support. I’d booked tickets for all of us to go as a family, back when I still desperately hoped we would make it through. Instead, we found ourselves at the airport without him. We were glued together, me and the children, three fragile beings. Air travel heightens emotions. The transience, the uncertainty, the intensity of a new experience; the emotion of being parted – or connected.
We arrived to sunshine. The warmth of its rays and my friend’s welcome was reviving. Tania and I made a foray to The Edition, a new hotel on the marina: super luxe and grand but less “gold tap” flashy than other Abu Dhabi hotels. And the food is healthy.
At the spa I opted for a hammam treatment – and one that was like no other. On warm marble, in the most luxe of rooms, I was scrubbed and sluiced and had the smallest sense of myself returning. This was the me who was worth some self-care. The kids screamed with delight on the rides at Yas Waterworld (yaswaterworld.com). For a few hours, they forgot.
At Easter my dad paid for us to go and visit him and his partner Ann in San Sebastián. My parents separated when I was three and while my dad and I have always been in contact, we have never been close. However, our relationship has deepened. My split brought us together and I was touched by his offer and his partner’s welcome.
My dad took the kids to the bakery in the morning and they practised their Spanish. Ann cooked delicious meals of seafood paella and judias verdes – green beans in tomato sauce with local ham. They live in a tiny top-floor apartment in the old town. I ran along La Concha beach promenade, forcing myself to be grateful – for my children, my health, for my family and friends. “I will be OK, we will be OK,” I repeated with each step.
The kids and I had restorative coffee and cake at The Loaf on Zurriola beach, watching the waves crashing. We ate spicy, satisfying food at Chutney Gastrobar where the pintxos have a Middle Eastern flavour.
I left boosted by a week of care, where food was put in front of me and the kids were entertained so I could work, call friends and think. More importantly, it was another week survived. After feeling so adrift, I could take solace in our strong unit of three and, beyond that, the comfort my dad and Ann and the rest of my family were offering. But still I nursed a dread of returning to the UK and what for us, long before the term gained currency, was the new normal.
The season came and went, and brought with it a women’s-only Tarant retreat to Borgo Egnazia in Italy. This ultra luxe, sprawling hotel has its own marketplace, an extensive spa and restaurants. It’s a resort, but not too resort-y. My friend Shoshana had, by chance, booked too.
I was still very fragile, my leggings hanging off me, and I knew a break from the grind would be good. I had a massage each day. I ate delicious food prepared in the villa. I had my hair brushed each night by an Italian nonna (weird, but strangely comforting).
The programme is based on Tarant – an Italian tradition of women supporting women, but with a side story about purging madness. It got a bit weird in places (the dancing to tambourines…) but, although I still felt hollow, I started to feel that happiness was round the corner.
June brought travel to Vivamayr, a detox clinic on a lake in Austria – so blue it almost looks fake. A “cleanse” seemed like a good idea – flushing out mental and physical toxins, with a chance to hang out with my mate Nadine, an antidepressant in human form.
The food is spartan and bland (think spelt rolls that could break a window) but I quite liked it. Nadine didn’t, so I ate hers. She signed me up to the dating app Hinge and we distracted ourselves from hunger by swiping. I’m sceptical about some of the Mayr’s practices, such as the foot soak that brings out murky brown toxins and the cotton wool buds up the nose that help clear the sinuses. Perhaps I’m more cynical after my split. But the diet gave my gut a clean break and my chilblains disappeared. I left feeling physically and metaphorically lighter. (Nadine was delighted to lose 10lb.)
Back online, a guy kept messaging me all the way home. We arranged a date: petrifying but exciting!
In July we flew to Virginia to visit my cousin and his family. I used the refund Trailfinders had given us on our Abu Dhabi flights (long story). We kayaked down the Shenandoah river, trailing beer/snacks behind us in a dinghy. We swung through the trees on zip lines at River Riders and went to the twilight polo at Great Meadows. I exchanged messages with some more guys from Hinge. The children and I felt held by the love of my family.
Slowly, slowly, with the help of family and friends, we were healing.
Good food, sunshine and space helped fuse my self-esteem back together
I went to Euphoria, a spa hotel in Greece, and it really was heaven. Five nights felt like a long time to leave the children, but they were happy with my mum and I craved the time to think and process.
Euphoria was set up by a burnt-out alpha female and has a gentle, cosseting approach to wellness (apart from the cupping!). My friend Hils and I hiked, ate fresh, organic local food and lazed by the pool. The treatments were exceptional, the nutritionist insightful. I realised I was no longer waking with a crushing sadness.
SHA, in southern Spain, was more intense. My friend J and I arrived late in the evening and entered a clinical white temple to optimal health. We were both feeling fragile. J is overworked and I felt a bit jaded by the online dating scene. As we walked through the stark reception, J whispered that it had a “Dignitas” vibe. The next day, though, over a small but delicious breakfast, I could see the appeal. Moneyed CEOs sat shoulder-to-shoulder, trying to cajole the waiting staff into a second helping of miso soup. The facilities, for everything from alternative healing to dentistry, are outstanding.
I was still gripped by sadness, but felt restored by the belly laughs with my oldest friend and the seafront hikes.
I’d been messaging and dating a few guys, but by December one relationship had emerged as the front-runner. We were now “exclusive”. I was meant to take my brother with me to review the spa healing programmes at The Alpina in Gstaad, Switzerland, but I made the (harsh) decision to bump him for D. I was nervous about sharing a room with a new man. My friends tracked my phone in case he turned out to be an axe murderer. Luckily, he wasn’t.
We travelled by train to Gstaad from Geneva, and as we chugged slowly up through the mountains he ordered champagne from the trolley. The hotel was super luxe, the room a spacious wood and stone suite with fireplaces and a balcony looking towards the mountains. It was romance +. The subterranean spa has a hot tub that we sat in till our fingers pruned. And the town is a 10-minute walk away, perfect for hand-holding, window shopping and hot chocolate drinking.
The experience and the intensity of time together forged a deeper bond. For the first time, in the company of a romantic prospect I felt relaxed. I let my guard down. I had fun.
Morocco. D and I flew to Marrakech to stay at The Royal Mansour. Within an hour of landing we were by the pool drinking Aperol. The sun burned bright, the sky was a vivid blue, and orange blossom scented the air. I had a hammam at the hotel spa, the most beautiful I have visited (think wafting white curtains, fountains filled with white roses, white lattice work walls). Only this time my brain wasn’t whirring with anxiety, but full of excitement and optimism.
Our three-storey “riad” had its own courtyard and rooftop (it felt cosily romantic, but not spacious). Outside you could sense the hustle of Marrakech, its amazing restaurants, gardens and treasure troves. We had lunch at the cool rooftop restaurant L’Mida (lmidamarrakech.com) and a decadent candlelit dinner at El-Fenn (el-fenn.com). For D, it was a chance to revisit a city that had tested him (his last “break” here was to complete some iron man madness); for me, it was the triumph of hope over fear…
Travel has played a critical role in my recovery, like CPR for my fractured heart. Good food, sunshine and space helped fuse my self-esteem back together. It showed me I could navigate new experiences on my own and make new memories for my children. I was no longer stuck in despair and anger but slowly, carefully moving on.
* Whilst the relationship with D didn’t survive lockdown, my new found sense of self did.