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Sailing Around Thailand – women-only

Sailing Around Thailand – women-only

At last it’s time to tell you about my sudden but very exciting journey sailing around Thailand – women-only trip of a lifetime. There’s such a lot to say that I need to split it into two instalments. Today I’ll tell you about the trip and what we did, then next month I’ll talk about how it felt to travel with people I hadn’t met before and the lessons I learned. So let’s begin.

Sailing Around Thailand – women-only

It all came about so suddenly and the time out there flew so fast that it almost feels as if it didn’t happen at all. Imagine this, flicking through your emails as you’re leaving the gym on a cold, wet Monday night in April to find one inviting you on a women-only trip of a lifetime, the only problem being that you’d need to be able to drop everything and go in ten days’ time. I’ve turned down a lot of exciting opportunities over the last few months because I just haven’t been able to manage them – going away is always wonderful but it means I can’t work and being self-employed that means not billing. If Mal comes too that doubles so we have to let wonderful things go by, the most painful one being a trip to see gorillas in Uganda. This opportunity however just happened to coincide with ten days when I knew Mal would be in the most intensive phase of training for his karate grading. For months he’d been telling me that this period would be no fun at all so it felt heaven sent.

The invitation came from Girls’ Guide To The World, a boutique women-only travel company based in the US. They organise high level trips for discerning travellers who prefer to go beyond the tourist track or, as they put it, ‘women who wouldn’t be caught dead on a guided bus-driven tour with 50 people following a flag.’ So every trip that they curate is unlike any other you’ll find. The accommodation is high end, the food is excellent – a mix of high end restaurants and local gems, nobody has to share a room and insight into local culture is a priority. It’s run by the very ebullient Doni Belau and she explained that on this occasion they’d had a last minute cancellation so if I could contribute towards the flights, the rest was covered.

And so I worked flat out for ten days to clear my desk, threw a few things in a bag and set off without being able to give it much thought. As you know I was apprehensive though, it was going to be the first time in 25 years that Mal and I would have spent more than four nights apart. However, since lockdown I’ve felt my former independent self starting to slip a bit, I think it comes with the settled territory of midlife and I don’t want to turn into someone who can’t operate without her husband so I knew it would be good for me.

Wednesday

Here’s the very strange moment at Manchester Airport when I headed towards the check-in desk alone.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, midlife travel blogger

Travel top; travel palazzos; Me+Em jacket SS23; Trainers; Travel bag

And I won’t pretend that it was easy saying goodbye but I knew I had to take this opportunity for my own midlife redevelopment.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

There followed a 16 hour journey from Manchester to Singapore and then on to Phuket. If you’re not familiar with South East Asia, Phuket is a large island off the East coast of Thailand, 6,200 miles away from home with a six hour time difference.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

Thursday

The journey was easy, even arriving at the airport in Phuket and working out how to get a taxi to the hotel was straightforward. And what a hotel it was, the Pullman Arcadia. The first two nights were what Girls’ Guide To The World (GG2TW) call a trip extension. It’s optional but it enables you to acclimatise and recover from the journey before the travelling begins. So here I was, taking an hour beside one of the spectacular infinity pools before heading to the spa for an authentic Thai massage.

It looks like heaven and indeed it was but it was discombobulating being there alone after so many years of travelling as a couple or a family. I felt elated to be staying somewhere so much more luxurious than our usual Airbnb choices but I was surrounded by families and honeymooning couples so I had to grit my teeth a bit and keep reminding myself of the ‘strong, independent woman’ mantra. This was the first time I’d really had a chance to stop and think about what I was doing and it dawned on me what a risk I’d taken – spending ten days in close proximity with four women I’d never met before could turn out to be excruciating and now there was no way back.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

So as the sun began to set on my first day I headed towards what felt very much like a blind date. I was due to meet the first two of my travel companions by the hotel’s champagne TukTuk. Some of you were living through it with me on Instagram at exactly that moment when my heart was pounding and I’ll always thank you for being there with me, giving me the confidence boost I needed. Here they are – Doni, our host and owner of GG2TW is on the right and Bea, one of my fellow travellers is on the left. And after all that worrying we bonded straightaway, first of all over cocktails, then with the kind of long ‘getting to know you’ conversation that only women have, in the hotel’s Thai restaurant. It made all the difference and I began to feel confident that everything was going to be ok.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

By the end of the evening I’d been awake for almost 33 hours so I slept like a log in my sumptuous hotel room which was good because the next day held no end of adventures.

Friday

First of all was a welcome briefing from Doni where she went through the GG2TW code of conduct which I found quite impressive. She requested from the start that if anyone had any kind of problem at all, they go straight to her rather than grumbling to other guests. She later explained to me that all of her guides are given training in social psychology so that they can read their new groups quickly and understand the individual personalities within them. Given that there are usually just between eight and twelve women travelling together this struck me as a really good thing. She said that they work out who is quieter and who is chattier so that they can make sure everyone receives the right level of attention and nobody is left out; guides are attuned to anybody who needs a higher level of care. It seems a very insightful way of looking after women who are travelling on their own, often for the first time.

We spent such a fascinating morning at the local elephant sanctuary learning about conservation. The elephants there are rescued from both the logging industry and holiday resorts where they’re made to give rides and dance for tourists. We were able to feed them by hand with bananas and fresh sugar cane and we’d been told to be careful with this one because she was protective of her baby but as you can see, I found her to be extremely affectionate!

I remember learning in Kenya that elephants can often form a strong bond with human beings, remembering them for years to come so I hope she’s still there when I have a chance to take Mal back with me. It was one of my favourite parts of the whole trip, just such an honour to be able to get so close to such beautiful creatures.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, midlife travel blogger

Next was a stop to learn about the Thai pearl industry which was fascinating. You can see below how they plant a bead into a shell and the oyster covers it with layer upon layer of mother of pearl. It takes about a year until it’s the right size for a piece of jewellery. We discovered that there’s a wide gap between the ethical, sustainable producers who give the oysters more care and the mass production farms so it’s important to ask about provenance if you’re buying pearls.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

Our next stop was Phuket old town which was the very first tourist resort in Thailand. It was mid afternoon by now, hot and very, very humid but even so I could have spent ages exploring the shops. They had beautiful beach dresses and kaftans which were generally about £9 each so it’s probably a good job we didn’t spend too long there – I only bought one!

Here’s Bea though looking for something for winter back in the US. I was very envious, she has a great head for hats.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

And even in Thailand there was a prettified corner with influencers at work…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

… so Doni suggested we give it our best go!

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, midlife travel blogger Thailand

After a stop for a delicious rose and raspberry soda…

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, midlife travel blogger Thailand

… it was time to visit a temple and Doni snapped this quickly as we went in because the colours worked so well with my outfit. You have to cover up so I’d brought the matching wrap for my favourite summer trousers along with me.

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, empty nest, Thailand

We were told more about Buddhism – 94% of the people in Thailand are active Buddhists and each community works hard to support its monks with every family bringing them offerings of food at the beginning and end of each day.

Thailand - women-only trip

When we came out we were all flagging with the heat and humidity but we agreed that we didn’t want to miss the last stop, a visit to the Big Buddha. And big he was. Wasn’t it lucky that the hazy sun was forming a halo around his head?

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

And in the grounds, nature delivered for us once again -just watch the determination of this clever monkey.

The pre-trip extension was a great idea. It gave us a chance to catch our breath after our very long flights and also to learn about the culture of Thailand before we headed off on our adventure. By the end of it, the three of us had truly bonded, especially once we’d attuned our ears to the difference between American and English humour!

I hadn’t realised how much spending time in a completely new destination with people I’d never met before would really get my brain firing. Instead of the usual routine of shopping and travelling with friends or loved ones, you see things through unfamiliar eyes which adds a completely different dimension to your trip. The experience was sharper somehow and I felt as if the memories I was making which when I returned home would be mine alone, were opening up a brand new album in my head.

Nikki Garnett, Midlifechic, midlife travel blogger, Thailand

Another delicious dinner à trois at the Pullman followed and then an early night because we were all shattered.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea – women-only

Saturday

The next morning it was time for our women-only adventure sailing around Thailand & The Andaman Sea to begin. We headed down to Phuket’s marina to find our catamaran home for the next seven days. Waiting on board were our other travel companions – Cheri and our captain, Joy.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

We had a little cabin each and an en suite shower room which excited me as I eyed the forbidden hairdryer I’d smuggled on board. However at the briefing Joy explained that we would be travelling so remotely that there would be nowhere to stock up on water, fuel or power. We were asked to rinse off very sparingly with the deck hose each day and to be frugal with electricity, using it just to charge our phones so that what we had would last.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

While we all unpacked and settled in, Joy set sail until we reached our first stop for the night, James Bond island. Kayaks were waiting so that we could board them straight from the boat and enjoy our first glimpses of the beauty of the Andaman Sea. We paddled through secret caves covered with jungle creepers until we reached this point – the famous rock from Goldfinger.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

After an hour or so we headed back to the boat and spent a bit of time getting to know each other over a cocktail…

Nikki Garnett, travel blogger, Girls Guide To The World review

… and then tucked in to our first delicious dinner cooked by our Thai chef…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

… while we watched the sun set.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

Sunday

The next morning we were all up early enough to see a fisherman delivering our supper – a white snapper that he’d just pulled out of the sea (held proudly by Yuut, our chef).

Girls Guide To The World review

As we’d moored nearby we were able to flag down a long-tail boat and get to James Bond island early, before the big tourist rush.

Women's only travel companies review, Thailand

It isn’t far from Phuket so it was the most commercial spot we went to with pearl sellers and souvenir stalls…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

… but on the way back to the catamaran we passed breathtaking rock forms, it was like a living geography lesson.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

We spent the rest of the afternoon sailing, the plan was to get off the beaten track so that we could explore the quiet coves of the Andaman Sea. And here we were that evening, really looking forward to the snapper. We’d already relaxed, there was no dressing for dinner – the others at least had the advantage of being able to tie their hair up though, no such luck for me as you’ll soon see.

Andaman Sea catamaran trips review Thailand

Monday

After a night anchored in a quiet spot, we woke up the next morning to see a floating village in the distance. Doni suspected it was a fishing community so we took the dinghy to see if they had any lobster for sale.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

We chugged around, startling the fishermen who seemed to be napping after their break of day start. Doni did a great job of miming a lobster but each one shook his head in bemusement until we spotted one beckoning us over…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

… so we pulled up and climbed onto his rather precarious platform to see what he had in his ‘aquarium’.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

And look what he pulled out for us – not one but three very cross, snapping lobsters. As Doni was negotiating with him I had a wave of bewonderment. I couldn’t quite believe that instead of sitting at my desk on a Monday morning, I was in a remote fishing enclave in the Andaman Sea and it was one of the most spontaneous but precious experiences of the trip. I imagine it will rank in my deathbed moments as I cast my mind back over the highlights of my life. Of course this is one of the joys of exploring by catamaran – you have a rough plan but you just don’t know what you’ll find around the next bay.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

Back on board we sailed on for the afternoon. It was all hands on deck when we came to anchor…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

… and then another sunset with another cocktail…

Nikki Garnett, Midlife travel blogger, Thailand sailing review

… and a special dinner of very, very fresh lobster dripping with lemon butter.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

Tuesday

Over breakfast Doni told us that today’s adventure was going to be 491 steps. We’d moored next to a stunningly beautiful beach that had access to the Andaman Islands’ highest viewing point.

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

The only slight drawback was that we had to climb 491 steps to the top – it was already 33°C at 8am and oh, so humid but we were determined.

women-only trip to Thailand

It was absolutely worth it – for the workout and the phenomenal 360° views that went as far as you could see.

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

As you can tell, we felt pretty victorious by the time we’d made it down again. There are no age parameters for GG2TW trips and they have women aged from 21 to 81 on their trips but you have to be able to walk three miles and of course, on a trip like this one, be a relatively proficient swimmer.

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, Thailand women-only review

After that Bea and I were very willing to take on the role of ‘lookout’ for the afternoon as we sailed on. There had been no time for a bikini diet or even a spray tan before I left and my face, legs and ankles had puffed up after the climb in the heat but it was the same for all of us. The joy of travelling with a small group of women like this is that you’re in it together so none of that matters.

Nikki Garnett midlife travel blogger Thailand catamaran review

This was such a great spot whenever there was a moment to relax, the breeze and occasional sprays of water came from underneath to cool you down.

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

Wednesday

After spending the morning sailing, Joy pulled up near a sandbank that she thought would be good for snorkelling. Cheri is a very experienced diver so she was the person we looked to to help fit the masks and get us get ready.

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

Doni was off first to work out where the best spots were…

Doni Belau, Girls Guide To The World Review

… and we spent the afternoon dipping in and out of the sea which was bliss as each day was getting hotter and hotter.

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, Thailand review

It was a lovely, lazy day. As you’ve probably gathered, even at nighttime it was too hot for clothes so I got into the routine of a fresh bikini and sarong for dinner. This time the sunset even did me the favour of matching my outfit…

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, Thailand catamaran review

… but little did I know that I was about to make a stupid mistake that would hit me a few hours after I went to bed.

Thursday – Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea – women-only

What was it? There were two bags of ice on the boat, one for drinks made from purified water and one that was just to keep the ice box cool… and I filled up my glass from the wrong one. I don’t usually add ice to my drinks and I did wonder if I should double check before I put them in… but everyone else was at the back of the boat and I was feeling too feeling hot and bothered. And so I woke in the middle of the night feeling pretty awful.

That morning when the others went out to explore monkey island, I was refined to quarters but here they are setting off on the dinghy…

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

… and here are the monkeys who inhabit this pretty desert island beach. They all had a blissful time snorkelling, paddle boarding and relaxing in the sun… I was glad that I had an audio book to lie and listen to while I cursed my own foolishness.

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

In the afternoon we sailed on to Phi Phi Island where a night on shore was planned. We were particularly looking forward to it because it was the end of the week-long celebration of Thai New Year so I summoned up all my northern stoicism and joined the others as we took a long-tail boat to reach the beach.

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

I think this picture tells you everything. As the others kicked off the evening with espresso martinis… I was nursing a can of full fat Coke!

Nikki Garnett, travel blogger, women only review, Thailand

After drinks we moved to a sushi restaurant and you can just about see the pale ghost version of me here. Sushi isn’t my thing at the best of times and as soon as dishes of eels and raw fish started to appear, I slunk back to the boat.

Girls Guide To The World Thailand review

They had a brilliant evening, watching some breathtaking fire-dancing on the beach…

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

… and ending up at an Irish backpacker bar with music and Irish dancing which was a fun clash of cultures. It’s such a shame I missed it but it was a lesson learned – I’ll never be gung ho about ice cubes again!

Sailing Around Thailand & The Andaman Sea - women-only

Friday

I started to feel better the next day, still not hungry but I figured the fasting wouldn’t do me any harm after the abundance of delicious Thai food I’d been eating. It was the point when we had to turn around and motor back towards Phuket so we had a long sail ahead. Joy was very generous, giving her time and expertise whenever you wanted to learn about sailing. Here she was showing me the equipment she was using to make her way through a particularly difficult trough bordered by high sandbanks and she bravely let me spend some time at the wheel navigating it.

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, Thailand catamaran sailing review

We stopped here and there for lunch or a cooling dip in the sea but we had quite a distance to cover so it was almost evening when we reached the idyllic spot where she’d planned to anchor for the night. She knew there was a boujie five star hotel on the beach where we could enjoy a Friday night cocktail…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

… but within minutes we were surrounded by jelly fish, one even managed to jam the motor, giving us the prospect of a night with no air conditioning ahead. And the beautiful bar looked so near… and yet so far…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

The sea here was the choppiest we’d seen but with a mixture of nerves and determination, we launched ourselves into the dinghy and…

Sailing Around Thailand - women-only

… made it to the shore. By the time we managed to drag the boat onto the beach we were all completely soaked and laughing hysterically, especially when the bar staff made us rinse off in the beach shower and then promise to sit on towels before they’d allow us in. We felt like midlife reprobates but here we are, really enjoying our cocktails on our last evening together!

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, Koh Phi Phi review

It took a bunch of beefy backpackers to help us get the dinghy back into the water (cue more hysterical laughter) but by the time we got back to the boat, Joy and Yuut had managed to clear the engine of jelly fish debris and the power was back.

Saturday

After a 6am start the following morning we were back in Phuket before we knew it and the magic was over. There was time for one last photo with our merry shipmates before we disembarked. Moving back to land was quite an experience, Doni warned us that it would take a while to find our land legs again and it did – for the rest of the day I had a constant sense of rocking.

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, Thailand catamaran sailing

And just like that, we headed in different directions. Doni and Cheri were staying a little longer before catching their flights home so they jumped into taxis to different hotels. Bea and I had booked a day room together at an airport hotel so we had one last day of chatting and just look at our faces after our first fresh water shower for a week… I’ll never underestimate the simple pleasure of a hairdryer again!

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, Thailand

That evening we headed off on our long journeys home – Bea to sunny Florida, me to soggy Manchester. And 17 hours later there was a cheeky smile waiting to greet me, not Mal because it was the day of the karate event but the middle one – who claimed I’d been away so long he’d forgotten what I look like.

Nikki Garnett, midlife travel blogger, airport welcome

And so that’s the story of what we did. But there’s still the ‘how it felt’ to tell and those are the questions that everyone’s asked since I got home. What was it really like to spend such an intense period of time in a very tiny space with people I’d never met before? How did it feel for Mal and me to be apart for that amount of time after 25 years? And perhaps most importantly, what did it all teach me? You can see why I couldn’t fit it in a single blogpost can’t you? So I’ll bring you part two next month.

In the meantime I want to say a huge thank you to Doni and Girls’ Guide To The World for inviting me to go along with you to sailing around Thailand – women-only. Lots of travel companies make a big noise about treating their guests as individuals but GG2TW really do. They take care to get to know them and relate to them with great empathy. It’s no surprise to me that this week they’ve won the very prestigious Newsweek Readers’ Choice Awards for being one of the top ten women’s travel clubs. It shows just how passionately the people who have been on one of their adventures them feel about them.

Their trips are towards the top end of the price bracket but if you’re travelling alone, it’s worth knowing that you’re going to be very individually cared for while you’re away. Both Bea and Cheri have travelled with them multiple times and I understand why. The trips are sufficiently off the beaten track to feel like real travel rather than an engineered holiday but not so much that you feel uncomfortable or worried at any point. And thank you to those of you who came along with me in real time, there were of course moments when I felt a bit lost and so it was great to have what felt like notes from friends waiting for me on Instagram.

It’s my birthday on Sunday and although my year of being 56 has given me the usual bumps and scrapes along the way, it’s had some very precious moments too. I have no idea how we’re celebrating but I think something’s afoot… I’ll let you know next week. In the meantime thank you for spending another year with me – here’s to the next one!

Disclosure: I was invited sailing around Thailand – women-only in return for writing a true review of the trip. I contributed towards the travel but was kindly hosted by Girls’ Guide To The World so that I could report on the experience honestly.

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