Travel

The future of adventure travel: solo adventures

Moorland rocks, waterfalls and penny-arcade towns: a solo week-long hike along the magnificent Cleveland Way, the 109-mile long National Trail that marks its 50th anniversary this year.Friday, 27 September 2019

By Ben Lerwill
Roseberry Topping, near Great Ayton, North Yorkshire.

They call it the Yorkshire Matterhorn. I’ve been walking towards the sharp-tipped hill of Roseberry Topping for more than a day, surveying it from afar like Frodo eyeing Mount Doom. Now I’m finally at its summit, looking out across a swathe of Northern England, a view so far-reaching I can pick out different weather systems. At the base of the slope sits the farm where Captain James Cook lived as a boy. His regular ascents of the hill are said to have inspired him to travel. 

I’m three days into a solo week-long hike along the magnificent Cleveland Way, the 109-mile long National Trail which marks its 50th anniversary this year. The first few days skirt the densely atmospheric North York Moors, with a brief diversion to Roseberry Topping, while the second half traces the high cliffs of the North Sea coast. The overall route follows an upturned horseshoe shape, meaning you finish only 30 miles from where you started — but that’s not the point. It’s about where it takes you.

I’m walking this trail at a selfish pace. If I want to spend 20 minutes sitting on a moorland rock trying to spot curlews, that’s my call. If I want to veer off-route to check out a waterfall, I will. And if I want to arrive at my overnight accommodation in time to watch Pointless — hypothetically, you understand — there’s not a soul to stop me. 

I’m not the only one who’s realised the joys of going it alone. A 2019 travel trends report from online booking platform Klook showed the number of solo travellers using its services had grown from 31% to 38% in one year. It doesn’t appear to be a generation-specific trend, either. A May 2018 study by Booking.com showed that 40% of baby boomers had taken a solo trip in the previous 12 months, while a late 2017 report from US-based Princeton Survey Research Associates International concluded that 58% of millennials enjoy travelling alone.

The appeal of unaccompanied travel is manifold. It brings the freedom to dictate your own plans, for a start. It can also bolster self-confidence in a way that few other solo activities can match — when you successfully negotiate the cloud-snagged passes of the Andes or the remote peaks of the Pyrenees, then your world shifts slightly. The great beyond becomes not just more exciting, but more accessible. 

Solo travel doesn’t have to mean independent adventure, of course. Joining an escorted tour group as a single traveller can be just as rewarding, providing a ready-made set of new acquaintances and serving up a tried-and-tested itinerary. 

Here in Yorkshire, I’m covering between 10 and 22 miles a day. This is my third end-to-end National Trail, all of which have been solo walks. They offer the simple pleasure of following signposts across some of the quietest, shapeliest corners of the UK map, letting your thoughts ramble and your worries loosen. Each year, a reported 80,000 of us complete a National Trail. The Cleveland Way was only the second of these long-distance paths to be founded when it opened in 1969, but there are now 15 official National Trails on the British mainland, linking rural rights of way. 

I spend almost four days crossing the North York Moors. At times it’s a heart-filling expanse of sunshine and skylarks, and at others it’s moody, clouds ghosting across chilly hills. The entire plateau is blanketed in purple heather, a habitat for red grouse. As I’m here in spring, they’re everywhere, the air filled with their ‘go-back! go-back!’ squawks. I disobey, happily striding on.

The other thing about solo travel is that you often find yourself chatting with total strangers — passing walkers, bar staff, other travellers. Solo adventure lets you be as inquisitive and garrulous as the mood takes you. And on those days when all you want to do is order a drink and stick your nose in a book, that’s your prerogative too.

Janice Waugh, author of The Solo Traveler’s Handbook, once wrote: ‘I’ve got lots of people I could travel with. But there’s something special about going by yourself. There are things that happen that just don’t happen when you’re travelling with other people.’

I spend the second half of the trail following a coastal big dipper of crests and bays. My path rises and dips through smugglers’ villages and penny-arcade towns, but when I reach Whitby, with its famous gothic abbey, I somehow walk a mile in the wrong direction in search of my B&B. If I’d had a travelling companion, that might not have happened. Call it character-building.

Macs Adventure has a number of self-guided walking holidays suitable for solo travellers, including the Cleveland Way itself. The nine-day, eight-night trip itinerary throughout the summer season (April to October) and covers 110 miles with baggage transfer included from £635. Accommodation can be added for an extra fee. 

Three to try: unaccompanied adventures

Georgia
Just You’s eight-day Undiscovered Georgia trip includes a walking tour of the capital Tbilisi, a cooking class in Kakheti, a walk in the Greater Caucasus, trips to four medieval monasteries and the Prometheus Cave Natural Monument, and a day of activities in the Martvili Canyon. From £1,949 per person, which includes flights, four-star accommodation, most meals and the services of a tour manager.  

Iceland
UK-based Girls on Travel specialises in trips for solo women travellers, in group sizes of between four and 12. The New Year’s Eve Iceland break includes a Northern Lights tour and a soak in the Blue Lagoon. From £1,240 per person, which includes accommodation in twin shared rooms, B&B, a New Year’s Eve dinner, and all transport, tours and activities. Excludes international flights.   

Italy
Riviera Travel has an eight-day Walking in the Tuscan Hills for Solo Travellers group itinerary, which includes guided walks as well as the chance to visit some of the region’s cultural highlights, including time in Siena and Perugia. From £1,329 per person, which includes flights, accommodation, half-board meals and the services of a tour manager. 

Published in the Adventure Guide 2019, distributed with the October issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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