I like to celebrate birthdays, of course, but more often than not, I’d rather be away “celebrating” somewhere other than home. When I return from the trip, I’ll enjoy a celebratory dinner or night out with friends and family. But birthday travel – being on the road for my special day – has kind of been my thing.
Over the last decade or so, I’ve spent my birthday in places like Puerto Rico, the Okanagan, the Bavarian Alps, New Orleans, Vienna… and last year I took a short road trip to Ojai, Calif. The difference last year was that for the first time in my life, I spent my birthday alone. By choice.
I saw it as an experiment. It was a gift to myself – I’d go to one of my favorite hotel properties (The Ojai Valley Inn), in one of my favorite Southern California getaways (Ojai), and I’d do whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted. I’d go to the spa, get a massage and a facial, take long leisurely hikes, eat a burger poolside, enjoy the quiet time, read – READ! – for pleasure, and write, write, write. That’s how I wanted to spend my special day – working on personal, passion projects that I don’t have (or rather, make) enough time for in my everyday life.
Looking back on last year, it was a difficult time. I had cancelled a trip to New Zealand, where I was supposed to be on my birthday because life at home was in chaos. I was getting over a quasi-relationship disaster, experiencing some professional setbacks, not feeling particularly well, and there were some personal family issues causing anxiety. Mind, body, and spirit were out of whack and the timing for escaping to a fantasy land down under just didn’t seem right. I needed to deal with reality. But being home didn’t feel right either.
A few days before my birthday, I started researching places within a two-hour drive from home that I could escape to, when I remembered The Ojai Valley Inn’s slogan — “find your moment.” That’s it, I thought. I just need a moment. To recalibrate. To reevaluate. To focus. To center. I needed time to myself without distraction or obligation, without a schedule, and without a plan. I could laugh. I could cry. I could hit golf balls as hard as I wanted to and I could sit at the pool all day doing nothing if that’s what I wanted. ME time.
So off I went… I hit the road the morning before my birthday – exactly one year ago today – and arrived in Ojai by noon, just in time to have a margarita and celebrate Cinco de Mayo.
Along the drive, I made a few phone calls to people I knew would want to wish me a happy birthday, just to let them know that I’d probably be unavailable for the next couple of days. I was going off the grid and going to love every minute of it. Or was I?
I was used to traveling alone, good at it even, and it was no big deal. But would the fact that it was my birthday change that? Upon my arrival, I was greeted by a lovely PR gal I’d worked with in past years. She had seen on Facebook it was my birthday the next day.
“What a bummer you have to work on your birthday!” she said. “Who’s the mean editor who gave you an assignment for today of all days?!”
“Oh no, it’s no big deal, really… I’ll celebrate when I get home,” I said, shrugging it off.
I wasn’t of the mind to tell her that this was by choice!
What I wasn’t prepared for was all the things that I’d notice that you don’t pay attention to when you’re traveling alone on any other random day. Like the fact that I was given two room keys, and the champagne and cheese platter in my room upon arrival was set for two. Or that the bottle of wine that my mom sent to my room arrived with two glasses.I dropped off my bag and headed straight for the spa. Turned out that there was an open massage appointment last minute. While waiting for my treatment on the outside sun deck, I let out the first full, long sigh that I’d had in weeks. For the moment, I felt like I was exactly where I needed to be, doing exactly what I needed to do.
I was done at the spa just in time for happy hour at Jimmy’s Pub. I had a glass of wine and some potato chips (homemade with truffle salt) and instead of staying there for dinner, decided that I’d like to order room service and eat on my veranda, overlooking the golf course, reading my book. It was lovely. And that night, I slept. Long and hard. It was peaceful in Ojai and in just a few hours there, I felt a million miles from the chaos at home.
I woke up on my birthday morning, and instead of going straight for the phone to read all the Facebook notifications that were flooding in, I went for a walk. I passed by the Inn’s herb garden — the lavender and rosemary aromas filled my nose with goodness. When I got to the edge of the property, I kept walking, and eventually ended up in town where I had a coffee and a danish at a hole-in-the-wall cafe, before turning back. Time to hit some balls.
I only went through one bucket of balls on the driving range before the pool was calling my name.
While laying out in my red bikini, reading my book, taking a swim, minding my business, drinking my mojito, getting some sun, and enjoying my lunch, an unfortunate thing happened. I noticed a man take my photo. He was trying to be discreet but it was obvious. He was sitting on the edge of the pool and pretending to be struggling to see the phone in the sunlight. But I could hear the “capture” sound each time he took a photo and he wasn’t taking a selfie. Not smart, dude.
My blood was boiling and it wasn’t from the sun. Stressing on my birthday while I supposed to be relaxing was not my idea of a good time. I didn’t want to create a scene either. When he got back to his chaise, I watched him for a minute. Should I go talk to him? Should I ignore this?
The server walked over to see if I needed anything else.
“Actually, yes,” I said. “I need you to do me a favor. I’d like to buy that man over there a glass of champagne. And I’d like to send a note with it.”
She brought me a piece of paper and pen and I wrote:
Have some class and enjoy this instead.
Now delete the photos and nod to me when they’re gone. All of them.
~ Woman in the red bikini
I watched as the lovely attendant delivered the note, and he flushed as he read it. He looked at me. I glared back. He picked up his phone. He seemed to be doing something on it. And then looked again and nodded.
Whether he actually deleted the photos or not, I don’t know. But I’m going to believe that he did… right before his PREGNANT WIFE came to the pool to join him. Creep.
Another swim and mojito later, I returned to my room to change for a hike at Meditation Mount, where I was told was one of the best places to catch the sunset and witness Ojai’s famous “pink moment.”
On the drive up, I passed hundreds of pixie trees in full bloom, dotted with orange fruit like adorned Christmas trees. Everything this time of year up there is pixie themed and that’s quite alright by me.
After a short hike, I found a cozy spot to rest and watch the sun set. Off in the distance I saw a couple, with a young child who I’d guess to be about four years old. He was between them, holding both of their hands, swinging them back and forward as kids do. I caught the silhouette of the mom – she was pregnant. They stopped walking and sat on a bench to watch the rest of the sunset. They kissed and the dad picked up the son, then put his arm around his wife.
I got teary watching them because it was so simple and they seemed so joyous. My mind reminded me that I have no idea what their life is really like. My soul, however, felt their happiness. It was beyond palpable in their body language and energy towards each other. When they left, I went to sit on the bench they were on, you know, because maybe some of that love would rub off on me. (kidding, kind of, not really)
Sometimes there are no coincidences. This was the inscription on the bench:
JOY IS A SPECIAL WISDOM.
I had found my moment. The moment that Ojai promised me. This was it. Joy would be my theme for the year; that special wisdom was what I’d seek.
Indeed, Ojai showed off that night and gave me a birthday gift of one of the best sunsets I’d seen in awhile. It’s not called California’s “Shangri-La” for nothing! I stayed at the Mount, taking it all in for more than an hour until it was almost too dark to find my way back. Just a handful of people were there when I arrived, and by the time I left, I was the only one. The quiet was blissful.
I got back to the Inn, showered and changed.
“How many will be joining your party?” the host asked as I arrived at my so-called birthday dinner.
“Actually, it’s a party of one tonight,” I said with as big a smile as I could muster.
“Oh yes, Miss Taub. Happy Birthday!”
Aww, shoot. They know.
I didn’t feel bad about it, really; I actually felt empowered in that moment. But then as I sat at my table and looked around the dining room, I realized that I was literally the only person dining alone. And then I felt a little awkward.
Is no one here on a business trip?, I thought.
Every other time I’d traveled alone, there were always – ALWAYS – other solo travelers around with whom you could make friends, or at least exchange a nod or smile. But this was apparently not such a place, not on this night.
The restaurant was completely full. I was surrounded by tables that included four ladies who looked to be in their early 40s, a family of four with two young children, a table of two elderly couples, a few tables of couples of varying ages, a couple who looked (read: acted) as if this was their first vacation together, a couple on a “babymoon,” and a large table of eight that seemed to all be family.
“Something to drink, ma’am?” the server asked.
“YES, please! A pixie smash!”
Bourbon, fresh pixie juice, not sure what else, but it’s a perfectly divine cocktail.
I honestly can’t remember what I ate for dinner. I know that I had an appetizer salad of some sort, and a main course of some kind of fish. And while I’m certain it was delicious, as the food at Ojai Valley Inn has never disappointed me, it wasn’t memorable. Or perhaps I was too distracted by all the people watching and eavesdropping I was doing. Either way, the server is what I remember most.
There is such a thing as an overattentive server and he was — so over-the-top nice that I had to wonder if he was always like this, or just acting this way because he felt bad that I was dining alone on my birthday. He, too, had wished me happy birthday twice before the bread even arrived.
Is it really that awkward?
I was content with my thoughts as my companion. I have such a busy mind most of the time that sitting alone somewhere, anywhere, is rarely ever quiet. So this was nice. Peaceful.
“Dessert for you?” he asked with a smile.
I thought about it. I wanted dessert, certainly. It was my birthday! I had to eat something sweet. But… he knows it’s my birthday. If he shows up to the table with a candle for me to blow out, that is just too far. I mean, I’m okay with dining alone. But blowing out my birthday candle while everyone looks at me sitting by myself? Heaven forbid he and the other servers or other guests SING me happy birthday. No… just, no.
“You know, I actually would love dessert. But I’m full right now, so can I take it back to my room?” I asked.
Crisis averted. I could have my cake and eat it too!
I was in Ojai for another day after that. I did what I came to do. I read, I wrote. I wrote a lot. I gave my body a break. I quieted my mind. I recalibrated my spirit. I found my moment.
Arriving home, I was grateful for the perspective. And on that following weekend, my girlfriends took me out for a Scotch-filled, wild night of celebration. It was truly the yin and yang of birthdays.
This year, I won’t be alone OR away. But there will be whiskey. And there will be joy.
Have you spent a birthday alone? Do you like or dislike traveling solo? We’ll be discussing this post (and those topics) LIVE on PERISCOPE later this week — check twitter @VoyageVixens for updates on the broadcast. We hope you can join the conversation!