The perks of being a solo traveler

The perks of being a solo traveler

I am a solo traveler. Not to say that I don’t occasionally enjoy a girlfriends get-away or a romantic escape, but that’s a different kind of travel. Then the main event is the company, with the destination merely a backdrop and any outsider the supporting cast. When it comes to adventure travel, make mine solo please.

It doesn’t mean going it alone. Tourists are everywhere, including the furthest reaches of the planet. Wherever I choose to go, I can be reasonably sure that I will meet someone who has also gone through the effort of getting there, an indication that we will share at least some common ground. And wherever tourists go, there are sure to be locals who within the framework of their culture and resources are prepared to make them welcome.

Bhutanese Buddhist festival dancers

At the Wangdi Festival in Central Bhutan, masked Buddhist dancers perform ancient ritual dances.

Traveling on my own enables me to focus on all that unfolds around me in the moment, without the filter of sharing impressions with companions or having to factor in their needs. It makes it easier for me to connect with the people I met along the way. And they are more likely initiate contact without feeling they are intruding. To them I am the interesting oddity who came all the way from a world that is as foreign to them as theirs is to me.

I was barely in my teens when I had my first taste of solo travel: a two-weeks visit in the family of my German exchange student. I immediately became the center of attention, the visiting Parisian. My friend took me on daily outings around Cologne, to monuments, museums and the hip shopping areas. Her mother showered me with kindness and made sure I tasted all the local specialties, including the seven-layer cake topped with whipped cream at the poshest tearoom it town. Her girlfriends were interested in my clothes, and their brothers were… just interested. Never mind that back home there were entire schools filled with the likes of me, here I was unique. I felt like visiting royalty. Solo travel was definitely the way to go.

Throughout my traveling life, it never failed to deliver unexpected perks. I once struck a conversation on a train from Milan to Venice with a lovely woman who then called my hotel the next day to invite me to tea. Her apartment turned out to be the piano nobile (noble floor) of her ancestral palazzo, at the end of a street that bore her family’s name. An invitation to a Venetian’s home is a rare privilege, to enter a private Palazzo an even rarer one. I would never have had this opportunity had I not been traveling alone.

In Chiang Mai, the historic city in the mountains of Northern Thailand, the manager of my hotel invited me to join her on a visit to the nearby Buddhist temple. She gave me a crash course on the rituals involved that allowed me not only to observe but also to participate in the daily offering of food her property made to the monks.

The most “alone” I’ve ever been on a trip was in Katavi, in the farthest southwest corner of Tanzania, where I happened to be the only visitor at the remote Katavi Wildlife Camp. There were four dedicated staff members eager to anticipate my wishes. The rich floodplain was teaming with game. Alone with my guide in the open-sided land cruiser in the infinite wilderness of the African bush, I experienced my most unique game drives ever. Then the young Oxford-educated British camp-manager joined me for dinner on veranda, and stimulating conversations interspersed with long pauses to contemplate the diamond-studded night sky and listen to the raucous silence of the bush.

In recent years (perhaps an additional perk brought about by gray hair?) I occasionally find myself “adopted” by fellow tourists the age of my own children. They see to it that we are on the same vehicle of game drives or river excursions. They invite me to share their table at meals. Invariably, after a time I always get the same questions. “Do you often travel alone?” Every chance I get. “Aren’t you, afraid?” Not a bit, I meet the nicest people on these journeys… More often than not, one of them will exclaim “I wish my mother would do this!”

For me the treasured memories of solo travels are as many as the trips I took. If you are an occasional or dedicated solo traveler, or if you are just considering it, or not, please share your thoughts.

Luxury Dining in a Train Station

Luxury Dining in a Train Station

The Gare de Lyon, one of the six main railway stations in Paris, handles about 90 million passengers a year, making it one of the busiest stations in Europe. A great majority of the human wave that rushes through its great hall every day never pauses to contemplate its grand Art Nouveau architecture with its ornate palatial stone façade and 64 meter (200 foot) tall clock tower. Nor do they notice the airy interior iron and glass structure of the great hall or the gracious curve of the double staircase leading up to Le Train Bleu.

Le Train Bleu

The historic Art Deco fine dining restaurant in the Gare de Lyon

Eye-popping Belle Epoque Decor

And they miss an outstanding dining experience in an eye-popping authentic Belle Epoque décor. Who can blame them? In the contemporary psyche, fine dining is the last thing associated with train stations. Yet that is exactly what the owners of PLM Company (Paris Lyon Marseille) that operated the southeast rail network at the end of the nineteenth century had in mind when they commissioned the prestigious building to mark the 1900 Paris World Fair. At the center of their station, they created an elegant bastion of French gastronomy intended to symbolize the comfort and luxury of train travel.

Le Train Bleu

The dining room is an authentic Belle Epoque extravaganza.

The Train Bleu has been holding its end of the bargain ever since, serving patrons in extravagant Art Nouveau splendor continuously since 1901. The walls and ceiling are covered with frescoes representing cities and landscapes as they were viewed from the PLM trains at the time, painted by noted artists of the period and enhanced by gilded molding and carving. Crystal chandeliers and sconces cast their shimmering lights on spacious tables clad in starched white linen and lined along plump blue leather banquettes.

Ceviche of bream

Ceviche of bream with capers: a summer favorite.

But what about the food?

It too remains in the classic culinary tradition of the great Parisian brasseries of the gilded age. Under the masterful direction of Chef Jean-Pierre Hocquet, Le Train Bleu woos diners with a lavish menu adjusted periodically to take advantage of the fresh seasonal products that are delivered daily. Thankfully, some signature dishes remain constant, such as my all time favorite steak tartar (finely chopped raw been tenderloin) mixed at my table precisely to my taste (spicy please) and served with perfectly crispy French fries. Also high on my list is the gigot d’agneau (roasted leg of lamb) carved on the trolley in front of me with its rich gratin Dauphinois sidekick. Occasionally, I forego these great classics for seasonal cuisine, such as the ceviche of bream with capers and fennel followed by a supreme of roast chicken with lemon and coriander glaze and baby summer vegetables of my latest visit.

Baba au Rum

The Baba au Rum is an irresistible signature dessert.

One thing that never varies for me is dessert, it has to the peerless baba au rhum with crème Chantilly, served with a full-bodied Martinique vintage rum. My server slashes the sponge cake in half with a decisive stroke and proceeds to douse it with the contents of the bottle. At that point I am always glad smoking was banned from restaurants long ago, lest my dessert might self-ignite.

The service at is unfailingly attentive, courteous and prompt. The staff understand that here most guests do have a train to catch.

Good to know

  • Le Train Bleu is located on the second floor in the center of the main building of the Gare de Lyon. Access is by the ornate staircase located inside the main hall.
  • For those who haven’t yet mastered the skill of packing light, there is an elevator accessible from the front courtyard at Door 11, just left of the main entrance, right across from the taxi stand
  • There is a luggage storage room located in the center of the dining room
  • The restaurant is open every daily year round
    • Lunch is from 11:30 A.M. to 2:45 P.M.
    • Dinner is from 7:00 P.M. to 10:45 P.M.
  • In addition to its dining room Le Train Bleu also has large, comfortable bar area where breakfast is served in the morning and light meals and snacks are available in the afternoon. Opening hours are:
    • From 7:30 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. Monday through Saturday
    • From 9:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. Sunday and public holidays
  • The restaurant is popular, and while I have never been turned away whenever I showed up without a reservation, I believe it is prudent to make one whenever it is possible to anticipate.
  • For those who are short on time, the Train Bleu now offers an elegantly boxed cold meal to be ordered by phone with a minimum 30 minutes notice

Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon, Place Louis Armand, 75012 Paris. or +33 1 43 43 09 06

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Gare de Lyon