Sober curious? The unexpected joys of traveling alcohol-free

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My first big trip after giving up alcohol was island-hopping around Greece in 2021. This was my dream come true – the travel I’d put off for far too long – and it gave me everything I hoped for: classical art, platters of stuffed dolmas (vine leaves) and that ridiculously blue sea.

But being in Greece also meant an abundance of gold-standard Greek hospitality. There were generous hosts who presented me with bottles of locally made wine, kind hoteliers who pressed mastiha cocktails and ouzo into my hand as welcome drinks and Cretan restaurant owners who plopped jugs of raki on the table for after-dinner socializing. Suddenly, this was an all new landscape for me to navigate. 

Free drinks? I’d never been one to say no

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For as long as I can remember, travel for me has been synonymous with drinking. Backpacking brought me to raucous hostel parties where beer never stopped flowing. Brunch meant downing bottomless mimosas. Every long layover could be salvaged by a boozy airport lounge, where I’d pass the time with gin martinis and conversation with fellow travellers. And free drinks? I’ve never been one to say no. Until Greece. 

I know I’m not alone in exploring the world without imbibing. There are countless reasons people are sober curious or choosing to live alcohol-free: overall wellness, a medical condition, a challenge like Dry January or Sober October, a cleanse or training for an endurance event or athletic endeavour. 

For me, it was a matter of prioritizing my wellbeing. In August 2020, I decided my relationship with alcohol was no longer serving me and might, in fact, be holding me back from accomplishing the things I wanted out of life.

The first bit of turbulence came on the flight to Athens

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I related to this quote by Ruby Warrington, who coined the term “sober curious” in her 2018 book of the same name: “Booze was preventing me from being fully present in my life. By which I mean, it was preventing me from knowing, in each and every moment of each and every day, what it really felt like to be me.” But even after I felt confident in my sobriety at home, it was intimidating to venture out as someone who used to drink but no longer does. 

The first bit of turbulence occurred on the flight to Athens, when the drinks service came around and I almost ordered a bloody Mary out of habit. It was disappointing to realize I had been operating on autopilot. But that soon gave way to a new thrill: who was I without my old habits? What did I really want? What if making new choices unlocked new possibilities? I couldn’t remember the last time I asked myself what I truly desired and needed. It was exciting.

During that trip, I discovered the most challenging thing for me is turning down a gift or declining someone’s hospitality. Since that often included alcohol, I learned to casually mention my sobriety up front. Sometimes it was as easy as saying, “I don’t drink alcohol, but I love coffee. Can you recommend a great café within walking distance?”

Since then, my sober toolkit has expanded

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I’ve now taken a few more international trips, as well as some domestic travel. My toolkit of sober tricks has expanded. I’ve learned how to better manage situations where other people are drinking and I’m not. 

Some strategies that have helped me include having a plan for what you’re going to drink before you head out, so you won’t get caught off guard when the waiter asks for your order. Most bars and restaurants post menus online (I’m someone who scours them ahead of time anyway, because I love daydreaming about meals, but maybe that’s just me?). 

Not available? Have your own go-to, like club soda with bitters and lime. Keep in mind that nobody really cares what you drink. If anyone gives you a difficult time, that’s about their relationship with alcohol, not yours.

In Belize, I visited cacao farms and ate handmade chocolate

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Ask the hotel to empty the minibar before you check in, a trick I picked up from professional traveler, Kathleen Porter Kristiansen, of family-travel site, Triple Passport. Fill it instead with delicious drinks you enjoy, like fresh juices, coconut water or seltzers.

Indulge in other ways. One reason I continued to drink for years, even after I considered quitting, is that I hate deprivation. I never want to feel like I’m missing out, especially when it comes to travel experiences. 

But there are plenty of other ways to connect with another culture. For instance, this spring in Belize, I visited cacao farms in different parts of the country and ate handmade chocolate. Give yourself permission to order dessert, sample a wide range of foods or learn about something else entirely. While others might visit a vineyard, go for a coffee tasting or street-food tour instead. Heck, try a new sport or climb a mountain. You can do anything.

I made it to the beach in Mexico before anyone else

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That said, be gentle with yourself. As I’ve learned from the online alcohol recovery platform Tempest, a setback doesn’t erase the progress you’ve made. As travelers, we know that life is about the journey, not the destination, and that holds true here, too. 

Someone once told me that sober sunsets lead to sober sunrises and I now carry that with me like a mantra. Waking up without a hangover is the best. It means enjoying breakfast in a new place with a great view and a clear head. I also like to plan things for the morning: early yoga classes, city walks or tours that help me enjoy a location before most people are out of bed — it feels like a reward. 

Last month in Mexico, I woke before the sun and made it to the beach in Puerto Vallarta before anyone else had a chance to leave footprints.

In Iceland, I turned down a shot of Brennivín for a geothermal swim

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Remember that it’s worth the personal effort. The things that have brought me the most happiness are all things I’ve worked for, from writing a book to summiting mountains. Cultivating an alcohol-free life is similar. Some days are easy, some days are work, but the payoff is worthwhile. 

I recently took another dream trip, this time to Iceland, where the chill at night is typically chased away by strong spirits. The charming hotelier offered me a frozen shot glass of Brennivín, the country’s signature drink, also known as “black death.” For a brief moment, I considered tossing it back as a way to experience something uniquely Icelandic.

Instead, I opted for a different experience, but something no less Icelandic. I took a dip in the nearby geothermal hot springs under the Midnight Sun, gazing at the glittering glaciers along the horizon, knowing that in the morning I would remember every single second.

Maggie Downs is the author of Braver Than You Think. Find out more about Flash Pack adventures right here.

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