It started with a dream.
I’ve been pretty deeply in love with Koh Tao since I first washed ashore there in 2009. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops, which I did right here on this blog. Later, I started welcoming and hosting friends from around the world; playing tour guide on my little island. But I yearned for more; I wanted to keep showing off my personal version of paradise.
The island itself it had touched my life and changed me for the better, and as my years of entrepreneurship ticked on, I just knew that I had something special in the incredibly supportive sisterhood here on Koh Tao. And then there were the passions that had bloomed on these shores: Yoga had taught me the importance of caring for myself, diving had taught me the importance of caring about the planet. What if I could share a piece of all of that with women from around the world?
And thus, in 2018, I took a big leap and launched Wander Women Koh Tao: A Dive + Yoga Retreat. It was, hands down, the biggest risk I’ve taken in my career. Yet I knew it had the potential to have the biggest reward. This retreat came straight from my heart, with nine years of Koh Tao history and a lifetime of love for travel and community behind it.
I didn’t outsource to a tour company or plop the whole thing at a resort or retreat center. Not that there’s anything inherently wrong with any of those choices! I just felt called, in this case, to build this retreat from the ground up, letting not a single detail go unexamined.
So far, a hallmark of Wander Women Retreats is that we all stay together under one roof… or two neighboring ones, in this case, since Koh Tao doesn’t really have one villa big enough for all of us! Why a villa? Because I’m still thirteen at heart and having sleepovers with all my girlfriends is one of my favorite things.
While there were more palatial villa options with more sweeping views, I opted for a home base that was easy walking distance from Sairee, so our future guests felt like they had freedom of movement without the pressure to rent a motorbike.
Yet with two pools, a yoga deck, an outdoor projector screen, and lush indoor outdoor bathrooms, who would want to leave? My team and I worked hard before the retreat kick off to add all kinds of Wander Women touches, from hand-crafted welcome signs (y’all know I never turn down the chance to wield a glue gun, right?) to fresh flowers to locally-sourced organic toiletries from female-owned May & Co. to the dopest welcome bags Koh Tao had ever seen — at least in my totally unbiased opinion.
Our generous retreat sponsors hooked our Wander Women up. I’m so grateful to PADI for being not just my retreat sponsor but also being true cheerleaders and giving me endless support and love while I got this baby dream off mine off the ground.
Our goal of being as eco-friendly and low-impact as possible was realized through stainless steel PADI water bottles, PADI bamboo utensil sets (my favorite!) and PADI and Wander Women totes — plus I threw in some beloved stainless steel straws. Keeping us looking fresh were PADI sunglasses and hair-ties, plus #PADIwomen stickers.
I couldn’t help but throw in a quote-sprinkled welcome booklet with the retreat’s itinerary, everyone’s social handles and other essential info; a sparkly pen and stamped Wander Women notebook for all the fresh diving knowledge everyone was about to absorb (any excuse to craft, really); and my all-time favorite simple diving accessory, a carabiner to clip your mask or camera or whatever your little heart desires right to your BCD.
Last but most certainly not least, we doubled down on that commitment to being eco-friendly by providing the girls with a travel pack of Stream2Sea’s reef and ocean safe products. I’m a huge fan of this brand’s wide and comprehensive line of products and their true commitment to sustainability, and so we also stocked our private dive boat with full size versions of all their products.
From tinted reef safe sunscreen to offset the white color that affects mineral sunscreens to leave-in conditioner perfect for popping on after a dive to body lotion, lip balm, and a relief gel for those prone to burns and stings, they’ve really thought of it all.
If you’d like to try out Stream2Sea products, use wanderland for 10% off!
It felt like Christmas Eve waiting for everyone to arrive! A few of the girls rocked up early to complete a Scuba Review in the villa pool, with one of the girls even completing her PADI Open Water at Ban’s Diving in order to join the retreat — how cool is that?
Finally, the big day had arrived, and my team spent the day welcoming girls at the pier and settling them into their villa rooms before our official kick off on the yoga deck that afternoon. Having done the journey down to Koh Tao about ten million times over the years, I knew that everyone was likely to be wiped, so we planned a low key night of post-travel welcome yoga taught by me, a getting-to-know-you Thai dinner at the villa cooked by our private chef, and finally, relaxing Thai massages at my favorite spot down the street. (Literally, I’ve thrown a Christmas party there, so the sight of me rolling in with ten girls needing kneaded was nothing new.)
What a joy it was to finally get to know everyone in person after months of chatting in our Facebook group! Aside from one adorable mother daughter pair, everyone had flown to Thailand solo — and ready to make a dozen new best friends, of course. We had guests flying in from the US, Canada and Japan; an age range spanning decades; and a wide range of backgrounds from English teacher to special events coordinators to artists.
One thing everyone had in common? A love of adventure and the ocean.
But about that dinner though! I absolutely loved collaborating on planning the meals and menus for this retreat. Koh Tao has an incredible number of talented chefs and I loved sharing my friends’ stellar restaurants as well as some gorgeous in-villa meals.
We started every day of the retreat nice and simple with breakfast delivered to the villa — a smoothie bowl from Living Juices, Koh Tao’s original green juicer, smoothie bowl provider, and maker of all things fresh and nutritious. With seven different smoothie bowls to choose from, several of the girls made it their mission to try them all throughout the week — it’s important to have goals, ya know?
Janine, the owner of Living Juices, was a big part of the first full day of our retreat. Because after inhaling our delicious smoothie bowls, we all headed off on a hike up the hill to a private oceanview vinyasa class at her house! We toasted after with virgin mango mimosas and some continued on to Fraggle Viewpoint while the rest had a rest before diving.
Basically, retreat planning was creating different iterations of my perfect day, every day for a week. Dream job!
The hiking crew and I made the sweaty ascent to the top of Fraggle Rock, one of my favorite viewpoints over Sairee, picking up a few pups along the way. From the top, I was able to point out the pier where our dive boat would take off from in one direction, and the roof of our villa in the other.
Back at the villa, our chef had whipped up another swoon-worthy meal. This time, a light post-workout lunch of carrot soup and fresh baguette plus sliced veggie salads.
And then we were off to our first dives of the retreat!
My goals with the diving on this retreat were simple. Leave only bubbles, take only smiles. Dive my favorite dive sites on Koh Tao on a private dive boat that allowed us to chose our own schedule, with a team made up of badass PADI babes… who just so happen to be my BFFs. Great music on the speakers, and a cooler full of post-dive treats.
Seriously, what more could a girl ask for?
We kicked off the retreat with some local dive sites to assess everyone’s comfort level underwater and introduce the crew to diving in Koh Tao. We chose the shallow sites of Mango Bay and Japanese Gardens, which showed off Koh Tao’s chilled out conditions of warm water and easy currents, plus colorful reefs of coral and fish.
I loved spending our boat rides and surface intervals soaking up the sun and hearing about the girls’ previous underwater adventures.
Back on land, we told the girls to get ready for dinner at one of my favorite beachfront restaurants — but we didn’t tell them there was a surprise along the way. A big priority of mine for this retreat was introducing everyone to Koh Tao’s epic roster of female entrepreneurs, especially those focused on eco-friendly business practices.
And so my friend Jess at FlipFlop and Treacle generously shut down her Sairee shop for us to have a private shopping event with some of her local retailers! While Jess was out of town on a research trip for her new line of salvaged-material wetsuits, she recorded a welcome video talking about the roots of her self-made swimwear line and the efforts they take to contribute positively to the environment. If you follow me on Instagram, you’ve seen me rock her bikinis many a time. (She also generously extended the girls a discount code — the same one that can be found in the Wanderland Guide to Koh Tao, if you’re also headed this way!)
The girls also heard from Christina, who was not only our mother hen retreat manager, but also the founder of Glocialite, a socially responsible manufacturer of artisan backpacks and clutches — all products are handmade in Thailand and a portion of the proceeds are donated to a local orphanage as well as to local artisans to help educate and train them with employable skill sets. How incredible is that?
Finally, we were joined by my dear, dear friend Amy of Amy Jennifer Jewellery, who creates handmade silver jewelry using traditional silversmithing techniques in eco-friendly packaging, the antithesis of fast fashion. I’ve collaborated with on a Wanderland Waves collection and I was honored to commission her to create a special Koh Tao charm as a gift for each of my retreat guests to remember our trip by.
Surrounded by shopping bags, we toasted to the perfect day with dinner at Fizz Beachlounge, one of my favorite ocean-facing restaurants on the island.
The next morning, it was photography day! After taking an incredible PADI Digital Underwater Photography course with my friend Paddy, head of imaging at PADI Five Star IDC center Sairee Cottage, I knew that a photo workshop had to be incorporated into the retreat. Paddy has an insane amount of photography knowledge in his brain, so asking him to distill it down to a morning session wasn’t easy — but he managed.
We stopped en route to the pier for lunch at Vegetabowl, another one of my favorite Koh Tao restaurants. Owner and head greens goddess Lauren whipped up some insane salads for us, and I ordered a fresh batch of her homemade vegan cookies to bring on the dive boat with us that afternoon.
And then we were off! I’d arranged camera rentals for the girls who wanted and needed them, and dang did we have some exciting subjects for the day. We were headed to Chumphon, truly Koh Tao’s most impressive pinnacle. The best part? While almost all dive shops head there first thing in the morning, we were going in the early afternoon, giving us the dive site almost totally to ourselves.
The amount of fish here is just incredible. Even after all these years, it still astounds me.
I opened the retreat to all levels of divers, and we really did run the full gamut: from a freshly certified Open Water diver to a PADI Instructor, my friend Rika who I’d been diving with once before on Roatan. Needless to say, those who work in the industry can be hard to impress, but I could see through Rika’s mask that Chumphon had done the trick — and I did a little underwater cheer as a result.
Our next dive was at Red Rock, where our experienced divers got to experience swimming through Nang Yuan Cave — actually a long swim-through with several natural light sources. It’s gorgeous, and this was unexpectedly one of my favorite dives from the trip.
Back on land, we rushed back to Sairee Beach for a date with the sunset. Partnering with local businesses is an important part of Wander Women Retreats, and I couldn’t wait to team up with SUP Tao for a sunset yoga class by my friend Ariel. When we got to the beach, the sky looked cloudy, the waves were rough, and I briefly wondered if we should skip the class.
The girls, however, were enthusiastic to try, and so try we did. After a brief warmup on the beach, everyone paddled out to the boards.
And what do you know? The rocking boards and cloudy sky made for a laughter-filled class punctuated by a just plain gorgeous sunset. So many later listed this as their retreat highlight!
After a drink on the beach, we all headed back to the villa for a much deserved dinner by our private chef.
The next day was the one I affectionately referred to as “choose your own adventure day.” I knew from the get-go that continuing education courses would be a part of Wander Women Koh Tao. I truly believe that as divers, we should consider ourselves lifetime students.
And so the girls had to make the choice between PADI’s Dive Against Debris course at Master Divers Koh Tao, and PADI’s Basic Freediver course at Crystal Dive Koh Tao. Master Divers is an incredibly eco-focused dive school, and Crystal Dive is the place for freediving, and both are five star PADI IDC centers — we couldn’t have picked better partners. Having not taken either course yet myself, I too was squirming with the choice.
It’s probably not a huge surprise that in the end, my eco-loving self went for the Project Aware option, which I’ll be reviewing here on Alex in Wanderland separately. I’m a card collector — I confess! We dropped off the girls who chose to do their PADI Basic Freediver at Crystal Dive, and separation anxiety kicked in immediately for all of us — okay, maybe it was just me. I loved this video from their day, which made me feel like I was right there with them!
Meanwhile, my crew and I spent the day with Master Divers, learning about the Dive Against Debris method, doing a cleanup dive, and visiting an artificial reef. We all met up for lunch and to swap stories at Coconut Monkey in Mae Haad, another health-focused restaurant on Koh Tao run by female entrepreneurs. You can read my review of the Dive Against Debris speciality here.
The whole crew reconvened that evening for a super special yoga session: an inversions workshop with upside down expert Cynthia of Ocean Sound Yoga. I’ve been practicing with Cynthia for years, and knew that my retreat just wouldn’t be complete without her.
Cynthia is an anatomy ninja and led us through the safe processes for getting into handstands, headstands, and forearms stands — and spotting each other! It was such a fun experience, and we couldn’t have asked for a better setting than the ocean-front treehouse we’d rented.
After a busy day, everyone was eager for a relaxed evening — and I’d rented out the Koh Tao Cinema in order to have just that. Over a comfort food dinner served inside the cute theater (there are couches, guys!) I screened a mini Wanderland Film Festival of Chasing Coral, an award-winning documentary, as well as short films on underwater fluorescence and diving with nitrox, which would come into play over the second half of the retreat.
Stay tuned for Part II of the Wander Women recap!
This post was brought to you by PADI. Don’t forget — Bookings are open for Wander Women Koh Tao 2020 — and we’re offering 5% off all dive retreats this week in honor of the 5th Women’s Dive Day. Use discount code “PADI” to book!