You know when you’re on a trip and it feels like it has simultaneously lasted your entire life and also just sailed by in the absolute blink of an eye? That’s how I felt as we reached the halfway mark of what I hoped was the trip of a lifetime for my inaugural retreat crew.
By this point, everyone had well and truly settled into our villa home. I had stressed so much about finding the perfect home base for our retreat, and was so relieved when this place turned out to be perfect! I knew that we’d do a lot of learning in our first edition of this retreat and do a bit of tweaking based on our experience and feedback, and we have, but this gorgeous spot stays the same — it will also be the setting for Wander Women Koh Tao 2020!
I woke up on day five of the retreat curious if anyone would meet me for that extra optional 7am hike that I just couldn’t resist putting on the itinerary. I kind of assumed that I might not have any takers at all, so was pleasantly surprised when Emma, our youngest guest, joined me.
It was important to me to spend time and make a personal connection with everyone on the trip, and I loved getting this hour to have a heart to heart with Emma about all the adventures she had ahead.
Emma reminded me so much of myself. She was just eighteen years old, and used her summer job savings to join us — much like I did when I was nineteen and came to Thailand for the first time! Emma’s suitcase was lost on the way to Thailand and she didn’t get it back until the day she was departing — yet literally not once did I hear this girl complain. I lent her my spare dive gear and our retreat manager Christina lent her multiple outfit changes a day, and no one was ever the wiser that while she was hanging with us in Thailand, her bag was somewhere unspecified in the Philippines.
Post hike, the rest of the girls (well, most of them anyway — everything is optional on a Wander Women retreat!) met us for a class on the yoga deck. The lovely Janine of Living Juices brought not just an array of smoothie bowls, but a full set of vinyasa sweaty sun salutations.
I’m a loyal student of every instructor who joined us at this retreat — it was a joy to introduce them to the girls. Janine’s classes are so warm and welcoming, they actually make you want to be her best friend. And lucky me, I did it!
Hiking and yoga checked off before breakfast? Must be a Wander Women Retreat! Some of the top feedback I got this trip was that most people want a little more time to kick back and relax. I’m nothing if not open to feedback, including the concept that not everyone is conditioned to spring out of bed in the morning eager to accomplish a mere ten thousand activities before bed that evening.
(However, if you’re thinking of joining a future retreat and you are one of those people? Fear not — we will be best friends and you’ll never be bored for a second.)
Next up? The PADI Enriched Air course! I took this course at Ban’s a few years ago, and was so proud to have a head Ban’s instructor, Lianne, teaching a private version for the girls. Ban’s is the number one dive shop in the world when it comes to number of lifetime PADI certifications, so clearly they know a thing or two about teaching.
The girls had watched the introductory video at their private film festival at Koh Tao Cinema the evening prior, and Lianne had them laughing as they went over the theory and bookwork of what I consider to be the most useful continuing eduction course on the PADI roster. Want to dive longer, safer, with shorter surface intervals, and less fatigue? You need to dive nitrox! It’s even sometimes included at certain dive resorts and on certain dive boats — and that’s why I was so thrilled to include the certification as a part of this retreat.
From private cinema to pool deck to cute cafe — this course couldn’t have had better classrooms. I was super stoked to bring the girls to the brand new edition of The Factory Cafe, one of Koh Tao’s now seemingly endless hip and healthy eateries.
Over a lunch of goodies like shakshuka and avocado toast, the girls went over their Enriched Air exams with Lianne and got pumped for the best part of all — diving, duh!
Every morning, the PADI dive team and I huddled up to confirm the day’s dive sites based on weather — we had our wish list of course, but Mother Nature makes the final decision — and plan out the dive groups. We based these on everyone’s comfort, experience, and certification levels, as well as our belief that the best divers are adaptable divers — we kept things fresh every day so no one became reliant on a particular buddy or dive leader.
Of course, had we had any special requests we would have honored them. But the girls really put their trust in us to provide them with the best experience, and it worked. Between the incredible continuing education courses by our dive center partners, the amazing volume and variety of Koh Tao’s dive sites we visited, and the hard work of my PADI dive pro team, I believe every single wander woman left a more confident and competent diver — several of them told me so themselves.
And this was a day that was, shall we say, a real learning opportunity. We’d planned to do an enriched air dive on The Sattukut, followed by wherever the day’s conditions dictated. The visibility was low on the wreck, though I was reminded that it’s always best to train in less-than-ideal conditions.
Still, we managed a lovely dive on Koh Tao’s premier wreck dive site. With the waves kicking up, we decided to head close by to White Rock, and we were rewarded for our flexibility by a sighting of a favorite local resident — a sea turtle!
Heading back to shore, half the girls headed home for some much-deserved down time. The other half came with me for a new kind of nightlife: a UV dive with Master Divers. As with all the diver centers we partnered with for this retreat, it was one I knew and loved — I’d taken my PADI Self Reliant Diver speciality here years before, and was blown away by their level of professionalism and their dedication to standards.
So I knew they’d be the perfect dive school to partner with for something that to certain divers who might be afraid of the dark (okay, it’s me!) might be a tad scary: UV night diving. Now, I tried UV diving once, many many years ago, when I was so uncomfortable night diving that I may as well have been a shell upon the turtle that was my dive buddy.
I’ve learned so much about the wonder of fluorescence diving in the meantime; I couldn’t wait to share it. In fact, yet another one of short films at our little Wander Women Film Festival the evening before was a short movie on coral fluorescence that I had originally seen at the Unseen Oceans exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in New York.
Since photographing the underwater fluorescence requires special photography equipment, we decided to just soak up the moment — and grab this snazzy shot of ourselves on the surface in our special UV mask filters instead.
That evening, the girls crashed at the villa for a low-key pizza night, and it was a good thing that everyone was relaxed and rested because we had a very big plan for the day ahead — our final day of diving (I’m not crying, you’re crying!)
For our big underwater finale, we’d planned a day trip to Sail Rock, one of my favorite dive sites in the Gulf. However, the weather had other plans — big waves meant the two hour journey to get there would be rough, and the girls unanimously voted for the Plan B we presented. I was thrilled, because our new “round the island” itinerary had a first stop at my absolute favorite dive site in the Gulf — Shark Island.
As you can see from the flashed smiles — and flossing — in these boat photos, no one was too fussed by the change in plans.
We couldn’t have asked for a more apt sendoff to the week. From a stunning dive at the shallow reefs around Shark Island to an adventure around the caverns of Liam Tien to a celebratory finale at Hinwong Pinnace, the girls absolutely rocked it. I love these photos from our underwater retreat photographer, Paddy of Peach Snaps Photography.
From the check out dives to this final one, the retreat included a total of twelve scuba dives, and I loved seeing the strong, confident and sassy divers that emerged as they ascended from the final one.
We celebrated the classic Koh Tao way — a post-dive beer on the boat as we headed back to shore!
Needless to say, the day wasn’t over. At Wander Women Retreats, we’ll take any excuse to celebrate, and our final day of diving deserved a special send off. While the girls got gussied up for a fancy dinner, our team was hard at work setting up the villa’s projector for a marine plastics presentation and mastermind discussion from Hayley, the head of conservation at Master Divers.
Did I take advantage of having an audience at my disposal to
indoctrinate them against single use plastic pass on my passion for sustainability and travel? Ya bet I did! Of course, we believe all tirades against single-use plastic should be served in style, which is why this presentation was accompanied by wine and both dairy and vegan cheese boards from Barracuda.
And then we were off for a beautiful meal. Barracuda was consistently rated as the island’s top restaurant already — and then they opened their new hillside location at Ban’s Darawan. Game over!
There’s literally nowhere better on Koh Tao for a combination of fresh seafood, modern decor, inventive cocktails, and epic sunset views. I’m so proud of my dear friend Ed for bringing his newest location to life.
And then, before we knew it, it was the last day of the retreat. My fellow scuba enthusiasts know that dive trips require a “decompression day” when you’re out of the water so you can properly off-gas for twenty-four hours before getting on a plane. I was thrilled to use ours to take the girls on a highlight packed island tour of Koh Tao.
Now, it’s going to seem like we did a crazy amount in this day — and we did! But keep in mind the entire island is about eight square miles, so, transit times are pretty snappy. We started at the far southern tip of the island, at John Suwan Viewpoint, followed by a cool-off at neighboring Freedom Beach. There’s kind of hidden maze of walkways down in this area, so we beach hopped between them for a bit, until it was time for our date with some baby turtles.
Sea turtle headstarting is just one of many, many projects at New Heaven Conservation — but it’s definitely the cutest. We were super lucky that there was a clutch of babies in the tanks at the time, and Director Kirsty was kind enough to introduce them to us, and tell us about some of the marine conservation programs currently running on Koh Tao.
I loved seeing the girls get really into this and talk about coming back to the island to volunteer someday!
Next up: lunch! I’m a huge fan of the quaint Koh Tao Cooking School — it gets a big feature in the “what to do when it’s raining” section of my Wanderland Guide to Koh Tao — and was thrilled that they agreed to host a cooking demo and traditional Thai lunch for a break in our busy round-the-island day.
Our group had some pretty complicated dietary requirements — we had vegans, we had those with food allergies, we had those with autoimmune diseases, and I’m proud to say we kept everyone well fed the entire week.
Post-lunch, we busted out the sarongs for a quick visit to the freshly finished Koh Tao Temple. After years of construction, it’s been fun to occasionally pop by and see what’s going on here — while I’ve yet to find the doors to the main temple unlocked, Thai temples are sprawling complexes and there’s plenty to see in the other little buildings here.
Massage time! Our next mini-stop was one of my favorite things about living in Thailand — cheap foot massages where you can gossip to your buddies while you get them. In my ideal world, a daily massage would have been a part of this retreat itinerary, but alas, two a week was all our busy schedule allowed for (well, that’s what was included anyway — I think plenty of the girls snuck off for an extra when they opted out of a dive or a yoga class.)
Speaking of yoga classes, we had one final class for the week — and it was an epic one. Beachfront Sangria Sip N’ Stretch? Wine not!
My girl Ariel was back! I had taken a few of these fun and fabulous classes earlier in the year and immediately knew it had to be a part of the retreat. Ariel does an incredible job of taking a silly concept and grounding it in real yoga postures, balancing challenges, and partner work.
You really earn that next sip! What could be a better way to toast to such an unforgettable week?
After yoga, the girls continued the party with drinks on the beach, while I ducked out to set up for the evening.
For the final dinner of the retreat, I really wanted to plan something special — and I knew just who to turn to. My dear friend Caz, one of Koh Tao’s powerhouse female entrepreneurs, is the brains — and beauty — behind Forever Lovestruck, an event company that brings big ideas to life on this tiny island. I told her I trusted her completely to make something magical happen and no surprise, she delivered. I almost cried when I saw it!
On the private oceanfront dining balcony at Blue Water, we reminisced about the week’s epic highlights and in-retrospect hilarious lowlights, and I made a special individual toast to each of the girls — and of course ended up in tears.
I have to admit, with Koh Tao having such a reputation for great nightlife, I expected the girls to want to go out far more than they did. My retreat manager Christina and I even discussed strategies ahead of time for insuring everyone was rested and hydrated enough to dive safely the next day! Turns out we didn’t have to worry; we’d inadvertently stumbled on the perfect overindulgence prevention plan: exhaust everyone with so many activities during the day that they couldn’t wait to crawl into bed at night, ha!
I did have a surprise evening activity in store for the four who rallied to soldier on: a ladyboy show at The Queen’s Cabaret. It wouldn’t be a proper trip to Koh Tao without one. What a send off.
The next morning was full of tearful goodbyes, promises to plan future trips together, and laughing over incredible memories from the week behind us. I couldn’t believe how hard it was to say goodbye!
Life is funny. I started scuba diving when I was nineteen and wanted to impress a shirtless dive instructor in a bar and thus promptly enrolled in an Open Water course. The great irony is that over the past decade (zoink) diving has brought me into the most incredible community of women — my PADI family, my Koh Tao dive crew family, the Women Divers’ Hall of Fame family, my new Wander Women Retreats family, and beyond!
I had some moments underwater where I looked around at my dive team and my guests and I just had to pinch myself through my wetsuit to check that I wasn’t dreaming — yup, I really did manage to assemble this crew of absolute rockstars for my first ever Wander Women Retreat.
I’ve met some of my dearest friends though diving, gone on some of my wildest adventures, and even turned it into a part of my dream career. I’ve learned a new respect for the ocean and our natural world that I’ve carried into every aspect of my life.
I’ve become a real life mermaid, and I’m grateful for that. Thank you, PADI, for being such a dream partner in my first ever Wander Women Koh Tao Dive + Yoga Retreat. Here’s hoping it’s the first of many.
What do you think? Would you like to join me on a Wander Women retreat someday?
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!