Mom beats breast cancer and then books 'dream' trip: 'It's the best gift I have ever given myself'

Denise Albert (Denise Albert)

I took off work completely for the first time in over 10 years. I turned on my out of office, got my business partner on board to run our company, without me, and took off to Europe for three and a half weeks with a one-way ticket and very few plans or reservations. In the past seven years, I've gotten divorced, started a new business, moved three times, was diagnosed with breast cancer and treated aggressively for two and a half years, spent four and a half years in and out of a horrific (for lack of other words) on and off relationship, was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis, and became the subject of a viral video for being mistreated with the TSA — all while parenting two boys.

The thought of waking up each day this past summer and going about my daily life seemed impossible. I knew I needed a change. My boys were away at camp and were happy and safe. Waking up, going to work out, sitting at my desk to work, building my business, meeting with my business partner, hosting one of our Mamarazzi events, seeking new opportunities in work, planning and going on a date, or meeting a friend for dinner seemed like a depression sentence. While that may seem like a dream summer to many hard-working parents, it's easy to get stuck in our own lives. It's easy to want something other than our stagnant, routine lives.

Denise Albert (second from left) on her big travel adventure. (Denise Albert)

So I booked my one-way ticket to Portugal. I started to tell everyone I knew about my plans. I asked my mom to join me for the first five days and I planned on doing the rest solo. Not for lack of travel partners, but because I wanted to try something new. I wanted to do something I've never done before. I wanted to live a free-spirit style that as a mom isn't possible in daily life. Still, I wanted to do it on a budget and economically. I emailed and told everyone I knew about my plans.

Just booking the ticket changed my mind-set. I thought to myself, "Everything in my life would be there when I return." Suddenly, I felt alive again. Almost immediately, an old colleague and publicist, Annie Scranton, sent me a note that I must try Flash Pack. I had no idea what that was and started researching. I couldn't believe how perfect the thought of this was. The company curates group trips for solo travelers JUST. LIKE. ME. Professionals in their 30s and 40s who who want the escape of nature and adventure but also prefer chic hotels, drinking wine and dining fabulously (yes, I've moved past the backpacking and staying at hostels stage of life!). What's more, you get the experience of traveling alone but with the support of a group. There were so many trips I wanted to go on with luxe accommodations yet that were still adventurous, once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I finally picked one and planned the rest of my solo travel around a five-day trip in Croatia.

Denise Albert

So that's how I ended up traveling with 19 strangers — who quickly become friends — from around the world. This interesting group included a high school principal from the north of London, a female cardiologist from California, a male video game programmer from the U.K., a female nurse from Buffalo, a real estate businessman from Germany, a recent medical school graduate from Atlanta and another doctor from Alabama, a female stockbroker from Hong Kong, and so many more. Some were parents, like me, others were not. Some had done things like this before, some had not.

This trip was right in line with my dream summer. I didn't have to plan anything, I would meet new people. I would learn about new places. I would try new foods. I would stay in cute boutique hotels. I would hike and explore and go on new adventures.

Each day together was better than the last. We were all connected on a group WhatsApp thread prior to the trip. Four of us were arriving into Zagreb, Croatia, a day before the others. It was like instant friendship. We made a plan to meet right away and all connected. There's something about being away, free, open and relaxed. How could we not connect! We learned about each other over a radler (my British friend's name for a drink I never heard of, which combines half beer and half fruit soda). We wandered around the city, letting one person take the lead and happily following along. As a divorced mom, it's nice to let someone else plan and lead and follow maps and not have to think! That's exactly what I needed.

Denise Albert

We laughed all day and night. When we met the rest of the group the next day, we felt sorry for them — that they missed out on our first day as a small group, as if we were friends forever!

We explored three cities in Croatia that included a full-day kayak trip down the Mrežnica river. It was beautiful and peaceful and easier for some than for others. But the guides and the rest of the group encouraged everyone and supported each other with whatever was needed.

I couldn't believe when it was time to take a cliff jump. I froze. It was so unlike me. I'm usually the one to try everything and for some reason this time, I had my kids in my mind, who are usually less adventurous than me. Some of my new friends said they absolutely would not take the jump, and minute by minute each of them did, with support and cheering from the others. I just couldn't do it. I felt like crying. I was having an unexpected moment of fear and my friends were all there for me. Finally, I was able to do it from a lower cliff and landed to cheers and hugs.

Denise Albert

The next day we did a six-hour hike around the UNESCO lagoons of Plitvice Lakes National Park, which was without a doubt the most beautiful park I have ever seen. Each day ended with a dinner at a delicious restaurant with 19 new friends all happy to be together sharing in this experience.

We learned from each other. We learned about each other. When the trip ended, it was hard to believe we wouldn't be together again. But we are following each other on social media, continually say hi on the group text, and hope to see each other again someday. Or maybe even on another Flash Pack trip.

I didn't miss working. I didn't miss going on dates. I didn't miss my daily life. I needed this. In my five days in Portugal with my mom, I learned more about us than I would have at home. In my eight solo days in Spain, I learned more about myself than I would have at home. I woke up each day and I decided what I wanted to do, what tour I wanted to take, or what part of the city I would wander to. I ate meals alone and spoke in my high school level Spanish to challenge myself. I took a flamenco dance class. I rode a Segway. I figured out how to navigate each city. I made new friends on every tour I took. I ended my trip in Athens with a friend. I missed her wedding two years ago when I was sick and this trip to visit her was a reminder of my passion for life and living it to the fullest.

When you work for yourself, you never turn it off. I'm glad I did. I needed it. My kids needed it. It's the best gift I have ever given myself and I can't wait for more. I've never felt more ready for work. I've never felt more peaceful and relaxed. I’ve never felt more excited about life. In hindsight, I can't believe it took me this long to travel solo. And I can't wait until I have the chance to do it again!

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