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Exploring North Carolina on a recent solo trip, I was offered a complimentary massage at the pocket-size, on-property spa at the hotel where I was staying after a Blue Ridge Parkway hike. My delight at the prospect of having my aching calves massaged dissolved when I discovered that I had been assigned to the male massage therapist. I politely asked if I could switch to a female practitioner, stating clearly that I wasn’t comfortable with a male therapist. I was quickly chided to reconsider.

“Just have him work on one part of your body,” said the attendant. “You don’t even have to get all the way undressed.”

When I reiterated that I wasn’t comfortable, she countered with, “He’s really good; you’ll like him.”

In my youth, I would have cowered, feeling embarrassed and unsettled. Not now, though. If there’s one thing I know now that I’ve reached 50, it’s that you should never let anyone railroad you into leaving with someone you don’t want to, even if it’s for a free spa treatment. I also know that one word -- no -- should be enough to stop any conversation.

So it was an easy decision to decline the treatment. I left the spa and instead treated myself to a glass of bubbly at a charming wine bar. As I sipped, I reflected on all the other things I wish I’d known before I turned 50, both in travel and in life. I’m happy to know these things now, even if they took me a while to learn.

A woman sits on the edge of a dock.

1. Trust Your Instincts

That street looks dark. My room is too far from the elevator. That guy seems like bad news. If you’re thinking it, it’s probably true, but when I was younger I often deferred to others, asking their opinions instead of trusting my gut. Honestly, there’s no such thing as being overcautious while traveling.

2. Say Yes To Adventure

In Dubrovnik, Croatia, I was sailing on a private boat (I know, right!), with a number of younger women. When the captain pulled into a sparkling turquoise cove and asked if we wanted to swim, the younger women all hesitated because they didn’t want to ruin their hair. I jumped right in. It was spectacular and a memory I still treasure.

I don’t remember much about how my hair looked that day, but I do remember the times I was too afraid of looking silly to take the plunge and say yes to adventure. I know now that the best dinner stories are about experiences lived -- even the imperfect ones (okay, especially the imperfect ones) -- not the things you never tried. I don’t regret staying at a teeth-chattering ice hotel, for instance, even though I didn’t sleep all night; “I stayed at a regular hotel instead” isn’t a story worth telling, after all.

A slice of chocolate cake.

3. Work To Live; Don’t Live To Work

As I’ve traveled the globe, I’ve learned that the happiest people are the ones who work to live, not those who live to work. I’ve tried to allow this knowledge to change my life, whether that means baking a cake for someone’s birthday or putting down a book that I’m not enjoying.

4. Enjoy The Moment

That piece of chocolate cake? I’m going to savor it. Watching a stupid movie for the 10th time instead of reading The New Yorker? I’m going to own that decision. Going to Disney World, riding a roller-coaster, and eating fair food on a stick once a year? No regrets. When I was younger, I spent far too much time being self-conscious; now I enjoy life in the moment and never second-guess my decisions later.

A couple sitting on a bench.

5. Make Time For Loved Ones

My loved ones mean more to me than anything. Since I've turned 50, I’ve been losing more of those family members and friends, so I make time to spend birthdays and special events with those I love. Twice a year I clear my calendar to spend a few days with friends who support me and bring me joy. And when I turned 50, I booked a trip to Paris, one of my favorite cities in the world, with my husband and my son. It increased my happiness exponentially to ring in my new decade with the people I love most standing beside me.

6. Wear Comfortable Shoes

On a lighter note, if I had a time machine, I’d go back and tell my 21-year-old self to stop wearing flip-flops and get something with some arches! Now I’m always on the lookout for stylish shoes with soft soles, plenty of support, and non-pinching toes so that I can keep on exploring the world. You can’t enjoy life if your feet hurt!

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