Independent Globe-trotter: 89-Year-Old Woman Explores the World Solo

It all began with an end: a broken engagement and a broken heart in January 1956. Joy Fox, then 20 years old and living in the quiet riverside town of Wivenhoe, England, began to consider life outside her hamlet.

Fox was born into poverty and had a difficult childhood during World War II. She had never traveled before. Fox recalled her mother’s memories of traveling to Egypt, China, and India with her father, a Pipe Major with the Royal Scots. Alan, Fox’s older brother, had expressed his admiration for the splendor of Venice during previous visits. Fox, weeping over lost love, thought her time had come. She sold her engagement ring and used the cash to pursue her longstanding dream of traveling across the world.

“I have no clue how I got myself from that village to Dover and onto the ferry,” Fox to BBC. “But then I took the train across France and Switzerland to Italy. And that was my first taste of being away from home.”

Fox is 89 years old and shows no signs of slowing down. She is still as excited and eager to experience the world as she was when she was 20 years old. Fox’s adventurous spirit earned her the JourneyWoman Evelyn Hannon Award for Solo Travel from JourneyWoman, a global organization that promotes solo travel for women over 50. The prize recognizes someone who has lived an adventurous life since his first voyage from Wivenhoe decades ago.

“I had no idea I would still be travelling at this age,” said Fox. “But being blessed with good health means I can still see more of the world.”

It all began in Italy

Fox’s first journey into the world was a happy two-week tour to Italy, which left him energized and encouraged. During the journey, she met an Italian who escorted her around the country’s highlights, including Portofino, Rapallo, and Milan.

“I met Luigi at a dance, and he toured me around the Italian Riviera,” Fox recalls. “The only problem was, he wanted to show me all of the churches, but I wasn’t dressed appropriately, so I couldn’t get into any of them,” Fox recalled with laughter. “But now, I’m smarter and always bring a scarf with me on my travels.”

By the conclusion of the two weeks, the tour had more than fulfilled its mission. Fox’s damaged heart was healed, and she returned home to Wivenhoe feeling brave. A world wanderer was born. “I came back feeling much better about myself, self esteem restored,” said Fox. “And Luigi sent me beautiful photos of our time together.”

Joy Fox sold her engagement ring and began traveling the world. (Credit: Joy Fox)

Fox’s family later relocated from England to Vancouver, Canada. After a blind date that turned into a six-week courtship, Fox married and established her own family. Her subsequent travels included camping trips with her children.

“My husband was a camper, and he kind of helped me to understand nature… he wanted to see all the waterfalls and rivers,” said Fox.

Fox’s family, which grew to include three children, traveled extensively across the western United States from their home base in Vancouver. When her husband’s job compelled him to relocate to Ontario on Canada’s east coast, the family embarked on an adventure, driving across the majority of the country. Then they continued their journey through the United States, this time along its East Coast.

When Fox’s children were grown and her husband was busy with work travel, she returned to solo globetrotting and did so until her husband died in 2015.

“My husband would tell me to ‘Go and do it’, and I still had the travel bug, so I went to Europe. I’ve been everywhere in the [United] States and Canada,” Fox said. “I went to Monaco, Australia, New Zealand and the Cook Islands.”

Fox spent her 65th birthday on a three-week journey rediscovering her family’s roots in Scotland (Credit: Alamy)

Fox returned to Scotland for her 65th birthday to visit the nation she was born in but had left at the age of three when her family relocated to England. During her three-week trek, Fox retraced an especially poignant route throughout the country, from her birthplace in the Royal Scots barracks in Edinburgh to the point at which her family finally left Scotland.

“I laid those ghosts,” said Fox, reflecting back on that experience, which she said has become one of many treasured travel memories.

“Scotland is a favourite simply because I was born there. But I also had a moment in Scotland, it was dusk, and the piper came out and played The Lament…” her voice trailed off. “It’s moments like that I love.”

Fox celebrated her 84th birthday in Norway, where she witnessed the Northern Lights, which she describes as a wonderful experience.

Fox visited Australia and explored the Great Barrier Reef, despite her fear of water. She rented a car and drove around New Zealand, swimming with dolphins in the wild along the way. It was an adventure that involved hanging from the back of a motorboat by her feet while dolphins swam around her.

“I thought, I will never be able to do that, I’m terrified of water,” Fox explained. “But [the guide] said, ‘No, we’ve got you, you’ve paid to do this, so do it.’ So I did it and I’m so glad I did…I was screaming the whole time…with excitement.”

Dolphins swam and lept in the water around her so close Fox could nearly touch them. The woman who was terrified of water, says she thought to herself: “Oh my god, I am never going to do something better than this.”

Advice for other travellers 

Years of solitary travel have also taught Fox a lot about how to traverse unfamiliar parts of the world on her lonesome. The most important thing, she says, is to become comfortable in your own company. She recommends taking the time to prepare for your first solo vacation by exploring your local area first.

“Go and eat out a few times, so that you’re used to eating out on your own when you go abroad,” she advised. “I like my own company, I’m happy as a solo person, but it’s important to get used to [it].”

I like my own company, I’m happy as a solo person, but it’s important to get used to [it] – Joy Fox
Fox occasionally consults with a travel agent before planning a trip. Other times, she handles the details totally on her own. On the rare times when Fox travels with groups, she makes an effort to break away on her own.

Fox prioritizes safety while choosing locales, and she frequently chooses accommodations owned by women. This, she claims, provides her with an extra layer of comfort.

“I don’t look for tourist activities,” when travelling, she said. “I look for things that get me in the heart – like seeing whales break.”

At 89, Joy Fox still relishes solo travel and has a long bucket list ahead of her. (Credit: Adrienne Guinn)

Unfinished travel goals

Fox isn’t the type to keep count of all the countries she’s visited over the years, nor does she put pins in a map to record where she’s been thus far.

“There’s a map in my garage”, though, she admitted. “I guess I could keep track.”. But it’s apparent that for Fox, the memories are enough. And she’s not nearly done with her travels yet.

Fox, 89, says she can’t run around the world with a big backpack anymore, and a 2018 spinal surgery for nerve damage has slowed her down a little, but she still rattles off a long list of travel plans casually, naming the journeys she’s planning or places she hopes to visit in the future.

Fox planned to visit Malta later this year to commemorate her 65th wedding anniversary. Following that, she will travel to Italy, this time with a choir with which she sings. Fox also intends to make a special trip to celebrate her upcoming 90th birthday. She is considering a number of destinations, including the Azores and the Canaries, as well as a visit to Italy to see Lake Como.

Fox has expressed interest in walking the 825km long Camino de Santiago trail in Spain, which passes through breathtaking countryside. Even experienced hikers find it difficult to achieve this travel bucket-list goal.

“I want to do it because I don’t think I can,” she explained. “But who knows? Maybe you can, maybe you can’t.”

And there’s one more trip that has crossed her mind: returning to the areas of the Italian Riviera she explored at just 20 years old.

“I have that wonderful first memory of Italy. I’d like to see that area one more time if I can,” said Fox.


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