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How (or Whether) to Plan an Unplanned Honeymoon

At about stair number 1,082—the one that brought us uncomfortably close to a pack of snarling pit bulls—I started to question the wisdom of our mystery honeymoon.

It was the fifth day of a spontaneous trip that started in Singapore and led us to Penang, Malaysia. We had woken at 5 a.m. to watch the sunrise—a classic play from the honeymoon book—at the top of Penang Hill. But after paying for the bus trip from George Town, we were five ringgit short of affording two round-trip rides on the old funicular. “How much to just go up?” my now-husband Kevin asked.

IMG_0042The train was not scheduled to leave for another 45 minutes. As bursts of pink and orange lit up what little sky was visible from the station platform, we cursed ourselves for not checking the funicular schedule. When we finally reached the summit, we learned that David Brown’s teahouse, the restaurant at which we planned to have breakfast atop the hill, didn’t open for another hour. Which is why we struggled down thousands of stone steps, hungry—or rather, “hangry”—straight toward a pack of wild dogs.

It wasn’t the perfect morning, or the perfect honeymoon. But we were on a “mysterymoon,” and researching details like prices and hours didn’t fit into our decide-at-the-last-minute motto. In the weeks spent planning a small marriage celebration in our current home of Sydney, Australia, the last thing we wanted to do was agonize over a honeymoon. So we enlisted our travel agent friend Trish to book flights in and out of an undisclosed location and secure accommodation for the first night. We exchanged a flight budget and dates for a white envelope that we vowed not to open until we arrived at the Sydney Airport.

No expectations
Why put such a high-stakes trip into someone else’s hands? I needed to let go. I’m a travel writer for whom vacations often double as reporting trips. As a result, they’re so packed with story ideas and appointments that there’s little space for the sensory, spontaneous, and surprising elements that make travel so transformative. For our honeymoon, Kevin and I wanted to go with the flow and experience the unexpected; the more random the destination the better. What’s more romantic than lovers overcoming a challenge together, anyway?

Spontaneous or stressful?
After a brief moment of disappointment when we learned our destination was Singapore (my mind was somehow fixed on remote cays in the Philippines), excitement crept in. I knew hardly anything about Singapore, and even less about the countries that surround it. But from arriving in Singapore’s predominantly Muslim Bugis district during the call to prayer to witnessing Ching Ming “Tomb Sweeping Day” in the World Heritage Chinatown of Melaka, Malaysia, to seeing wild macaque monkeys en route to deserted Turtle Beach in Penang, everything felt thrilling. That’s not to say our approach wasn’t frustrating. When we should have been out exploring, we were poring through Lonely Planet pages, running Google image searches, and calling hotels to make same-day bookings. Without his well-prepared sidekick, Kevin took on more of the burden and couldn’t relax until he knew where we’d sleep each night. But once we made reservations and filled our bellies with street-stall laksa, we saw the humor in the process. “That was good practice for being homeless,” Kevin said.

What about the romance?
Stress impedes romance. So do bunk beds, which we found out on night one. (Was Trish playing a joke on us?). For the rest of the trip, we splurged the most on accommodations, which ranged from renovated Peranakan (Chinese-Malay) mansions—one of them on “Love Lane”—to a beach house made of driftwood on Indonesia’s Nikoi Island. With a glass wall that opened to the Java Sea and a white mosquito net that breathed in the breeze, Nikoi was exactly what we needed. The biggest decision we had to make was whether to get out of bed to see the new sea turtle hatchlings. (We didn’t.)

Lessons learned
It’s not for everyone, but those who teeter happily on the edge of their comfort zone will likely appreciate a Spin-the-Globe-style trip. Ours taught us to keep an open mind, embrace the unknown, and go with our gut. Most of all, we learned about ourselves and our varying travel styles. While stressful at times, having the flexibility to shift the plan according to our whims was a blessing, even when it took us down the other side of Penang Hill. Once we mustered the courage to pass those barking dogs, a panorama of hillside flower farms, banana trees, and red-tile roofs extending to the Malacca Strait came into view. Starving, sore, and mosquito-bitten, we shared a knowing smile. The other side is what we were looking for all along.

For the trip highlights, check out Serena and Kevin’s Mysterymoon list.