It would be fair to say this post might be the most overdue one on my dive travel blog. Since I left my old life behind in June 2018, many of you wrote to me asking “What? How? Why?”. 2 years later, a lot of water has passed under the bridge; it helps to look at this experience with no hard feeling nor duty of confidentiality. Now is a good time to go through my dream scuba diving sabbatical which took me to Japan, New Caledonia, Vanuatu and unexpectedly ended on the French Riviera.
However, going into detail of the 15 months of such a roller-coaster experience would be way too long without saying boring. So, I decided to have a little fun writing it in the form of an A-Z guide that works both ways in English and French. It was indeed the best way to give you a glimpse of what truly happened and how it changed me.
A like Anxiety
I would have never guessed how terrifying having a dream becoming true would be. The most surprising part of it was that my pre-sabbatical anxiety kicked in in the last 48 hours before departure. While I kept working almost until the end, I thought with 10 years of solo travel around the world it would be a piece of cake. Wrong.
I suddenly realised I never had travelled without a fixed base for so long before. The longest trip I did this way was my 5 weeks between Mexico, Guatemala and Belize 8 years earlier. It was while packing that this reality struck me. You just don’t carry the same things for a month than for a year. And it was only the first reality check of what long term travel was really about. My diving bag (where I also put my clothes) ended weighing 23 kg despite all my best sorting habits. Indeed, when you travel for a longer period, at different seasons, in different countries, you just need more clothes (duh!). Knowing I would also dive in slightly colder waters, I also took scuba diving gear that is a bit heavier. Besides, my backpack, which was my carry-on and contained my laptop and all my underwater photography gear, weighed 12 kg. In the end, I left with 5 extra kilos than usual.
Due to the stress of the departure, I took things I didn’t need in the end or took the wrong ones (why camera chargers are so alike?!?). While we can find solutions on the go, it was way easier in Japan than in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where availability and prices can be a real issue. Without knowing it, having a month stopover in Tokyo and Okinawa before New Caledonia was a great idea.
My takeaway? Do your best, prepare as much as you can and then just take the plunge. Otherwise, we would never do anything. You don’t know what you don’t know, so sometimes you need to accept that there will be things you will have to learn to solve on the go. It can be scary at times, but if I had to do it again, I wouldn’t change a thing, because I learnt so much.
B like Budget
Most people going on a round-the-world trip usually have a budget between 15,000 and 20,000€ for about 12 months. In my case, with my choice of going to only a few expensive countries instead of roaming through South East Asia or Central America, I guessed I would be on the higher side of that range.
To be fair, it wasn’t so much of an issue since I had been saving money for almost 10 years and a lot of it during my golden expat years in Scotland. Through each of the 15 months, I just kept a reasonable approach to my spending by balancing expensive things with cheap accommodation or blog projects.
I took the opportunity to stay with a friend in Noumea, New Caledonia, but also in Toulon in the South of France. I also gave a try at house-sitting in Nice and Marseille. Without realising it, I saved about 6 months of accommodation.
My blog also provided for a large part of my expenses. Through the projects I did with the tourism boards of Okinawa, New Caledonia and the French Riviera, it covered some flights, train tickets, car rentals, hotel nights and of course, scuba diving.
The biggest expense I covered was my language school in Tokyo, for about 2,300€. For my accommodation in Japan for 8 months, I had planned a daily budget of 30€ a night. I managed to stay close to it, even by renting a room in a share house in Tokyo. My two return flights Paris-Tokyo cost me about 500€ each with ANA via Germany. However, my 2 weeks in Vanuatu were way more expensive than I had planned. Without the international flight from New Caledonia and my dives, accommodation and the return domestic flight cost me another 900€.
Overall, during these 15 months, I spent a total of about 16,000€, which makes about 1,100€/month. This is definitely not a budget on a shoestring, but when you look at all the things I did, this is quite unbeatable. There was no way I would go on the other side of the world just to seat on the beach, right? I hope it will help to figure out how much you need to save if you want to go on a similar adventure.
C like Côte d’Azur
I didn’t plan it. To be fair, I had no clue what I would do of all this freedom when my sabbatical would be over. But from the moment I chose not to return to my rat-race life, the most sensible thing to do, to deal with all the paperwork, was to return to France. But who said I had to stay in Paris to do so?
To learn more about my experience on the French Riviera at the end of my sabbatical, I recommend you read the following blog posts:
- Diving in Nice, the heart of the French Riviera
- Discovering Golfe-Juan, the best of diving between Antibes and Cannes
D like Digital Nomad
Aside from learning Japanese in Japan, figuring out the digital nomad lifestyle was my other big goal during this gap year. While I became progressively convinced that freelancing was for me, even by dramatically reducing the number of countries I visited, I was so busy with diving, blogging, studying Japanese that is was almost impossible to do anything else.
Through a series of trials and errors, I soon realised how important it was for me to have a calm environment to focus. It takes more than a couple of hours a day in a hostel lounge to take a business off the ground.
E like Experiments
The best thing I did during my sabbatical was to allow myself not to achieve anything during that time. However, what I truly desired was to have for once in my life, have the time and freedom to try things on and answer questions such as “Do I really feel like living in Japan permanently?”, “Is entrepreneurship really for me?” “Am I not too old to learn a new foreign language?” “Is professional travel blogging really what I want to do?” “Hey, what about house sitting?” and so on…
After 7 months in, I pretty much had the answers to these questions. I spent the remaining months to check the details of this new freelancer life I wanted to build.
F like Family
The most unexpected takeaway of my gap year is the time I could reclaim to be closer to my family. The birth of my niece acted as the main trigger. This is how in the middle of my sabbatical, I planned a secret return to France for Christmas. The face of my mom on the evening of the 24th of December was priceless.
G like Geography
“Hello, my name is Florine and I can spend hours just looking at Google Maps…”
Despite this odd hobby, the couple of months I spent in New Caledonia and Vanuatu made me realise how little I knew about the nations of the South Pacific. I learnt, for instance, the difference between Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia. Living in New Caledonia right before its first independence referendum was also the opportunity to dig into its complex history. Regarding Vanuatu, the United Kingdom and France co-ruled the archipelago before its independence in 1980. I was shocked by how little I knew.
H like Habits
From my very first solo trip to Canada at 22 with a work holiday visa in hand, I realised you can only get to know a country by living there for some time. 9 years later, I had another opportunity thanks to an expat contract in Scotland for 2 years.
Nonetheless, I wanted to take this experience further in a country with a wider cultural gap and potential language barrier. Japan was indeed a perfect candidate. The 8 months I spent in Japan grounded for good what I love most in travels: embracing local habits. It can be as simple as going to the supermarket to cook local recipes or have the time to make friends. It’s about the little things that make you feel you belong to this new home even temporarily. Slow travel is indeed the only way to achieve this.
From a scuba diving and underwater photography point of view, it was finally evident that the more you go diving somewhere, the better the experience and the pictures you can make. This is why I think I’m going to take some distances with my enormous bucket list on my world dive map to return the places I loved the most.
I like Itinerary
Since I had a lot of time to think about my potential itinerary before I finally took that leap of faith, I went through many different scenarios. But when I finally dared to ask for my one-year sabbatical, I had no desire left to run from a place to another. First, because I was mentally exhausted.
In the previous 10 years, I could travel each year for about a month in a different part of the world. I mainly visited South East Asia and Latin America. Although these regions are the most popular for round-the-world travellers due to their fantastic sights and lower standards of living, I knew they would be easy to return to any time. So, if that sabbatical was my only shot in life to do something really out of the ordinary, why not explore some places way too far to be enjoyed on a short trip and/or making a childhood dream come true?
There was obviously the cost issue that made me hesitate at first. I then thought by visiting fewer places and taking fewer planes, I could counterbalance this and reduce somehow my carbon footprint, which I became more and more aware at the same time.
Since I was invited to stay with my friend in Noumea and the most direct way to get there was through Japan from Europe, it sounded like an excellent plan. Then I saw Vanuatu was only 1 hour away from New Caledonia and it could be my only chance ever to visit it since the only other alternative is through Australia from Europe. And this is how I was happy to have only 3 countries on my itinerary without any regret!
J like Japanese
It was a childhood dream from when I was 7 years old: learning Japanese in Japan. When you have the opportunity to fulfil it with enough time and money, you just run for it. So, while exploring Japan underwater and beyond, I signed up for an intensive 3-month class in Tokyo on my way back from New Caledonia. If you want to learn more about the details, have a look at my blog post “Learning Japanese to scuba dive in Japan“.
K like Kilometres
Just for the record, let’s calculate how much distance I covered in my sabbatical!
First, I did 2 return flights between Paris and Tokyo, one between Tokyo and Noumea, and one between Noumea and Port-Vila. So, the international flight’s portion counts for a total of 53,972 km.
As often with Pacific islands, it is challenging to avoid flying. So within Japan, I flew 3 times between Tokyo and Naha, once between Tokyo and Ishigaki, once between Ishigaki and Naha. In New Caledonia, I made 2 return trips to the Isle of Pines, one to Ouvea and another to Lifou. In Vanuatu, I took a return flight between Port-Vila and Luganville. The domestic flight’s portion makes a total of 6,787 km.
I managed to take the ferry in Japan a few times. I crossed over twice between Ishigaki and Yonaguni, but I also took the night ferry from Tokyo to Ōshima. And that’s another 554 km. But who says Japan, says a lot of travels by train. However, France is also great for travelling by train. So, with my trips to the Izu Peninsula from Tokyo, and my trips from Paris to the French Riviera, I can add another 2,722 km.
Then I would need to add the fact that I rented a car in Yonaguni, Ishigaki, Okinawa, New Caledonia and the French Riviera. My estimate of the total distance I drived is 2,806 km (2,272 km for New Caledonia alone).
By adding everything up, I have a grand total of 66,841 km, which is 167% of the circumference of Earth. For those who like statistics, 80% of it were international flights, 10% domestic flights, 4% trains, 4% by car and less than 1% by ferry.
L like Liberty
I wasn’t only free from going to the office for at least a year, but by choosing not to go on a round-the-world trip, I was also free from peer pressure and must-see lists. My 3-country itinerary was a perfect white canvas to do things my way.
Suddenly, all this money I had saved for years was more than just a travel fund. It was a ticket to liberty. And the best of it? I was also free to choose to keep going or not, since I had enough money for more than a year.
M like Mosquito
My absolute pet peeves. I hate them. They love me.
I might be the reason #1 why I can’t see myself living permanently on a tropical island. Without kidding, you would see the size of my arm or my leg every time I got bitten, you would feel pain just by looking at it.
In Noumea, with such a lovely tropical garden at my friend’s house, when I wasn’t travelling or diving, I tried working on my blog outside. It was simply impossible to do it without entirely spraying myself over. Since I don’t consider living covered in chemicals every hour of every day a life goal, I had to work inside most of the time.
Then I thought, a Mediterranean region could be a good in-between. Unfortunately, it was before meeting the tiger mosquitoes on the French Riviera attacking between 4 and 8 pm. Well, at least I had the mornings!
N like New Caledonia
To make it short, of the 107 scuba diving destinations I visited in 10 years, New Caledonia remains so far my number 1. Thanks to very few divers, healthy and colourful coral reefs, a diversity of nudibranchs I’ve never seen before, without forgetting the frequent encounters with sharks, manta rays and turtles. Seriously, what can a passionate diver ask for more?
To learn more about my experience in New Caledonia during my sabbatical, I recommend you read the following blog posts:
- Impressions from the heart of the Pacific
- A scuba diving road trip into the wild of Northern New Caledonia
- New Caledonia islands: which ones should you explore?
O like Okinawa
The southernmost prefecture of Japan was a candidate on the list of places I wanted to check if I could live there. Despite fantastic dive sites in the Kerama National Park and around Ishigaki Island, on the one hand, I found the main island of Okinawa to be too urbanised with way too much traffic. On the other hand, Ishigaki and the other Yaeyama Islands were beautiful but so quiet that I flew back to Naha in advance once I had seen everything.
I may be too demanding, but in the end, in Japan, I found my happy place in the Izu Peninsula with its beautiful nature, mild climate and proximity to lively Tokyo by train.
To learn more about my experience in Japan during my sabbatical, I recommend you read the following blog posts:
- My Izu Peninsula: scuba diving & slow travel in Japan
- Diving in Okinawa: a first-timer guide
- 10 reasons to go scuba diving in Ishigaki and the Yaeyama Islands
P like Problems
Remember, when I mentioned my sabbatical was a roller coaster experience in the introduction?
At the same time, how could this be a decent story without a couple of unpleasant to quite stressful challenges?
By looking at it with some distance today, it was really nothing, only material things. I didn’t end up in the hospital or worse. No, the issue was I suddenly faced a series of incredibly frustrating issues that never happened to me before in 10 years of solo travel:
- I smashed my laptop in the escalators of Narita Airport when I came back from New Caledonia. With prices of laptops being almost double than in Europe (I know, I couldn’t believe it myself too) buying another one wasn’t an option.
- When I managed to fix my laptop 2 months later for 350€, the Wifi card randomly disconnected. I somehow found a way to force it to reconnect, but after a while, it just stopped working. Nobody ever found was what going on.
- I lost my passport (or got it stolen, I will never know) in Tokyo. At least I learnt it was faster to get a new passport at the French embassy than in Paris. However, I discovered the wonderful world of Japan Immigration Bureau for a full day to get the new passport stamped to avoid being fined at the airport. Obviously, no one speaks English there; I could hopefully, speak some Japanese at that moment.
- The battery of my smartphone was dying, and I couldn’t find a spare one because who keeps a smartphone 4 years? I do if still works!
- The strap of my mask and one strap of my fins broke. And because I was travelling with so much stuff, no, I didn’t bring any spares parts.
- My favourite pair of boots broke in the middle of the winter in Tokyo where it’s impossible to find shoes in size 40 (yes, even on Amazon) as the maximum size for women in Japan is 38. Well, let’s embrace DIY!
At the risk of sounding too dramatic, the tiniest hick-up made me, stupidly enough, quite emotional about it. I started to see all of it like a sign that living this way was not for me. Once I got over each issue, I realised it just make me even more confident about choosing this lifestyle.
Q like Question
The one big question I had on my mind since day 1: “What will I do when this is all over?”
I knew before leaving that you rarely come back from a sabbatical the same person. So be warned, once you’re in, your life won’t be the same. At least it was the case for the people I asked and me.
It is quite funny to see how much I was scared before December 2018 to not go back to my life in Paris. Then after January 2019, I was actually terrified of going back. What made the difference? My first freelance assignments…
R like Return
How do you return from such an extraordinary pause in your life? I won’t lie, it wasn’t easy, but at the same time, I came back tired. On top of this, the perspective of having to officially deal with the ending of the work contract I had for the past 10 years wasn’t really appealing.
Spending a couple of months with friends in the south of France with plenty of good food and good diving definitely helped. A week after it was officially over, I was already moving forward by seating in the plane taking me to my next adventure in French Polynesia.
S like Solo
As I wrote many times over the years, travelling solo doesn’t mean being on your own the whole time. This trip was no exception, and I made new friends in Japan and New Caledonia. We shared together some unforgettable memories, underwater and beyond!
If you are still hesitating to travel alone, read my blog post about my solo scuba diving trips. I wrote it first when I lived in Scotland, but I updated it when I came back from my sabbatical.
T like Tokyo
The best surprise of all the places I explored during my gap year came from Tokyo. I had no idea I would love so much living in the Japanese capital city. With nearly 43 million people, it’s the most populated metropolitan area in the world. Nonetheless, it is quiet, clean and efficiently connected by train or ferry to so many dive sites.
Check my detailed guide about to make the perfect stopover in Tokyo on your way to the Pacific to understand why I loved it so much.
U like Urban
It was indeed interesting to come to the conclusion that no matter how much I love nature and the ocean, I am a city girl. Maybe I need to take a closer look at cities that would fit the bill by being close to the sea without being crazy expensive. Feel free to send ideas my way!
V like Vanuatu
Would you agree that on any trip there is always a place we like less?
Despite some of the best wreck diving I did in 10 years of scuba diving, Vanuatu ended up in that category. I explain why in the blog post about diving the SS Coolidge shipwreck.
W like Wow
Let’s do a top 5 of my most memorable moments of the 116 dives I did during my sabbatical. Obviously, it is mostly about sharks and manta rays, but not only!
1 – Yonaguni, Japan: it required much patience and dedication, but diving with schooling hammerhead sharks was worth every effort.
2 – Ouvea, New Caledonia: being only 2 divers with an oceanic manta ray in the warm crystal-clear waters of New Caledonia was magical.
3 – Luganville, Vanuatu: night diving in the cargo of the SS Coolidge shipwreck and then switching off our lights to see the flashlight fish was the closest experience I got from being in outer space.
4 – Noumea, New Caledonia: it took me more than a good fin kick to get to see them in the strong currents that day, but nothing is more elegant than a school of leopard eagle rays.
5 – Yonaguni, Japan: Yes, again! The underwater monument of Yonaguni is such a unique dive site with so much mystery around it, it had to be on my list.
Sorry, but I won’t tell you anything!
Y like Yonaguni
As you can see on my top 5 underwater moments above, Yonaguni scored not less than 2 out of 5. The westernmost island of Japan is definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all passionate divers. Have a look at the two blog posts I wrote about my experience in Yonaguni:
Z like Zen
Once I went through all the good and bad of my sabbatical, by making some lifelong dream becoming true, I felt a serenity I never experienced before. I could clearly see what I wanted to do next thanks to this time I gifted myself.
Japanese people call it “Ikigai”, the reason to wake up in the morning. Well, I think I found it. Today, despite the hurdles of the epidemic, I am where I should be, doing what I love. And what precisely I’m doing now is another story that barely started…
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“U” Vancouver BC Canada
Wow thanks for your recommendation, indeed, while I lived in Canada on the east coast, I often heard about how cool was Vancouver right between the mountains and the ocean!