Where the experts holiday: Mel Stephens, founder of Travel Queen

By | Category: Travel tips & opinions

Mel Stephens, founder of Travel Queen – a UK based group tour operator specialising in adventures with style for women aged 25 to 60 – shares her travel experiences and insights with JAT readers

What do you like to do on holiday?
I love to explore on holiday, whether that’s doing something adventurous off the beaten track, or simply wandering the streets or beaches of local villages with no plan at all.

I prefer hot, tropical places somewhere close to water so I can swim, snorkel, scuba dive or sail, or just enjoy looking out at a gorgeous turquoise sea from a good spot on the sand, hammock or beach bar!

Where did you last go?
My last trip was leading the first group of my new Travel Queen Croatia Adventure tour for women.

We explored medieval old towns, national park waterfalls and hidden little coves in Split, Sibenik and Hvar and did all sorts of trips, including sailing around the Pakleni Islands, wine tasting at traditional vineyards, and enjoyed lots of amazing meals and sunset cocktails together too!

Mel and a Travel Queen group on a boat in Thailand. Credit: Travel Queen

Do you know where you’re going this year?
I’ll be off in November to lead my third group on the Travel Queen Thailand Adventure tour, then again for more of the same tours in January, February and March 2020.

We start the tour with a bit of beachfront luxury in Khao Lak before we head off to the jungle of Khao Sok National Park, then down to explore the islands of Koh Phi Phi, Koh Mook, Koh Lipe, Koh Lanta and Koh Yao Yai.

I’ve personally designed the whole itinerary from scratch to create what I believe is an amazing trip of the best I’ve found on my travels. I’ve tried and tested everywhere we stay, every journey and every trip and activity that we do. We stay in a mixture of places from tree-houses and traditional bungalows, to luxury beachfront villas and five star hotels with stunning sea views, but everywhere has been carefully chosen to give women an adventurous, luxurious and authentic experience of Thailand.

There’s loads of trips and activities included too and we do explore by longtail boat, visit an elephant sanctuary, meet monkeys, do plenty of snorkelling and swimming, hike through the jungle, take part in a Thai cooking and cocktail class, have time for kayaking, yoga and there’s even a spa treatment included!

All smiles in Thailand, the land of smiles. Credit: Travel Queen

After the next Thailand trip I’m hoping to travel to some other parts of South East Asia like Vietnam, just for me personally as I’ve always wanted to go, but also to start research for a possible new Travel Queen tour, as I have a lot of women who’ve been to Thailand with me that would love to see more of this part of the world.

Of all the places you’ve been to, which was your favourite and why?Funnily enough, Thailand! It’s where I’ve travelled the most and while I love visiting new places, Thailand remains my absolute favourite and always draws me back.

I love everything about the country from the jungles to the cities to the islands. The people are incredibly friendly, getting around is so easy, the food is incredible and there are so many amazing things to see and do, that are still such great value. 

From the moment I step off the plane, I love how wild and exotic Thailand feels compared to being home in the UK; the heat, the sounds, the smells, the people and the unbelievable scenery. It feels like my spiritual home and just being in Thailand immediately relaxes me and puts a big smile on my face!

Mel facing out on boat. Credit: Travel Queen

I also love the variety of places to see in Thailand and how there are still lots of hidden gems away from the masses, that unfortunately most people who visit Thailand tend to limit themselves to.

Thirteen years ago when I first visited the country, many of the places that I now take my tour groups to weren’t even known on the travel circuit, and now most of them are only known to those who have really travelled in Thailand.

Three of the islands that I take my women-only tour groups to aren’t visited by any other tour company that I’ve come across. I’m very proud of that fact and get a real kick out of sharing these places with people that also then inevitably also fall in love with the ‘real’ Thailand.

Which destination do you wish to travel to, but haven’t yet been?
I have so many places on my list. More countries in South East Asia is an easy one, as I am particularly drawn to this part of the world, and would love to see Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and also the Philippines.

Travel Queen travel buddies. Credit: Travel Queen

I’d also really like to explore Mexico, Cuba, Hawaii and South Africa. Wild and tropical destinations in another world far from home are what do it for me.

In your own country, what would you recommend tourists see that isn’t in the travel guides?
I guess the main thing I would recommend to tourists visiting the UK is to get up north.

Many people visiting the UK only see London and while I love it, for me places like my home of Manchester, as well Edinburgh and the Lake District offer a completely different view of the UK at a more relaxed pace; plus us northerners are known for being a friendly bunch who know how to have a good time.

How do you plan your holiday?
Planning holidays is literally me in my happy place: ideally set up in a cosy bar somewhere with a guidebook, laptop for online research, a nice cold beer or glass of wine, and I could be there for hours and hours.

Balcony stories. Credit: Travel Queen

I like to plan everything myself and can’t remember the last time I ever booked a package of some kind. I also leave time to explore while away, rather than have everything set out in advance, as I’m a big believer that sometimes the best things are found just by speaking to locals and other travellers, and getting lost off the beaten track.

Lots of women on my tours ask me how I’ve found some of the hidden gems that we visit, and that’s exactly how. 

How often do you go away?
I personally lead all Travel Queen tours, but I’ve been setting up and growing the business over the last couple of years, and my trips haven’t been that frequent yet as I’ve still been working full time in a non-travel ‘day job’ at the same time.

I’ve been using my annual leave to firstly research and finalise itineraries while away, then in the last 12 months to lead three Travel Queen trips.

As things have really started to take off now, I’ll be quitting the day job and going full time with Travel Queen, which means I’ll be leading a lot more tours next year, will have more time to explore new destinations for future tours…and may even get some time to relax on a beach and do nothing now and then in-between all that!

Who do you travel with?
I either travel on my own or with a group so I get the best of both worlds, as I love each for different reasons. Travelling solo when I’m exploring and researching trips gives my free spirit a fix, but I also love the company and fun of travelling with a group of women on Travel Queen tours. I get a real kick out of experiencing places with women who might have never done anything like a group tour before, or been as adventurous, done something just for themselves, or travelled somewhere as far or as exotic as Thailand. It often brings them to life and out of their comfort zone in a very good way, and the new friendships that are created often last beyond the tour when people get home. Aside from the obvious joys of travel, this impact of the whole experience on women that have gone for it and joined us is what Travel Queen is all about.

Where do you see tourism in your country, in 10 years?
In terms of my particular part of the travel industry, I think the rising popularity of solo travel and of meeting other solo travellers to travel with, will continue to grow among people in the UK. People will start to get braver about taking the plunge and joining a group, because as soon as people do with Travel Queen, they just want to come back and do it all over again!

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