‘I wanted alcohol-free holidays that didn’t sound like rehab’

Working Abroad Q&A: Lauren Burnison's life changed when she gave up drinking

Lauren Burnison is originally from Northern Ireland, but now lives in Ronda, Andalucia, Spain, where she runs alcohol-free adventure holidays

Lauren Burnison is originally from Northern Ireland, but now lives in Ronda, Andalucia, Spain, where she runs alcohol-free adventure holidays

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 Lauren Burnison, originally from Northern Ireland, lives in Ronda, Andalucia, in Spain where she runs alcohol-free adventure holidays.

When did you leave Ireland and why?

I left Ireland for Argentina when I was 18 back in 2003. I was passionate about languages and wanted to become fluent in Spanish before starting my university degree in interpreting in Edinburgh the following year. Since that initial taste of freedom, I’ve never really stopped moving. I went back to Belfast a couple of times since then for short periods to earn some money. Then, I headed off to some far-flung places. I like off the beaten track travel. I would go to a country and stay there for at least a few months to get an idea of what it’s like to live there. Plus, it’s a great way to learn another language. I spent time in South America, South Africa and most recently South Korea. Perhaps the fact that they were all southern destinations reflects my then insatiable desire to escape as far away as possible.

Why did you decide to stop drinking?

I’d always been a big partier as far back as I could imagine. I never had much of a stop button in that regard. It wasn’t until things came to a head while I was working as a teacher in South Korea that I decided to quit drinking. At the time I didn’t realise it would be a lifelong decision, but I knew something had to change. Weeks passed and I really started to feel the benefits of my new lifestyle. There really was no comparison. Hangovers were gone. I was getting out and doing things that I’d always wanted to do. My relationships with others improved. It’s quite miraculous really. Anyone who has experienced this change will relate.

Why did you return to Europe?

After almost three years in South Korea I decided it was time to move back to Europe. I wanted to be closer to my family after so many extended periods in far away places. I suppose it’s just something that you think about as you and your family get older. In South Korea I had decided that I no longer wanted to work in a school. Although I loved teaching, I wanted to have my own business doing something I was really passionate about. What exactly, I wasn’t sure. I planned the trip of a lifetime from South Korea to Ireland, which took seven months. I visited countries that had been on my list for some time. Seoul is a fantastic city, but it is highly populated and that can be over-stimulating. I wanted wide open spaces and fresh air. I took a backpack and tent, and headed to Japan. From there I travelled to Mongolia where I fulfilled my dream of galloping across the Mongolian Steppe on horseback. I travelled to Siberia, swam with sharks in Oman and worked on a farm with horses in Bosnia. I met some amazing people and have some unforgettable memories of that trip.

How did you end up in Spain?

After Bosnia, I decided to travel to the south of Spain to surprise my mum and sister who were on holiday there. After a lovely week of relaxation and catching up, I decided to hang around. I’d always felt at home in Spain after spending some time there working and studying in my 20s, plus I could speak the language. I particularly liked the south and always envisaged myself living there. I looked at the map and spotted Ronda. I remembered my Spanish teacher saying how beautiful it was. 

Travel experiences for people who don’t drink? I loved this idea, but wasn’t sure how I could avoid making it sound like a rehab

I found work in a hotel for six weeks and immediately fell in love with the place. You see, Ronda has a special charm that draws you in. It’s surrounded by mountains and has some of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen. The whitewashed buildings typical of southern Spanish towns give it a real authentic feel. You literally feel like you’ve stepped back in time.

Why did you decide to run booze-free breaks ?

During my time in Ronda, a friend suggested that I create travel experiences for people who don’t drink. I loved this idea, but I wasn’t sure how I could avoid making it sound like a rehab. As time passed, I developed a vision of what I wanted to offer; invigorating group adventures minus the booze. I wanted it to be fresh and energetic, not sombre and depressing, an image that many people associate with being sober. It was important to me to create travel opportunities where you can connect with other booze-free people while having a total blast.

Lauren Burnison in Ronda, Andalucia, Spain
Lauren Burnison in Ronda, Andalucia, Spain

I’d always been the adventurous type, although before quitting booze, this usually involved me taking risks while under the influence and getting into mischief. Since quitting, I’ve been exploring all sorts of adventure sports. The trips I create allow people to get outside into nature and try something new. It’s all part of the feel-good experience. You go back home feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world, not exhausted and in need of another holiday.

What can a booze-free trip look like?

On our trips, we’ve got sunset kayaking on a beautiful lake nestled in the mountains, an astronomy demo, mountain biking, goat’s cheese-making, hiking, olive oil tasting, canyoning, a cooking class and heaps more. The great thing about the trips is that you don’t need any experience to do any of the activities. All you need is a general level of fitness and the willingness to try something new. The trips last for five days and the groups consist of eight travellers. Accommodation is also provided so all you need to do is book your flight.

Who goes on booze-free holidays?

Anyone who is interested in coming on holiday and not drinking. This could be people that want to try it out, people who have quit indefinitely or people who just want a break from booze. We’ve had all sorts of people on the trips. I launched We Love Lucid in March 2019 and ran three trips last summer. Like any business, it takes a bit of time to get the word out especially if you’re not spending a lot on advertising. Although last year’s groups were small, I couldn’t have been happier with the feedback. Everyone had an absolute ball and a few have showed an interest in booking another trip.

Most of the people on my trips are from the UK as that’s where is the whole alcohol-free movement is biggest right now. Saying that, I’ve also had a few Irish people on the trips, which is great. I’d love to spread the word more in Ireland. Drinking and consequently feeling rubbish have become so normalised in our culture. I want to show people that there is another way to live. Most people are scared to give up booze because of the social aspect. They fear that their life will be reduced to a depressing and lonely sorry state of affairs. I know this because that’s what I used to think. But, it’s not true. Your perspective and attitudes towards drinking change over time, especially as you start to reap all the amazing benefits of alcohol-free life. I’m not going to lie. You need to be proactive and willing to make changes to your usual routine. But, it’s entirely possible and totally worth it. There are actually more people out there that don’t drink than you think and with a bit of effort, you can connect with likeminded people.

What is next?

Right now I’m gearing up for the next season in Ronda, which starts in May, but I’m also sussing out some international destinations for the following year, 2021. The plan was always to go international. Ronda was the perfect place to start and I’ll continue to do trips there, but I’ll soon be focusing on expanding to further flung places. So far we’ve no trips planned in Ireland, but I definitely will in the future. I reckon they would be popular with the international community.

Where are you based at the moment?

I’m currently in Edinburgh for a couple of months while I promote the business and connect with others in the alcohol-free community. Do I miss Ronda? Yes. I miss the simplicity of life there - the mountains and the glorious blue skies. Scotland also holds a place in my heart as I’ve spent many years here since university so I’m content to be back for the time being. Plus some of my family live here now so it’s great to spend time with them.

Have you any plans to return to Ireland?

As for Ireland, I will always love going back there. The thing I enjoy most about going back is the people. I’ve yet to meet warmer more hospitable people. Since moving away I’ve really started to appreciate Ireland’s natural beauty - despite the lack of sunshine. It has a kind of unique ruggedness different to other places, but I’d like to have a permanent base in Europe too, preferably somewhere sunny!

Travelling has been the gift that has kept on giving for you. Why?

Getting out and travelling the world has shaped my entire life, not only my career, but also my view of the world. Ultimately this is the biggest gift of travel. It allows you to realise that deep down we are all the same. You develop less of a “them and us” mentality. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all experienced a little more “oneness”? On top of that, it gives you the confidence to do countless things and you end up with friends all over the world. Would I recommend people travel or work abroad? I think the answer is pretty clear.

If you work in an interesting career overseas and would like to share your experience with Irish Times Abroad, email abroad@irishtimes.com with a little information about you and what you do.

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