I always envisioned marking my husband's 40th birthday with a sports car. Cliché? Perhaps. Nothing obnoxious, just a little refurbished classic. I never took into account how unlikely it might be to have an additional parking space in our garage in midtown Toronto for this imaginary car. Or the capability for it to accommodate two young children (both still in massively heavy car seats). Furthermore, how uncomfortable it might be to drive a car with no real suspension or heated seats, proper climate control, built-in USB plugs or Bluetooth capabilities.
So we'll pass on the car. As it turns out, we're not the only ones bucking this midlife crisis rite of passage. "Research shows that a First World generation that has grown up with relative peace and affluence – people in their 40s – desire authentic experiences over material possessions," says Ann Layton, chief executive of travel and tourism public relations firm Siren Communications. "Posting photos of your new gas-guzzling vehicle does not have nearly the same bragging rights as a river cruise in Vietnam."
Some are taking the experiential milestone birthday celebration trend to new heights. Martha Weeman, a women's wear designer, recently planned a weekend of experiences and celebrations for her husband's 40th birthday. Instead of hiring a private chef or renting a party room at a local Toronto restaurant, she booked a fully staffed villa in Montego Bay, Jamaica – with room for 10 of their closest friends from the United States, Britain and Canada.
"Because my husband grew up in New York and started his career in London, his best friends are dotted all over the world," Weeman says. "Jamaica felt like a good compromise as there are plenty of direct flights and more importantly, his birthday is in December, so it was an escape from winter for most of our guests. Maybe that is why it came together so seamlessly."
When asked what the best part of the weekend was, Weeman responded simply, "finding the ability to press pause on daily life, and be in the moment reconnecting with our most important people is a gift money or objects could never rival."
When the time recently came to celebrate this same milestone for my own husband, instead of going for the car, I set about planning for a memorable adventure abroad. I wanted to whisk him away to somewhere neither of us had ever explored, and after fantasizing and cross-checking lists, we landed on Peru. The romance of Latin America constantly draws us back and, as passionate foodies, we were both curious about Peruvian cuisine. We opted for a small, four-day river cruise along the Peruvian Amazon aboard the Delfin I, one of three boats in the Delfin Amazon Cruises family. We bookended this with time in Lima to explore the city's storied streets and sample its celebrated cuisine.
This adventure was an opportunity to acknowledge a milestone birthday while checking some major items off of our collective travel bucket list. More than that, it was about the rare experiences we had while visiting Peru, and the connections we made with its people as well as the ones we deepened with each other. Each memory from our eight days in this remarkable country – the smells of the hawkers' carts rattling down the street, the electric colours of the textiles we fell in love with, the sounds of the jungle at night as we slowly glided down the Amazon River – will be imprinted on our minds for us to treasure for years to come.
Tour operators are witnessing this shift first hand, reporting an increase in travel amongst milestone travellers such as ourselves. "For previous generations, travel was just a rest and a getaway, a status symbol or an escape from reality," says Geoffrey Kent, founder, chairman and CEO of Abercrombie & Kent. "Travellers in our seamlessly connected era want to remember meaningful occasions with significant experiences instead of material goods. This is true of guests celebrating milestone birthdays as well as weddings and anniversaries. They want to share memories that will last a lifetime with family and friends."
Stacia Slightham is still riding the high of her own 40th celebration in Aspen, Colo., with close girlfriends. "During university as housemates and best friends, we hatched this plan – we promised each other that no matter what – kids, husbands, home-bases, professional commitments – we would carve out the time and money to make this trip happen," says the stay-at-home mom and former pharmaceutical rep. "Twenty years later, it definitely took some militant planning, juggling babysitters, carpools, not to mention the trip itinerary itself – but when we all rode the gondola up to the infamous Cloud Nine, ordered a bottle of champagne and toasted each other on a sunny bluebird day high above Aspen, I couldn't help but feel emotional about keeping our collective promise. We all agreed that the incredible skiing, all the laughs, shenanigans, indulgences and time out from our busy lives back home gave us the perfect pause and perspective to consider the significance of this milestone – together. Over 20 years of friendship."
And, as for the idea of choosing travel over things, "a travel experience is a superior way to ring in a milestone because it as an investment in yourself and in your relationships," Slightham says. "Going away helps you get in touch with your carefree self, enriches your mind, and is an escape from the normal routine of being at home/work. All of the above are way more important to me than any purse or fancy car could ever be."
Travel companies are feeding into that trend.
"[Our customers] realize that material possessions don't fulfill them in the same way a travel experience does," says Aldo Macchiavello, founder and CEO of Delfin Amazon Cruises. "Travellers are searching for contrast to their daily lives. They are hungry for authentic memories and meaningful experiences, particularly as it relates to marking a big occasion or anniversary, they want to create and experience people, places and things that they can relive well beyond the trip itself. They also use significant milestones like a big birthday, as an excuse or a reason to indulge their great desires.
"It becomes something sacred that they can save for, dream about and look forward to throughout the planning process almost as much as the experience itself."
So sure, my husband may have looked pretty jazzy pulling up to school drop-off in his 1960s sport coupe. But the man driving that car would have missed out on the incredible sunsets along the Amazon River, the best restaurants in Latin America and the opportunity to dance through the streets of Lima sipping pisco sours.
I love that man and I love that he would rather mark this milestone by savouring precious child-free time with me, luxuriating in the moment of this truly bucket-list-worthy adventure.
Next year will be my 40th, and I can't wait to see what he has in store. I can pretty much guarantee it won't have four wheels or any kind of a diamond band.
The writer and her husband were guests of Delfin Amazon Cruises. It did not review or approve this article.
Getting there: Air Canada Rouge offers direct flights daily to Lima, Peru.