Certain numbers – particularly those ending in zero – inspire grand travel plans. I turned 50 this year, prompting much reflection on where I'd travelled over the past three decades and what was still sitting at the top of my wish list, nagging at me. As I started my new decade poring over maps of Tennessee and the Great Smoky Mountains, I wondered how others were marking pivotal turning points with travel. Turns out things aren't what they used to be.
Millennials are delaying their first trips, the middle-aged are in training, pushing their bodies to the limit, and 60-year-olds are rewarding themselves after a lifetime of hard work, with some booking back-to-back trips, packing in as much fun as they can while they still enjoy good health.
"One of our big sellers across the past 20 years has been parents buying or contributing to a rite-of-passage trip for a 21st," says Katrina Barry, managing director of Contiki Australia. "These days, over half the people [taking Contiki trips] either have it fully paid for or have a high contribution from parents and grandparents, so a graduation or 21st is still quite a milestone."
As for those turning 40, James Thornton, chief executive of Intrepid Travel, says that his company's clients enjoy "real-life experiences" around the globe – that can involve anything from sharing a meal in India to learning to dance in Buenos Aires or kayaking past otters and whales in Alaska.
"At 40, people can be at different points in their lives so we've got family trips in destinations such as Croatia and Kenya," Thornton says. "We also cater to private groups – that's about 10 per cent of our business globally – where we create specialised itineraries for friends and families. These itineraries are also perfect for multi-generational travel, which is a big trend at the moment."
Milestone years always serve as a "catalyst for reflection", says Sarah Hunt, marketing manager for World Expeditions. They're a time to consider the life journey you've been on and where you want the journey to take you in the future.
"There's no better setting for reflection than taking a long walk in nature – that kind of adventure can be life-changing," Hunt says. "[Those turning 50] choose iconic areas where they can do something rewarding and where they can achieve – they don't want to sit on the beach in Bali for their 50th.
"As they enter their 50s, they've spent decades committing themselves to their kids and their career – now they're looking for something that will benefit themselves and their wellbeing. [As a result] Nepal is huge for us. With the Everest base camp experience, it could be something they do with their partner or maybe the kids who are in high school. They can unplug from screen time and talk more and bond with the family."
Dennis Bunnik, managing director of Bunnik Tours, says that when people reach 60, they know what they want and they recognise the importance of a little bit of luxury.
"They fall into two categories: they're either quite experienced travellers and therefore want to do one of the really big things, whether that's South America or Africa or the Middle East," he says. "Alternatively, they've worked hard all their lives and haven't had time to travel and they just want to go out and discover the world but they don't want to be a tourist – they want to be a traveller."
As for himself, Intrepid's James Thornton, while still three years off his own 40th birthday, is already weighing up how to mark his own milestone with a significant trip. "There's some appeal in doing a climb," he says. "I haven't climbed Kilimanjaro – that could be quite exciting – followed with some sort of safari with my son, who'll be 7 or 8 by then."
Meanwhile, as Thornton contemplates conquering Kilimanjaro, here are three regular travellers who reveal how they marked their own milestones and some of the lessons they gleaned from their experiences.
Lisa Wilkie, change manager
WHAT DID YOU CELEBRATE? At around 30, I thought, ''I've been in this job [as a management consultant] for five years – I need some time out to be young, have fun and do something different". I ended up taking 10 months off as a career break.
WHERE DID YOU GO? I went around South America (including Buenos Aires, Iguazu Falls and the Atacama desert) and Central America, to Scotland where I grew up, and to Europe. I travelled around Turkey and the Balkans, and flew home to Australia from the Netherlands.
HIGHLIGHT I found myself travelling around with a 20-kilogram backpack – I hadn't expected that I could be that robust or strong. I suddenly had a different relationship with my body – I felt much more capable. I was able to push my physical limits far more than I'd anticipated. I spent huge amounts of time on my own but I didn't feel lonely. I'm also still in touch with some of the people I met – that's been really nice.
LOWLIGHT Sometimes there was frustration – I'm not very good with directions or map reading. That was something I had to focus and concentrate on. Because there was no one to confer with, I also had to be quite tough. One of the hardest parts was when I came back – I found it difficult to share some of the things I'd learned or seen without sounding like I was boasting.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY? I wish I'd been wiser about what I packed – part of that 20 kilograms was make-up. I'm quite a girly girl but over time those things mattered less.
Janet Bartolo, geologist
WHAT DID YOU CELEBRATE? For my 40th, I went to Jordan for two weeks – the first week was a tour just to get my Middle East legs then I travelled for a week on my own.
WHERE DID YOU GO? The reason I went to Jordan was because I wanted to see Petra. I also went to Jerash north of Amman to see the ruins, Wadi Rum and Aqaba on the Red Sea. At Petra I was impressed by how they carved the rocks to store water but geologically the desert and Wadi Rum were much more impressive. I wasn't expecting these massive rocks and mountains in the desert.
HIGHLIGHT It snowed – I didn't expect that. We got off the bus and had a little snow fight. For my birthday, I got in touch with a Jordanian friend of a friend and we went out for dinner and to a cafe/bar for drinks. We went to some groovy places. He was lovely and sang Happy Birthday. If I'd been at home, I'd be expected to have a party or a dinner, and I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something exciting for me. It was fun to meet locals and hang out at the local spots. Even though he was a stranger, it was lovely to have that event with someone else.
LOWLIGHT There weren't many tourists around so sometimes, if you went into a shop, you'd be the first customer and there was a little bit of desperation to make a sale.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY? I didn't know that Jordan really is a safe country to travel in and that I didn't have to do a tour – it was just that it was my first time to the Middle East. But I enjoyed treating myself to a destination holiday rather than schlepping around organising a party or dinner.
Anthony Margan, semi-retired/cattle-breeder
WHAT WERE YOU CELEBRATING?
I turned 60 this year
WHERE DID YOU GO? My wife, Lindy, and I spent nine weeks travelling through Scotland, where we walked the West Highland Way, Italy and, towards the end, I went surfing in the Maldives for 10 days and the wife went to Iceland.
HIGHLIGHT We got lucky with the B&B we picked in Barolo, Piedmont – it was an old winery and could accommodate 10 of us. There were 18 of us altogether. I said to the lady running the B&B that I didn't want to go to a restaurant for my birthday. She helped organise dinner – in the morning we made our pasta then we cooked and prepared it and then sat down and ate it with some local wines. With three winemakers there [Margan is from a pioneering wine family], she organised for a local winemaker to come and present her wines to us. It was fantastic. The birthday dinner was a highlight – the people there were from various parts of the world and various parts of our lives, and we all participated in making the dinner.
LOWLIGHT There wasn't one.
WHAT WOULD YOU DO DIFFERENTLY? I'd come home earlier. I've got cattle and I had to remotely get someone to help handfeed them [because of adverse weather]. They'd lost condition by the time I came back.
50th: A MUSICAL ODYSSEY
"Let's hike some of the Appalachian Trail!" I said to a friend this year, quite forgetting I'm not the outdoors type. That didn't happen – I turned 50 and got real – but we surely crossed the trail as we drove over the Great Smoky Mountains and back again searching for the song lines of America's Deep South.
Where better to start digging into the region's rich music history than Memphis, one point of what's marketed (together with New Orleans and Nashville) as the Americana Triangle. On a Saturday night, we queued to enter Beale Street where the blues began and made a beeline for one of the quieter clubs, struggled to find a cab to take us to Wild Bill's – a juke joint in the 'burbs – and accepted an old guy's offer to drive us back to the Guest House at Graceland at 2am.
Graceland's new hotel isn't handy to downtown but it is conveniently placed for reaching the Full Gospel Tabernacle Church where Al Green preaches on a Sunday – and the former soul singer turned pastor is in the house. Hallelujah and amen.
Pressing south through the Delta's steamy air and crossing the state line into Mississippi, we check in at the Shack-Up Inn – a collection of kitsch shacks near cotton fields on the outskirts of Clarksdale where legend has it that bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. This town, so compact and navigable on foot, is my favourite stop. From a chance conversation in the street, we end up dining with local icon, property developer Bubba O'Keefe. "Clarksdale's seen ups and downs but right now it's on the up," declares O'Keefe over lasagne at Stone Pony Pizza where he knows everyone who walks through the door.
There's music every night of the week in Clarksdale. After a set at the Bluesberry Cafe, we cross the railroad tracks to Red's Blues Club where owner Red Paden is propped behind the bar. He says he's not sure how much longer he'll keep the doors open on his legendary juke joint – one of the last of its kind in the Delta. With just six customers listening to the singer-songwriter performing that night, it feels more like Red's lounge-room than a viable business.
The miles click over (we rack up 1500 – some 2400 kilometres – by the end) as we check off the sights: Elvis's birthplace in Tupelo, Muscle Shoals in Alabama, back to Tennessee for the Jack Daniel's distillery in Lynchburg, Chattanooga, Pigeon Forge, North Carolina for Asheville, and finishing in Knoxville and Nashville. It's a lot – too much – to squeeze into two weeks yet there's still room for the unplanned moment.
My favourite musical experience comes from another chance conversation. Smoky Mountains park ranger Brad Free tells us about Rocky Branch outside of Pigeon Forge (which isn't to our taste, with a main drag featuring a Titanic-shaped museum and King Kong clinging to a wax museum).
On Friday nights, the good people of Rocky Branch flock to a former school to enjoy the $US2.25 dinner special before pickin' and grinnin' in the classrooms until all hours. Smoking, drinking and cursing aren't allowed – but good times? Bring 'em on.
Katrina Lobley was a guest of Travel South. See travelsouth.visittheusa.com/
FIVE MORE GREAT MILESTONE EXPERIENCES
ISLAND HOPPING IN CROATIA
"Following the hype of Game of Thrones, Dubrovnik is on the list of top 10 places young people want to visit," says Contiki Australia's Katrina Barry. "[Along with Spain and Greece] Croatia island-hopping is giving France and Italy a run for their money."
TREKKING TO EVEREST BASE CAMP
"We've had travellers celebrate their 40th birthday while trekking to Everest base camp, climbing Kilimanjaro and walking the Inca Trail in Peru," says Intrepid's James Thornton. "Forty is often about a challenge of achieving the lifetime goal. [As well as trekking], cycling trips to places such as Tanzania, Japan or Vietnam also require preparation."
SEEING THE GREAT SIGHTS OF SOUTH AMERICA
"For people's 60th milestone birthday, South America is big – going to see Iguazu Falls, Machu Picchu, the Amazon or the Galapagos Islands," says Bunnik Tours' Dennis Bunnik. "At 60, you've reached your bullshit threshold – you want to do things for yourself."
SEEKING OUT BERLIN'S STREET ART
"Millenials still want to see the Berlin Wall even though it didn't fall during their lifetime," says Barry, "so they want to do a street-art tour of Berlin or have a food experience. From our research, food is more important than sightseeing."
OFF THE BEATEN TRACK IN AFRICA AND INDIA
"Some people want to get off the beaten track with places such as Djibouti where you can get up close and personal with whale sharks," says Thornton, "or they want to venture into the mountains of Ladakh [in northern India] in search of the elusive snow leopard."