We're sitting in a street cafe in the picturesque Spanish city of Segovia, perusing a menu crammed with a mind-boggling selection of tapas dishes. It's been a long morning, gasping in awe at Roman aqueducts, Gothic cathedrals and royal palaces, in turn.
But now its lunchtime and five of us have pulled up chairs at this charming little cafe overlooking the medieval walls of the city, watching dishes of chorizo croquettes, garlic and chilli prawns, and beef cheeks Pedro Ximenez being delivered to tables all around us.
"You know," says one of our number, "what I'd really like is a hamburger." There's a shocked silence. Then his wife suddenly speaks up. "That sounds great!" she says. A third person grins. "Count me in, too," he says. "And me!" the fourth says.
And that's the beauty of the cashed-up Baby Boomers now touring the world in unprecedented numbers. They have nothing to prove; they've been there, done that, and now if they'd like a hamburger, hell, they're going to have one.
The Baby Boomer tour, with a huge variety of itineraries coupled with enough free time to satisfy a more mature clientele with their own independent tastes and ideas, is now a massive slice of the travel market, both nationally and internationally, and it's growing fast. Just as cruising took off 10 years ago, tours are also multiplying sharply in both number and popularity.
Australia, in common with most developed countries, has a growing Baby Boomer population – popularly defined as between 53 and 71 years old – healthier and wealthier than ever before, keen to fill their own bucket lists and spend a goodly portion of their kids' inheritance.
Baby Boomers may make up just 25 per cent of the Australian population, according to McCrindle Research, but they do hold 53 per cent of the nation's wealth. In addition, they're more determined than ever to travel. The 65-74 age group, for instance, has shown an 80 per cent increase over the past five years on numbers holidaying overseas, on Australian Bureau of Statistics data.
What's more, Generation Reinvention author Brent Green says that Baby Boomers, time-rich and with an ever-rising life expectancy, will be the main driving force in the travel industry for the next two decades, with the 50-plus demographic already a $120 billion a year market.
Tours, or escorted journeys, for them often present the perfect holiday option. "We love the fact that with a good tour, everything is taken care of and you don't have to think of – or worry about – anything, except having an amazing experience," says Victorian Joan Smith, 63, who is now on her fifth tour overseas, and her fourth with tour company Bunnik Tours.
"I love having tour options to countries that maybe you could once only dream of seeing. And to travel through them with like-minded people and local guides sharing their local knowledge only enhances the experience …"
Those Baby Boomers tend to be excellent travellers too, many of them spending weeks before an escorted journey undertaking copious research on their destinations, what to see and where to eat, and still relish the freedom to make their own decisions.
If they sometimes want to go shopping instead of visiting an art gallery, they'll do it. If they'd rather visit a sports stadium than a national monument, so be it. And if they occasionally want to eat Western comfort food instead of the local fare, then why not?
Tours these days go to every far-flung corner of the earth, but the Baby Boomers' favourites tend to be to Europe. One of the most popular today is a Bunnik Tours 26-day small-group trip visiting the 2017 Tourist Destination of the Year, Portugal, and the perennial preference Spain – made even more desirable by British comedians Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan's second TV series and movie The Trip to Spain. Added into the schedule is Morocco, a destination considered exciting, edgy. So what would that tour really be like? I join one at Seville to find out, half-way through, just as the participants are arriving back into Spain from their jaunt from Barcelona to Valencia and Granada into Morocco, to Fez, Casablanca, Marrakesh and Rabat.
Everyone seems friendly, but I feel a bit like an intruder on The Bachelor or Big Brother. A few of them speak to me v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y and ask me a lot of questions about Spain. I find out later that they think I'm the new local guide.
A clue about our Baby Boomer status lies with our names: particularly with a surfeit of Sues, a name no self-respecting Gen X-er or Millennial ever possesses. The confusion is sorted out quickly: there's Tall Sue, Short Sue and I'm now New Sue. Seville is a magnificent city, with so many buildings, alleyways and monuments as redolent of its Roman, Muslim and Jewish past as of its proud Spanish modernity. It has the biggest cathedral in Spain, Santa Maria, where Christopher Columbus is buried. It's also the city of opera, and home of Carmen, Don Juan and Figaro.
A highlight is driving past the old tobacco factory where Bizet's Carmen was set, listening to Maria Callas singing Habanera in a 1962 recording, courtesy of our tour director David Gillison who has curated music especially for our entrance into most of the major cities on the way. Our journey to Lisbon is in a large comfortable coach with its own Wi-Fi and enough seats – Bunnik has a maximum of 20 people on its tours – for everyone to have two each, watching the tiny villages slip past. We stop off to explore the beautiful medieval town of Evora. Lisbon, Europe's second oldest capital after Athens, is a revelation. We explore by coach, and then by foot. I start realising the true value of these Baby Boomer tours. There's absolutely no need to scrabble for my own guidebook, push through the crowds alone and queue for 1½ hours under the burning sun for a ticket to the next attraction.
Instead, it's all been done for us: the tickets bought in advance, the room cleared ready for our tour party, and our guide eagerly explaining – in perfect English – everything we need to know through an earpiece attached to a nifty little gadget hanging from around our necks.
There's plenty of free time to check each destination out on our own, too. We drift off to explore singly or in ever-changing groups, according to our own tastes. Sometimes we eat together; sometimes not. A suckling pig restaurant is popular with some; a charcoal grill baking huge sardines favoured by others. There's no shortage of conversation, as everyone has lived large, and travelled so widely.
We're a pretty mixed bag too, including a retired surgeon, a doctor and a nurse – no worries there if anyone gets sick! – a university lecturer and a prison educator. This is also the generation that reads real, printed books, so there's much swapping on board, although they keep in touch with home via social media, like Facebook, Skype and WhatsApp. This age group has the confidence to be open and friendly to every local they cross paths with as well, including taxi drivers, restaurateurs and shopkeepers.
"What's the point of travel if not to meet the locals?" asks one. "This is a great way to do it. I have the comfort and security of the group when I want it, yet also the chance to chat to the people who live here."
From Lisbon, we drive to the old capital of Portugal, Coimbra, stopping off at five beautiful old towns on the way, each with its own claim to fame, such as being a fishing port, a mountain retreat or with stunning views of mountainous scenery. It's all very relaxing; I snooze and wake to hear a guide explaining the region's history, and what we'll be looking at on the next stop, and how it got there.
After Coimbra, there's Porto on the Douro River, with port-tastings and sightseeing, and then back into Spain, to Salamanca, Avila, Segovia and finally, Madrid.
"I love travelling these days with tours," says Sydneysider Shell Maher, 63, on her fourth tour. "A few years ago my husband and I went on a road trip just on our own and I think we missed a lot more than we saw.
"But now I'd always consider a tour. It takes all the stress out of getting from A to B and trying to find hotels and what to see. I love the safety and security and relaxation, and also the great friends you make on a tour and laughs along the way. It's a great way to travel!"
HOW TO SURVIVE A BABY BOOMER TOUR
1. Bring a sense of humour. There may be some people in your group with different values or who you're not so keen on, but there will always be others whose company you'll love.
2. Pack multivitamins. The pace can be a little hectic, and food very different.
3. Take time out to relax when you have free time.
4. Sit in different seats in the coach regularly to chat to different people and have varying views of the world outside.
5. Don't buy weighty souvenirs for the grandkids at the beginning of the tour that you'll then have to carry around for the rest.
6. Be adventurous with your choice of itineraries; a good tour will always keep you safe.
Bunnik Tours runs escorted tours across the world, including Europe, Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. Their small-group 26-day tour of Spain, Portugal and Morocco starts from $10,595, including flights from Australia. Ph 1800 286 645.
Sue Williams was a guest of Bunnik Tours.