A few years ago, when I posted videos on social media about my adventurous road trips with the Jeep Compass, about seven couples got in touch with me saying they had bought the vehicle and were looking forward to their own adventures.
The single thing that united them: They were all recent empty nesters. All of them said they were done with squeezing holidays into school holiday timetables and taking red-eye flights to maximise the time at their destination. Now that their children had left home, they wanted to travel without the shackles of schedules or the constraints of check-in luggage. They wanted to experience the freedom of slow travel and the romance of the open road.
Empty nesters is a term for couples whose children have moved out of the family home to pursue further studies or live on their own. This usually happens when the parents are in their late-40s or early-50s. In a figurative full circle, these couples are back where they were before they had children—and with considerably more means than they had in their 20s. Rather than describe themselves as “lonely" empty nesters, feeling a void, they prefer the term “free bird" since they are now set to do all the things they had dreamt of when they were young.
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“The biggest shift for me has been a renewed sense of ambition and purpose for work that I love waking up to," says Los Angeles, US, based Anahita Fitter, 48, whose children have left for university. “My work (for a non-governmental organisation, or NGO, in India) is no longer limited to projects and jobs that allowed me the flexibility of being at home to be around for the kids. I can now travel for work and combine it with pleasure."
Empty nesters are realising that this is an exciting new phase in their life to tick off bucket-list items that they had been putting off because they were stuck in the quagmire of school holiday schedules, child-friendly travel destinations and economics of travelling as a family of three or more.
Holidays can have a more mature theme and can include cultural events such as a visit to the opera. A luxury hotel room, business class travel or hiring a convertible sports car, all suddenly become practical and affordable when it is a couple travelling rather than a family. Fitter explains: “Our evenings and weekends have a sense of ease. We can afford spontaneous vacations. We have privacy, a renewed sense of romance and fewer arguments about kids."
Loveleen Multani Arun, director of Panache World, a Bengaluru-based boutique luxury travel company, says: “I have couples in their late 40s and even well into their 50s who are booking holidays that require a degree of fitness. These are scuba-diving trips, multi-day climbs and even the Everest Base Camp trek. I often get feedback that these adventures give them a renewed sense of purpose and bonding that they haven’t known for years."
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Empty nesters are breaking societal stereotypes that expect them to start steering towards a laid-back lifestyle, living on a diet of morning classes of yoga and laughter, and philosophy discourses. Many empty nesters of today have spent their 30s watching what they eat and taking full advantage of their gym memberships, so the mind is eager and enthusiastic and the body is healthy and keen.
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Mumbai-based consultants K and KB, who are in their early 50s, had a bucket list drawn up when they got engaged in their 20s and had ticked a few items off it. With the arrival of kids, the list went into a drawer. Now with their children moving out to jobs and university, that list is out again. “We just ticked off a significant one which was scuba diving between the tectonic plates of North America and Europe in the cold waters of Iceland," says K; the couple did not want to be named. Items still on their list include chasing a tornado.
Arun says that couples often make a side trip out of visiting their kids studying in universities away from home. “They spend a few days with the kids and then extend their trips to have a getaway of their own." Fitter agrees that she makes her plans like this: “We sometimes drive to visit our kids at university but more often than not, the visit is just a pit stop on a larger road trip the two of us have planned."
Pune-based Naval and Persis Bharucha, who are entrepreneurs and both just shy of 50, with children in university, say that what they enjoy the most is the ability to travel during off-season. “After years of crowded airports, bawling babies on flights, inflated prices and queues and crowds during summer holiday to Europe or South-East Asia, it is a joy to be able to travel during the off-season," says Persis, who is planning their next trip to the north of Sweden to see the Northern Lights. “Now I can carry my tripod and my photography paraphernalia with me, take as much time over a photograph as I want without the worry of my children getting bored. I guess this is what people call the joy of slow travel."
Empty nesters are also realising the pleasure of hobby travel, which does not necessarily mean doing the same thing together.
Ahmedabad-based Mandavi and Siddharth Mehta have been married for 23 years and their daughter-is-now studying in the US. “Sid has always wanted to do multi-day motorcycle trips and I cannot bring myself of spend days bouncing around on the pillion seat," says Mandavi, who is a homemaker; Siddharth is a businessman. “I am a foodie. So on our last trip to France, I spent three days driving around little villages in Provence eating at local bistros and cafés, while he did a motorcycle ride in the Pyrenees. And then we spent four days taking it easy together in St Tropez."
Amol and Sukriti Kachroo, who are in their mid-40s, have been free birds for six years now and in that time they have taken holidays within India every six months and yet not taken a single flight. “During our courting days, we used to often go on long drives with no fixed destination in mind," smiles Sukriti, who is a corporate professional, adding, “and now on these long trips it feels like Dating Season 2." They have bought themselves an SUV and have driven from their home in Mumbai to far-flung destinations. “We have done road trips to Kashmir and Ladakh, to Kerala and Khajuraho and even to Nepal and Bhutan." Amol, a doctor, says. “Both of us love to drive and we are in no hurry to get somewhere, so we stop where we fancy and don’t necessarily take the shortest or the fastest route."
Arun is of the opinion that the pandemic was also a clarion call. It made couples on the other side of 50, who have been saving for a rainy day all through their 30s and 40s, realise that a sudden thunderstorm like covid had the potential to drown dreams. It spurred them to start ticking off aspirations and ambitions.
“And then there is Instagram, with its barrage of stories and reels that seem to fuel wanderlust with hashtags proclaiming fitatfifty, FOMO and YOLO," she says.
Rishad Saam Mehta is a Mumbai-based author, travel writer and budding travel video maker.
- FIRST PUBLISHED01.12.2023 | 01:00 PM IST