Grey gappers: 'Talk about a new lease of life. It's amazing. My boys think I'm awesome'
As our population ages gracefully, it's no surprise to find the more mature end of the adventure travel market is in full bloom
Time once was that after a certain age, travel became a soporific, ambling affair. Group tours, cruises and all-inclusive package holidays to the sun were designed to balm the weary bodies and souls of the middle-aged; people who had spent decades working and raising families, and wanted to take their foot off the pedal for a few weeks.
But as new Census data reveals Ireland's population is ageing rapidly, with a sharp rise in the number of people aged 65 and older, a generation of Irish people who might recall humble package holidays from their younger years have other plans. And 'chips with everything' isn't it.
Rathfarnham-based marketing consultant Jim Blake (70) had already clocked up plenty of air miles in his line of work, but it wasn't until his children (three daughters and a son) started globetrotting that the seeds of adventure were sown.
"One of my daughters was doing voluntary work in India, so I decided to head off for a few months, seeing her on the way," he recalls. "There was a definite sense of, 'I'm going to be 70 soon, and I'm still working… will you be doing this forever?'
"It became clear that I needed time away and I should take a trip which could concentrate the mind on how I should rearrange my life to get the best out of the ensuing years. So off I headed with a bag on my back to cover a loosely planned route laid out by my daughters who had done most of it before."
With India, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia on the itinerary, Jim booked into the €3-a-night YMCA on his first night in Calcutta: "Oh, it was an awful kip," he laughs. "I woke up and thought, 'what are you doing here on your own?' I was clutching at safety so I went to Mass in a local cathedral. After that, I met a couple of people, and you just start to hook into different groups after that."
In Hanoi, and using Tripadvisor to nose out better budget accommodation, Jim encountered another down-at-heel hostel and plenty of other backpackers. "Most of the people there were 25 years old, and mainly young women," he recalls. "They were very inclusive though, and didn't mind an auld fella tagging along. I'm not sure they noticed my age at all - I was just another dipstick they were meeting along the way."
In time, the four-month trip would prove enriching beyond Jim's reckoning: he tried a Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) course, cookery classes, yoga and island hopping.
"You can get to this stage (in life) and just move along and not face up to the fact that you're getting older, or you can start examining what this time in your life means," he notes. "You don't have much of the same responsibilities (as before), and certainly not the same demands for money. It's created a freedom. The trip made me realise how precious life is and as the years roll on to try and make the most of it when I still can, particularly in relation to my work/life balance."
Similarly, Limerick-born Maria Keehan (60) developed a true taste for wanderlust in the last decade. When her husband Peter was diagnosed with cancer, the couple decided to sell their home and move to Devon. As a young family, Peter and Maria would take their twin boys Adam and Colin to France by car. Within a few days of selling their home however, Peter died suddenly, and Maria ended up following through with the couple's plans alone and renovating a place in Devon where she lived for a few years.
"I literally woke up and thought, 'what am I doing with myself?' Not a lot was the answer," she recalls. "The house sold quicker than I expected, so I went on a holiday to Spain for two weeks to decide what to do with the rest of my life."
It would prove to be a fortuitous trip: there, she met an Italian family, who invited her to stay with them in Spain to teach English to her mother. After some online search, she found a house-sitting website (Trustedhousesitters.com) and away she went. In three years, she has clocked up an impressive number of countries, among them France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Italy, Sardinia, Turkey, Indonesia, Australia and the UAE.
"Talk about a new lease of life," says Maria. "It's been amazing.
"My two boys think I'm awesome. Initially, I thought, 'I'll do this for a month or two, for a bit of an adventure', but now I'm thinking, 'have I turned into a roaming gypsy?'
"Did I have any reservations about travelling alone? God, no," she adds. "I believe if you go head-first, everything will be fine and if it doesn't work out, there's always someone who will help you. I'm very fortunate to have met so many lovely people and been blessed by the kindness of strangers.
Certainly, she's not alone in this thinking: according to recent research in the UK, 'grey gappers' are very much on the rise, with 25pc of people aged 55 and over taking time out to travel the world. It's thought that people aged 50 and over account for 58pc of all travel/tourism spend in the UK. And of those that had taken the leap to travel, 13pc of them had tried bungee jumping, scuba diving, surfing and parasailing.
With a dramatic drop in traditional gap year travelling (according to British figures, only 12pc of students plan to travel after graduating, while closer to home, the popular J1 visa hangs in the balance under Trump's regime), the travel industry has turned its attentions to older travellers.
As people are living longer, it's no surprise to find the more mature end of the adventure market in full bloom. Yet according to Mary Foyle at Travel Counsellors, who specialises in tailor-made holidays for the 50+ market, there has been a confluence of different factors resulting in the rise of the 'grey gapper'.
"People are becoming very conscious of the 'bucket list' phenomenon," she notes. "They often give me a list of every country that they want to see, and they want to tackle a couple of them each year. They're at the stage where they know life is short.
"They've gotten to a burnout stage with their lives," she adds. "These are people who started work at 19 or 20, then married and had children quickly, and want to take some timeout now."
Many older Irish adventure travellers are taking a leaf out of the book of their intrepid kids: "An awful lot of my clients would have kids in Australia, America or Canada, and will sort the big trip around a visit to them," says Foyle.
"Many of them want to celebrate a big wedding anniversary, too. It's the perfect time for them: the kids are out of college, they are 25 years married, they're still active and now have some disposable income."
And with this disposable income often comes a travel experience that's a cut above that of the usual backpacker, and relatively few elect to slum it: "If my clients are planning a few weeks, they'll do the camper van, then head to a three-star hotel," says Foyle. "Generally, they don't go in for backpacking, and many of them don't have to."
Jonathan Bridge, PR and marketing executive with Trailfinders in Ireland, adds: "There is certainly evidence that many older clients are doing round-the-world trips. In contrast to the classic backpacker round-the-world tickets, older clients often do it in style, pre-booking much of their accommodation and touring."
Certainly, travelling out into the great unknown may be a daunting prospect to those more used to an all-inclusive trip to Tenerife. For that, Foyle suggests keeping in close contact with a travel agent who can be on hand in case of contingency: "We have a special app that clients can use to keep in touch with us, for instance."
Besides, says Maria, there's no such thing as being 'too old' for adventure.
"If you're able to carry your own backpack and organise travel arrangements, then just do it," she says. "People will say, 'you're too old, what happens if this happens and you're stranded in another country?' - well you're an awful long time dead. I'll be kicking and screaming the day I have to die because I'll still want to be doing things.
"I honestly believe so many people put restraints on themselves and think 'I can't do that now'. I'm the complete opposite. I see people my age sitting down on park benches and I look at them thinking, 'what are you doing?'"
Tips for older globetrotters
Cathy Burke, general manager of Travel Counsellors Ireland, has the following advice:
"Make sure that the bag you take on board has wheels. In that bag, carry medication, books, glasses, sunglasses, a change of clothes, small jars of moisturisers… stuff you can't live without in the event your suitcase doesn't arrive. Flight socks are a good idea (for preventing deep vein thrombosis), especially on long-haul flights."
Health and security
"Firstly, register on the DFA website, especially if you're going to more exotic countries. Let the bank know that your credit cards will be used in the countries you're going to. Don't skimp on health insurance - go for fully-comprehensive insurance. The EHIC (formerly the E111) can be gotten for free through the HSE and entitles users to access the same health facilities as local people have in any European country."
When to go
"It's best to travel outside school holidays and mid-term breaks - not just Irish holidays dates, but in the place you're going to. In Australia, for instance, their summer holidays are in January so you'll find that things like accommodation will be more expensive. Also, especially if flights and accommodation seem cheap, make sure you're not arriving somewhere in rainy season, or if it's too hot."
"Make sure you pre-book an aisle seat for easier access to the bathroom. Leave nice watches and jewellery at home and bring your cheaper watch and costume jewellery. Always use a money belt. Backpacks are great, but not necessarily always safe."