Bairbre Power: 'One of the lovely aspects of being an empty nester is that you can travel more and go places you always dreamed of'
One of the truly lovely aspects of being an empty nester and having the kids sorted once and for all is that you can travel more and go to places you always dreamed of loitering in. Like saving up and heading off to Paris on your own for three days to visit a few art galleries and a free museum night, as opposed to consuming Disneyland Paris in a childish whirl and then coming straight home.
As I sit and compare airfares for my next sortie, this time to the Dior exhibition at the V&A in London, I'm grateful indeed at how times have changed in my favour and how easy it is for a single woman travelling solo without the ignominy or insult of being 'punished' and forced to pay an additional supplement just because you don't have a plus one.
There was a time when female solo travellers felt the need to seek out groups for singles because they really couldn't face doing it on their own, or sticking out on a bus amongst a load of families.
Passing through Dublin Airport last week, I was struck by the number of female midlifers travelling on their own as the bus brought us across the tarmac to the aircraft. That most certainly wouldn't have happened all that often in my mother's or grandmother's generation, but so much has changed, right down to the number of women standing on the bus herding their carry-ons while businessmen with suit carriers were the first on the bus, and took the seats.
Paris was the first city I travelled to alone at the age of 16 and it's my default destination ever since. It was the first city where I discovered a super hotel offering single-rate rooms as opposed to penalising a girl for travelling on her own, and it's also a city where I don't feel I stick out as I sit alone and watch the world go by nursing my Espresso and glass of rosé. The restaurants welcome you in and you don't sit there feeling conspicuous or tragic.
On my Fashion Week travels, I've always found London, Paris and Milan offer a genial welcome to solo female customers on business, but that's not true of all capitals. I was very disappointed in Brussels when I returned to a restaurant after dining there the night before with pals. Second time around, there was no chat, tasty amuse-bouche and I was put down the back and around the corner, so tucked away, the waiters almost forgot about me. There were long waits between courses, but I didn't mind as I had my dine-alone armour of phone, ear phones, glossy mag and notebook.
Smartphones have been an absolute godsend for the female traveller who feels awkward or conspicuous dining alone, but personally, I don't think you stick out as much as you sit scrolling compared to reading chapter after chapter on your Kindle, but each to their own.
I don't need to arm myself with accoutrement when dining alone in Ireland. There's definitely a céad míle fáilte and chat here. The introduction of shared group tables works well but for good friends of mine, they are a complete no no. If you feel like a second class citizen at being assigned a table for one beside the kitchen door, speak up. The reality is that solo diners often consume more than a loved-up couple sharing starter and dessert 'with two spoons please'.
Thankfully, the days of the prejudiced maître d' are numbered and while it is easier to go out and dine alone, it's not always problem free.
Take New York, where there was uproar last month when an Upper East Side restaurant popular with celebrities reportedly banned women from sitting alone at the bar. A regular customer who commutes between London and NYC was furious at being ushered to a table because women were no longer allowed to eat at the bar due to the owner's crackdown on hookers. Well, you can imagine what happened next!
Women didn't spend a lifetime breaking through the glass ceiling at work to be told they couldn't dine at the bar like their male colleagues or friends. Some women tell me they still feel they look "tragic" going to a restaurant with a book instead of a date. I couldn't care what I bring just so long as I'm not treated as a second-class customer and with tardy service just because there's only one set of cutlery being used.