If statistics are to be believed, most of us are pretty ancient by the time we come to marry. According to a 2011 Office for National Statistics report, the average age at which a British woman ties the knot is 30. And with age comes wisdom and experience, so they say. And this certainly seems to be the case when it comes to how we honeymoon.
Newlyweds are older and better travelled than ever before, and while the traditional ‘tropical beach retreat with rose petals on the bed’ type is still popular, an increasing number of us are demanding a honeymoon with a bit more adventure.
“Couples are definitely more interested in active, adventurous honeymoons,” says Emma Vince, from Wedding Magazine. “People getting married now have grown up with the concept of gap years and backpacking on a shoestring, so the traditional fly-and-flop perhaps isn’t their idea of a dream getaway. Our magazine is still full of blue skies, luxury hotels and golden sands but nowadays couples have a longer engagement period, are marrying when they’re older and are perhaps more financially stable. They’ve already done the type of luxury beach holiday associated with honeymoons and are looking for something new: an adventure to mark the next stage of their life together.”
This pioneering streak is something savvy tour operators are increasingly appealing to. “Over the past few years, we’ve received increased demand for adventurous honeymoons,” says Ashley Toft, managing director of adventure travel company Explore. “The majority of couples design bespoke trips through our Explore Tailormade programme, allowing them to journey off-the-beaten-track and undertake adventurous activities together. But some couples choose to travel on our small group tours, meaning they spend their entire honeymoon with other travellers — ideal for those who value the friendships that develop on a trip as much as the places visited.”
Honeymooners today are an open-minded bunch. And the act of honeymooning is no longer just about a special trip but has become something of a statement about who you are as a couple. “There’s certainly a trend towards more unconventional honeymoons,” says Amanda Statham, travel editor at Cosmopolitan magazine. “The rise in the number of couples tying the knot in their 30s means they’ve often done the paradise beach break together and are looking for something more exciting — somewhere to really impress their friends on Facebook.
“Multi-centre honeymoons are increasingly popular. They can include safari and beach (Kenya with Mauritius, for example), city and adventure (New York then South America) or even round-the-world (Australia, Cook Islands, LA). I’ve been contacted over the past year by newlyweds who have honeymooned in Nepal, Peru, Madagascar, Borneo and Bhutan. It seems nowhere is off-limits these days. And some couples are even using their honeymoon as an opportunity to take a mature gap year; jacking in jobs and heading off for a six- to 12-month ‘maxi-moon’.”
When it comes to the modern honeymoon, it’s not just where you go and for how long, but the type of activities that seem to matter. Rob Pendleton and his wife Nadia’s 2003 honeymoon — a one-year, round-the-world-trip taking in 36 countries in six continents — inspired them to set up luxury adventure company AdventureTemples. “People today feel their honeymoon has to say a lot about them,” says CEO Rob. “Honeymooners want everyone to see how adventurous they are as a couple. I would attribute this in part to the rise of social networking — people almost having an international brand for themselves, and want to demonstrate their inspiration and experience through their honeymoon.”
Honeymoons aren’t just getting longer, they’re featuring an increasingly challenging itinerary. “The average length of a honeymoon is still two weeks,” says Rob. “But we get our fair share of one- to two-month trips, where people have taken a career break. Safari is still very popular — a classic combination being Tanzania’s game parks followed by a luxurious retreat in Zanzibar. But trips offering remoteness and big peaks are increasingly popular, such as staying in a ger (Mongolian yurt) and horse-riding around Mongolia. We work with a hotel in the national park where Genghis Khan was born — it’s unbelievably opulent. Honeymooners start here, then go into the Gobi for a more remote experience.”
These days, people are demanding not only more from their honeymoon but also more from themselves. AdventureTemples recently booked one couple onto a three-month Himalayan trip where camping on mountain summits was interspersed with stays in luxury wildlife lodges in the Nepalese jungle. “It was an interesting one to set up,” says Rob. “In addition to booking the honeymoon itself, we had to organise qualifying climbs to 8,000-metre peaks. Just getting the couple through the right prep for climbing involved an intense period of mountaineering holidays.”
Of course, this sort of challenge doesn’t come without risk. “A couple got in touch with us when we started a forum about adventurous honeymoons,” says Rob. “While they were touring South America by motorbike, the husband fell off on Bolivia’s ‘Death Road’ and needed consular assistance. It took two weeks to get him to a proper hospital. On the upside, it inspired him to become a doctor — and the couple are still together.”
Risk-taking or not, with people meeting and marrying later, some couples don’t have a legacy of backpacking or romantic mini-breaks. For many, a honeymoon is their chance to get some serious adventure under their belt before the babies arrive. And for those who’ve spent years building their careers, a honeymoon may be the first chance they’ve had to take any significant time away from their desk, let alone splurge on a big trip.
This was the case for Ivanka Majik and Nick Harvey, a hardworking designer/marketing director couple in their mid-30s, who decided to spend close to a year on a honeymoon/career break, riding a motorbike from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago off the southernmost tip of South America. “Our wedding presents were all things for the trip — electric cables, bungee cords, petrol siphons,” says Ivanka. “People turned up to the reception with gifts, saying, ‘I’m not really sure what this is, but it was on your registry.’”
Nick piloted the bike — which, up until they left for their honeymoon, Ivanka had little interest in or knowledge of. “When we arrived in Alaska in June it was snowing. We had to pull over fairly soon into our first leg and camp on the side of the road; our visors were icing up. I found myself thinking: it’s 15 July, I’m on honeymoon yet I’m sleeping in all my clothes.”
Romance on the road?
A big trip like this can undoubtedly challenge couples but it also gives them a crash course in how to deal with each other under pressure. “We learnt that we see the world differently,” says Ivanka. “We had to quickly figure out how to reconcile our differing expectations. For example, I had to give Nick total control of the bike but he had to understand that when I said ‘stop’ I meant stop. Fast-forward to now, and it’s really useful to understand what winds the other person up. My friends said to me: take a trip like this and you’ll come back divorced. In retrospect, I know what they mean but the day-to-day, domestic, boring nonsense of home can be far more stressful.”
So, is there room for romance on a trip like this? Definitely, although not in the traditional hearts-and-flowers sense but rather from the thrill of a couple challenging themselves and sharing once-in-a-lifetime experiences. “We only had two really stressy moments in 10 months,” says Ivanka. “In Bolivia, the roads got so bad we rode with other bikers. It was physically exhausting travelling at such high altitudes. Reaching the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama was the first time in days I had access to creature comforts — a shower, and fresh fruit and veg’ rather than camp food — but the boys just carried on driving to the next stop. I was not happy. When Nick and I kissed and made up, all the Chilean truck drivers clasped their hands over their hearts.”
The scope for romance on a honeymoon like this perhaps comes, above all, from simple pleasures. On a longer trip with no fixed itinerary, couples can take their time, follow their noses and allow themselves the liberty of doing nothing much at all. “For many bikers travelling the Pan-American Highway, it’s all about putting miles under the tyres,” says Ivanka. “But we made sure we stopped for coffee at beautiful spots and took time to cook nice meals together. Once, we sat for an entire day on a clifftop in Ushuaia watching whales swim past. When do you ever get the chance to do that?
“And simply being on a bike and having your husband drive is romantic. I think Nick liked being the ‘man’ and keeping us safe, and I liked being taken care of and planning things. It’s good to have roles. We’d brought intercoms for the bike but they didn’t work that well, so we’d stop regularly to plan our next route and share things we’d seen. Yes, we slept outside loos at border crossings, but in a tent, snuggled together in interlocking sleeping bags with a silk liner — we weren’t so uncomfortable.”
And adventure doesn’t have to be totally unsupported. Most wild honeymooners seek some assistance from a tour operator to help plan key elements of the trip. “We’re not really package holiday people,” says Simone Kane, a journalist who travelled around Costa Rica for three weeks with her newlywed husband, Campbell. “But we’d never travelled to Latin America before, so it was really useful having someone else worry about organising transfers and booking hotels, etc. Of course you pay a premium for that, but most people see this as part of a honeymoon — and I don’t think I could have arranged it all myself. It allowed us to fit so much in. It really felt like the trip of a lifetime.”
“We rode horses up Arenal Volcano, then slept at the foot of the mountain while it was erupting. Watching lava and rocks falling overnight was unforgettable. We went canoeing in the rainforest — I was scared silly. It was a bit of personal challenge for me to even get in the canoe. One day, we couldn’t do anything, as the rain was so hard. But when we got out into the water it was amazing — we were really close to caymans, howler monkeys, loads of tropical birds and turtles — and we had all of this to ourselves.”
Luxury, then, is still at the heart of most honeymoons, but the definition of ‘luxury’ is changing. Rather than being seen as a measure of money spent, it increasingly refers to the amount of time involved and depth of experiences offered. “People are looking for the cultural emersion of gap year but condensed into a shorter holiday,” says Rob. “And it may be 10 years until they can spend that sort of money again.”
For many couples, the next big blowout break will be a ‘babymoon’ or even a trip with new arrivals in tow. “We’ve brought a van,” says Ivanka. “As and when kids arrive, this is how we’ll holiday — from Europe to Asia or back to Latin America. We met a couple who had their two young kids on the back of their motorbikes — there’s always someone who’s more adventurous than you!”
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Published in the October 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)