So what are your plans for your 40th?

How I chose the ideal destination to celebrate a birthday milestone

06 July 2018 - 14:52 By Zodwa Kumalo
Book early if you plan to go to Mauritius in December
Book early if you plan to go to Mauritius in December

As humans, we seem to be programmed to feel compelled to celebrate our milestones in some significant way. Not being big on birthdays, I thought I was different. But with my 40th birthday looming ever closer I started to fill the prickles of panic and excitement. I must celebrate significantly, I thought to myself.

I then decided rather decisively, almost three years prior to the big day last month, that I didn’t want a party or a dinner or a spa day, or end up drunk in some dark dive bar (even if the music was amazing) in Johannesburg’s CBD.

But after a little more introspection, it turns out I would have been happy doing any or all of the above to celebrate my birthday – provided I were in a different country or city. Ha!

In fact, the main idea was to have a ready-made answer when asked, “So what are you doing for your 40th?” to which I’d smugly reply, “I’ll be out of the country.”

And so began my selection process of choosing the perfect destination.

It had to be summer, of course. I wanted both beach and mountains; equal amounts of culture, history and a decent nightlife offering; food worth travelling for; great value for my rand; and ideally no visa required.

As the departure date grew closer, the list became more refined. So I created a list of top countries I’d like to visit, and the following subheadings (in no particular order of importance) as a way of comparing and then selecting final destination via process of elimination:

  1. Visa
  2. Food type
  3. Quality of beach sand and water
  4. City/nightlife
  5. Cultural experience
  6. Shopping
  7. Rand/currency exchange

Bali: a hippie paradise

Bali didn’t immediately resonate as the perfect destination for me but it was a popular recommendation from friends who had been. In my head, I pictured a hippie paradise in which most of the 10-day vacation would be spent wearing flip-flops and floppy straw hats and doing early-morning yoga. Fine.

And then the reviewers wrote things like “fantastic surf and beaches”, while another boasted that “tourists can find almost everything in Kuta – hotels, high-end restaurants, humble warung [small family-run restaurants], shopping malls, traditional markets …”

Adding to that, the Indonesian island has become a popular destination for Saffers since South Africa and Indonesia rescinded the visa requirements for both countries. What’s not to like?

Cape Town and Durban: local but still lekker

Ocean rock pools at sunset in Camps Bay, Cape Town
Ocean rock pools at sunset in Camps Bay, Cape Town
Image: 123RF/Tim Hester

There is nothing, in my humble opinion, that Cape Town – or Durban, for that matter – doesn’t offer in terms of a world-class destination. Despite having family and friends there, and having lived, worked and grown up in both cities, I look for any and every excuse to visit.

In fact, just the other night, I seriously considered taking up an offer from a Twitter follower for free return flights to Cape Town that night as she was no longer able to fly. Sadly, I had decided to do laundry that morning and my clothes weren’t dry yet.

Mauritius: the no-brainer

Even with a three-year jump on 2018's birthday plans (age 37 was when the reality of the impending 40-year milestone hit) I was still without an itinerary by May this year. I started subscribing to get notifications about last-minute deals and beach holiday packages and promotions. Mauritius was a strong contender – a short five-hour flight; a blend of Chinese, Indian and European cuisine; soft, white beach sand; and reading a colleague’s piece in the Financial Mail, after a recent visit, made this luxurious island a top contender. Not to mention that the island famously became known to many through the romantic novel Paul et Virginie by Jacque-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. I could already picture myself reading the book for the first time by a resort pool, sipping on countless piña coladas.

Package deals mean a lot of the heavy lifting for planning a getaway is done for you. But I love being able to be in control of my time … so the search continued.

Thailand: culinary destination

Night street food market in Bangkok, Thailand
Night street food market in Bangkok, Thailand
Image: 123RF/Gregory Eva

When I was younger, I used to pick overseas destinations based on music festivals and artist tours. Now, food is my guide. I last visited Thailand in 2008 and had always planned to go back, but with so many other countries to tick off the list, I kept postponing. And then I read about the first street vendor who’d been awarded a Michelin star … the fact that are at least 17 Michelin-star restaurants in Bangkok alone. Not that I have a budget for world-class restaurants but I know this is no happy accident. The food there is that good. And boxes one to seven are ticked.

Vietnam: a bucket-list destination

Vietnam has been on my bucket list since I began making bucket lists back in the Noughties. The flights are affordable, the culture is rich and and that one episode of Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil had me salivating and immediately designing and then distributing save-the-dates.

Zanzibar: island of spices

Blissful relaxation: a beach in Zanzibar.
Blissful relaxation: a beach in Zanzibar.
Image: Supplied/Flight Centre

The Tanzanian archipelago of Zanzibar lies in East Africa and is one of the many regions of Africa I’ve yet to have the pleasure of exploring. Countless Instagram posts of the chapati, strong black coffee, fish, exotic spices and more had me sold – not to mention the images of crystalline beaches, restaurants that you swim out to and the ever-picturesque cobbled streets of Stone Town. However, with group travel being one of the most challenging things to organise, there was a strong possibility I might be travelling solo – so I thought it best to save this romantic island for a future trip for two.

The final decision

  • If I owned at least seven different bikinis with matching kaftans, I would have chosen Bali.
  • If I had booked flights later than I did, I would have run out of time, missed all the specials and been happy with either Cape Town or Durban.
  • If I had wanted a fuss-free holiday, I would have picked Mauritius.
  • If I had planned a bit more in advance and taken advantage of early-bird specials, I would have chosen Vietnam.
  • I would have chosen Zanzibar if I were planning a romantic getaway or more of my friends were able to join me.

So … in the end, I settled on Thailand because you can’t beat return flights for under R7,000, boutique hotels that cost less than R600 per night, and an opportunity to see more of the land of smiles. Khob Khun Ka.

This article was paid for by Flight Centre.