Eileen Angelo, a real estate professional in New York City, had lots to celebrate when she turned 40 last year—her 30s were a tumultuous time filled with major successes and challenges that included surviving a career change, a move across the country, and two bouts with cancer. “I wanted to celebrate with my closest friends not only the new year and decade, but move past all the difficulties I had faced in my 30s,” she explains. “My 40th birthday felt like the right time to do that.”
And Eileen celebrated well—her birthday festivities took place over a long weekend at the Fairmont Southampton Princess Hotel in Bermuda. Around 20 of her closest friends made the trip, including her sister, who flew in all the way from Brazil. The weekend was full of extravagant dinners, lots of drinking—Eileen’s party favor for the weekend were cups with “40!” engraved on them—a round of tennis and a gigantic cake served during her “official” birthday dinner on Saturday night. The cake was a gift from her sister and parents to commemorate the momentous occasion.
Such a celebration is a bit of a departure from how this particular milestone—at once dreaded and anticipated—has been marked in pop culture. (The entire premise of This Is 40, the Judd Apatow rom-com, for example, hinges on how miserable Leslie Mann’s character, Debbie, is on the brink of middle age.) But within the last few years, a realization has dawned as women in their 40s and 50s embrace not just the wisdom and acceptance that comes with aging, but the disposable income and the confidence that comes with knowing what they want.
That shift has been well-documented. In the writer Glynnis MacNicol’s recent memoir, No One Tells You This, for example, she charts her 40th year—finding a sense of self-acceptance and conviction despite a culture hellbent on reminding her she hadn’t “achieved” expected milestones like getting married or having children. Author Pamela Druckman has also chronicled her 40s in There Are No Grown-Ups: A Midlife Coming of Age Story, exploring how the decade was the first in which she felt able to prioritize her own interest and needs.
It might be the first time the state of their bank account means it’s possible to celebrate it.
At 40—whether women are partnered or single or have children or don’t—they’re likely to be more settled and secure, both in their personal and financial lives. It’s not just that it makes sense to celebrate it with a blowout. It’s that it might be the first time the state of their bank account means it’s possible to celebrate it. And unlike other life milestones like weddings or anniversaries, in which there are multiple parties with vested interests—spouses, parents, mothers-in-law!—a 40th-birthday party can be selfish. “I finally know what I want in life, and I can now afford what I want,” says Rachel, a sales director at a tech firm who invited her friends to a weekend in Santa Fe last September. “Planning my trip, even the nitty-gritty details, was fun and almost freeing, as I had the ‘excuse’ to put my interests and likes first.”
With the phenomenon comes dollars. “I’ve seen a growth over the past five years, maybe 30%,” says Jordan Burton, a luxury travel adviser with Sanders Travel Centre in Fort Worth, Texas. “The growth is there.”
Audrey Hendley, president of American Express Travel, has seen the trend of women celebrating their 40th growing over time and expects this will continue “as women feel more empowered to celebrate these important milestones in their lives and continue to grow their wealth at a faster rate than historically.”
Christie Ingram, a travel industry sales manager at Four Seasons Resort Nevis, has seen a similar uptick in the number of women celebrating this particular milestone at the Caribbean resort, and she imagines that the number will continue to increase as more properties realize this is a group that can be targeted and catered to. She also notes that 40th birthdays in particular are popular because, “It’s a time to reflect on past experiences, embrace a new phase in life, and celebrate lifelong friendships.” Often with Instagram documentation. On social media, the hashtags #40andFabulous and even #40inFlorida are filled with posts documenting travel influencers’ extravagant trips to warm-weather resorts; that combined with simple word-of-mouth has grown the trips’ appeal.
For Eileen, the marathon event was a no-brainer: “This definitely felt like a bigger milestone than previous ‘big birthdays.’ Most of us are settled into careers, have expendable income, and for those of my friends who have children, they are old enough that their parents feel comfortable leaving them for a few days.” Plus, she adds, “40 is the new 30!”
Of course, having such a large celebration can be a considerable expense—not just for the host but for the guests as well. “I was nervous at first,” Rachel admits. She also felt torn over asking friends to spend time apart from their families for a weekend. But in the end she felt the trip could be a positive experience for the group as a whole. “I realized that because I hadn’t married, many of my friends hadn’t met, and I wanted to stake a claim that my life was worth celebrating too,” explains Rachel. “I wanted my friends to all meet each other after decades of hearing stories and know that they were all so special to me and how much I appreciated their friendship.” After attending countless events for them—weddings, anniversaries, showers—the weekend was a chance to gather her friends to cheer for her: “I realized that I’ve been there for all of them during their life celebrations, so I knew they’d be there for me.”
Even for lifelong friends, it can still be hard to make time to get together. Meredith Fahey, a management consultant, sees her imminent 40th as a chance to reunite a group of her dearest friends—more than a dozen women who became close as freshmen at the University of Wisconsin over two decades ago. “We used our 30th birthdays as an excuse to get together in Key West," she says, "and we’re using our 40th as an excuse to rent a fancy house in Mexico…and all spend time together.”
Part of the allure of the destination celebration, several women tell me, is that it gives a big group of people a chance to escape to paradise for a weekend—something that in overworked modern life is almost easier to get people on board with than a simple nighttime event. “I’ve only ever really had small, low-key celebrations,” says Courtney, a 38-year-old in the advertising industry who has just started to plan a trip to Napa or Sonoma with her friends to mark her 40th. “It has also become difficult to see friends and family, let alone get people together for a one-off night due to careers, families, and just general life responsibilities. By making it a big event, I hope everyone can truly let loose, reminisce, and just generally have fun.”
Destinations for these parties span the globe, and budgets run the gamut. But in general, according to Burton, the Texas-based travel adviser, popular locations in the United States are Nashville, Charleston, New Orleans, and parts of Florida. “I choose [the location based on] my clients’ dates and on the weather, of course!” Burton says. “And all have unique charming areas to walk safely, great restaurants, music, spas, and bars.” And while the costs of these excursions can add up, Burton stresses that it’s still possible to hold a great celebration no matter what a person can afford to spend. “I truly think that if anyone has any type of budget, that trip is there for them,” she says.
Outside the United States, the Caribbean and Central America are popular. “It had to be by the ocean,” Eileen insists of her own celebration, which is how she settled on Bermuda. Other considerations? Not too expensive for her friends, not too hard to get to, with great food and an accessible spa.
“We also looked for places where we would each have a bed as opposed to a pullout couch, because our backs are 40 too.”
For groups that have more than one woman celebrating her 40th—as in the case of the University of Wisconsin reunion group—requirements tend to be even stricter. “A lot of thought, thorough research, opinions, and a survey were involved,” says Patty LeBaron, another member of the cohort. The women settled on a rented house, complete with a staff for cooking and cleaning, to make sure the vacation felt as relaxing as possible. “We also looked for places where we would each have a bed as opposed to a pullout couch, because our backs are 40 too,” she adds.
Even for those who don’t choose to rent out a single home, hotels have noticed that on group trips, women are interested in having a place to congregate. (Hundreds of Real Housewives vacations attest to this; it’s not a girls’ trip unless there’s a common area.) Ingram, the sales manager at the Four Seasons Resort Nevis, finds that women who come down for parties often want to rent out a villa so that at least meals can be shared.
Most 40th celebrations have their own personal touches as well. This often includes gift bags for the guests, replete with snacks, a weekend itinerary, and alcohol, just as you’d find at most weddings. Sometimes these bags may even include items the birthday woman loves—Rachel’s, for example, included a pair of fuzzy socks and yellow candy, two of her favorite things. And then there are the specially made items, such as personalized beer koozies, shirts, and wine glasses that serve as souvenirs for the weekend.
No matter what women decide to do or where to go, the implicit aim is the same—to take time with friends to connect and appreciate one another, outside of their usual routines. For Rachel, the celebration was perfect. “What more can one ask for than to be surrounded by your people, celebrating a milestone and making new memories together?”
Eileen agrees: “These people loved me and were willing to spend their time and money to celebrate with me. We had a blast, and almost a year later, we still talk about it!”
Such positive memories could drive more celebrations down the line too, as the women encounter subsequent rites of passage. In Nashville last October, an all-women group celebrating one friend’s 70th birthday connected with women who were on a 40th-birthday trip while both groups were pedaling on a beer bike tour. “The 40-year-old birthday gals called us their idols, for having boisterous fun, singing every song, and pedaling to the metal while not spilling our drinks,” Barbara Frey, 74, recalls. “It was a truly memorable trip.”
Vanessa Armstrong is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Penny, and her husband, Jon. You can find more of her work on her website, www.vfarmstrong.com, or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.
Originally Appeared on Glamour