OK, so as turning 40 did not bother me at all (much), I decided to get away from it all, spending my birthday it in the USA – tagging on a few extra days on the end of a business trip.
The journey started off well, with a delightful direct flight to New Orleans on a private plane. The food was only eclipsed by the amazing views from the plane’s panoramic windows. Arrival was also convenient, after the in-plane passport and customs controls, a convoy of limousines promptly arrived and taxied us directly to our respective hotels.
We were in New Orleans for our annual Sapphire Conference, a week of presentations, customer discussions, and press / analyst interviews. This left very little time for excursions, but we managed to bag a limo and slip out to one of the famous plantations around New Orleans. Oak Alley Plantation, famed for its line of 26 oak trees, stretching down to the banks of the Mississippi. It was built in about 1840 as a summer residence and is famous as the back drop of many blockbusters (such as Interview with a Vampire).
This was my 3rd time in New Orleans, and unfortunately its sheen is starting to wane. During the first couple of visits the sheer exuberance of the place – the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, the food – overwhelms you, but having experienced that you look for a little more in the town and find basically nothing. New Orleans is the only town in the USA where the population has consistently declined since 1960. One of the main problems is expansion – although the New Orleans metropolitan region covers 8,800 sq km (3,400 sq mi), most of it is swamp and therefore business that want to expand generally tend to do it outside of the town. The school system is crumbling and decline is showing everywhere, except the huge conference center, where we spent the next 5 days.
Following on from the conference we were off to Alabama for some R&R, but to start in style we decided to treat ourselves to a New Orleans brunch. The venue for this was the famed Court of Two Sisters, where a birthday boy endangered the shrimp population of the Gulf of Mexico. From there, the fab four set off for a three and half hour drive to the Gulf Shores (not the nasty built up area, but the elegant bit, with your own private beach). The resort we were staying in had its own private spa so getting out priorities right, we first booked appropriate treatments before treading the boardwalk down to the beach and visiting the pool.
The next few days were heavenly – lying by the pool, swimming in the sea, relaxing on the beach, cooking in the hot tub (which was more like a bug consommé), going to the movies and shopping in the outlet mall (where the Bible Warehouse Book Store was quite disturbing – titles like “The Management Style of Jesus”, “The Body by God Fitness Manual” and the opinions expressed in the manual of “Bringing up a Boy” were more than a little scary).
The crowing glory was, however, the spa visit. This consisted of a gossipy manicure and paraffin-hand treatment (the manicurist was a little dazed as she had been out the previous night and was suffering from “cocktail flu”), an hour long facial and a full body massage. This made a relaxing transition in to my birthday, made more pleasant by the fact that due to the time difference in the USA, my younger twin brother actually hit 40 six hours before I did – making me the younger brother. What better present could one have?