Holidays: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

If anyone were to ask me what is most important to my family when it comes to time spent together, the answer would resoundingly be holidays.  My children are obsessed with holidays.  They love them.  Joe works in the motor industry and has always worked long hours - when Ella was a baby, he would only see her at weekends as he left before she woke and was home after she went to bed.  To be fair, my children went to bed at 6.30 pm until they were about seven as I've always liked the evenings to be our own. Dinner, chat, glass of wine, Eastenders.  Children should have no part in these daily activities. In fact, on some occasions in winter months it was known for them to go to bed at 5.00 pm.  They couldn't tell the time, tbf, so couldn't really argue the toss.  Now the eldest two go to bed later than me so it obviously made absolutely no difference to their sleep patterns and was a win win for everyone.  

1984: Living in Hong Kong as a child, we spent a lot of time on planes. Check out my Mum's fag on board situ.

1984: Living in Hong Kong as a child, we spent a lot of time on planes. Check out my Mum's fag on board situ.

So, because we didn't spend much time together as a family during the week - and still don't, really - we always look forward to our holidays.  We plan early, booking the dates in so that we have something to look forward to.  I wrote a blog at the beginning of this year about positive thinking and how even if you don't actually book a break, having the dates in the diary with the intention of going is just as therapeutic as the actual act itself.  Last year I had a palm tree tattooed on my arm and was inundated with people asking me for the meaning.  Does it signify some huge event?  What's the spiritual connection?  Does it represent something?  Nope. I'm afraid I'm just inherently shallow.  Basically, I just bloody LOVE a holiday.  Our happiest times as a family have been spent exploring new places and relaxing in the sun.  It's as simple as that.  I'm obviously a spiritual vacuum.

I was brought up in Hong Kong and always wanted to move abroad so my children could experience the same, but the timing has never been right.  As a result, we spend every spare penny we have on visiting as many places as we can - it's a huge priority for us that our children get to see as much as possible.  A few years ago, we really bit the bullet and booked a holiday to Hong Kong and Thailand so that they could see Asia and much to my joy, they loved it as much as I did.  It's not every parents wish, but I'm seriously hoping that they want to do a gap year and travel the World.  Anyway, I thought I'd review the types of holiday that we've taken in the almost 20 years since I first met Joe.  With a big helping of tongue in cheek.  Obvs.

What I will be doing in Ibiza whilst Joe relives his youth. Image:  Cotton Beach Club, Ibiza

What I will be doing in Ibiza whilst Joe relives his youth. Image: Cotton Beach Club, Ibiza

The Nirvana Of Pre Kids 

Oh, those heady, heady days.  When I first met Joe, I was just 28 and was determined to cram in as many holidays as possible before we started trying to have kids.  I forced Joe, a man who's never been a fan of flying and has been known to Valium overload, on a long haul to Bali where we literally lay on a sunbed for a fortnight drinking cocktails, having massages listening to the sea and eating Pad Thai.  

Driving holidays to the South Of France, staying in random B&B's on the way, unplanned, unscheduled, unhindered.  Weekends away to New York, Paris, the Cotswolds (we knew how to live).  We once went to Amsterdam for the weekend, arrived at 10am and went straight to the bar for six hours and then spent the rest of the weekend in bed.  Quite frankly, we could have been in Gateshead.  But who cared?  We were young, reckless and child free. Holidays meant that I read books, lots of them.  Listened to music.  Fell asleep in the shade.  The world was our oyster.  If we didn't get up for breakfast, we'd go and have lazy brunches followed by afternoon naps and cocktails at six.  What a bloody life.  

This year, we're taking a four day break to Ibiza with friends* (*husband's mid life crisis and obsession with visiting a Super Club) and I can't even remember what it's like to go away alone.  I do not generally give advice to people planning a family but my one recommendation is that you take as many holidays as you can possibly afford before your life changes forever and your holidays become a blur of changing bags, sun hats, Calpol, diarrhoea and plane vomit.

Devon 2014: The good sort of holiday with friends when your kids get old enough to play without needing your input.

Devon 2014: The good sort of holiday with friends when your kids get old enough to play without needing your input.

The Holiday With Friends

The idea of going away with like minded people with similar sized and aged families always appears to be a brilliant idea.  When your kids are small, it seems idyllic to be with people who understand the fact that the kitchen needs to have a microwave for the Avent steriliser, whose main focus is baby naps to secure their two hours of sunshine, whose light at the end of the day is to reach that glass of wine once the kids have gone down.  And indeed, it is. For the first two days.

When your children are little, the likelihood of you leaving the premises for anything apart from essentials is very small so once you're unpacked, you're there for the duration.  Day one, you're depositing your child in the pool in their armbands, a pair of trunks and a liberal spray of sunscreen.  You're feeding your child chicken nuggets, hot dogs, pizza, ANYTHING AT ALL to get mealtimes out of the way.  Before a whinge even surfaces, you're handing them ice lollies, countless packs of the continental equivalent of Quavers and giving in to their every request in order for them to leave you alone as much as possible.  Because you're on holiday, ffs.  

But the other parents? They're maintaining the five a day, regularly applying Factor 50 underneath the full body armour with built in float, racing to the supermarket for vegetables to puree (a place that should only be visited for wine, crisps, french sticks and food that you only ever eat on holiday) and silently judging you for your reformed fowl.  Discipline is another common parental holiday divide.  If you're not wondering if they think you are shouting at your kids too much, you're irritated by them looking on adoringly as their own child whacks yours over the head with no comeback.  It's a bloody minefield.  A minefield that always without fail ends in you and your partner escaping to your bedroom to rant to each other in a 'what the fuck were we thinking?' way and reassuring each other that your parenting way is the right way, obvs.

As the children get older, holidays with friends gets a little easier.  The kids enjoy having their friends to play with (AKA alternative entertainment) and they are old enough to swim in the pool without you worrying that they're drowning every time that you need to pop inside for a wee.  I don't do swimming pools due to an unfortunate incident that occurred when I was 18 in Northolt public pool which involved me being surrounded by a flotilla of other people's hair strands.  This experience ingrained in me a horror of sharing water, which Joe tried to remedy about ten years ago when the children were small.  He convinced me that things had changed since the Northolt incident and took us to a pool in Somerset, where I exited the pool only to find myself face to face with a pubic hair on the steps.  As a result, it's always down to Joe to be the pool entertainer so holiday's with friends always mean he gets a break.  

Egypt 2012. All Inclusive overload in the desert.

Egypt 2012. All Inclusive overload in the desert.

The All Inclusive

If there's one holiday my kids love, it's the All Inclusive.  We've done this whenever we can afford it over the years and it's generally always been a winner.  Obviously the quality of All Inclusive varies depending upon where you go.  In previous years, we've been to various European locations and to Egypt, where a luxury Hotel was similarly priced to a three star Hotel in Bridlington but with the upside that the obligatory stomach bug meant you actually LOST weight whilst stuffing your face.  We once went for a full two weeks which I can categorically say is way too long for an All Inclusive holiday.  There are only so many times that you can face the heat wilted salad bar and Pasta Of The Day.  

However, the redeeming feature of the All Inclusive has to be the breakfast buffet, the highlight of my children's holiday.  Faced with a plethora of muffins, doughnuts, iced buns and croissants for breakfast, it's impossible for them to resist.  We always try and justify it by saying 'we'll never need lunch after such a huge breakfast, let's just make the most of it'.  Because it's totally normal to eat cereal, fruit, toast, cheese, salmon, salsa, omelettes, sausages, bacon, baked beans, some obscure potato dish that you have no idea what it is and CAKES for breakfast.  By 11.30 am they're harassing us for panini's.  

Nine years ago when I was pregnant and hormonally challenged with Leo, Joe and I took Ella and Max on a last minute All Inclusive to the Dominican Republic, picked up for a song on some random near bankruptcy holiday site.  Aside from the fact that were unable to leave the complex for fear of gunshot and certain death, it was a beautiful resort with white sands, swim up pool bar and cocktails on tap for Joe.  This was before the advent of full scale social media and Facebook was still in it's infancy. 

At this time, only Joe had embraced Facebook and the one thing that I knew about it was that he had now befriended all of his old school friends, including what seemed like all the women in his dating history.  I was furious, mid pregnancy and had asked him* (*screamed at him) to close his account.  This may sound harsh, but raging hormones and a husband being poked by ex girlfriends isn't a great combo.  Anyway, he duly did.  Or so I thought.  Until I wandered barefoot and pregnant into the Hotel lobby to find him on dial up, unable to resist the lure of the social media platform.  The situation could only go one way from that point.  Predictably, it ended in tears with two Dominican security guards knocking on our Hotel door after complaints from residents of a shouting woman.  Not my finest moment. 

Greece 2011. It was during this holiday that I put Leo down for a lunchtime nap and he appeared in a nappy poolside about to dive in, saved only by another guest.

Greece 2011. It was during this holiday that I put Leo down for a lunchtime nap and he appeared in a nappy poolside about to dive in, saved only by another guest.

The Self Catering Holiday

Staying in an apartment or villa has countless benefits.  The freedom to do what you like, random mealtimes, a base to explore.  Last year we rented a house in Spain for a week.  We've always loved Spain - gorgeous weather, fab people and the food is always delish.  On paper it looked perfect - white villa, stunning views, eight miles from Valencia.  And our own pool!  We'd spent a couple of days in Barcelona and arrived with high hopes of lots of rest and relaxation.  I can categorically say that the rest of the family got plenty of that.  

This is partly my fault.  When booking, I hadn't taken into account the location and we were in hardcore rural territory, thus meaning that the local village restaurants didn't even open for drinks until 9.30 pm.  As a family of routine, there was more chance of Joe agreeing to book a holiday without WIFI than of any of them waiting until that time to eat.  As a result, I made regular visits to the local supermarket and we BBQ'd every night but it's got to be said that it's not the same as going to a local restaurant.  Not only did I miss the appearance of a good looking Spanish waiter (although Joe tried his best), but it also lacked the whole social element of eating out.  Plus, quite frankly, I empty the bloody dishwasher and lay the table at home so I might as well have been in Yorkshire.

It's an economical option though, it has to be said.  Booking a self catering holiday in Europe is often the same price as going for a week in a UK Centre Parcs - I know, I've checked - but you've got far more chance of seeing the sun plus you spend less time gasping in horror at how much you are spending.  We often did self catering when my children were small as the meal time management element of these holidays works well with that age group.  Taking young children to restaurants, whether on holiday or at home, counts among the Ten Most Stressful Things To Do In The Entire World.  Why do we do it?  Anyone who says that they like taking their kids to restaurants is blatantly lying.  There is nothing more stressful than eating out with children.  Or, indeed, for the other diners who are forced to spend date night with a three year old screaming alongside.  We've been known to lift our kids mid meal and stage an escape from restaurants over the years when it all becomes too much.  Once, we went to Wagamamas for dinner and Max accidentally threw his hot chocolate across the restaurant, splattering six diners including a woman wearing a white cashmere jumper (for which we then had to pay).  It's like throwing money down the toilet.

Glamping in Somerset 2012. More rain than was experienced by Noah himself and an entrance of vomit.

Glamping in Somerset 2012. More rain than was experienced by Noah himself and an entrance of vomit.

The Camping Holiday

I have to say at the outset that the Dawson's are not a camping family.  This isn't because we didn't do it when we were small - our annual holidays were camping in a tent in La Tranche every year and they were the best holidays ever.  Seven years ago, we decided to relive our childhood memories and booked a mobile home for two weeks in August on a campsite, again in the West of France.  The site was brilliant - big pitches, restaurant, swimming pool, bikes for the kids to ride around on.  Literally, it was a dream.  

Unfortunately, our holiday coincided with the most shocking weather ever experienced in Europe during a summer month, making it impossible to cook outdoors or dry clothes or, indeed, do anything at all apart from argue with each other.  It tipped it down solidly, day and night, for ten days, after which we decided to cut our losses and head to Euro Disney two days early.  Again, it pissed it down.  I can tell you that there's nothing worse than watching a soggy parade of random Disney characters whilst being charged £5 for a can of Coke.  The weather had meant that the beach and the 'free stuff' were out of bounds and when we added up how much we had spent on the holiday afterwards, it equated to two weeks All Inclusive in Menorca.  

The following year, we decided maybe we had been too hasty in casting camping aside and booked two nights away in a bell tent on a glamping site in Somerset.  We booked Bank Holiday weekend, laughing to each other that there was no way it could be as bad as our French experience.  How wrong could we have been?  We arrived to weather so severe that they had to lay out cardboard boxes over the mud to get to our tent, from which we had to don full waterproof gear in order to even go to the loo.  There was a brief respite in the afternoon so we went off in search of the beach.  We hadn't gone far when Joe (a man who's natural habitat is corporate and who doesn't even own wellies) got his foot stuck in a mud hole, twisted his ankle and fell flat on his face.  We made our way back to the tent, consoling ourselves with a camp fire and marshmallows, only to be woken in the night by Ella vomiting out of the door flap.  Max, unaware of this occurrence, trod in the vomit on his way to the toilet.  I have plenty of very outdoorsy friends who camp, caravan, cycle and hike and I have the hugest of respect for them.  From a distance.  Sometimes you just have to cut your losses and admit defeat.

So I think that I can safely say that as a family, we've covered most options when it comes to the family holiday.  This year, we've split the 14 day standard into two separate weeks at the beginning and the end of the summer holidays, an idea we trialled last year which worked brilliantly and made the break feel even longer.  July will see Joe and I in Ibiza living his Super Club dream whilst I will be firmly by the pool, drinking a mojito with book in hand watching the sun go down.  The nirvana of pre kids but with my palm tree tattoo to remind me of good family times.  Holidays rule.

(This blog was originally published in May 2018)