Some holidays are a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience, an opportunity to savour all the amazing sights and activities on offer, and something the holiday-maker will have looked forward to for ages.
My one and only traditional package holiday experience was also a ‘once in a lifetime’ occurrence, but for the totally opposite reasons.
My 3 friends and I had just finished our A-levels and in true teenage fashion decided to celebrate with a holiday in the sun. I was excited and began to explore lots of independent options, whilst the others came up with some travel agency tour brochures, crammed with high rise resorts and sun-lounger alleys. Even at 18 I knew that sort of scene just wasn’t for me. However, beaten down 3 to 1, I had no choice but to agree with the majority, and we ended up flying to Calella, about 60km north of Barcelona on the Spanish coast. Not exactly paradise but at least it was a chance to relax after the stress of exams.
My amigas giggled excitedly as the transfer coach pulled up outside our hotel for the next 7 days. I peered out in dismay at the tatty concrete block overlooking a car park. The tour rep on board was already annoying me with what I took to be the standard banter, and he wasn’t even remotely good-looking to soften the impact (something which I’m sure he would contest). The others were already smitten.
I’d decided I would give the whole sunbathing thing a go, since I should really experience the sheer boredom that surely beckoned, before condemning it. I think I lasted about half an hour before considering myself cooked, and went for a wander around the town.
And that was only day one! I did manage to persuade the others to visit Barcelona on the local train, where I was excited to try out my exam-fresh Spanish (only to be disappointingly answered of course in near-perfect English).
It was a great day, we admired and puzzled over the numerous legacies Gaudi had left around the city, and to my delight there was a flautist serenading visitors wandering around the Park Guell, his music amplified by the stone arches above.
We sampled some local restaurants, where the others had pizza and I tucked into paella. I did enjoy sinking my teeth into the most delicious strawberry cake ever, so it wasn’t all bad!
During the evenings there was little to do except patronise the hotel bar, with all the other Brits, to be regaled with awesome tales of drunken antics by the aforementioned tour rep, who had now slapped on copious amounts of hair gel for good measure. It was clearly his job to coerce the less forward females in the bar to get down on the dance floor, something that I don’t do, along with singing in public and eating mushy peas. The music was terrible and the atmosphere vile, and the drinks he kept plying us with only marginally took off the edge. The amigas were soon persuaded to join in whatever drinking-game-come-conga-come-strip-tease was being acted out on the dance floor, whilst I nursed the last dregs of some hideous vodka concoction that was easier to accept than refuse.
Eventually the persistent rep came over to schmooze and tempt me to join him and his incredible moves under the spotlights. After I had politely but firmly declined his very generous offer for the umteenth time, he decided he had no option but to jump up onto the bench next to me and physically haul me across the table. Next thing he knew he was flying across the room followed closely by a clenched fist. I couldn’t believe I’d just done that (no doubt a little Dutch courage behind it, kindly given to me by the rep himself), but at least it meant he avoided me for the rest of the week, hobbling around with an apparent ankle injury.
By day 4, I felt I’d done my best at the whole laying by the pool thing, and that it was their turn to do something I wanted. I foolishly suggested a trip to the mysterious mountains of Montserrat, part of the pre-Catalan mountain range an hour north west of Barcelona. It’s a Benadictine monk mountain retreat with several miles of walks amongst the unusual rock formations. The amigas, of course, couldn’t have been less enthusiastic, and in true form, trooped straight down to the pool after breakfast. There were 3 loungers with their names on.
Sighing but still obstinate, to their incredulous stares I set off on my own little adventure. I had a date with some monks. I was a little nervous but had a point to prove, to them and myself, so couldn’t back out now. Besides, I didn’t really want to.
Once I’d navigated the hub of Barcelona, I hopped on the funicular where I met Shaun, a climber from India who was heading up to bag a few routes for a couple of days. Now I don’t usually pick up strange men on trains, and certainly not when I was 18, but as he had a rucksack bulging with ropes I trusted him, probably because Dad’s an avid climber and there was some sort of affinity there.
We had a lovely day doing some of the trails, listening to the haunting songs echoing around the monastery from the famous Montserrat choir boys, and ate a picnic lunch on the rocks, overlooking Catalunya unfolding into the distance below. Best day of the whole week!
In the interests of group harmony the next day I finally gave in and joined the hordes on the beach. At least I had a good book to ogle. I don’t think to this day the amigas believe that I’d gone ‘all the way’ to the mountain by myself, let alone spent the day with a random bloke called Shaun who had lots of ropes and a nice lunch box. Still, I was glad I didn’t have to share it with them, and it meant one less day to have to waste.
By the end of the week, and after I’d got the hotel to call out the air-conditioning fixer to the unit in our room that turned out to be fine after all (I clearly hadn’t found the ‘on’ switch!), I was more than ready to go home. But I could now say with complete conviction that I HATE PACKAGE HOLIDAYS, and at least I have a tale to back up my belief, rather than just an assumption.
Sure, I know there are lots of package holidays out there that don’t involve hell and high rise, or sun-lounger roulette, and appreciate that many people don’t want the hassle of having to do the legwork themselves, but organising independent travel always ensures you get exactly what you want…Yes, if you get it wrong, then there’s no-one else to blame (usually). Yet it’s these mistakes that often make adventures, and the excitement of planning a trip is an adventure in itself.