(Published in The Malay Mail on 27 July 2014)
“The beach is shit, don’t you think? Shit, shit, toxic even,” the former Head of English teacher complained loudly, well within earshot of the line of nice looking locals also waiting for the return ferry.
I sat in the breezy hotel reception the next morning wondering how I ended up going on holiday with my step-mother. Come to think of it, over the years spent cursing her for stealing my father from me, I’ve rarely slept under the same roof as Cruella, never mind share a vacation.
Within the first 8 hours after touch down she lived up to her self-appointed nickname, Cruella, short for Cruella de Vil — that wicked kidnapper of adorable pups in Dodie Smith’s novel ‘The 101 Dalmatians’. For her, holiday equals beach but not any old beach: “When you get to my age, you know what kind of beach you like, and where it needs to be,” she announced didactically. Hers was a rocky beach peppered with hideaway coves and waves crashing within range of her hotel window.
A 2km walk and a ferry ride to what looked like a manmade island supporting a wide sandy beach, fringed by a forest of luminous green seaweed, saw her fly into ‘cruel devil’ mode, the very words from which the name of ‘Cruella de Vil’ was born.
More choice words and blame followed the smelly walk back through the salt plains leading to ‘el centro’. Then a cold silence crept in as we became lost in a web of tiny cobbled streets that spun their way around Tavira’s pretty fishing port. We finally reached our hotel, exhausted, only to find that our room keys didn’t work. That sinking feeling of disaster set in.
Pulling off successful and enriching holidays can be hard work: 90 per cent preparation, 10 per cent luck perhaps? For holidays are to people what courses are for horses; selecting the right course yields better results. Over time my holiday-needs have morphed into quite different creatures — making the selection of right course all the more tricky.
In my mid thirties/early forties, a one-salary-family laden with kids, an eye on cost is key and requires research, time, early bookings of various forms of transport that will take us the cheapest route to self-catered accommodation. This year it will be a campsite in Corsica. Some form of adventure or culture included. Lies-ins and reading — just one of my mountain of classics — are an enormous treat. Factor 30 to 50 suncream.
Late twenties/early thirties, dreary long hours slogging away at a London law firm demanded guaranteed sun, luxury (food to hotel), cocktails-on-tap and a touch of the exotic; Caribbean and Maldives did nicely. A boyfriend was the preferred travel companion. Glossy Hellos and OKs picked up at the airport passed as reading. Lie-ins essential. Private beach? Yes please. Factor 15 to 30.
My late teens/twenties saw a crowded beach of young beautifuls, optional bikini tops, stash of easy-read Bridget-Jones type books, copious amounts of local wine, buoyant nightlife. Holiday romances were an added bonus on my otherwise lazy, girls-on-tour holidays. Baby-oil for maximum tanning.
As a kid/teen I craved adventure. My first ever holiday that I arranged and paid for (from my Saturday waitressing job), was a Youth Hostelling Association multi-activity trip to Cornwall for a week of abseiling, sailing, orienteering, canoeing and more. Sun cream – was this even around then?
Now, I’m on the cusp of taking off my mid-forties holiday hat and moving into an unchartered sun factor territory. A zone where the prospect of another ten weeks of kids on summer holidays — where mummy organizes A to Z of entertainment — leads one to do something a little c-razy, spontaneous, dangerous even? The first ever high-street package holiday booked last-minute … with your step-mum?
This is how my ‘write-away’ with my literary mentor Cruella was hatched. A beach holiday to the Algarve booked Friday for next day departure. I have fallen in love with having oodles of time to write on the hotel terrace overlooking rows of neat white-washed houses with their cheery terra-cotta roofs. Perfect inspiration for that book.
Cruella has made peace with our destination — in her words “stopped bitching” — and spends her days at the pool; she’s there now as I write. Come the evening, she will regale me with tales of her new friends, tiny iridescent blue birds that swoop to her side as she swims.