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Artillery Row

In defence of package holidays

Uno beero por favor!

At a recent discussion on climate change, a famous feminist author listed activities we need to end right now to ensure the planet doesn’t explode like a frog in a microwave. One of these activities, she suggested, was the package holiday to Lanzarote. Perhaps due to the fact my chair was front row centre, the famous author’s eyes seemed to X-ray my mind: as if she could somehow sense that a week later, I would be downing pints in an Irish pub on the Av. de las Playas on the south coast of this much-maligned island.

It isn’t only famous feminist authors who appear to have a problem with Lanzarote. In an online discussion on that most contentious of subjects, the price of a pint, I happened to mention the fact that I was currently in Lanzarote and enjoying pints of cold lager for as little as €1.50. “Lanzarote?” scoffed a fellow contributor. “Torture. You’d have to pay me to go there.” Perhaps he hoped I might offer to do so. I didn’t.

What is it about this dusty, barren, “island of eternal spring” eighty miles west of Morocco that provokes such animosity among the chattering classes? I can only conclude that the reason Lanzarote — as with Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Fuerteventura – is derided is because of its fatal association with that horror of horrors, the package holiday. It is beloved of oiky yobs in Union Jack shorts who wish to consume fry-ups and lager as the sun turns their skin the colour of the sort of people they wish to bar from our own Atlantic island.

The chattering (read: middle) classes don’t do package holidays — at least, not the ones where you share charter flights, transfer buses and swimming pools with tattooed louts from Droitwich, Derby and Dundee. The reason for this, so far as I can gather, is that they view package holidays as being somehow “inauthentic”. The Canary Islands — like the Balearics, plus the Costas — don’t represent the “real” Spain you find in the interior. Authenticity, it seems, can only be found in dusty Sierra Nevada villages and bleak industrial cities of the North where the food is rudimentary, the locals rude and — as we found to our cost in the Basque region and Catalunya — nobody speaks Castilian Spanish, let alone English.

It is an interesting concept, authenticity

It’s an interesting concept, authenticity. For how to judge what is authentic? If the Canaries and Costas are phony, anglicised versions of Spain, why do Spanish people visit? Granted, the paella might not be “authentic” — I know this because when my wife ordered hers, it arrived the same day — but nevertheless, it looks like paella, tastes like paella and thereby confirms, in my unsophisticated worldview, that it is paella.

Spanish people cooked it, served it and dined on it, so whatever the view of those boring snobs who claim to know Spanish food better than the Spaniards themselves, to me it felt somehow “real”. (Don’t get me started on tapas – because whenever you mention the word, some bore will insist the only truly authentic tapas in the world is served by a nonagenarian Moor at an A-44 roadhouse just outside Granada.)

The longer we spent on Lanzarote — on beaches, on buses, within the submarine that showed us ghostly wrecks illuminated by shafts of salted sunlight — the more Spanish voices we heard, as well as those of Ireland, Germany, France, Italy, India and Southeast Asia. None seemed particularly concerned by the island’s lack of “authenticity” — in fact, they seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as we were. 

At the waterpark, as we recklessly launched ourselves on inflatable hoops down steep watery tubes into churning salt-water pools, I noticed something wonderful. Despite the fact that many of our fellows sported tattoos, obese bodies and decidedly non-RP accents, all seemed to be laughing. Fathers descended with sons, mothers with daughters, brothers with sisters, and having landed with a splash and overturned, dunking them into the water, picked up their hoops and ascended again.

Suddenly I had a vision: a quintessentially middle class English family, cycling through Provence, descending on some unnamed out-of-the-way bistro in the hope of discovering something “real” about the place, or possibly themselves. Were they as happy, I wondered, as loving, close and laughter-filled, as these holiday-makers? Can one be happy when one’s search for authenticity overrides the very basic human need to be with one’s family, to relax, have fun?

Of course I cannot condemn those who condemn package holidays and the sort of people who go on them without confronting my own prejudices. It has been many years since our last package holiday — a disastrous week in a rain-lashed Mallorca apartment in 2007, when the kids were tiny and the only channel we could find on TV was Sky News, endlessly reporting on the Virginia Tech shooting. (Using the term “Mallorca”, as opposed to “Majorca”, is of course a cultural and class signifier – like saying “Andalucia” instead of “Costa del Sol”.) After that desultory experience, we began to swap houses, and in the past 15 years have travelled through — as opposed to holidayed in — Australia, the US, Finland, Japan and all over Europe. 

Even as a younger man I eschewed 18-30 holidays for the delights of Calcutta and Jakarta. Yet to look at me, you might imagine all my holidays were spent soaking up rays in Magaluf and Faliraki. I still recall my delight, on entering into conversation with a snobby girl in a London pub, when she said she loved to travel. I do, too, I said. She looked me up and down — at my t-shirt and trainers, my cropped hair and yobbish vowels. “Where was the last place YOU ever travelled? Corfu?” I shrugged. “Well, I just returned from a trip taking in India, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and six months in Australia…” Yet when I think back now, in a sense that ’94 trip was also a kind of package tour. Everywhere we went, my friend and I, we met the same people, doing the same things in the same places, with whiteboards advertising banana pancakes and bang lassi and trips to the falls.

I booked the Lanzarote package in desperation

Having endured three long years confined to our small island, our only breaks to expensive hotels, cramped Norfolk boats and rain-drenched Cornish campsites, I booked the Lanzarote package in desperation, but also with some anxiety. Perhaps a part of me feared that a traditional, sun-sea-sandals package holiday might be as disappointing as so many people seem to believe. In fact, it was one of the most pleasurable and relaxing holidays of my life.

Chief among the many highs was our first snorkelling experience at a local beach. Each day my fifteen-year-old son and I donned rubbery rented masks and descended into a different world, where the only sound was our movie-style breathing. We were surrounded by tornadoes of iridescent fish that, we realised, had been there all along. As I regarded this dream-world, my son, in his element, tapped my shoulder and pointed, eyes wide with excitement, at a strange striped angel fish skimming the underwater rocks. He raised his eyebrows inquiringly, and I raised my thumb and followed him along the sandy shallows, the surface above our heads churned by happy families. It’s surprising what you can discover, on breaking the surface to find what lies beneath.

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