The joy of going back

Since I had kids, something weird has happened. I’ve started going back to the same places on holiday. In my heady days of singledom, and then coupledom, this would never have happened.  I was always of the view that there is far too much world out there to be wasting time returning to places I’d already been. And however much I liked those places, what’s to say there wasn’t a better place somewhere else? After all, travel is about discovery, right?

Wrong. With the arrival of kids, ‘travel’ becomes ‘holidays’; and ‘holidays’ actually become ‘changes of scene’ rather than relax-and-read-on-a-lounger or let’s-climb-Kilimanjaro; you are still being woken in the middle of the night by a child who needs a wee; you are still scraping up Shreddies off the floor after breakfast; and you are still being bellowed at umpteen times a day to ‘play cars’ and ‘get a snack’. It’s just you might be somewhere hotter and sunnier than normal (although that is not a given if you decide to staycation).

In this context, the appeal of newness wanes. The joy of discovering a lovely waterside restaurant serving carafes of wine for 5 euros and freshly grilled fish turns into a nightmare of ‘how long is the food going to take?’ and ‘they don’t have a high chair!’. The beautiful beach you’ve read about that’s ‘just’ a 15 minute stroll across the headland might as well be on the moon for all the chance you have of making it there, (oh, and did anyone tell you there wasn’t any shade?).  The stunning villa with patio doors onto a gorgeous infinity pool becomes a palpitations-inducing toddler death trap; and the ‘short, easy’ drive from the airport becomes an expletive-ridden show-down as Mum and Dad argue the toss about directions (IT SAYS TURN LEFT AT EXIT 143!!!) and tired kids scream for their tea.

Suddenly, knowing everything is no longer boring. On the contrary, it has immense appeal. I want to know the restaurant with the nice coochi-cooing owner who has an endless stash of Antelop high chairs and can whip up penne with tomato sauce in 5 minutes. I want to know that you can get 2 loungers and a parasol on the beach for 10 Euros and walk back home in 5 minutes. I want to know that my villa has stairgates, fences and no precipitous drops; and I want to bloody well know where I am going.
There’s another instance when it pays to go back somewhere you know and that’s when things turn multi-generational. It’s bad enough dealing with your partner and kids when you’re somewhere unfamiliar and things aren’t going to plan. Throw in your parents or the in-laws and it could be a million times worse. This goes for groups of friends too. It’s far, far more relaxing for everyone if at least one person knows where they are going and what they are doing. ‘Yes, the supermarket is 5 minutes up that road and I am buying the wine now’; ‘yes, I’ve booked a table at the restaurant that does the gluten-free bread’; ‘yes, trust me, 5 minutes further down this track and we will be at that gorgeous cove I told you about. Oh and you can rent parasols’.

This was the case this New Year when we went to Barbados for a week with my parents. I’d been there with my wife and 2 kids (we have since become five) 3 years previously and thoroughly enjoyed it. I knew my parents would like it (well, with white sands, azure waters, balmy temperatures and no malaria tabs, what’s not to like?!). But moreover, and critically, I knew they would eat. My Dad’s tastes are conservative to say the least but I knew there was plenty on offer in Barbados for the meat-and-potato king. What’s more, I knew the places to take my parents: the lovely botanical gardens, the windswept West Coast; and the glamorous Sandy Lane Hotel (I hadn’t anticipated quite how much my Mum would like this place!).

There is if course a danger to going back. A perfect – or simply very enjoyable holiday – may not necessarily be replicated the following year. Weather has a big effect – go back somewhere sunny to find it’s raining all week and things could turn sour. Kids also grow out of places, alarmingly fast. When they’re toddlers, the seaside is all they need – no worries about water parks and zoos and days out; but that little studio on the beach in Greece that was once a place of wonder with your wobbling 2 year old rapidly turns to a place of torture with a 7 year old bouncing off the walls and demanding some adrenalin-fuelled action. Furthermore, sometimes holidays just work because of our moods or the very timing of them – and the danger is we conflate those feelings with a place. Much can change in a year – our stress and tiredness levels, our general outlook on life – and we just might not be feeling it, or each other, in the same way.

However, on balance, these are modest risks. I’ve never had a bad experience going back anywhere. In fact, my ‘going back’ holidays have been some of the most relaxing we’ve enjoyed as a family. And of course, going back does not preclude discovering anything new. On the contrary, it can mean a healthy blend on the comforting things that you know make you happy with the things you never got to do last time. And of course, sharing a place you know with new people can put a whole new spin on things and is a joy in itself.

Back in Barbados this December, we stayed on the West Coast rather than the South (the vibe is totally different – altogether glitzier with calmer waters for paddling and splashing). We went to restaurants I had wanted to go on our previous visit but never managed to; we finally did afternoon tea at Sandy Lane, which had been on my to do list for years; plus with Mum and Dad on hand to babysit, my wife and I managed long walks hand-in-hand along beautiful silver-white beaches – an experience impossible 3 years before – and even a night of cocktails at 5* hotel. For those moments alone, I raise my Rum Punch to Going Back.

The top 5 places I’ve been back to with my family:

  1. Lanzarote. We’ve actually been to Lanzarote three times, once as a footloose couple and twice with the kids. We never intended to go (we were forced to seek a last minute alternative) but the island turned out to be a real discovery and we totally fell for its breezy, wild charm. Each time we’ve been back we’ve stayed somewhere different and we’ve mixed up hotels, apartments and villas. The ritual of going to our favourite places – the cactus garden, Famara beach – is all part of the experience.
  2. North Norfolk. We love it here. A million miles away, emotionally if not physically, this part of the country offers the simple, nostalgia-inducing family holidays that I crave: blustery beaches; freezing seas; crabbing on the quay; steam trains. Our favourite place is Wells; if I could dream up my perfect seaside town, this would be it. But we’ve recently discovered the beautiful village of Thornham, with its delis and cool glampsite ‘Wild Luxury’. We’re heading back there this summer, but mixing things up by staying in a cottage.
  3. The Caribbean. We never expected to visit the Caribbean as much as we have. But since having kids, we’ve been back time and time again. For that dose of tropical heat, without malaria tablets, plus a reasonable flight time (7 to 8 hours), you can’t really beat it. We’re working our way round the islands, and each is surprisingly different. Barbados has the best food, but we love Antigua for its beaches.
  4. Periyali, Zakynthos, Greece. A gem of a place where we’ve spent two of the happiest family holidays of our lives.  A small cluster of villas, all with pools and centred around a crèche providing a few hours of kid-free sanctuary each day. The blend of quality childcare with stunning weather, gorgeous beaches and a clutch of tavernas with playgrounds makes for the most relaxing break. Alas, our eldest child, Leo, is just a bit too old for it all now.
  5. Egypt. OK, we’ve only been here once as a family; but my eldest son has actually technically been twice, it’s just the first time he was in Mummy’s tummy.  It’s such a shame Egypt is off limits right now as it really fills a much needed gap of not-too-far but good-value winter sun. Moreover, I can’t wait to show my aquatic-loving kids the wonders of the Red Sea – I’ve really found nowhere better in the world than Sharm to snorkel and I could happily look for Nemo time and time again.

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