When I was a little girl we took a lot of family vacations. My parents were both teachers and they love to travel, so we took full advantage of our summers. Mostly, a family vacation meant piling in the car and driving a few hours away to San Diego or Berkeley, to Palm Springs or Pinecrest. As my sister and I got older, my parent’s expanded our range, heading all the way across the US or taking trains around Europe. Traveling on teachers’ salaries meant we had to adhere to a strict budget. My dad took pride in the fact that each trip cost as little as possible. A key part of this, of course, meant we avoided hotels. We bunked down with friends, or friends of friends, or people who maybe were sort of acquainted with someone’s associate. My dad knows a zillion people and in every city and town, he found us a place to stay. We did things our own way, a la carte, so to speak, often wandering far from the beaten path, avoiding tour buses and guides and anything that resembled a planned holiday. We never booked ahead. We never ate at the tourist traps or shopped at the stores with the busloads of vacationers. If an all-inclusive vacation existed, a week-long stay at a four-star hotel, I knew nothing about it.
Fast-forward thirty or so years. After nearly seven consecutive years of living in Europe, I’m spending my holidays like so many other middle class Europeans, on a planned holiday. What that means is that I’ve just returned from a week in Tenerife, a full-on, no holds barred, all-inclusive packaged tour. For a nominal flat fee, the four of us flew on a charter flight directly from Reykjavik, Iceland to Tenerife, Canary Islands. At the airport in Tenerife, a woman with a binder and an Icelandic flag ushered us onto a massive bus. Once seated among all the other Icelanders, she proceeded to tell us (in Icelandic) about all the events the tour company offered that week. As the bus hugged the rugged, desert landscape, we thumbed through the handouts about cocktail parties and boat cruises. Driving through the overcrowded cities the bus stopped at one massive hotel after another, dropping off the other passengers. I watched the scenery outside the bus: sunburned Brits bought neon hats and Russians dined at restaurants offering karaoke or fish and chips. I took deep breaths, bracing myself for the horrors of a packaged holiday and reminding myself that at least it was warm outside, nearly hot. That was all I needed. We’d come to escape Iceland’s winter and see sun. The long, dark days at the top of the planet had given the whole family the winter blues. We needed daylight. And heat. Nothing else mattered.
Soon we arrived at our behemoth hotel. The receptionist announced activities at the kids’ club, by the pool, and at the disco. She affixed our wristbands and sent us on our way. Everything in the hotel was included. Three buffet meals a day, use of all the pools, sending the kids off to the babysitting club, cocktails and coffee set out mid-morning and early evening, and even the drinks in the refrigerator in our room. Included.
When I was eighteen, I went back to Europe without my parents. Even though he wasn’t with us, I found myself following in my dad’s footsteps. We never hired a guide or stayed in a big hotel. We avoided any packaged trips, we budgeted every penny, we slept on the train whenever we could, we bunked with friends of friends and distant relatives. By the time I was twenty-one and traveling through West Africa, I’d mastered the art of budget travel and learned exactly how to raise my nose in the air at big tours or crowds of holiday makers. It’s been a while since I traveled with only a backpack and probably because of my parents’ willingness to stay with anyone, I almost never ask for a free place to crash. But had I come this far? So far from my solo wanderlust-adventure-traveler-girl days that I was willing to do this? Thinking of the grey days in Iceland, I reminded myself again that all I needed was the sun. If getting it meant that I had to be part of a big tour group, so be it.
It helped that our hotel was outside of town, away from the swarms of tourists and shops selling braided bracelets and t-shirts with too many slogans. It helped too that the hotel had six pools and from every vista a panoramic view of the sea. Or that I didn’t have to cook for a whole week. Did I mention that babysitting was free? (okay, included). It helped that the weather was hot and dry and I could hear the ocean from our balcony. By the end of the first day, I was ready to throw budget and adventure travel out the window and move permanently into this massive hotel. But despite my attempts at embracing the package holiday, my dad’s influences still surfaced. Of course, I was compelled to eat and drink more at the outrageous buffets because, after all, we’d paid for it. And while many found no reason to leave the hotel, we knew we had to escape. For two days we rented a car and drove to the wet, lush north part of the island. After driving over winding hilltop roads, we wandered through small villages, stopping in a small café for coffee and ice cream. Another day we took a boat out to find pilot whales before sailing beneath the cliffs and then diving into the warm sea. For Carnival, we dragged the kids through concerts and massive crowds of costumed revelers, ogling the men in drag, the high school girls dressed as Smurfs, or the crowd of ladies doubling as ghouls. Another afternoon, we found that one of the stairways out of the hotel led to a small rocky bay where again, we could climb along the cliffs and swim in the clear blue water beside the fishermen and local kids. But then, we’d return. Back to the gargantuan hotel, where a lovely woman brought me coffee each morning and an oversized giraffe danced with the kids beside the azure pool.