CONDE NAST TRAVELLER – AUGUST 2007
If you have been single for forty-something years, as I had, and then marry someone who has three quite grown-up children (17, 15 and 11), you automatically become a curiosity. Mothers treat you like one of those intrepid lady pilots who crossed oceans in biplanes. Single strangers are horribly fascinated (most are in denial about the possibility of hooking up with a divorcee, let alone one with an actual ex and flesh-and-blood offspring). Married men are generally amused and sympathetic, because all males have a very well-developed sense of the advantages of being single especially as they get older.
Despite this universally skeptical reaction (no one ever says, ‘Lucky you, the years of pleasure ahead!’), the gulf between the single person’s experience and the stepmother’s life is, in my opinion, much exaggerated. I mean, obviously it’s different. The bathroom is no longer your own. You eat mashed potatoes all the time. There never seems to be anything on TV any more (young people record things: The Simpsons again and again and again: another edition of the X Factor). The white sofa that survived unscathed for 15 years has been reduced, in less then two months to a motley piebald. Still, there’s nothing that makes you reel, nothing that you feel is a sacrifice too far – with one exception: the family holiday.
For most people at this stage of life, holidays are an uneasy compromise between adults and children’s needs. They require ambitious planning back-to-back ‘activities’ and busloads of other people’s children to entertain yours. These sacred two weeks in August are really, when you boil it down, all about Not Letting the Children Get Bored. The adults may have the time of their lives but only if their idea of holiday bliss involves a lot of water sports, rather than lying very still in the sun reading We Need to Talk about Kevin.
This is where single girls and the rest of the world part company, Singletons hardly ever need to compromise and never on holiday. They make a point of only visiting places where families fear to tread and never planning more than a day ahead. A typical itinerary will involve three days straight on sun-loungers, a few on safari, two shopping, one day in bed, two not going to bed at all, Single girls hire Vespas, Go Diving, Sleep, Read, Sleep, Read. Have beauty treatments and long lunches involving several bottles of rosé followed by longer siestas. None of the above is possible with children now. And that’s just the beginning. Never mind all the stuff you cant do, there’s all the stuff you are obliged to do (games! Excursions!), not to mention the gigantic psychological adjustment involved in accepting that a holiday is no longer a holiday as you have known it.
So I am embarking on my first family trip well prepared, I have done my research and worked out that water-based activities are to the teenager’s holiday what John Frieda is to the fading blonde. Guaranteed sunshine is also essential (it goes well with the water sports and is a major draw for those whose top priority is impressing friends with their tan when they get home – that’s me and, for all I know, my 17-year-old stepdaughter). The way I see it, we need space (my husband spent his last summer holiday with this children crowded into one hotel room; he still can’t talk about it). We need novelty distractions: banana boats, snorkeling trips, water-skiing, ping-pong. We need a limited amount of home comforts (television, internet). And we need glamour. I may be projecting, but in my experience most children, bar the most committedly rustic, appreciate glamour every bit as much as their elders. Super-luxury hotels have a deadening effect on the spirits of anyone under 25 – all that hush and polished wood and those undisturbed infinity pools. But twinlky table settings, cocktails (or, in their case, vases of blue and orange liquid sprouting linsel), fluffy bathrobes and toweling slippers – the basic trappings of the Michael Winner lifestyle – have an uplifting effect on all age groups. Anyway, some of this has to be organized with me in mind. I’m a fast learner but I’m only a human.
The place that ticks all the boxes is the Azia Resort & Spa, near Paphos on Cyprus. Admittedly, the destination itself is a bit hard to swallow for the newly ex-single girl who once prided herself on being a seasoned traveller. There is nothing magical or undiscovered about the west coast of Cyprus – not any more – and you might panic on the approach of the resort if you hadn’t read the literature. The Azia is sandwiched between shops selling inflatable pool toys and the New Horizon pub, on a dusty beachfront strip where the restaurants offer roast-beef lunch or Indian food ‘straight from Bombay via Manchester’. Still, some of the best hotels are oases in the least likely places; and once you turn into the resort’s palm-shaded forecourt, the beer-belly mile is instantly forgotten.
The Azia was a standard resort up until last year, when it was given a dramatic facelift to bump it into the luxury category and this is probably why it is just the right combination of glossy and unpretentious. The redesign is impressive: there’s no glitz but lots of chic, contemporary touches such as white daybeds with muslin drapes dotted around the gardens; and the gardens themselves are extraordinary. The Azia’s great achievement is to have made 250 rooms and 15 bungalows disappear in a landscape of palm and orange trees, oleander, jasmine, lavender bushes and giant multicolored bougainvillea, so it is prettier and more private than you would expect of a hotel this size. The resort is arranged around a pool complex that feels like a place to swim rather than a water theme park and it extends as far as a cliff edge where sun-loungers are arranged on a man-made stretch of beach (the real beach is public and a two-minute walk along the cliff). Two of the four restaurants are outdoors – one shielded under a canopy of trees, another on tiered terraces separated by banks of scarlet geraniums. The heat prohibited investigating the tennis courts, gym an other sports facilities, but they are all there, plus an indoor pool and Elemis Spa. In short, the resort has everything and adult or adolescent could ask for more or less. Still the lesson for the novice stepmother is that you can never tell what is going to be a hit or a miss until it’s hitting or missing.
The first big hit (and, in retrospect, the key to success of the holiday) was the rooms. The offspring had one each, which was obviously a bonus after their last experience; but not only that, the beds were the size of pontoons, and each room had a TV, a private terrace and – oh, praise be – an outdoor Jacuzzi. Giving an adolescent their very own hot tub is, I now appreciate, the next best thing to giving them the keys to your Jeep and telling them to get lost. In those down times before supper, or late at night, hot-tub hopping became the alternative to disco crawling, only a lot cheaper and less painful. We adults didn’t mind ours, either, especially at sundown when, looking out to sea we could have been in Polynesia.
Next on the list of ‘Things That Made All The Difference’ was the swim-up bar (though even a very inexperienced stepmother could have predicted that), closely followed by the poolside attendants who wander between the sun-loungers tempting guests with mid-morning milkshakes and Coca-Colas. The beach, which though public was empty, turned out to be perfect for body-boarding or actual surfing (a nice surprise). The outdoor table tennis proved to be popular even in temperatures of 34ºC, as did the novelty rides at the neighboring beach, including one called a Super Mabel, which gave them all whiplash but got the thumbs-up nonetheless. Surprisingly, hiring a four-wheel-drive also caused some excitement (don’t all their friends’ mothers drive them?) and allowed us to venture into the dusty wilderness of the Akamas peninsula, where we had some of the best food of the holiday at a rocky eyrie of a restaurant called Viklari. Cyprus is a good country for family eating with plenty of grilled lamb and chicken and things to dunk pitta bread in, but the food at the Azia – with the exception of buffet night – was very disappointing. We ate out more than we ate in.
In an effort to ring the changes we charted a yacht to take us cruising up the coast, pausing here and there to snorkel. (Note: snorkeling in this part of the world is only good of the thrill of donning a mask and flippers; there is nothing to see, though the water is beautifully clear.) This was considered much more boring than staying by the pool, though not by me, of course: I was channeling Jackie O circa 1976. Much more appreciated was our private trip around the sea caves in the Chris Adonis, a swashbuckling vessel based in Paphos harbour with a gangplank prow ideal for diving off and a sound system belting out disco hits. There’s glamour and there’s glamour too far, it turns out. Back at the hotel, the club room (a perk for those in the top room bracket) with access to Bebo and a monster TV screen, was pretty much ignored throughout our stay – a major tribute to the Azia set-up. There were endless other excursions we could have taken advantage of, not to mention yoga classes and free diving lessons in the pool; but we had more than enough to keep us occupied.
So how was holidaying with their stepmother different to them? For one thing they were all permanently coated in Clinique spray-on factor 30, which retails at God-knows-how- much a bottle (I could hardly watch them slopping on the cheap stuff and keep it to myself). For another, they now have a taste of spa treatments, which the boys took to like David Beckham. It was quite scary how confidently the 15-year-old ordered his facial for men while my husband was nervously debating whether or not he could face the shoulder massage. The genie is well and truly out of the bottle.
How was it different for me? Thanks to the Azia infrastructure, not very. I read a quarter of what I usually would, but who knew I was so competitive on table tennis? I’ve never sat quite so tight in one place, but it turned out to be a lot more relaxing than chasing the next big thing.
Adventure-seeking is overrated, especially once you get to the age when you actually need a holiday. And the bonus I hadn’t bargained for was the hotel spa. These days you can call a couple of rooms with massage tables and some taped whaleseong a spa and I’m ashamed to say I assumed the Azia’s would be in this category. In fact, it is a genuinely self-contained serene environment complete with mosaic-tiled plunge pools, a sauna, steam room, relaxation area and some of the best therapists I’ve ever come across. For the spa alone this would be a perfect place for one of those recuperative girlfriend holidays (Grazia has already listed it in its top 10 worldwide). Funny to think I would never have come across it if I’d been a singleton in search of pampering. It just shows, anything is possible.