ODuring the pandemic, I sat in my house and dreamed of a vacation. I sat in my house, the same chair, the same view, the same fights over the same toys, and over the months I refined that dream. Some people fantasized about trekking through the Himalayas. Some talk about exploring the jungle, paddling a secluded beach, or dashing through Manhattan. I wanted a place where I wouldn’t have to cook. I wanted a holiday where every decision was made for me, where we could make up for some of the panic of lockdown by laying carefree in the sun, some of the lack of childcare of lockdown by sending the kids to play in a room which also did not contain us. I wanted an all-inclusive family resort, a warm place, and I really wanted it.
So, having started lazily scrolling through the options in 2020, two treacherous years later, there I was, on a package deal to Corfu. We hadn’t been on vacation for three years: a lot depended on that. I was traveling with my family, including a toddler born at the start of the first confinement, who had never taken a vacation in his life. We were curious to see what he would think of swimming pools, other people, what he would think of the sea and being lifted 31,000 feet in the air while next to him a stranger watched Friends without helmet. It turned out that the answer was: I liked it.
The resort was called MarBella (pronounced with a hard L) and was on the southeast coast of Corfu, a sprawling complex of buildings surrounded by various lavenders and rosemary and crowned by a colorful water park. Every 10 minutes or so, a giant bucket of water would tip over and pour down from the top of the water park, soaking those below the slides, whose delighted cries flowed down the hill to the other two pools, the ‘one discreetly placed at arm’s length from all the shenanigans, where only adults were allowed. My partner and I glared at him.
The morning after our arrival, we were introduced to the hotel’s ‘catering concept’, ie the buffet. I had known the joy of a life-changing buffet breakfast in the past, but never had my family had the chance to go all-inclusive before, which meant we never had does ‘dinner buffet’ too. It’s hard to go back on that, I’ll be honest. And for all the kid-centric fun—a kids’ club, pottery sessions, water slides, Lego robotics lessons—for my kids, the prospect of independently sliding through three aisles of potential diners has it all. beaten. Those early days for them were just surveillance between buffets. There was a piece of do-it-yourself sundae and a whole aisle of desserts – the big kid waddled the little kid into the restaurant and held him up to gaze at the puddings. They came back with a tasting menu of cold things in small pots, often with cream, sometimes delicious. I felt sorry for the chefs – who served a hotel full of British families, their local dishes were largely shunned by anyone under 16, each eating plain pasta with cheese every night. But despite that, everyone was floating on an equally magical all-inclusive cloud: after all those months of confinement meals, being cooked for was a strangely moving experience.
The goal was to relax. I had a vision of lying very still in dappled shade, a state of lobotomized serenity. There were times when I almost made it, even with a sleeping child draped in sweat over my bikini, or on the balcony quite late at night. But despite all the splendor and imposed pleasure, I realized on the third day that there was unfortunately not much a hotel could do. They can provide good food, they can clean the rooms, they can plant bougainvillea to climb the arches, they can set up a small counter by a swimming pool where clean towels are available on request, but the rest, well, that’s up to you. On a family vacation, you can escape your home, but you can’t really escape your family. So after a few days we gave up trying; we were so inexperienced in the art of relaxation that we decided to wake up from the all-inclusive dream and embark on a whole different kind of vacation.
We left the compound and took a bus to the old town of Corfu with its wide white marble pavements, slippery under a sandal, and its maze-like alleys, and its rocks leading to the Adriatic Sea, and its ancient fortresses, and its ice-creams. On our return to the hotel, we skipped the buffet and ventured to tavernas on the coast, where we ate grilled fish by the water’s edge. And eventually, we also avoided the pool and its cheerful aerobics classes, slipping to a nearby pebble beach, where, in the fantasy, I would have ripped off my dress and jumped screaming into the sea. In reality, I had to apply everyone’s sunscreen, then take a series of long minutes to climb the small ladder, then dove into the cold navy water, moaning, but it was worth it. I swam, a modest distance, and looked back – on one side I saw the hotel, white and glistening in the heat, on the other side, the mountains, covered with bushes greens and lilacs. The best of both.
Fantasies have multiplied during the pandemic, rocking marriages, changing careers and sending people like me to the long sandy beaches in their heads.
As the world comes back to life, I predict a shift away from vacation rentals and towards all-inclusive vacations, where one can be taken care of in ways we have been missing. The problem with chasing a fantasy is that reality is never quite what you imagined. But sometimes it can be even better.
A 7 night stay with Jet2holidays at MarBella Corfu costs £649 pp half board, based on 2 adults and 1 child (aged 2-11) sharing. For more details, go to (marbella.gr)