Author: Michelle Pauli, Journalist
It isn’t a gripe, it isn’t a moan but it’s something we’re acutely aware of whenever we go away on holiday: we have just one child. Just the one. An only child. We are not the norm. The world of holidays isn’t made for the likes of us.
But, actually, we are the norm. Nearly half the UK’s families have just one child. Families with one child outnumber those with two. But sometimes you wouldn’t believe it when you travel. It’s one thing to know your choice of family size is normal … it’s quite another to find that the holiday industry caters properly for you.
The problem isn’t really the travel companies who only discount for two children, nor is it finding accommodation for three at your chosen destination. The real issue is how you spend your time when you get there. You and your young one are away from home, friends and all but a handful of treasured toys; she needs constant enjoyment and entertainment and it falls on you to provide that – every waking moment.
Most of the time, you’ll naturally enjoy it. It’s uninterrupted time together as a family and you may well have been craving that. Countless studies show the value of holiday time with your child, not only for bonding but for enhancing your child’s security and self-esteem, as you give her your full attention and confirm that, yes, you do love her and want to be with her. And, using a bit of imagination, you can find plenty to do that appeals equally to adults and child.
But sometimes she needs people her own age. She needs to be silly and earnest, carried away with a role play or getting rowdy with unbridled excitement in a way kids only are with each other. Try as you might, with the best will in the world, you cannot be a child for your child. You cannot switch off what makes you, in her eyes, her parent. You cannot expect to be let, unconstrained, into her world in the same way as someone her own age.
And because you’re on holiday too, sometimes you need to be adult-oriented. You need time out to read and relax, sunbathe, swim in the deep end of the pool, eat child-unfriendly meals, be a grown-up, be silent. You need it for yourself – this is your annual unwind, your mental detox – and you also need it for your child: she needs you to be less stressed, less wound up, less inhibited, and for that you must become relaxed. Properly relaxed.
But how do you give your child and yourself a proper, rounded holiday?
Families take all kinds of steps to tackle the dilemma. Sometimes it involves taking some support with you: a little playmate, if you know a family willing to put their loved one into your care like that! A friend for your young one is more work for you, to be sure, but maybe it’s a fair price for the reward of providing her own companion, on tap, to keep her amused while you relax.
As long as the friendship works in such close proximity for a prolonged time, of course.
You’ll have prepared things well. Multiple sleepovers at your place, perhaps even a long weekend. Plenty of discussions about likes and dislikes, to ensure the holiday will be to the guest’s tastes and that you’re catering properly for his or her needs as well your own family’s. But you have to accept the risk that it may not succeed. The children could fall out badly. The guest might not like the place, or the food you provide or your family routines. Or you. Or they get very homesick. It all has the potential to be great – or an unmitigated disaster.
The same is true, pretty much, of a decision to go on holiday with another family, whether friends or relatives. If you know another family that wants to try this, the upside is that you and they can get the best of both worlds, sharing the benefits (and possibly reduced costs) of going together while building in some independence for each family: the children are there for each other and maybe the adults will enjoy some meals and social time together but you can also agree to have meals or days out apart, so as not to push the relationship too far. But it’s said that you can never really know a family until you live with them – and you may not like what you discover.
When we’ve planned our family holidays, we really haven’t fancied either of these forms of Russian roulette. So instead of taking our solution with us, we’ve opted for finding it at our destination, which almost inevitably for us will be somewhere in France.
One that’s worked quite well for us has been camping, in our beloved, ancient camper van, on purpose-built sites that offer not only a pool and other playground activities but, crucially, a kids’ club. This is not to everyone’s taste, of course. And kids’ clubs are certainly not to everyone’s taste but, in our case, our daughter dipped a toe in and found that she loved it, so we went back for more. It doesn’t give you adult evenings, particularly not when sharing a small campervan, but we did get about four hours a day to ourselves on weekdays and our daughter made some friends.
By far the best solution, though, was the unique holiday we found in a small complex of gorgeous gîtes nestling deep in the countryside of south-west France, known as Pagel. Pagel is a hamlet of seven independent, self-catering gîtes aimed squarely at families with toddlers and young children, some of the gîtes neighbouring each other, some set further apart for extra privacy, and all sharing the excellent holiday facilities of a heated, salt-water pool, a play barn (full of ride-along cars and role-play shops, kitchens and more) and acres, literally, of grassland and trees, among which are set a wide range of big playground toys, trampolines, climbing frames, a rope swing and an enormous clamber-about pirate ship – it took us some days to discover just how much there was to be found down hills and round corners.
So your neighbours have children and, suddenly, your child has a choice of friends, with a variety of ages and interests. By the second morning, ours was inviting two playmates, a brother and sister, back to her room in our gorgeous Goldilocks Cottage (which came complete with life-size teddy bears and a child’s bedroom perfectly provisioned with toys and books). They played for hours and, apart from keeping on eye on their welfare, we … well, we relaxed.
You nod at your neighbours naturally enough round the pool or beside a trampoline but a couple of days into the week there was also a more organised opportunity to get to know them, as Pagel’s warm, helpful and highly informative on-site host, Fiona, broke the ice properly with an afternoon barbecue party for adults and children. Food, wine, soft drinks and – soon – conversation flowed freely and a new warmth settled over Pagel.
On two of the days there was a kids’ club, led by experienced ex-pat former primary teacher, Cath, with her imaginative mix of craft and creativity, on the one hand, and energetic adventures over the whole of the Pagel estate on the other. Our daughter returned exhausted and happy, as should be.
And there were the evenings. Our gîte – unlike many we’ve stayed at – was properly equipped for cooking, if you enjoy that (we do), and we dined well. If we’d have preferred, there were also a couple of freezers in the honesty bar that were packed with frozen, home-made meals that simply needed to be warmed up. The one we tried was delicious and light years away from a supermarket ready meal. Then there was what became – for us – a real highlight of our holiday: the Chef for a Night service. Once our daughter had settled for the night, three courses of gourmet food (plus cheese), all freshly cooked on site, was brought to us in our cottage and the empties cleared away. We were in a fine French restaurant but with no need for babysitter or journey home. Just ideal.
There was much more to do at Pagel – not least days out in the beautiful midi-Pyrenees with its luscious greenery and mediaeval towns – but for our family the true paradise of Pagel was how it provided a fully rounded and complete holiday for all of us, adults and solo child alike, with fabulous time together and also time to be ourselves, time and space for grown-ups to be grown-ups and child to be child, naturally and enjoyably. We all returned knowing we’d really had a proper holiday. A taste of paradise.