ODuring the pandemic, I sat in my house dreaming of a vacation. I sat in my house, same chair, same view, same discussions about the same toy, and over the months I’ve honed that dream. Some people fantasized about trekking in the Himalayas. Some about exploring the jungle, or paddling a secluded beach, or running through Manhattan. I wanted a place where I didn’t have to cook. I wanted a holiday where every decision is made for me, where we can make up for part of the lockdown panic by being carefree in the sun, part of the lockdown lack of childcare by letting the kids play send into a space that does not also contain us. I wanted an all inclusive family resort in a warm place and I really wanted it.
So, having started idly scrolling through options in 2020, I was on a package deal to Corfu two treacherous years later. We haven’t been on vacation for three years: a lot depended on it. I was traveling with my family including a toddler who was born at the beginning of the first lockdown and has never had a holiday 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 into the air while a stranger watches next to him friends without headphones. Turns out the answer was: I liked it.
The resort was called MarBella (pronounced with a hard L) and was located on the southeast coast of Corfu, a sprawling complex of buildings surrounded by various plants of lavender and rosemary and topped by a colorful water park. Roughly every 10 minutes a huge bucket of water would tumble and spill off the top of the water park, drenching those beneath the slides whose screams of delight trickled down the slope to the other two swimming pools, one of which was placed discreetly at arm’s length from all the gizmos, where only adults were allowed. My partner and I eyed it green.
The morning after our arrival we were introduced to the hotel’s ‘dining concept’, by which I mean the buffet. I’d experienced the life-changing joy of a breakfast buffet in the past, but my family had never been lucky enough to go all-inclusive, which meant we’d never done a “buffet dinner” either. It’s difficult to come back from, to be honest. And despite all the kid-friendly entertainment — a kids’ club, pottery classes, waterslides, Lego robotics classes — for my kids, the prospect of gliding through three aisles of potential dinners on their own tops it all. For them, those first few days were just clocks between the buffets. There was a make-your-own sundae and a whole range of desserts – the big kid grabbed the little kid who was waddling around the restaurant and held them up to stare at the puddings. They returned with a tasting menu of cold things in small pots, often cream based, sometimes delicious. I felt sorry for the chefs – they catered to a hotel full of British families, their local dishes were largely shunned by any under-16s who ate plain pasta and cheese every night. But even so, everyone there was floating on a similarly magical all-inclusive cloud: after all those months of lockdown meals, having them cooked for them was an oddly moving experience.
The goal was relaxation. I had a vision of lying very still in mottled shade, a state of lobotomized serenity. There were moments when I almost made it, albeit with a sleeping child sweatily draped over my bikini, or quite late at night on the balcony. But for all the splendor and forced joy, I realized by day three that unfortunately there is only so much a hotel can do. They can provide good food, they can clean the rooms, they can plant bougainvillaea to climb over arches, they can set up a small counter by the pool where fresh towels are available on request, but the rest, well, it’s up to you you. A family vacation is an escape from home, but not really from family. So we gave up after a few days; we were so inexperienced in the art of relaxation that we decided to wake up from the all inclusive dream and plunge into a whole different kind of vacation.
We left the grounds and caught a bus to Corfu Old Town, with its wide, white marble pavements slippery under a sandal, and its maze-like streets and its rocks leading down to the Adriatic Sea, and its ancient forts and ice-creams. On our return to the hotel, we avoided the buffet and ventured into the waterfront tavernas, where we ate grilled fish by the water. Finally, we also avoided the pool and its happy aerobics classes, and scrambled down to a nearby rocky beach where I fantasized about ripping my dress off and jumping into the sea screaming. In reality I had to put on everyone’s sunscreen and then spend a series of long minutes climbing down the small ladder and then groaning into the cold marine waters, but it was worth it. I swam out a modest distance and looked back – on one side I saw the hotel, white and shimmering in the heat, on the other side mountains covered with green and purple bush. The best of both.
During the pandemic, fantasies ran rampant that shattered marriages, altered careers, and sent people like me to the long sandy beaches of their minds.
As the world comes back to life, I predict a shift away from vacation rentals and toward all-inclusive vacations, where one can be taken care of in ways we’ve missed. The problem with pursuing a fantasy is that reality is never quite what you imagined. But sometimes it gets even better.
A 7 night holiday with Jet2holidays at MarBella Corfu costs £649 per person on a half board basis, based on 2 adults and 1 child (2-11 years) sharing a room. For more information go to (marbella.gr)