The Big Read: Brendan O'Connor's Algarve
Of course I have mixed feelings about the notion of the kids' club. You work all year and then you go away on holidays to spend some time with the little darlings and then, you get there, and you farm them out...
What's more, you farm them out not just to the kind of relative stranger you farm them out to at home, but to complete and utter strangers you've never met before. Foreign strangers at that.
In my defence I generally only do two hours of kids' club per day and I will not leave them with anyone who seems like they may be dangerous or who is openly brandishing any kind of weapon.
And the truth is that that two hours of a pressure valve makes the other 22 hours of the day fun. Once you know you have a break coming up you can throw yourself into having quality time with gusto. But it keeps everyone that bit sane to take a break from each other for a few hours in the afternoon.
At the Vila Vita Parc resort in Portugal's Algarve the afternoon break is even sweeter because it involves pottering down the steps cut into the cliff to an idyllic little cove where we swim in the bracing sea, then I maybe have a little doze on a sunbed while the sun dries me off. And then back up the sandy stone steps to the top of the cliff for a beer or two.
But this is no ordinary beer or two. You're on a lounger on the long lawn in front of the Residence, one of the swankier hotels in the resort, sitting right up the front by the edge of the cliff, looking out on a magnificent panorama. You look behind you and you feel like you're in the Hamptons, look in front of you and you are in paradise. Then, all too quickly, it's time to go and get them.
Obviously before I collect them, I pop back to the room and brush my teeth. We wouldn't want anyone thinking there was a boozy man in charge of kids now would we? "I see Bad Dad smelt of booze again today. I really don't feel right about giving him back his children."
In my search for the best kid-friendly resort in Europe, I don't know that I've come across better than Vila Vita Parc. There was something about it that just fit for us.
Sometimes, of course, it's little things.
Like the fact that there was a coffee pod machine in the room so I could have my strong espresso before my early morning swim. Or indeed like the fact that you could actually have an early morning swim. Unlike in a lot of these places, where they have a sinister little robot patrolling the pool, allegedly cleaning it, until nine or ten o clock. Here you could get in the pool as early as you wanted, and when the pool boy arrived to set up he'd leave towels for me and the other lady who enjoyed an early swim.
Little things like a playground with a fine trampoline.
These are things that will seem ridiculous to some of you but some of you will get it. These are the little creature comforts that make you feel at home right away and allow everyone to relax.
Take the evenings, for example. Because we had the upstairs room in the mini blocks of two family suites each, we had the roof terrace. The girl showing us our room had showed the terrace very proudly, saying we could have our dinner delivered up there. We admired it politely and then promptly ignored it for the first few days. Then, after two nights of eating out in the child-friendly Italian restaurant on site and with the kids kind of not feeling like getting dressed up again and behaving for an hour or two, we decided to have our dinner on the roof.
Or a "roof party" as I called it to sex it up a bit.
So we decamped up there and ordered our food. Spaghetti Bolognese for the kids obviously. They ate spaghetti bolognese every evening. They loved it. I was told more than once that this place had the best dinners anywhere we had ever been. And chicken and chips or just chips at the pool for lunch. The younger one had practically turned into a chip by the end of the week. I was worried about getting her back onto a non chip diet. But that's what holidays are for isn't it?
Back on the roof, I played music, the kids could get up and wander and come back to their food as they pleased. People could take off their clothes and dance if they wished, and I don't just mean the kids. You could even have a shower up there, which, I have to admit, was a liberating experience. Indeed the way my kids eat spaghetti bolognaise sometimes, having hosing facilities next to the table wasn't a bad idea at all.
There were several fantastic restaurant options in the resort but to be honest, they loved their roof parties, and the room service menu offered a good cross section of all the food on offer throughout the site. The family suites are in area called the Oasis which was slightly Morroccan themed, so sitting up there with the sun still beating down as it set of an evening was a bit like sitting on the roof of your own riad in Marrakech, but with room service and lush vegetation and dramatic sea views all around.
It was all in the details here. The whole site was gorgeous and perfectly maintained and gardened. All the pools and pool areas were inviting, and there were nooks and crannies everywhere, patches of lawn with a few sunbeds, cliff walks, idyllic looking adult pools with hammock-style chairs slung around and Jacuzzis in the shade. There were fresh little surprises around every corner.
Indeed, I barely had the usual cabin fever you can get when you spend a week in an enclosure. We hardly ventured out at all, never really feeling the need. We took a taxi to a huge shopping centre one slightly overcast morning. It was a perfectly serviceable place with a good H&M and a good Zara and a hypermarket you could spend the day in. It was filled with other Irish people who clearly had the same idea. We were glad to get back to Shangri-La after a few hours there.
Another day we took the hotel shuttle down to the local town. Armacao de Pera was a small fishing village until, it was explained to us by more than one person, the EU came along and with it cheap credit, so now everyone had an apartment by the sea that they couldn't afford, and the village had been transformed into a load of high rise blocks. The beach was lovely though and some of the charm of the old town survives at the seafront.
I like small "authentic" experiences like the little bakery run by an old couple where we got rolls with chorizo in them and giant doughnuts. We ate sardines from the barbecue in a shack on the beach that seemed to be popular with the locals. And then coffees and ice creams at Arte Nautica, the resort's own cool New England beach house style restaurant down in the town.
The resort had also branched out into the neighbouring town of Porches, where they ran a Biergarten - Vila Vita Parc is German owned but don't let that put you off. If here is anything to go by, the Germans do things well.
We went down to the Biergarten the evening of Germany's World Cup quarter final for a barbecue, eating a dozen lamb chops each while the Germans focused on the match. We then observed how, after it was over and they had won, the place emptied straightaway in an orderly fashion. If it had been an Irish pub and Ireland had won and it had been this sunny, the fans would still be there.
Apart from those little outings I was happy pottering around the resort, tippling away when I got the chance. I have to admit I wouldn't normally be one for having a few bevvies every day on my holidays but here it was just too easy. So I kept mildly topped up most of the time.
I was happy to submit to the stress-free zone of living in the bubble. This meant total relaxation straight away and, in a record for any family, no fighting or tension at all. There was nothing to fight about because it was all so simple.
The heated pool was 30 seconds from our room and there was a huge shallow end where the kids could make friends while we kept a safe eye. They both came back like little fish from their week in the pool, with the younger one actually having made the leap from being reluctant to get in the water at all, to swimming around on her own - with her armbands.
We came home having had a holiday, feeling relaxed, not needing another holiday, with nice memories and of course one big problem. Obviously, they are all demanding we go back there.
Vila Vita Park is offering a Family Fun Package until October 14th including half board for the entire family for a maximum of two adults and two children aged 4 to 12 years old.
It also includes:
Make your own pizza lessons for the kids.
A free one day pass to Zoomarine or to Slide and Splash Waterpark for the family,
Free use of the Annabella's Kids Parc facilities during the stay including weekly activities for children aged 4 to 12.
Free use of pools, jacuzzis saunas, steam bath, tepidarium and EnerGYM fitness room.
Free use of the 9 hole Pitch & Putt course, 18-hole putting green (clubs and balls are available at a charge) and 18 hole crazy golf.
Four nights with a Family Fun package in a deluxe room for two adults and one child is €1202
Named after the copper pot in which it is cooked, this stew is typical of the Algarve region and features on the menus of every eatery, from beachside shacks to high-end restaurants. Seafood varieties feature crab claws, prawns, squid and whatever you're fishing out of the Atlantic yourself, cooked in the tightly sealed pot with a paste of peppers, onions and garlic. Best eaten beside the seaside, obviously.
if no holiday is complete without a trip to a foreign branch of Zara, then you'll delight to hear that there are three different Zaras at AlgarveShopping, one of which is Zara Home. AlgarveShopping, near Albufeira, is a great cloudy-day expedition, or a break from the beach. It has all the shops you'd expect, a huge hypermarket and, for the shopping-frazzled kids, water fountains to play in at the food court. So bring them a spare set of clothes.
Seal shows, swimming with dolphins, waterslides, a playground, swimming pools, funfair rides, an aviary, a pirate-themed acrobatic show, honestly, I could go on, but you'd think I was making it up. Zoomarine, in Guia, has something for everyone, from the bravest to the scarediest lazybones in your family. One top tip is to buy tickets online for better prices, and another is to consider the second-day ticket, as there's too much to do in one go.