I do like to be beside the seaside... on holiday

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The Independent Culture
I AM writing this on holiday in Cornwall, in a rented cottage which is equipped with almost everything our hearts could desire: a visiting sheepdog, two cats, a large garden and a great many ducks and lambs in a neighbouring field.

"Do you like it here?" I asked my five-year- old son. "Yes," he said. "I like it much better than our stinky house."

Reading through the visitors' book last night, it appeared that others who have stayed here agreed. "If you decide to sell the cottage, please can we have first refusal?" said one wistful entry. "A real home from home," said another. "If only it were ours!" said a third.

The visitors' book not only gives an insight into the desire of the English city-dweller to own his or her very own rural retreat (and yes, I am one of those aspirational daydreamers); it also reveals a variety of other traits displayed by middle-class holidaymakers. There are the bossy tourists, giving mini-lectures on local geography in the visitors' book, and doubtless to anyone else who will listen. ("The path from Menabilly Barton was knee- deep in mud and will not be pleasant to walk until we have had at least two weeks of dry weather.")

There are also the bossies, verging on the bad-tempered. "The only grumble we have con- cerned the cooker, which seemed to have a will of its own. Your electrician called, twiddled the start button, and lo and behold the hobs worked. I suggest, after having consulted the manual, that the hobs should be completely independent of the oven and that you call in an electrician to remedy the fault."

Then there are the plain boastful. "We can thoroughly recommend the Seafood Restaur- ant on the quay in Padstow. With wine, your meal will only cost in the region of £80 for two." This man also left instructions about the best location to use a car-phone, and wrote a chart in the back of the visitors' book encouraging others to "annotate" where they found fresh fruit in the area. He called his chart "The Healthy Eater's Guide", with sections entitled: Date, Venue, Type of Fruit, Location, and Confirmation By At Least One Other Person. In doing so, he placed himself into another category of holidaymaker: the scapegoat on whom everyone else gangs up. His chart, sadly, now contains only three entries. The first one reads: "Who wants to be healthy when on holiday and in Cornwall!" The second one says, "Too right!!" The third simply notes, "The chips in the local pub are very good."

I didn't mind the rich, healthy, car-phone owner as much as the proud parents. "Jenny (three) and Katie (15 months) settled in very well," said one, which was galling, given that our one-year-old was being remarkably unsettled. ("Thomas had a rasping cough, necessitating a trip to the local doctor; his refusal to sleep in his own cot and his subsequent transfer to the parental four-poster bed destroyed any foolish hopes we had of a romantic holiday.")

Even more irritating was the entry about how useful the kitchen blender had been, because "our darling six-month-old daughter doesn't like tinned food." This, too, was disheartening in the face of my own failure to provide balanced meals for the children (you try shopping in a resort that sells little else but clotted cream, fudge and Cornish pasties).

Not that I'm complaining about the lack of fresh broccoli for sale. My philosophy while here is to eat as many cream teas as possible. And lest anyone think I am sitting in a glass house throwing stones at previous occupants of this cottage, I do know my own faults on holiday. I sometimes fall into the grump category, though this ill-temper is usually directed at my children rather than anyone else. ("Look! Just go and play in the field by yourself. This is my holiday, too.") Bossiness also gets a look in. ("I've read all the pamphlets, and we really should go to the Monkey Sanctuary today.") But like most people, I'm in the main escapist. I want the cottage to be perfect and the sun to be shining and my family to be gloriously happy. When this doesn't happen I worry that it's all been a terrible flop, instead of acknowledging that holidays are usually a mixture of pleasure and intense disappointment.

Today, however, was almost perfect. OK, the baby had been awake most of last night with croup, but he cheered up in the morning, and the skies were clear. We wandered down to the harbour, and ate fish and chips and ice-cream, and saw an old man sitting in a painted yellow boat. I asked him if he would take us to a nearby island, and he said, yes, of course - so we climbed in and chugged out to sea, and 15 minutes later we were there. He left us on a deserted beach and then disappeared across the water. I started worrying that he might not come back to fetch us, and perhaps we weren't allowed to be there, anyway?

But everything turned out fine. Two old ladies in their eighties live alone on the island, and they seemed glad to see us, because we were their first visitors since last October. They showed us around, and told us about the island's mysteries: the 18th-century smugglers' treasure trove yet to be discovered; and the legend of the Holy Grail, which some say was hidden there centuries ago. Then they sent us off to a cove where we found pearl-coloured shells and a colony of cormorants. The baby stopped snuffling and started chuckling, and we skimmed stones and admired the blueness of the sea. After a while, the old man in the yellow boat returned and took us back to the harbour. He charged us £5 for the trip - less than a family outing to McDonald's.

We want to go back to the island tomorrow, which would probably be a mistake: like looking too hard for the Holy Grail. But even if it rains for the rest of the week, and the baby's nose keeps running, at least we'll be able to say, "Do you remember that brilliant day when we went on a trip to the island?" It will also prove that even for a grumpy, greedy, absurdly unrealistic tourist such as myself, there is still such a thing as magic. !