London Boat Show: Holiday Market - Escaping to warmer climes now affordable

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Indy Lifestyle Online
WHATEVER THE January weather outside, there is always an attempt to bring some summer sun to the interior of Earl's Court and those who are selling the real thing, the holiday that is still six months away.

The idea of cruising in the Mediterranean goes back a long way, but was only available to the very few and, remarkably, the opportunity for middle Britain to go cruising abroad did not really happen until 1975/76. Lots of them went across the Channel and the North Sea, over to Ireland, up to Scotland. But the Med was too far for most to take their own boats, and if you did not have your own boat or some very friendly friends then you did not go.

Enter a man called Eric Richardson from East Grinstead, who is credited with being the founding father of Brits on Cruise in the Mediterranean, or Greece to be more exact, with the Yacht Cruising Association. He was followed a couple of years later by a company called Greek Sailing Holidays, with 12 boats. That company was eventually to become Sunsail and it now has 750 boats, making it, as the French-based Moorings has reduced its fleet to 700, the biggest of its kind in the world. Nearly all of that with UK customers.

In the early `80s Eric Richardson again led the way by persuading his customers that Turkey was a splendid option - and it still is today. The Dalmatian coast of former Yugoslavia followed, more companies developed their on packages and what in 1982 had already grown to a 200-boat pool has today blossomed to 10 times that amount at about 2,000. And Sunsail, which was selling about 10,000 package holidays a year in 1993, has seen sales rise to about 58,000 in 1998.

Which is less than a good day's worth of people through Gatwick. This is still a fairly exclusive little band and it is spreading itself even more thinly round the world as more and more destinations are added to the menu.

There are basically three types of holiday on offer, with the opportunity to learn bolted on. These are: chartering a boat and taking it yourself, known as bareboat charter, though the name misleads as more and more comforts are being demanded and supplied on even small boats. Then there is a flotilla holiday, where perhaps as many as a dozen yachts cruise in company, all given a daily destination, following a leader who also makes arrangements for mooring overnight and trips ashore, and generally creating safety in numbers. And there is the club resort holiday, where you can just laze on the beach or try windsurfing, dinghy sailing, even mountain biking when the mood takes you.

At home or abroad. There are still many opportunities to take the Swallows and Amazons road to the Norfolk Broads, or cruise the West Country, the Scottish islands, just about anywhere there is a decent stretch of water. And, for those with deep enough pockets and an adventurous bent there are now holidays in the Polynesian islands of the south Pacific, in the Seychelles, Australia, New Zealand and islands like Tonga, and you can even negotiate a 25 per cent discount if you can leave immediately for Sunsail's latest set-up in Antigua. The Moorings has a huge fleet in the Caribbean.

Not surprisingly, the customers have become more demanding. Boats tend to be bigger than the 25 or 26 foot cruisers on which people started. A first class infrastructure has to deal not only with making notoriously unreliable charter flights into a smooth transfer, but ensuring that all the right foods are available for those buffet breakfasts and that, if a mast breaks, a replacement can be fitted in 24 hours.

Staffing the fleets an clubs is also a problem as, for instance, Sunsail offer RYA-qualified instructors, qualified nannies for the under-twos and all sorts of skills in between. Keeping the turnover to the minimum and the quality up is a major managerial task. As in every other walk of life, consumers are being encouraged to complain more and more.

With a huge amount of kit to play with, prices are still reasonable. About GBP650 per person for two weeks half board at one of Sunsail's Greek clubs, rising to GBP1,195 at the height of school summer holidays. Those prices would GBP1,140 to GBP2,200 in the Caribbean. Charters in the Caribbean range from GBP715 per person to GBP1,715 (at Christmas) for two weeks in a 34-footer and GBP428 to GBP1,078 for a similar deal in the Mediterranean.

But the clubs have proved popular because it allows each member of the family to do what they want, often within their own age group. Sunsail offer a Penguin Club from 2 -4s, Sea Urchins from 5 - 7, Junior Gybers from 8 - 12, and Beach Team from 13 - 16. Each has its own programme, meaning that the young are looked after every day from 9.30am to 5.00pm, and each is free within the cost of the holiday. Older teens can look after themselves.

But for those who think lying on a beach or messing about close to the shore is all too wimpish for words, take note even if the thought of doing nothing doesn't appeal to you - the price will.