Everyone warned me that a holiday with children is no holiday for the parents. It can be fun, it should be bonding, you hope it will forge lovely memories - just don't expect a holiday. And after two years juggling jobs and two children without a break, we really needed a holiday. My partner, Nev, who is on family number two, had initially put his foot down: this time round, it would be short breaks only. But I wasn't having any of it.
"It'll be lovely!"
"You've got no idea."
"We're doing it. And you better not sulk."
I explain all this as background to our choice of destination: Porto Sani in Kassandra, one of three peninsulas that jut down from Halkidiki on the northern mainland of Greece. I have travelled through much of Greece but never to Kassandra. I wouldn't have chosen to go. It's close to Thessaloniki and packed with resorts. Greece: the Rough Guide and Lonely Planet: Greece barely list it, telling travellers to pass on to the greater treasures of Sithonia and Athos.
Porto Sani stands out among the resorts. It is set in a whopping 1,000-acre ecological reserve, and has parkland, cliffs and woodland and a choice of four hotels (two of them five-star, all-suite). The centrepiece is a luxury marina fringed with shops, bars, tavernas and restaurants. There are two spas, several beaches, watersports, hiking, biking, an outdoor cinema and a children's club. And unless you go for the everyone's-a-parent, Mark Warner-type holiday, children's clubs are still rare in hotels.
I had heard good things about Porto Sani. A friend of a friend sends the manager small gifts to guarantee her favourite room. Berlusconi has holidayed here, as well as an actor from Coronation Street. Maybe some glam, I thought, was what we needed.
Our flight was delayed and we reached Porto Sani well past midnight, rather jaded. We were booked into the all-suite Porto Sani Village, tucked around a pool behind the marina, and we had a good-sized bedroom and separate living/dining/kitchen space with a bed-settee for Ben, five, and a cot for Franny, 21 months. It's unusual to find a kitchenette in a five-star hotel and the sink, fridge, hob and microwave were a godsend. The decor - a mix of dark antique furniture and duck upholstery - was homely, anti-minimal and a hit with Franny: "duck" and "quack" comprise 25 per cent of her vocabulary.
Sadly, her enthusiasm was the source of our undoing. After a few hours snoring in between us, she set off to feed one of the ducks on the curtains and tumbled on the unfamiliar terrain. In the seconds it took to reach her, her face was covered with blood, the side of her beautiful cat-eye gashed. We rushed around to stem the flow, but it was clear she needed an expert opinion.
The golf-buggy transporter took us to the resort doctor's office. He examined her, and gave his diagnosis in a mix of Greek and English. I wished I was at home, a short drive from King's College Hospital, and asked about scarring. "No, no no no scarring! I use 0.8mm! This is cosmetic, you understand?" He changed into scrubs for the op, and we held Franny still as he injected the side of her eye with local anaesthetic and stitched her up, while she screamed. By the time we stepped back into the sunshine, we were shattered. Ben, who watched the operation through the doorway, said he was starving.
We were last in the dining room for the first five-star buffet breakfast of his life. "What do you want?" I asked him. "Pancakes? Waffles? Fried eggs? Coco Pops? Rice pudding? Spinach pie?"
"Mummy, I can't eat all of that!"
He had missed the morning session of the children's club, so we took him after lunch. It was held in one of the four-star hotels at either end of the resort. We were on the school run again - it is a half-hour round trip. Every day is themed - pirates, treasure hunts - and the club is run by two sunny young English women. Ben disappeared into the throng and we headed for the beach.
Sani Club doesn't have any sea front and guests share that of Asterias Suites, the newest, swankiest accommodation in the resort. We collected taupe towels and settled on taupe beds beneath taupe umbrellas. Next to us was the Babe Watch station, where a Greek nanny with buckets and spades under a shaded tarpaulin was minding babies and toddlers - first half-hour free; €5 thereafter. Franny wandered over and I lay back to watch other holidaymakers wander up and down the beach.
That night, we visited the marina, five minutes from our room. I was hungry, tired and ready to be disappointed. This is not an authentic Greek fishing village that has grown fat from tourism. It has been constructed in the manner of the bars and restaurants that fringe it - all built recently, and businesses put into them. A theme park for those who want a sanitised version.
But I was wrong. It works and, in a strange way, it is totally real. The marina is top-end, the businesses are family-run and come with aged relatives sitting around. The food is fantastic and the prices are reasonable. The Greek restaurants are best: the three tavernas sell simple, traditional food. The Tomata, a Greek-Eastern fusion restaurant that is clearly a labour of love and was voted one of the top 12 restaurants in Europe by the Financial Times, is fabulous. If you are staying on half-board, as we were, you can use vouchers in most of these restaurants either towards a bill, or for a set menu.
We settled into our strange new routine. Franny brought me her bucket and spade and sun hat in the morning, ready for the long day ahead. Nev and I exchanged sentences rather than single words and gave one another time off. He booked up a tennis lesson; I had a massage. He worked out; I took a nap. I thought about the holidays before this - the simple stuff, talking, reading and lying together for hours on end - and I realised what an epic it is to have children, what a hurricane in your relationship.
I eventually stopped worrying that Franny was about to meet some terrible accident. Eventually, I stopped thinking altogether. And then we were packing up again.
Our first family holiday, and as lite as you could hope for, in a luxurious, peaceful, safe environment, with child care, comfortable accommodation, short distances between everything, services at our beck and call and lots of space. Yet even with children's club and Babe Watch, we managed barely an hour a day off-duty. How was six days of that going to unravel the stresses of two years? Maybe we needed a fortnight. Maybe then we'd have found the will to book a babysitter, shared great food for just the two of us and stayed up late drinking cocktails.
As for the kids, for a week or so after we got home, Franny presented me with her swimming costume every morning, and cried when I fetched her nappy. I ask Ben, did he enjoy it and he pulled a "stupid question" face. "Mummy, of course I did! They had The Incredibles on DVD!"
Nev just smirked.
Porto Sani is 50 minutes from Thessaloniki airport, which is served from Gatwick by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) and Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com). Charter flights are via Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com) and First Choice Airways (0870 850 3999; www.firstchoice.co.uk/flights). To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Thessaloniki is £4. This funds sustainable energy and reforestation projects.
The writer travelled with Sovereign (0870 366 1626; www.sovereign.com). The Porto Sani Village is fully booked until 31 August, when seven nights' half board costs £3,227 for two adults and two children sharing a suite including flights from Gatwick and transfers (bookable through Sovereign). October departures start at £2,689. Porto Sani Village, Kassandra, Halkidiki, Greece (00 30 237 40 99500; www.saniresort.gr).
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