If I can summon up the energy - this time of year following the Christmas crescendo always finds me at my lowest ebb - I shall drop into my local travel agent this afternoon and pick up some brochures about activity holidays. Everyone, apparently, is taking them. Lounging on a deck chair beside a hotel swimming pool in Marrakesh, drinking margaritas and reading The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, as I did last year, is no longer socially acceptable, advised my friend Kate, who knows about these things.
Kate's last three holidays have taken her to the South Atlantic to observe migrating whales and mating penguins, to the Douro to learn about the making, storing and appreciation of vintage port, and to a black house in the Western Isles, where she was supposed to be learning about traditional Scottish architecture. Kate had bought a ruined but 'n' ben in Sutherland, on to which she planned to put a turf roof and in to which she was strongly inclined to install an earth closet instead of a lavatory.
"Well, how was it?" I asked when she returned from Scotland looking windswept. Ghastly, she said. It had rained incessantly for 14 days, the midges had driven her mad and on the fourth night she went down with shellfish poisoning.
She has since traded in her ruined croft in Sutherland for a ruined farmhouse with orange groves in southern Spain. When it is finished, she says, she plans to run her own activity holidays featuring, among other things, Andalucian cookery, wild flower drawing and creative writing.
She is a good friend and always asks me to go with her but, as I explained, Antarctica leaves me cold, I have already done the port thing in the Douro, and we spend every summer in our own equivalent of a black house on a Scottish island. It was possibly my excursion to the Douro that put me off activity holidays for ever, though it was not officially billed as such.
It was a press trip organised by the enterprising young owner of a famous Portuguese quinta, whose family had been producing port wine for nine generations but was now sadly losing out to more popular post-prandial digestifs such as Bailey's Irish Cream. Tourists learning about port would, our host thought, be a far more lucrative line of business than producing the stuff for commercial purposes, though naturally he had to keep it ticking over as a cosmetic exercise. Everything was going fine until the bit where we had to tread the grapes in a huge stone trough the size of a swimming pool, marching up and down with our arms linked while a merry band of minstrels on the side played typical grape-treading folk music. The man beside me was an American wine writer, the sort of buff who can tell you everything about a wine's provenance merely by sniffing it.
"I hope all this exertion is going to produce some amazing port," I remarked casually as we goose-stepped through the squelchy purple mush. "It ought to," he replied. "The plaster I put on this morning to cover my athlete's foot has just fallen off."
What has prompted my present interest in activity holidays was a flyer that came through the door earlier this week advertising one-week activity holidays on a Greek island featuring such courses as ceramics, yoga, life skills and personal development for £199 including air fare, hotel and full board. Celebrities, it went on, such as Margaret Drabble, Phil Tufnell and Vanessa Feltz were among their satisfied customers. If I wanted the names of other famous people who had been on their courses, I should check out their website.
Wow, what a brilliant way of finding out whether a holiday will be any good. Wild horses wouldn't stop me from signing on for a seven-day course in life skills on Kos or Patmos or wherever it is, if it turns out that Edwina Currie did the same thing last summer. I'd happily pay the single-room supplement for the course in ceramics if it was recommended by Antony Worrall Thompson or on personal development endorsed by Gazza.
I showed Kate the brochure. She went straight to the small print - I told you she knows about these things. Hang on, she said, they were only booking up to the end of February. It would be as cold there as it is here. "You might just as well buy Geri Halliwell's latest yoga video which is being discounted at Tesco right now," she said. "And spend the rest on retsina and trips to the solarium."
Good thinking - I feel better already.Reuse content