Melinda Libby and her children throw themselves into the activities offered by a Mark Warner holiday in a real village in the Western Algarve.
12:01AM BST 21 Apr 2007
Many years ago when I was a twenty-something, I set off from Britain in a fast car driven by a boyfriend. We were heading for a villa in Portugal owned by the parents of a friend and we left Tooting without tickets, itinerary or the address of the villa; we knew what town it was in but nothing more.
These days, as a forty-something single parent of an 11-year-old girl and a nine-year-old boy, I like to be a bit more organised. But not too organised.
We had tried the everything-on-tap style holiday at Mark Warner's San Agostino resort in Greece, where we were hermetically sealed into an all-inclusive resort in a beautiful coastal location. It offered us comfortable accommodation, agreeable food, a choice of swimming pools, a wide range of activities (particularly tennis and watersports) and excellent childcare.
But, like Mark Warner's other resorts, it was remote and there was little opportunity to get out and explore the surrounding area. One day at San Agostino, I found myself getting exceptionally excited by the tiny chapel on the perimeter of the village and realised that I hankered after a bit of real life, and - more to the point - Greek real life.
So when we heard that Mark Warner, in a departure from its usual format, had taken over some apartments within the Ocean Club in Praia de Luz, a real Portuguese village in the Western Algarve, we were one of the first families to sign up.
The Ocean Club has groups of villas and apartments integrated within the village. This would give us more freedom than in a traditional club-style resort and more chance to absorb the local culture - but there would still be the children's groups and activities that make these holidays so popular with families.
In traditional Mark Warner style, we were helped at Gatwick and greeted by cheerful staff when we reached Faro.
But when, on a dark night, the bus dropped us with our luggage at the door of our beachside apartment, we felt very alone without the usual support structure.
We had a map to show us where to go for breakfast and the location of the welcome meeting - yes, they still offered that - but I had a restless night worrying whether we would find all the facilities that the Ocean Club had to offer.
And with good reason. Map-reading has never been my strong point, but I became anxious when, the following morning, we asked various people the way to the Millennium Restaurant, where breakfast and dinner is served for Mark Warner guests - and no one seemed to know.
We eventually found our way thanks to a chance encounter with a couple from London. Thanks to their sense of direction, we managed to get some breakfast and formed a rewarding friendship for the duration of the holiday. While the trip was mostly agreeable from our point of view, many other Mark Warner regulars begged to differ.
The distances between accommodation, watering holes and activities became a real bugbear for some, particularly those with small children.
Some guests resorted, in desperation, to hiring a car before their holiday was over. For us, the 12-minute uphill walk to dinner each evening was irksome, but the walk back down to the beach after the meal and entertainment was extremely pleasant. It was on one of these walks that Bertie, my nine-year-old, confided that he much preferred being in a real village to a club-style resort.
The other constant moan was the food: old Mark Warner hands became wistful as they talked about chefs at the other resorts who would boil an egg to their specification in front of their eyes. Quite a contrast to the unappetising fried eggs with hard yolks - not to mention dry croissants and tinned fruit - which were provided for breakfast at the Millennium Restaurant.
At other meals, people missed the wide range of fresh salads that they had enjoyed on previous Mark Warner holidays. And although there were some themed nights, and the Portuguese evening included some excellent squid and a cuttlefish stew, International Night was cruelly renamed "leftovers night".
Guests were, though, generally happy with their accommodation - because, although the holidays are sold on a half-board basis, the apartments had facilities for self-catering and were larger than a traditional Mark Warner hotel room.
And the children's activities really made the holiday come into its own. Before we arrived in Portugal, I had laid down the rules with the offspring. "Each day you'll be off to the children's clubs for all the activities," I told them. "Oh no we won't," they trilled.
I was willing to negotiate: as long as they attended for a morning or afternoon session each day, I would be content. As it turned out, they barely missed a session and sometimes they were so exhausted that I had to persuade them not to go.
Bertie was particularly delighted that he had no time at all to read any of the books that I had carefully selected for the holiday. They both enjoyed the watersports and were soon educating me in the names of the different sorts of boats or telling me they had seen dolphins or caught a fish. They swam, played games on the beach and, at the end of each week, performed a show which they had written themselves.
But what really made the clubs such a success for them, and what must be the secret of Mark Warner's popularity, was the dedication of the indefatigable nannies and the sunkissed young men (with names such as Will and Olly) who run the waterfront and tennis activities.
In a world of depressingly bad service, their energy, enthusiasm and cheerfulness made everything seem possible. The set-up in Praia de Luz was particularly appealing to teenage guests, who could spread their wings and dip in and out of the various activities and hostelries in the village.
While the children were at their clubs, I spent time on the beach or exploring the village: I found the butcher, the baker and a few clothes and gift shops. Later, with a group of Mark Warner guests, I went on a coastal walk to the pretty fishing village of Burgau, with cliff-top views of the craggy Western Algarve coastline and the wide expanse of yellow, sandy beaches.
Some Mark Warner regulars will never be happy in a situation where the environment isn't controlled, even if all the usual facilities - three swimming pools, tennis courts, two restaurants and four bars - are available. They don't want to share a pool with non-Mark Warner guests, nor do they want someone in a green, furry alien costume to appear at dinner, allegedly to entertain children (an experience described as "shocking" by a seasoned traveller with Mark Warner).
But, as far as we were concerned, the venture was a success. After two weeks, I was thoroughly rested and fit. And the children were distraught at leaving Praia de Luz and the nannies they had grown so fond of. Several weeks later, their conversations were still peppered with happy reminiscences of their days spent in the care of Natalie, Becky, Lucy, Chloe and Laura.
- A week with Mark Warner (0870 898 8942, www.markwarner.co.uk ) at the Ocean Club, Praia de Luz costs from £545 per adult, two weeks from £699; child prices vary according to age, but start at £273/£350 for children aged two to 12; those under two are charged £100 a week. This includes flights, transfers, accommodation with breakfast and dinner, childcare for children aged two and over and use of tennis courts and activities such as sailing and windsurfing tuition, canoeing, aerobics and fitness classes
- . Diving courses, tennis coaching and tuition for RYA sailing qualifications cost extra, as does the crèche for children under two (from £230 a week).
- Madeleine Foundation
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A sleepless night worrying if you're going to find the breakfast place in the morning when you're in a self-catering facility?
So some people liked it, other didn't so much. Food wasn't so good, Walking uphill was hard, walking downhill was pleasant.
I, for one, won't be going.
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