My memory of first seeing the sea sits deep within. Once a year during the endless, sticky summers in Birmingham we would go on a day trip. This would be planned with military precision, as it was a holiday of sorts for my parents, who worked in a cotton factory and took very little time off. A minibus would be booked. Cousins, aunts and uncles would assemble to discuss logistics and, most importantly, the food rota. No one was going anywhere without paratha, pakoras, samosas and desi-style tea.
Having seen TV adverts of golden-haired children frolicking in the waves and looking impossibly happy on white, sandy beaches, I had been pestering my parents to make one of these annual days out a trip to the coast. I would usually lose this battle, and we’d all head to a theme park. I hated rides; still do. But aged eight, and using all the persuasive powers I could muster, I finally convinced them. So one early August morning, off we headed – all 23 of us – to Rhyl.
This would have been around 1990 and, completely oblivious to Rhyl’s not-so-salubrious reputation at the time, I approached the trip with gusto. My face pressed against the minibus window, I was taken with the neon lights of the gaudy arcades and the sickly pink candy-floss. From what I remember, perhaps with a splash of storyteller’s licence, that blustery north Welsh coastline was the single most beautiful thing I had ever seen – though in reality the sea was a dirty, brown colour.
We spent the day getting windswept along the streets, our traditional Pakistani clothing flapping around us, and we quickly became acquainted with the crunch of sand in our food. The experience was completed by curious looks from locals and other day trippers. I climbed back into our van with salty hair and glowing red cheeks. This simple day out sparked my love affair with the seaside.
It must have been a moderate success for the rest of my family, too, as we ended up going on many more of these annual coastal pilgrimages, which would always follow the same formula: we’d take our own food and share the transport, and my mother would resolutely shepherd us away from the clusters of shops selling “plastic tat”.
At the time, I would have given anything for a doughnut-shaped inflatable, or one of those easily breakable fishing nets, or even a random, never-to-be-used-again rubber duck. But these days, with two young children of my own, it seems I’m destined to repeat the same catchphrases and thrifty routines as my frugal mother, and to find ever more inventive ways of saying no.
Since childhood, and having left Birmingham, I have spent my holidays pitching up at beaches across the UK and Europe, always following this familiar pattern. We book a house (self-catering) or camp just a short walk away from a beach, spend most of our time playing endless games of cricket, building sand dams and trying to encourage our youngest into the sea (she says the salt stings!), with picnics of sandwiches wrapped in tinfoil.
Some might not see this as a “proper holiday”, but in a fortnight we eat out a handful of times, usually for lunch, which is cheaper. In the evening we tend to cook; in France the supermarkets are superb, and in Italy I can spend hours wandering around the outdoor food markets, selecting ingredients.
To some, our holidays may seem like an endurance exercise, but they are far from it, and I have learned through trial and error that the simpler they are, the happier we seem to be. We have tried hotel breaks, package deals (both all-inclusive and half-board) and staying at resorts that lay on loads of child-centred activities, but we always return to our uncomplicated, self-catering beach holidays.
Last year, we went to the chi-chi French island of Île de Ré. We camped for a fortnight at the wholesome Camping Les Baleines, within earshot of the coast with the rhythmic muffled roar of the surf as a constant backdrop. Our children had the freedom of cycling around until dusk while we cooked on the communal barbecue. Days were spent beachcombing, swimming, crab hunting, birdwatching and riding, with stops in pretty village squares for tangy sorbets and at oyster shacks dotted along the shore. It was pared back and wonderful.
A few years earlier we had enjoyed a similar experience when we spent the summer in the Balkans, which has appealingly low prices yet all the sunshine and charm of the more popular European beach destinations. We stayed in a hilltop villa in Lučići village in Montenegro, near the coastal town of Herceg Novi, just across the Bay of Kotor. At the time, the area was relatively unknown, so our accommodation, complete with a shared infinity pool, was incredibly reasonable.
My mornings did often start at a less-than-relaxing 5am – my unborn daughter’s prodding and kicking had me up and about – but it meant I was awake in time for glorious sunrises over the Adriatic. Down at the harbour, there was delicious good-value seafood and a chance to board daily boat trips to glorious, pebbled beaches on the Luštica peninsula, where we even allowed ourselves the “luxury” of renting a sunlounger (for just a few euros for the whole day). There were hikes to Mount Orjen, where we spotted geckos, moths, insects and butterflies, and one trek included a spectacular thunderstorm, which our eldest still talks about to this day.
Italy is another firm favourite and we have travelled far and wide in search of the perfect beach. Four years ago we landed on the island of Elba, off the coast of Tuscany, where Napoleon had the good fortune to be exiled. Little known by the British – which is perhaps why it didn’t break the bank – it is an island of true escapism, with a weekly food market full of fresh produce from local farmers and beaches for every taste. Once again we camped, this time at Camping Rosselba le Palme, but most of our time was spent on Spiaggia di Sansone and descending into rocky coves, lured by the clear sea. There were more meals out on this trip than usual, as it was hard to resist the stuffed mussels in a glossy tomato sauce, and the pasta di calamari, all washed down with carafes of fresh vermentino.
There have also been trips to countries that wouldn’t be considered regular beachy destinations. The Netherlands, for example, is a good-value choice for families who are restricted to peak-season summer holidays. Car hire can be a snip in comparison with elsewhere in Europe, and travel to the country can also be relatively cheap and sustainable, with ferries from Harwich, Hull and Newcastle. There is also the Eurostar, which takes about four hours from London to Amsterdam.
The rewards are a stunning coastline and serene countryside which is easy to explore by bicycle on well marked routes, making it almost impossible to get lost. Our favourite spot was the Wadden Islands, a few miles off the coast, with nature reserves teeming with wildlife and cycle trails curving alongside wide expanses of white sand beaches. There are options for good-value camping and self-catering across the country (check out Landal Resorts), and we have done both. Our several holidays there have always been laid-back affairs, with family-focused facilities on tap.
Without realising it, those early experiences of touring the UK’s kiss-me-quick resorts have led to an appreciation of shedding the unnecessary. Given the cost of living crisis, for many families it is more important than ever that this year’s holiday will be purse-friendly. Keeping costs down by camping or by booking self-catering away from the hotspots would be my advice. Once at your destination, pack a picnic, make a beeline for the beach, find a good spot and bed down for the day.