Summer 2015 and it’s the last day of our holiday. We’re standing on the waterfront at Brancaster Staithe in Norfolk looking at the sailing boats and the people in them. Everyone is tanned and fit and positively brimming with joie de vivre. We’re pale, the kids are bickering and the dog is barking at a seagull. “Right.” I said. “Next year, we’re doing an adventure holiday.”
Fast forward to August 2016 and we’re waiting nervously for ‘Sam’ our rep outside the reception of a holiday village in Argelès-sur-Mer. “How will you know what he looks like?” asks my husband Brendan as we stare at a sea of people. On cue, a golden skinned boy with beach blonde surfer hair appears barefoot on a skateboard. “That’s him.” I announce confidently. Of course it is. When you’ve signed up for an action-packed week of water sports in the South of France, this is exactly who should be guiding you through the experience. Someone who looks like he spends every waking hour on the water.
Sam shows us to our mobile home, which is surprisingly more spacious then I’d imagined. It turns out we’ve been upgraded to a 3-bed. Result! On the kitchen worktop sits a welcome basket of tea, coffee, washing up liquid and red wine. In the fridge, there’s beer and milk. Could this holiday get any better? Sam exits to the sound of us cracking open a couple of cold ones, leaving us with instructions to meet the rest of the team and other guests for a welcome BBQ at 8pm.
After a dip in the pool, we’ve worked up a suitable appetite and head to the open air dining area. Sam plus three other surfer dudes greet us enthusiastically. Over burgers and merguez sausages washed down with local wine, we learn that Ross, Dave, Laurence and Sam are all in their 20s, are experts in numerous adventure sports and love winding each other up. We’re joined by another family; a mother and her eight year old daughter. Conveniently, the same age as our youngest. Fed and watered, Sam runs us through the itinerary for the week and despite the rosé going down remarkably well we wisely decide to call it a night at 10.30pm.
Sunday morning and we board ‘le petit train’ for Argelès Beach where the Family Adventure Holiday base is located. Being a mum of two kids under the age of 12 and all of us with that particular brand of blueish tinged Irish skin, beaches can sometimes be a bit of a nightmare in terms of shade, toilets, refreshments and food. So imagine my extreme relief to find the base has all of these things. The beach also happens to be the cleanest I’ve ever seen. After a briefing – this holiday company is reassuringly hot on safety – we pair up and go kayaking for a couple of hours culminating in a game of nautical musical chairs. I lose and end up in the water much to the delight of my kids. Back on shore, we are greeted with lunch. Baguettes, a choice of delicious fillings, crisps and watermelon. A large ice box is packed with all manner of drinks. It’s perfect.
Lunch consumed, the boys suggest a spot of sailing as the conditions are just right. We learn about the ‘boom’ and the ‘jib’ and are handed various roles to assist our skipper Ross. He encourages us to lean out from the edge of the boat over the water and after a few tentative tries we start to get the hang of it. By this time, the wind has really picked up and it feels like we’re flying. It’s exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures for us land lubbers. The best is yet to come though when we begin our transfer to the safety boat which will take us back to the shoreline. Ross nominates Brendan to jump in first and swim the short distance to the other boat. But before Ross has a chance to reposition himself to balance the boat, Brendan launches off the side and we capsize. What surprises me is how slowly it happens, giving us plenty of time to move away from the boat. Everyone is wearing a buoyancy aid, so no one panics. In fact, we’re thrilled by the drama of it all. While Ross single-handedly uprights the boat in some kind of superhero manoeuvre, we board the safety boat giddy with how brave we feel. It’s the perfect end to the day.
Monday and buoyed by the excitement of the previous day, we drive up into the mountains for white water rafting along the River Aude. I say excitement, but what my husband and kids don’t realise is I’m quietly freaking out at the thought of hurtling down a river in a little rubber dinghy. We’re shown how to sit in the boat and what to do with the paddle and when and then suddenly we’re in the water. My heart is in my mouth as we immediately head into a rapid. We paddle furiously and guide our boat successfully through it. I realise I’ve held my breath throughout. Everyone is beaming including me.
We continue winding our way through some spectacular gorges, standing up for some rapids and leaning over the side of the raft for others. At one point, we moor up and clamber onto a rock to jump into the fast-moving water. When it’s my turn, the water seems a long way down and I go wobbly at the knees. I can feel tears pricking my eyes and murmur that I don’t think I can do it. Then I feel the fear and do it anyway and it’s fantastic. The whole journey is awesome and over lunch, produced by Sam, we agree it’s the best thing we’ve done ever.
Tuesday morning and we’re beach bound again. First activity of the day is stand up paddleboarding or SUP as it’s more commonly known. According to legend, Hawaiian tribal leaders used to perform a haka-style ritual before SUP and Ross announces that it’s essential we should do this too. The rest of the beach gazes on with bemusement as we stomp around, gurning and shouting at the top of our lungs. It’s hilarious, but sure enough the adrenaline starts to flow. Our SUP expedition begins in earnest but it’s windy and choppy and none of us manages to stand up despite our best attempts. We concede defeat and head back to shore. Any frustration we feel soon dissipates when we spy another fabulous lunch spread awaiting us. The wind shows no sign of letting up and none of us have windsurfed before so the boys propose we try the simulator they’ve set up on the beach instead. The rest of the afternoon is spent learning the basics of windsurfing and attempting to master the ‘slackline’ a kind of tightrope the boys have rigged up on the beach.
Wednesday is our day off from activities and we explore a local medieval town. Truth be told, we’re eager to continue testing our nerve with more action sports and Thursday can’t come soon enough. On the agenda is snorkelling on a coral reef in Collioure, a picturesque fishing village a few miles away. Expectations are high when Sam, who has already done an underwater recce, announces that an octopus is wrapped around the anchor of our boat. Competition is fierce for who can spot the first starfish and we chase shoals of fish as they dart in and out of rocks. My husband and son venture further with Sam and carefully hold sea urchins and hunt for hermit crabs. Later that evening, we’re treated to another BBQ and we play games under the pine trees and for the umpteenth time I think this holiday is perfect.
Our final day of adventure dawns and the boys have saved the, errr, best for last: Canyoning. For the uninitiated, canyoning is basically jumping off or sliding down rock faces into pools of water. There’s some abseiling too with a waterfall hammering down on your head. If our kids were worried at the thought of it, they were playing a very cool game, but Brendan and I were rigid with fear. Did I tell you I suffer from vertigo? The only way I was going to get round was to go first and jump before I’d had a chance to talk myself out of it. And it worked! We jumped 15ft and slid 18ft and felt like kings. I did exactly what I’d told myself not to do and paused at a jump and then bottled it. And halfway round, Brendan and I agreed our lives wouldn’t be any the worse if we didn’t abseil 36ft, then watched in awe as our kids did it without batting an eyelid. But by the time we arrived at the final zipwire – something I would usually do my best to avoid – we launched ourselves off like pros. Back at ground level, I decided I would return to conquer at least one of the challenges I hadn’t managed on this occasion. At the wine and cheese tasting the boys arranged that evening, we watched the film they’d put together of all our ‘best bits’. It may have been the effects of the delicious red we were drinking, but I got a bit emotional thinking about how truly amazing the week had been and wished we weren’t leaving in the morning.
Several days later and guess where we are? Stand up paddleboarding on our local reservoir. The sun is shining, we’re having a blast and we’re hooked. Thank you Family Adventure Holidays, we will be back.