I have travelled the world now for 15 years, with over a hundred countries on almost every continent under my belt. It is safe to say I’m an experienced traveller. Yet in all that time, with all those countries, I have never really been on a traditional holiday. Find out what happened when I accepted a challenge by Mark Warner Holidays and arrived at a package resort.
Now I completely understand how strange that sounds. After all travel itself is a holiday, and surely by definition a holiday must be travelling, right? Wrong.
What is a holiday?
The answer lies in how you actually define holiday. You see, personally I define a holiday as a simple, relatively short period of rest and rejuvination. This is different to travelling where you are actively immersing yourself in a destination, experiencing new things and expanding your mind. I have been a long term advocate of slow travel and have always put periods of unplanned rest into any trip I have planned. The longer the trip, the longer and more frequent the rest stops. These are days or sometimes even a week or so where I can simply sit, relax and take in my surroundings without having anything planned at all.
However, the traditional travel industry define a holiday as something slightly different. The period of rest and rejuvenation is still there of course, but so are all the frills and add ons that make up a traditional package holiday. That is what makes it different, the ‘package’ sold by the traditional travel agents. The transfers, the included buffets, the entertainment and the ‘group activities’. The whole package all neatly wrapped up in one resort where in theory at least your every need is taken care of. Apart from your drinks and certain meals of course, they cost extra.
And being an independent traveller, a backpacker, I have never been on this type of package holiday. In fact I have always gone out of my way to avoid this type of travel. Until now.
Knowing I was a stout backpacker, Mark Warner challenged me to try out a resort.
I know, I can hear the gasps of shock and the cries of ‘traitor’ from here. I’m a backpacker damnit! An independent traveller! What business do I have on a package holiday? Something that frankly many travellers look down on and generally deride, something that isn’t even considered ‘real’ travel?
Hear me out.
I have always said travel is about experiencing as much as you possibly can while you can on this earth. Just because you are a backpacker that doesn’t mean you have to stay in cheap hostels every single time. There are so many different accommodation options for backpackers including single rooms, guesthouses, private pensions, boutique hotels and even luxury hotels, all out there waiting for you to experience them.
And just as because you are an independent traveller, that doesn’t mean you can’t let someone else make the arrangements from time to time, and in the same respect just because you have always been on package holidays that doesn’t mean you can’t break out of that bubble once in a while and actually see some of the places you are travelling to outside of the sterile tour groups!
It’s all about variety. Each way of travelling serves a purpose, and depending on what your needs are at any given time what is the harm in using different methods to serve those needs?
And my need right now was to rest!
Now being a package holiday everything was organised from the start, and Mark Warner Holidays wasted no time in ensuring I didn’t have to lift a finger or even think about what I was doing once I arrived. I walked out of the airport into the thirty degree heat of Greece and was met by the rep straight after picking up my backpack (I wasn’t ready to go full native with a suitcase just yet!) And I was whisked off to the resort on an air conditioned coach without any fuss.
I have to admit it was a bit of a surreal experience. No dealing with the taxi mafias, no waiting for public transport or lugging my pack on a bus or a train, just a smooth ride to the resort.
Within half an hour I’d been checked in with a warm welcome and a complimentary orange juice and was in my room. A large double room with an en suite and a balcony overlooking the tennis courts. This wasn’t too bad at all! It was very surreal, definitely, but so far I wasn’t complaining as I cranked up the air con and lay on my cool, fresh sheets.
My carry on size backpack stared at me dolefully from the corner where I had left it. It was already suffering from a slight inadequacy complex after being dwarfed by all the frankly ridiculously large hard suitcases that everyone else had with them, (seriously, what the hell do they put in those monstrosities? They are only here for a week or two!) And now it was silently watching me, judging me, calling me a sell out for dragging it to a package resort.
Package resorts versus backpacking.
After all what was I really doing here? Why did I really accept the challenge to experience a resort? The very antithesis of what backpacking and independent travel is?
That was the whole point. Staying in a resort couldn’t be called travel. But I wasn’t here to travel. I was here for a holiday.
This was about parking my backside near the pool and drinking copious amounts of fruit juice while I caught up with my reading and escaped into a world that wasn’t my own for a while. And that is exactly what I did!
The three large pools that led down to the beach provided ample opportunity to grab a sun lounger and sit in the shade with my favourite books (a proper old fashioned paperback, you know, the type with actual real tactile pages! Not just an ebook on a screen!) I ignored my laptop, left my phone in my room and forgot social media, work and even the outside world existed.
It was bliss!
Of course there was only so much sitting round I could do and before long I needed to stretch my muscles. I chose to go with Mark Warner Holidays because of their focus on health and sporting activities in their resorts. Given that active exercise is also a big part of my personal rest and relaxation needs I loved the fact that the resort felt in many ways like a health retreat.
The onsite gym and tennis courts provided ample opportunity for exercise and it was great being able to start the day with a workout at a gym that was only an elevator ride away from my room. There was also a good range of exercise classes and watersport facilities at your fingertips that you could take advantage of, or not, depending on what you wanted to do.
The fact that there were trained staff ready to give you a yoga lesson or take you stand up paddle boarding or snorkelling was a huge bonus, and because it was all there at your fingertips, you didn’t have to find a dedicated school or surf shop or anything else to do it was admittedly very easy and very attractive.
It wasn’t long before I had signed myself up to an introduction to sailing course, which I frankly consider a roaring success by the mere fact I didn’t sink the boat! Having experienced instructors to hand did genuinely make a huge difference though and I did manage to catch the wind and pick up some decent speed without cracking my head on the boom of the sail too much. I even very optimistically grabbed a windsurfing board, which just as in my previous attempts at surfing and stand up paddle boarding involved my face hitting the water full force as people half my age sailed effortlessly past looking like professionals more often than it did me actually standing up on the board and moving!
In that respect I had a fantastic time. I rested a lot, exercised, tried out the sports and even had some lessons in a few things I had never tried before. I genuinely had a nice, relaxing time.
The downsides to the resort experience.
Of course there were some things I didn’t like about the experience too.
I didn’t like the what I felt was the penny pinching aspect of the resort. It was full board, which is of course one step down from all inclusive, but they didn’t even include soft drinks or juice at mealtimes. It just felt like every other thing came with a surcharge and I was being upselled all the time. In some respects it made me miss the touts on a backpacking trip! Mealtimes were interrupted by staff eager to get you to sign drinks to your room, the on site shop was really expensive and there were a slew of things that weren’t included in the price. You could use the gym but had to pay extra for the spa, some water sports were included but you had to pay extra for others, there were even surcharges for using certain restaurants at certain times.
And given the fact that it was a resort and they knew they had the majority of people over a barrel, of course everything came at a premium.
Look, I know this is a business and they are here to make money but come on. I really didn’t see the point in paying a premium for places like this in the first place when you had to pay extra premiums to have a drink or do certain things. Honestly I could have stayed at a local pension or guesthouse and paid for things as I need them at local restaurants and local businesses if I wanted to do that, which is what I normally do as a backpacker. I really am not convinced from a financial point of view – or a responsible one for that matter – that travelling with a package is any better, and if you still have to fork out for things anyway I really just don’t see the point.
I was very, very aware that this was a package holiday bubble, but there were parts of the experience that were just strange.
I am very used to and comfortable with the fact I am a solo traveller, I have – with the occasional exception – travelled on my own for the better part of the last fifteen years. I’ve always said it is one of the best ways to travel and I love it.
Yet here in the resort it very much felt like I was on my own amongst a sea of families and couples. I was even made to feel like I was a solo infiltrator into family package bliss. I was an anomaly, something that they weren’t used to, and there was a real sense that staff in particular didn’t know what to do with me, especially at mealtimes which are set up predominantly for families and couples. The request for a table for one was often met with surprise and even a sympathetic look from the manageress and confusion from the staff as they struggled to seat me. ‘Oh, not there sir, we prefer to give those tables to other guests’, was the response as I walked to a balcony seat. Instead I was shown to a table in the middle of the room which was exactly the same size, just hemmed in and with a nice view of the waiter’s station instead. Then of course was the usual flurry as they removed all the excess cutlery as if I was some sort of social pariah.
On my fourth day there a letter was shoved under the door of my room telling me that a ‘social table’ was available all week for those guests on their own. Again assuming that I did not want to be on my own and creating an awkwardly forced social occasion full of people who weren’t there on their own but wanted to escape their parents for a night. If you do want to meet new people when travelling it’s honestly so much easier to walk up to a hostel common room and say hi.
I love travelling solo, I really do. But this was the first time in fifteen years of travel that I was made uncomfortable by doing so.
The whole bubble mentality was very strange too. There was a real tribal paradigm amongst many of the guests who declared themselves ‘Mark Warner people’. They had been coming on Mark Warner holidays – many to this very same resort – for years, if not decades, and would never be seen dead in other resorts. That type of loyalty is a testament to the quality of their holidays here I suppose, but it was very surreal.
It was even more strange when that tribal mentality was broken up into groups that arrived on the Saturday from London and those who arrived on the Wednesday from Manchester. They really, genuinely did call themselves the Wednesday group and considered themselves as the real ‘Mark Warner people’. They arrived on the same day, had bonded by the next day and were all firm friends through the week, all joining in the same activities together, eating together then going home.
This weird sense of ownership of ‘their resort’ was a little uncomfortable. Speaking to some of the guests there were even views that Mark Warner were allowing the resort to be used as a hotel for just anyone to come and use whenever they liked! As if it should remain a place just for them, just for their group, the ‘Mark Warner people’. Seriously! It was surreal and frankly ridiculous, but gave a strange insight into the mind of a serial package holidaymaker!
Despite all of this I did genuinely enjoy my experience here. I achieved what I came here to do – which was rest – and enjoyed some sporting activities and a few good workouts. I even got a chance to get back to my backpacker mentality, escape the hotel and explore some of the island on my own too.
And you know what? It was on the whole a good experience.
I was very aware I was in a package bubble, I was very aware that the time spent in the resort wasn’t really travel. Of course it wasn’t.
Travel after all is about openly discovering new places, new destinations, new cultures. It is about exploring all the wondrous variety this amazing planet has to offer, opening your mind and growing as a person because of it.
This was none of that. But that’s okay. Not every experience has to be. This was cocooning yourself in a very nice resort to sit, relax and do nothing for a week without seeing anything of the outside world. A resort that could have been anywhere else in the world. And sometimes that can be good too.
It’s okay to experience new things. It’s okay to break out of your mould and try something different. It’s okay to get out of your comfort zone once in a while!
Just because I am a backpacker that doesn’t mean I can’t come on a package holiday for a bit of a holiday once in a while, and it doesn’t mean that a traditional package holidaymaker can’t break out of that mould and travel independently once in a while too. Because at the end of the day travel is also about trying new things.
Life itself is about that.
So what if I’m a backpacker most of the time? So what if I had a great rest on an enjoyable package holiday too? You all should try it from time to time!
Would I do it again? Well never say never but I think I’ll stick to travelling independently for a while. That doesn’t mean however that I didn’t enjoy my experience here or that I didn’t have a great time. It’s all about accepting the environment you are in. I wasn’t here to travel, I was here for a holiday, and in that respect the trip fulfilled that need very successfully.
What about you? Would you ever go on a package holiday once you have tasted the freedom of being a backpacker? Have you ever been on one? What did you think? Let me know in the comments below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages, and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
This article was written in partnership with Mark Warner Holidays. The views and opinions expressed are entirely the authors own based on personal experiences when travelling and are honest and factual without any bias.