One of my favourite holidays ever was last spring. I went to the Malaysian island of Penang, totally alone apart from a carry-on case full of books, sunscreen and swimsuits. For four wonderful days, I slathered on the sunblock, lay on a sun-lounger by the beach (or beach-side pool, just to shake things up), read loads, swam, ate whatever I wanted, and caught up on sleep. It was glorious.
While the word "holiday" stems from religious holy days, "vacation" is from the Latin vacare, meaning "to be unoccupied". And that's what a holiday should be about: switching off and clearing your mind.
Of course, I've been on some incredible trips where every moment of every day was full of exciting plans - I've visited fish markets at dawn, climbed the stairs to the crown of the world's most famous statue, trekked through rice paddies, gawped at truly ancient buildings, museum-hopped, visited elephant sanctuaries, worn traditional dress for a Sri Lankan wedding, put myself at the mercy of tuk-tuk drivers, aimlessly wandered city streets in search of unusual photo-ops ...
I've had holidays which were almost exclusively about spending quality time with friends and family, planning visits to different parts of the world to catch up and experience people's lives, and cunningly managing my time to ensure maximum exposure to as many people in the vicinity as possible.
But at the end of the day, I feel my best holidays are the ones where I can let my hair down, pack up my troubles and completely recharge. These are holidays when I spend a little time, no matter how short, at the beach. There's something so soothing about the lapping waves, knowledge of how sand is formed, and the sun dipping down below the horizon. They combine to buoy me up more than any amount of adrenaline ever will.
While I admit to indulging in an extra little duvet time on some cold and rainy mornings, spending a whole day "doing nothing" is such a waste of precious holiday time.
I can never understand why people travel great distances to laze on the beach. You can just laze at home, save the money and the carbon footprint - you know what I'm saying?
Even if a beach is invitingly great, the sand is whiter, the water is clearer, I would still far rather be diving in those waters than snoozing or reading a book.
Oh, and I love holidays that go wrong. They end up being such awesome adventures. Once I took a British friend to Lampang, in Thailand, where we were planning to learn to be elephant mahouts. That was already an adventurous idea, but, hey, I pick my friends wisely. When we got to the train station in Bangkok, we found out that we could not go to Lampang because there was a landslide on the track.
We raced across town in an overloaded tuk-tuk to get on a crowded doubledecker bus that was held back for us. We then had to beg the bus driver to let us off at the right place. He finally agreed. The bus stopped at a petrol station and we leaped off to go to the toilet only to realise that they were not usable. So back on the bus we went, to be dropped off in Lampang just before dawn.
There we were met by not one but two drivers; yes, there had been a mix-up in communication. One of them drove us to the elephant park. We finally got there, eager to head to the ladies' room, only to find we were locked out because it was too early. Ooops. That was a pretty tense last hour, let me tell you.
When we were finally let in, we could relieve ourselves. Then we became bored waiting for the official transport so we decided to walk. Not a good idea to go walking in strange, jungle lands, but interesting nonetheless.
Luckily some locals on motorbikes picked us - and our massive luggage - up and drove us to our final destination. We spent three amazing days working and playing with elephants. The result was a holiday I will always look back on fondly, a good friendship that became a great friendship, and a useful amount of knowledge should I ever need to get an elephant to drag a log in a forest.
That's what you're missing if you just decide to lie on a beach someplace!
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