Get the most out of your summer holiday (by doing the least).
Forget zip-lining through the Andes and embrace your inner layabout this summer, says Esquire's Will Hersey.
Just a few years back, you were on fairly safe footing with adventure travel types. They were still mercifully in the minority and you could spot them a mile off with their carefully sun-bleached hair and manky leather bracelets.
I last came across one at a dinner party, one shirt button too many undone, a chest tan at least two shades too deep for late February, wistfully describing how he’d just got back from riding untamed stallions over the Pyrenees or relocating orphaned wildebeest through a new Botswana game reserve.
The women at the table gushed. “How wooonderful,” sighed one, shaking her head from side to side in awe. “A-mazing,” said another, leaning forward as if ready to unbutton his trousers the next time he used the word campfire.
“Wanker,” thought the male contingent in what felt like unison, teeth grinding as we considered asking if he’d ever been to Alton Towers.
The good news is this cliché of the intrepid traveller looking down on everyone else just because he once went down the Ganges on an inner tube is dying out. The bad news is the only reason it’s dying out is because pretty much everyone else is now in on it too.
From entry-level office workers to septuagenarian retirees, the rules of holiday engagement have changed. In a spiral of travel one-upmanship, the game now involves booking yourself a flight to a far-flung place that’s hard to pronounce for an activity that’s hard to understand at a price that’s increasingly hard to pay for.
You get extra points if the destination in question involves changing flights twice. Double if you can drop in the need for a guide or, better yet, a fixer. And triple if there’s a 50 per cent chance of coming home with a broken femur or an untreatable form of tapeworm.
Major bonus points are on offer, too, especially if you can hang it on a charity sponsor fund or never-done-before angle such as unicycling across the Dead Sea in a blindfold. “I needed a challenge and I got one,” they’ll say earnestly and loudly when they return.
In other words it was bloody awful, but at least they’ve got free rein to bang on about it for the next decade.
Don’t get me wrong, these trips can obviously have their moments. I’ve trekked the Four Thousand Islands in Laos (damp), driven the Baja California peninsula in Mexico (dusty) and done canyoning in Madeira (breathtaking — mainly because I was forced to wear a child-size wetsuit because they’d run out of adult ones).
It was while being winched down the side of a cliff in Krabi by a hungover French gap-year guide that I first wondered if this approach to holidays actually only suits a fraction of the droves compelled to go on them in a misguided belief that this is what stressed urban professionals must do.
Life-insurance ads and books with titles like “Make the Most of Your Time on Earth” press home the message that we somehow haven’t properly lived unless we spend our precious weeks off strapped into a harness or pushing our heart rates into zones normally only experienced during mild cardiac arrest.
Got a week off in July? Why not run the Death Valley Ultramarathon. November? Perfect for a three-week trudge up Kilimanjaro in an effort to be the 2,371st man from your hometown to drag themselves onto the summit. That’s if you’re not one of the 60 per cent who drop out with altitude sickness. What the hell happened to two weeks by a pool drinking banana daiquiris?
Yeah, but you only live once and you need to grab it by the balls, right?
Just stand back a second and consider if your grip on life’s ballsack ever gets more vice-like than when sitting down at a holiday breakfast buffet knowing that after you’ve covered the pastries, the hot breakfast trays and then the token fruit salad bit, you have precisely nothing to do that day except lie semi-conscious by a pool, occasionally rousing yourself to scan a few pages of a graphic novel because right now pictures are all your brain can process.
At the root of the problem is our newly acquired hatred of doing nothing. Modern life wages bloody war on inactivity. As our free time shortens, so the pressure to make the most of it ramps up to a fever pitch. Every second must be maximised so we crave stimulation in a constant battle to stave off the archest enemy of them all — boredom.
What we don’t seem to have worked out yet is that boredom might just be a good thing. Great even.
Adrenalin is the thing that causes stress and heart damage. If our jobs are stressful, surely this is the last thing we should be doing.
If we actually listened to our minds and bodies, what we’d really need to do with some time off is very little. It’s how we’re built.
It’s not just adventure holidays, either. This tyranny of activity and consumption is as applicable to a city break as it is to a month off in Peru. Lady Astor had it nailed when she described sightseeing on a trip to Cairo back in the early days of sightseeing: (to paraphrase) “What I see bores me, what I don’t see bothers me.”
I learned this lesson for myself in Barcelona, where my girlfriend had taken me for my 30th birthday. With a guidebook and a backpack and in 35ºC heat, I led her on a punishing jaunt around the city’s least accessible attractions from a soulless tour of the Nou Camp stadium to a whistle-stop survey of some cathedral that was completely obstructed by scaffolding.
We checked them off one by one without any noticeable emotion, as if clearing work emails or ticking off an admin list.
By the time we arrived at Gaudí’s Parc Guell in the late afternoon, we’d stopped speaking to each other, partly from apathy, partly exhaustion, possibly due to early onset heatstroke.
We arrived back at the hotel several pounds lighter and slowly ascended to the rooftop bar. Views over the city, shaded armchairs, nooks and crannies, waiter service, swimming pool. It was like a tasteful fusion of Shangri-La and Club Tropicana.
People who’d sensibly spent the entire day here laughed contentedly, applied sun cream onto each other’s shoulders, their side tables cluttered with elaborate cocktails. “Why the hell haven’t we been here all day?” I exclaimed, possibly dropping to my knees in frustration. The final, bitter irony was that the view over the city pissed all over the one we’d spent an hour getting to in a non-air-conditioned public bus.
It was an important step in my understanding, but there was a final lesson to come.
Like many men, I had always put myself in the I-can’t-just-lie-by-the-pool-for-a-week camp, programmed into thinking I too needed action and distraction on a week away. So when the Maldives was suggested, I baulked at it, terrified of a place that billed itself as a structured island paradise.
“You’ll hate it,” they said. “There’s nothing to do,” they warned. It sounded more like a luxury prison island. And as far as its future dinner-party anecdote potential was concerned, it offered little more than a chintzy cliché for honeymooners from Rotherham.
Yet after just an hour on Huvafen Fushi, I realised just how wrong I’d got it. With the highest point on the island a 2ft sandbank, there was nowhere to climb up or fall off. It’s precisely because there’s nothing to do, there’s nothing to worry about not doing either.
On day one, I wrote a list from the private plunge pool, unable to stop my brain and hand from breaking its daily habit of list writing. “1 Go to breakfast; 2 Find sunbed by main pool”... I scanned for something else to add, but could only manage, “3 Lunch.”
As the days unfolded, activities presented themselves on their own. On Tuesday, I tried the hammock for half an hour. On Wednesday, I sampled the sunbed nearer the bar so the waiter didn’t have to bring the cocktail menu as far as usual.
In the afternoon, I walked the 200 yards to the water sports centre, staffed by an eager-eyed German woman who acted as if she hadn’t seen humans on this part of the island for days. She probably hadn’t. I looked at the menu of activities before deciding that a massage in the underwater spa room was probably more my level.
On Thursday, we had lunch in the raw-food restaurant instead of the beach one. Just to mix things up.
On the penultimate day, a moment of weakness. Unable to read in the morning heat, and the cocktail bar not yet officially open, I had an unsettling urge to “do something”. The sea was calm, clearer than Evian and teemed with technicoloured fish.
I picked up the snorkel I’d been carrying about all week. What could possibly go wrong? As I tried to float out over the pristine sea life just inches below the waterline, a flailing leg hit a jag of million-year-old coral and cut a 3in gash in my shin.
Dust and blood filled the sea around me, as guests gasped and staff ran out to check on the coral damage as much as my injury. If there’d been a daily island newspaper, this would definitely have made the front page. It had happened in seconds, but at last here was proof. Trust your instincts — sometimes doing nothing really is the best thing to do.
Read our top 5 places to do nothing here.