September is the beginning of the end of the tourist season. There are still plenty of fun-seekers around, but now that the kids are back in school, there are considerable fewer children running between tables at your favourite restaurant.
In my previous column, I mentioned that it seemed to me that many tourists appeared to have a certain degree of desperation when it came to their quest for an enjoyable experience. I have thought about that assertion since and still feel that it is true but also in a number of ways understandable.
At the height of high season (just a few weeks ago), the beaches were (some still are) packed blanket to blanket, umbrella to umbrella with people of all shapes, sizes, ages and degrees of sunburn. To get a parking spot within the same municipality, people who aren’t willing or able to walk several blocks to find sand have to arrive quite early to even have a chance for a space. This type of endeavour causes an atmosphere of competition among the sun-seekers, with a real possibility of disappointment if you don’t hustle.
The logistics of beach-going can also be a real challenge. Some of the supplies needed include a blanket and even maybe a couple of folding chairs, towels, an umbrella, a beach ball, sunglasses and hats, spare tee shirts, flip flops because the sand does get hot, snacks, fruit drinks for the kids, Super Bocks for dad, a nice Alentejo white for mom, and oops … we forgot the sunscreen (that could be a problem) and, of course, a book (Kindles don’t like sand). You already have your smartphone – that goes without saying, even though there are no charging stations on Barril beach.
Kids are actually needed to help carry stuff, except one is only two and needs to be carried herself. Not so convenient when the only parking place is located somewhere in Spain.
All of the above can be observed daily in line for the beach ferries in Tavira.
There’s a high level of competition for hotel rooms with sea views instead of a view of the parking lot.
Calling a popular eatery for reservations for a table of 15 for 8pm on Saturday night doesn’t always work out as planned. And if they do get a reservation at their third or fourth choice, the patrons are often quite demanding of the over-worked staff. Many holidaymakers have a sense of entitlement, feeling that they deserve to have awesome experiences and frankly don’t understand why they have to stand elbow to elbow at the bar, waiting 45 minutes for a table.
The boat tours of the caves have been booked for weeks. There is a tee time available at a golf course that is not that nearby, but it’s not until Tuesday. Simply spontaneously stopping by a pub for a pint turns out to be a challenge because all the nice tables out on the deck are already occupied. And since getting drunk on vacation is one of the primary goals, the waitstaff never seems able to keep up with unquenchable demand. Waiting in line anywhere is often frustrating, but particularly on vacation. It’s a chore that is not welcome.
While the Algarve might be a relative bargain compared to some other locations, many, if not most, of the patrons have invested a nice chunk of change and hope or actually expect to get their money’s worth. When they don’t feel they’re getting maximum value, they start suspecting they’re being cheated.
Another real issue is time. Have they really allotted enough time to do all the things that they’ve planned for a week on the coast? Are they used to going for five-mile hikes along the cliffs? How often have they played 36 holes of golf in a day? Surfs up. So, just how used to getting buffeted by waves are they. Don’t worry, the lifeguard will come get ‘em.
Advertisements and travel shows also can create unrealistic expectations. Pictures of the hotels never include photos of the trash bins just below your balcony or cloudy days. Good-looking people in bikinis are shown happily jumping into uncrowded hotel swimming pools (not actually allowed) with waiters waiting with huge daiquiris next to an available lounge chair. Please no running around the pool and no diving. Really?
The Algarve is a popular destination because it boasts 300 days of sunshine a year, but not everybody is always lucky. Then there’s the pressure to represent the trip in its very best aspect on social media. You gotta have some spectacular sunset pics and shots of fabulous meals in order to make your loved ones at home as jealous as possible. When this doesn’t turn out, the relief from the stresses at work turns out not to be what ends up happening. Nobody wants to post photos of packed tour buses, guided tours with 30 odd strangers or snaps of dingy rooms with a dripping faucet in the loo.
Even getting to and from can add to the stress level especially if you’re travelling by air, particularly these days. Even if your flight hasn’t been cancelled or delayed for several hours, and you’ve been able to get through security in only two hours and 20 minutes with a hole in your sock and your pants falling down because your belt is on the conveyor, you still have to sit with your knees next to your ears for a few hours, being serenaded by a crying baby, while wondering if your luggage is headed to the same destination.
This is when some travellers get a head start on the drinking facet of their trip (sometimes even before departure), with the excuse of fear of flying.
If you’re lucky enough to be a resident of the Algarve, and we are since we’re reading the leading English language newspaper in the region, the stress level of having to have a good time immediately, right now, today doesn’t really exist. We often can still get a table at our favourite bistro inland or sit on our own terrace with a swell view of the Atlantic in the distance; and even if that doesn’t work out, it will tomorrow or soon. The pressure’s off.
Particularly if you’re retired, every day is already Saturday and what doesn’t get done today could very well happen within a fortnight, or at least eventually. Even though we’re older and time will eventually run out, we no longer are able or find the need to hurry. And to be honest, retired folks have already been on a zip line (an overrated thrill in my book); taken a ride in a hot-air balloon; caught a tuna deep-sea fishing or at least been sailing or boating; taken a helicopter tour; dashed across scalding sand in bare feet or been on a vineyard tour and purchased an entire case of wine. Been there, done that and bought the tee shirt.
To be honest, my lovely wife and I don’t go to any of the beach towns in July or August, particularly Albufeira. Too hot and too packed with rowdy pedestrians in thongs, who seem determined to stay up all night in a vain attempt to meet members of the opposite sex, even though neither the hunters nor the prey have maintained the ability to speak coherently. We come back after they’ve left, way after if at all.
We also advise our family and friends, who want to come for a visit, that July and August are not the time to do it. Too hot and too … you get the point. We tell them that September or October or April or May are much better bets – the weather is still warm and sunny with most places still open, combined with the fact that their hosts might actually be willing to join them, even though we still don’t like getting sandy.
When we do go away, my lovely wife and I do not call it “going on vacation”, rather we like the terminology “going on holiday”. We live in a place many would consider “a vacation spot”, with two sun-drenched terraces, big umbrellas, lounge chairs, a view of the ocean and a refrigerator full of white wine and beers. We’re also able to make our plans more open-ended leaving us time to get a feel for Coimbra or Luso without having to hurry back so the kids can be in school or a punch clock can be punched.
Friends of ours and retired expats, Bina and Ken Cline, don’t go on hikes, they saunter. Not interested in logging maximum mileage, they do walk which is healthy, but at a leisurely pace, literally and figuratively stopping to smell the roses and eat a pleasant lunch at a local place along the way. If you don’t believe me, you should check out two of Ken’s travel books Sauntering the Spiritual Variant of the Camino de Santiago and/or Sauntering to Santiago: The Camino de Santiago for Slow Walkers. My point exactly.
For too many “on holiday”, their trip doesn’t provide a respite from a hectic work world. Instead, going on vacation turns out to be a different kind of work, with people ending up over-exerting themselves because of over-planning and over-scheduling. If you’re a thrill-seeker and want to jump out of a plane with a backpack of folded laundry, go ahead. Or if you want to jump off a bridge with an elastic “bungee” cord tied around your ankles, knock yourself out (you just might), but whatever you do, leave some time to relax.
Try to do something, not everything. Read a book on a shady park bench; or maybe sip a “bica” while sitting at a sidewalk table people-watching at a small coffee shop in the old town; or take a nap in your air-conditioned hotel room or on the balcony.
There should be some time in your schedule to simply do nothing. That’s what many residents and most retired expats do, at least some of time – approach things with a lack of expectations and cool out in a desirable but peaceful location as long as we have someone who can take care of the doggie while we’re gone.
By Pat the Expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.