Thursday, 18 August 2022
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Sun, sea and… Siblings: writer Hannah-Louise Dunne on how to make a family holiday work

Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and family on holidays Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and family on holidays Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and family on holiday in the 1980s Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and family on holidays in 1996 Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and her family on holidays in France in the 1990s Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne (far left) with her family at the Minack, a cliffside theatre in Cornwall, in summer 2018 Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and her sisters on a family holiday to Thailand Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and family on holidays in Valencia Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne and her sisters on a family holiday to Thailand Writer Hannah-Louise Dunne with her mum on a family holdiay to Valenica in 2016

We’re halfway through our one-hour road trip and I’m squabbling in the back seat of our rented saloon car with my sisters. Our long-suffering parents are sitting in the front seats, stoic amidst the sniped insults zinging around, as we whizz through the sea mist of Cornwall.

You’d be forgiven, of course, for thinking that the sibling jostling is a result of childhood exhuberance. But instead, we’re hurtling through our 20s (A is 28 and H is 22) and 30s (S is 31 and I’m 34). And despite immediate appearances, we’ve all chosen to carve out time in the summer to join forces for a family holiday.

In fact, for the past five years, our annual family trips have become my favourite calendar event.

To be frank, in my teens, a family holiday was the last thing I wanted to do. As a moody 13-year-old, I felt far too grown up for our annual trip to France with my younger sisters. While they played merrily in the pools, teenage me glowered and flicked through fashion magazines in the shade.

My angst sadly proved to be a long-lasting visitor and joined us on many holidays over the next number of years.

But now? Holidays are a welcome respite from the real world. It’s a chance to take time out, explore new places and – most importantly – to spend proper quality time together… Even if one-tenth of the time is arguing about who can use the bathroom next.

With our family of six based across different countries and cities, it’s the one time of the year where we get to down tools and smartphones and ditch deadlines to reconnect.

Over the years, we’ve had a blast and made many new family memories. We’ve travelled across four different countries and three continents, co-ordinated countless Google calendars, stayed in an interesting array of Airbnbs and managed to avoid long-term family therapy.

Standout moments include the time that I ventured for a swim in Málaga with my sister and emerged five minutes later clutching my leg, having received my first jellyfish sting at the grand old age of 31. The very next day, my sister (another one) fell foul of a jellyfish as well, and for the rest of the week we bonded over our war-wounds, keeping our family updated with constant details of the stings’ progression. I had a scar for months afterwards.

Along with the jellyfish, the local tradition of celebrating religious feasts with bejewelled and spectacular processions was another source of wonder during the trip. Night after night, locals turned out in their finery and gathered together to eat, drink, sing and march around the streets of the Old City. The only sour note was that local hero – and firm family favourite – Antonio Banderas was nowhere to be spied.

Another year, we confounded the local restaurateurs in Valencia as we ventured around the city in search of a tapas bar that could comfortably fit a family of 10 (six originals plus partners, who have all fitted in really well). Gin and tonics were proffered across chequered tablecloths as we settled in for the long wait for a free table, while the staff marvelled at the sheer size of our very pale Irish family.

In 2015, we found ourselves late one night in a Thai hospital as I attempted to explain my swollen veins to a bewildered doctor. My sisters proved a welcome distraction as we waited for an ultrasound, which showed that, rather than the deep vein thrombosis I had diagnosed myself with, I was in fact suffering the effects of walking around in extreme heat.

Later on in the trip, we snorkelled in beautiful clear waters, survived a ferry ride in a thundering storm, danced on the beach together and surprised onlookers with an emotional farewell in the airport, as my sister and her other half headed for their base in Australia and we made the trip back to Ireland.

My sisters and I look very alike, and people often confuse us. I used to enjoy being asked whether A – who is six years younger than me – was my twin. Sadly, that has happened much less often on recent trips – although I like to think that’s only because she’s much taller than me.

Over the years, however, we’ve learned how similar (and bossy) all of our personalities are, as holidays call for a consensus on where we should go and what we should do. It’s more of a collaboration now that we’re all grown up, rather than our parents having to take charge, but by times we definitely slip back into old roles. Mum and Dad are probably a lot more laid-back than the rest of us when it comes to how we spend time on holidays – and I think it really puzzles them that we take so many photos.

While we may differ on our priorities for the day – sunbathing for me and walks around the city centre and historic sites for some others – we do agree on the important things. Like the value of a good gin and tonic (preferably with ice and lemon) or the benefits of a centrally located Airbnb within easy walking distance of the action, when in the South of Spain in the heart of summer.

There are plenty of deep and meaningful conversations had on our holidays, usually after we’ve been together for a few days and everyone is used to sharing space again. It can get quite noisy when we’re all together and swapping old stories. Reminiscences are all we swap, mind – gone are the days when we used to steal each other’s clothes. (Although one of my sisters would like me to note that I still have her denim shorts from a past trip.)

Against all odds, spending time together over a concentrated period has actually encouraged us to try and make more of an effort to do so all year round. So, while we all live in different areas, we’ve made an effort to visit each other’s homes – and ensure that we meet up for important occasions.

In fact, for Christmas recently, when my sister (a dancer) landed a role in a pantomime in the UK, we decamped to her neighbourhood to spend the holidays with her, travelling complete with decorative Rudolph antlers and Christmas jumpers. We were back to her base this month as well, two years later, to cheer her on as she finally graduated from her dance training, proud as punch of her hard work and effort.

Elsewhere, at weekends, anyone within reach makes the effort to check in – and join forces where possible to head on leisurely beach walks or, occasionally, brave the cold of the Irish Sea for dips along the Dublin coast.

On 2018’s big summer trip, laugh-out-loud comedy was provided by Cornwall’s flock of canny seagulls. Eagle-eyed and fleet of wing, they are terrifyingly accurate when it comes to swooping ice-cream, pasties and treats right from tourists’ hands. Elsewhere, our optimistic packing provided plenty of fashion fails to giggle at, as we paired sundresses with leggings to ward off the damp coastal Cornish weather.

On the road, memorable moments came when we drove by the places my mum called home for many years. During our first family visit to her former haunt, we soaked up the sights of the pretty beachside towns, cliff walks and local surf culture that served as a backdrop to her time in Cornwall as a young midwife in the 1970s.

Having heard about the breathtaking scenery and coastline, it was surreal to drive along the road to Penzance to catch a play at the cliffside theatre, The Minack – just as Mum and her friends had done before us. Eating our chickpea vegan curry, snug under blankets and raincoats as the sea mist descended behind the stage, was a moment we’ll think of for a long time.

While it takes very little time for us to squabble as we did as children, holidays together give us the chance to catch up. And connect properly. Skype calls, WhatsApp groups and messages keep us informed day to day, but holidays offer us the time to debrief and get to know each other properly as adults.

When I tell people that I’m off on a family holiday, they’re more often intrigued than sceptical. Those who know us well look forward to hearing the stories of our adventures when we come back.

In truth, there’s only one downside to holidaying with my family as an adult: our (very naughty) family dogs have had to resign themselves for a stay in our local luxury dog kennels while we’re away.

But watch this space: cute dogs were ubiquitous in Cornwall this year, so it can only be a matter of time before the Dunne summer holiday is for a party of 12…

Family holiday survival guide

If you’re thinking of venturing on a family holiday as a fully fledged adult, go for it. But remember the following:

1 Be ready to compromise

You’re all adults now (and maybe have some little ones in tow). Opinions will differ, as you each bring different viewpoints and experiences to the mix. But rather than fall out over a preference to eat fish over pizza, try to go with the flow. If you anticipate any tension points, why not agree beforehand that each member of the family will get to pick one group activity each and plan out the holiday around that?

2 Take the easy option

While a secluded retreat is perfect for camera-shy models and celebrities, family holidays benefit from the ability to share in new experiences and to explore the local area. If it’s an all-adult group, consider staying within easy access of a town or village centre. That way, you can easily walk to and from dinner, without hassle, and get to sample a taste of life in the locality. The optimum mix? Having beach and town within easy access. That way, everyone wins (and gets to enjoy a G&T).

3 Start your planning early

Many plans have fallen apart based on conflicting calendars. Avoid disaster by planning your group family trip well in advance. Getting dates that suit everyone can be a nightmare, so early planning is essential. Likewise, if it’s a big group, finding accommodation that suits will be tricky. Consider appointing a family leader to pick the place – but make sure everyone is on board to offer their point of view.

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