Everyone loves a lazy beach holiday – but is it possible to eat well on a budget break? Sort of…
It’s probably bad form to start a blog with an apology, but I feel like I should. What follows is a litany of first-world-problem whinges from someone who’s lucky enough to be able to afford a week in the sun (albeit a budget one). Sorry about that. I promise there’ll be a few giggles in there though. Privilege suitably checked – onwards!
All. Inclusive. Two words that, unless you’re dead inside, ignite feelings of anticipation and excitement rivalled only by ‘buffet leftovers’, ‘free samples’ and ‘complimentary prosecco’. When @scruffyDuke and I decided to book our first sun holiday in five years (there are Olympics more often than that for Christ’s sake), going all-inclusive was a no-brainer; you essentially get to trick yourself that everything you eat and drink for a week is free, lending it an extra little frisson of joy.
Of course, when you’ve not done something for five years, you tend to forget about the drawbacks. While I did have a bloody wonderful time in glorious, unseasonably hot Northern Tenerife, I wouldn’t be a fully paid up Brit abroad if I didn’t have a few gripes. That’s why I’ve decided to write a brief guide to surviving and thriving in the surprisingly perilous environment of the low cost all-inclusive holiday.
Before all that though, I would like to acknowledge the grand British tradition of The Airport Beer. There are really only two occasions when it’s acceptable to drink before 11:30am; camping, where it’s a survival necessity, and post-security at the airport. Having a pre-lunch beer at the latter is not just nice, it’s your patriotic duty.
I was pleased to see that you can get a pint of Tiny Rebel Cali on tap at Cardiff Airport, but bear in mind it will set you back around the price of a small family hatchback. Nonetheless, here’s to airport beers – we salute you.
Right, back to the point…
Your first breakfast will be hell
Something very special happens when you put 200 people of varying nationalities together around a breakfast buffet; every single one of them sheds any vestige of common sense, politeness and spacial awareness. Just navigating back to your table with a coffee is a herculean task akin to being a nubile teen and somehow surviving the entire Final Destination series.
You’ll have to dodge Spanish grannies chatting away obliviously as they amble across the dining room equivalent of the M25 without a glance, swerve officious middle-aged Germans who refuse to be swayed from their as-the-crow-flies route to the juice machine, and worst of all, avoid conversation with insufferably dull Sun-reading Brits from your flight. It’s a jungle in there.
Then there’s The Fear. Inserted into the above situation and given a plethora of options designed to cater to the taste of every conceivable European nationality (pickles for the Germans, pastries for the Scandis, Coco Pops for the Brits), it’s virtually impossible to assemble a coherent breakfast. At one point I saw someone eating fried egg and salad for breakfast. I thought it was slightly odd, but not completely insane – until I saw a cupcake nestled amongst the lettuce. But as bizarre as that is, I can’t really blame him – the sheer pressure of the situation makes it almost impossible to make a sensible decision.
To compound the problem, the hotel will also insist on locating everything in the least intuitive place possible. Want some milk for your tea? Well, it’s next to the salad, innit? Obvious.
By day three you’ll have just about got your head around it, and be navigating the breakfast bar with aplomb. You will also have decided to go out for breakfast by then because you’re bored of having the same thing every day.
2. Go easy on the beer
Psychologically, all-inclusive means ‘Free Booze for a Week’. Yes you’ve paid for it, but it doesn’t feel like it, so naturally you’ll spend the first few days emulating Oliver Reed trying to outdrink Dylan Thomas on a stag-do. It will not go well.
Not because you’ll get particularly pissed – a half pint of all-inclusive beer generally packs as much punch as a carton of Um Bongo – but because it will inflate you like a boozy Violet Beauregarde. Cheap Spanish beer somehow seems to contain more gas than liquid, which probably violates at least two laws of thermodynamics. It does taste nice in the sun though.
The answer, my friends, is simple. Cocktails. Now this is all inclusive, so they’ll be even more anaemic than the beer. However, nothing else quite gives you that mellow late-morning poolside buzz like the poor approximation of a Pina Colada from a cocktail machine. Just be sure to have a diabetes check once you get home. And you can always just pop down the road to that nice cocktail place of an evening and have something a bit more manly if that’s your bag.
3. Don’t expect a proper meal
I feel this was covered a little earlier, but with breakfast there’s always the backup plan of toast and nutella (it’s holidays after all, treat yourself). There will be no such luxury for lunch or dinner. With the exception of one or two ‘theme’ nights during the week (Mexican was actually pretty decent), the buffet will always lack one key item to tie together an actual dish.
In a display of cruel irony unheard of since Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill album (an absolute 90s banger, by the way), there’ll be noodles, but no sauce; sausages, but no mash; curry, but no rice. It’ll make 10,000 spoons when all you need is a knife seem like a minor inconvenience.
You’re going to need to expand your boundaries of what constitutes a proper meal. Exhibit A above is one of my midweek lunches. It consisted of:
- Grilled chicken thigh
- Garlic mayonnaise
- Fried vegetables
- Cold roasted peppers and mushrooms
- Potato salad
- A pickled chilli
In no universe is this an actual meal – more a loose assembly of concepts. Or the contents of a composting bin.
4. For the love of god, escape the hotel
I know it seems counter-intuitive when you’ve splashed a bit of extra cash for all-inclusive, but you really do have to get out of the hotel for at least a couple of nights; if the food doesn’t do you in then the ‘Entertainment’ – a mix of Vic Reeves-esque club singers and the odd soul crushingly slow trilingual round of bingo – will.
We were lucky enough to nab a table at the swishy El Taller Seve Diaz on the Thursday night after emailing ahead. And. It. Was. Incredible.
Food that would have been excellent anyway – a beautiful ox cheek dish with pumpkin and hazlenuts that was beefier than a herd of freeze dried cows; some slightly daunting-looking but bloody delicious lightly-caramelised octopus with sweet potato – was elevated to the status of manna from heaven after three nights of all-inclusive weirdness.
And it wasn’t just worth going out for posh stuff – we went for an alarmingly cheap, face-meltingly spicy curry at a place called Jai Mata Di, where the service was so lovely you wanted to give the staff a cuddle on the way out. Their speciality was a take on Chicken 65 with oodles of black pepper and chilli that blew away the cobwebs even more comprehensively than the crosswinds around Mount Teide.
The other benefit of eating outside of the hotel is that rather than watching middle-aged couples with failing marriages ignore each other for the duration of their meals, you might actually get a bit of a view. A cheap and cheerful pizza place called Pomodoro not only knocked out a serviceable pizza and a cracking caprese salad – it was also cut into the side of a goddamn cliff overlooking the Med. I’ve had worse lunches.
5. Stop moaning and bloody well enjoy yourself
The top tip of course, is to get the fuck over yourself and just enjoy your seven days in the sun. Yes, all-inclusive grub is a bit ropey, the hotel could use a lick of paint and you might get legionnaires if you drink the tap water, but at the end of the day you’re on holidays. Relax.
And don’t forget the real joy of all-inclusive for those of us of a boozy persuasion – even if you don’t eat at the hotel every day, you’re still getting ace value for money provided you get pissed every night*. Salud!
* Please holiday responsibly
Is all-inclusive your idea of holiday heaven or a vacuous vacation? Let me know in the comments below or over on Twitter at @fuudblog.