Having a child, as all parents know, feels like God grabbing you by the ankles, turning you upside down and shaking all previous known norms from your life. A holiday is – theoretically – a great way to get back on your feet, reappraise and put a full stop to the madness.
My wife and I quickly realised, however, that booking a holiday with our 10-month-old son was going to be tricky, assuming all three of us wanted to take any joy from the trip. Her requirements were simple: nice weather, nice town, a beach, good food, proximity to civilisation. I complicated matters, requesting we combine it with a surf holiday, my argument being I’d be a better husband after being dipped in the ocean for a few days.
The issue with surfing destinations is they’re often inhospitable, exposed to weather systems, on a peninsula, and very far away from other people. Babies and non-surfers hate all those things.
My wife isn’t a surfer, but having watched me recklessly pursue it as a hobby for years, only for it to grind to a halt 10 months earlier, she granted my wish. It’s a sport – especially if you don’t live near the waves – that devours free time.
From most places on the east coast of Ireland it’s a three- or four-hour drive each way, and an average surf will last another three hours. Surf breaks are a capricious mistress too, only producing surfable waves at the right tide, with the right wind, swell size and swell direction. You either bend to their iron will, or you miss out.
What makes surfing unique, though, is that the worse you are at it, the less you get to do it. That’s because there are a limited number of waves but lots of people, so the waves go to the strongest and the most skilful: it’s Darwinism in its purest form.
Going on a surf holiday, then, is like sending Mother Nature a sneaky bribe and skipping her meritocratic queue. If you pick the right spot, at the right time of year and get the right advice from locals, you can be in warm, uncrowded waves, getting as much practice in one week as you did in the previous six months in Ireland.
The first issue we had for our holiday was finding a town that ticked a few of those boxes. I explained my noble ambition to an Irish surf holiday company and over a few emails and phone conversations they came up with a nice solution.
Lagos is a reasonably touristy town on the south coast of Portugal that gets very busy mid-summer but is really nice in spring and autumn when the crowds thin out. It stays in the mid- to low-20s until mid-November, picks up again in March and is close to a huge number of surf breaks on the west coast. Flights are cheap, quick and frequent and the transfer from Faro Airport is less than an hour. We wanted to avoid long drives, big cities and using our brains.
I flew over on my own for the first four days, on the advice of my wife, who intelligently realised I would be more of a burden if I was constantly checking forecasts and forlornly looking out to sea. I stayed in the Surf Experience surf house in the middle of town, a comfortable house with four-bed dorms and private rooms. I surfed twice or three times a day, letting them work out the drives, tides, swells and weather systems. When not surfing I was travelling to and from the beach, talking about surfing, browsing in surf shops, watching surf videos and meeting other surfers.
My wife’s theory for those first four days was a bit like a parent that catches their kid smoking, then gets them 20 packs and asks them to smoke them all, hoping the associated nausea will nip the habit in the bud . . . It doesn’t really transfer to surfing.
We got sunshine, waves and great food. The Surf Experience staff provided a three-course lunch on the beach every day, as well as advice on your surfing, if so desired. It was a bit like a ski holiday: at the start of the week you feel like you don’t belong; by the end of it you’re thinking about moving there.
For the second half of the holiday the three of us stayed in the Vila Gale Hotel on the edge of town. It suited us as it was right beside the beach with inviting-looking outdoor and indoor pools. It also has a fancy padded playground, big balconies and the final word in European classiness, bidets.
I could still have gone surfing, but we had such a relaxing time that it didn’t even crop up. It would have been a 30-minute drive and we were happy to leave the car alone and spend huge amounts of time napping, finding new restaurants and going for walks on the beach.
The biggest lesson we learnt was that eating and living outdoors makes kids happy – and makes them easier to mind. Sand dunes and waves (is there anything they can’t do) become the entertainment, so you can keep the restrictions on their freedom to a minimum.
The beach part of Lagos brought a whole new element to the trip too. It’s full of long-legged northern Europeans talking about smoothies and oatmeal. We strolled along it every day, discovering new cafes as we went and going for the odd swim.
A very structured holiday soon became a little more organic, which suited all three of us.
There are only so many things you can do while minding a 10-month-old abroad but if the three of us were to draw a holiday-wish Venn diagram, in the middle section would be lazy breakfasts, dips in the pool and strolls to the beach cafe, with surfing, shoulder massages and eating sand as our respective outliers.
Aer Lingus flies to Faro three times weekly from November to March and twice daily from April to October; €200 (plus €30 if you're bringing your own surf board). Car Hire from Hertz.ie at Faro Airport; €215 for one week
We booked through surfholidays.com (who also arrange surf lessons)
The Surf Experience surf house in Lagos offers half-board, four surf days and equipment for €324 (€428 per week); Junior sea view suite in Vila Gale Hotel from €99 B&B.
Lagos has stylish-looking beach cafes; the best of them is the Bahia Beach Bar (bahiabeachbar.eu)