Wish we weren’t here: Holiday disasters and mishaps

Photograph: Chris Clor/Tetra/Getty
As travel slowly returns, Irish Times writers and readers recall trips that went horribly – and comically – wrong. As told to Conor Pope

In the early 1980s, for reasons I’ve never understood, my parents decided it would be a fine idea to drive 700km from our home in Cork to our uncle’s house in Nottingham for our first family holiday overseas.

Five Popes were wedged into a Ford Escort with our belongings wedged around us and we set off on a five-hour journey to Dublin and then a five-hour sea crossing to Holyhead and then a five-hour road journey to our final destination. There was no air conditioning or car radio and the windows weren’t allowed to be opened so we amused ourselves by counting the cigarettes our chain-smoking parents lit up along the way.

By the time we arrived at our home away from home the mood was less than jolly and we smelled like ashtrays.

My uncle and his family lived in a Corrie-style two-up, two-down, so all the Popes slept in one bedroom while our hosts – who had surely extended the invite as an empty gesture – slept in the other room.

It lashed for the two weeks. We went to see Sherwood Forest in the rain. My dad took us to a cricket match but rain stopped play before it started. We drove three hours to Cambridge, where a man under an umbrella shouted at me for walking on wet grass. I bought a pen and we drove back to Nottingham.

The high points were a visit to Boots and to Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, where my brother and I got to hold the actual European Cup – there’s no photographic evidence, obviously, because pictures were too precious to waste on children standing beside big cups. We ate semi-defrosted fish fingers and limp oven chips every night and occasionally had a Rich Tea biscuit and poor English tea. Then we went home. It was our first family holiday overseas and the last family holiday the Popes ever went on. – Conor Pope

I BOOKED AN OVERNIGHT STAY in a place in France which I found listed in the Logis de France. It was in a spa town where people go “to take the waters”. On arrival we noticed the conservatory had lots of partially-consumed bottles of wines with names on them.

On being shown to our room we realised there was a serving hatch on every floor. Together with a lot of Zimmer frames. The final clue was the menu in the room which had a selection “for a soft palate”. I had booked us a night in a nursing home.

I tried to cancel our dinner booking fearing some version of bland eggs. However, madame and monsieur (clearly not wanting to miss out on revenue) rose to the challenge and presented us with delicious steaks. Our 10 year old and his football was the talk of the place and in the end it turned into our little piece of family history: “the time Mammy booked us into a nursing home”. – Tricia Logan

IT WAS ON a small island on the Andaman Sea that my travel companion renamed Thailand from ‘Land of the thousand smiles’ to ‘Land of a thousand Immodiums.’

We booked into an upmarket eco resort with a lagoon pool that flowed among the air conditioned luxury huts with private outdoor spas. The beach was a short walk through limestone caves and the path was shared with families of monkeys. I loved it and my mate would have too, except he was glued to the toilet seat.

One day, he bolted past me where I was sitting beside the pool, jumped in and laid at the bottom for a while. He surfaced with the thousand yard stare of someone with trauma. He explained that he had blocked the toilet with a “terrifying but impressive poo”. Using quick thinking initiative he ran outside and snapped a thin branch off a tree in order to break the obstinate turd up and send it to its watery grave. Truly the Bear Grylls of plumbing.

Except it didn’t work, it just pulverised the solids into liquids and turned the loo into a big fecal smoothie. Then a lovely woman from housekeeping knocked on the door. He tried in vain to keep her out but she was insistent she could fix whatever problem he had. “So I ran out before I could hear her scream and now we have to leave the country,” he finished resolutely. – Brianna Parkins

A FEW YEARS AGO my daughter Joan and I travelled back to Canada for the first time without my husband. I was a bit nervous travelling solo with a child, so practiced by having an extended road trip in Ireland and a quick jaunt to London.

Then came the main event, a 7½-hour journey to Canada, through two airports and across the ocean. I really shouldn’t have worried worry so much. Joan is a fantastic little travel buddy and we aced it.

Fast forward a few blissful weeks with family in the Canadian wilderness to our return trip to Ireland. I was cocky.

As soon as we hugged my sister goodbye, Joan and I made a dash to a nice-looking restaurant. We had a few hours to kill, so I ordered a large glass of red and we had dinner. After dinner, with a slight wine buzz going on, we took a stroll though duty-free, where I saw on the screens that our flight had been cancelled.

We had to go all the way back though the airport, and back through Canadian customs. There, I had to argue our case as my daughter’s paperwork had expired as we hadn’t planned on re-entering the country. This process took hours.

Before we left the airport just after midnight we were told to be back at 6am.

Back at the hotel an exhausted seven-year-old finally went to to sleep. It took me a lot longer; I managed two hours before we had to head back to the airport for part two of our exit.

When we got there, we were told the flight was now delayed by a further five hours. So I tweeted that I was stuck in Pearson airport and asked if anyone could recommend anything to do. A few minutes later a woman came up and said “Hi Alison, I’m Alison!” Turns out she was a fellow Canadian living in Ireland, a listener to my show and the best craic. The disaster turned into a fun day where Joan and I glued ourselves to Alison, her husband and son while we waited another 11 hours until our flight finally took off. The kids instantly bonded as did the adults. We ate together, drank together and eventually boarded the plane together. – Alison Curtis, Today FM

WHEN I WAS in my mid-20s my now wife got a Club Med holiday for free through work. She was being paid to write about it and they said she could bring me. I was at this time a very broke musician who had spent the last of my money on a tailor-made, glowing white suit that I was sure would be the making of my faltering music career. I was measured for it the day before we left.

The holiday was in a part of Greece or possibly Turkey or maybe France that I can’t remember beside a sea I cannot recall. All I know is, after a year of having money for nothing except very frugal foodstuffs and, of course, a tailor-made white suit, Club Med had an all-you-could eat buffet and endless refills of red wine.

To my now wife’s surprise/horror, I spent all my time at that buffet, breaking from my spirited Enid Blytonesque gorging only when they had to prepare the next servings, at which point I would go cook for a while by the sea. I imagine it was at moments like these that my wife fell in love with me.

I’m not going to lie to you, I had a brilliant time. The only reason this is a holiday from hell is that when I returned to Dublin to collect the white suit I had been measured for 10 days earlier, it no longer fitted me and I had to get the tailor to have it taken out. Yes, I had left Ireland a pallid skeletal figure and had returned a spherical peeling red beachball. In conclusion, I regret nothing. This isn’t really about a holiday from hell at all, is it? – Patrick Freyne

BEING MARRIED TO a Dutchman has some advantages; the tallest people on earth are useful when you need to reach something on a high shelf. On the downside it means summers are always spent in the Netherlands. This in itself is not a bad thing; it’s a beautiful country and has lots to offer. You do have to be lucky with the weather though.

So one year we thought we needed a change. We booked a safari tent in the south of France and packed up the car with the kids and blow-up lilos and hit the road.

The campsite was lovely, set in woodlands with a river running through it. We’re big canoeing fans and when we spotted it on the way in we said: “That’ll be great when the rain stops.” There was a super outdoor pool and adventure playground. “The kids will love that when the rain stops, maybe they’ll make friends.”

The tent was fabulous. Spacious and airy and close to the spotless and well-serviced facilities. A joy. When the rain stopped it was going to be a marvellous place.

The rain didn’t stop. We are meteorologists. There’s no excuse. We should have known better. We were under an area of low pressure that wasn’t going anywhere, with more and more rain feeding through an endless flow. We were struggling to maintain our optimism. We were looking at the weather charts, and the weather back where we had just left (Zeeland, in southwest of the Netherlands) was fabulous. Sunshine and light winds. We were morose.

There was going to be no canoeing on the river, no adventuring or making friends in the playground, no swimming in the outdoor pool. Forget it. We’re going home. Joanna Donnelly, meteorologist

I HAD JUST SEPARATED from my husband and fancied a quiet Christmas, so booked a holiday in Tenerife. I found a lovely “adults only” resort in the north of the island. But when I got there, the place was overrun with children, screaming babies and lots of happy, loved-up families.

When I enquired why it had been advertised as “adults only”, I was told it was only advertised like that in Ireland. Apparently, it was a “family-friendly resort” in Germany, which meant I spent my Christmas by the pool in a whirlwind of family activity and the whole place shut on Christmas Day – another detail the hotel failed to mention - so I had a slice of pizza for my dinner. Never again! – Siobhán Maguire

SOME YEARS AGO, after finishing an assignment in the west of Ireland, I decided to stay on in the area for the night. I checked into a lovely old country house hotel full of antiques and opened wide the sash window in my room to let the air in. It was a blue summer’s evening.

I went downstairs for dinner, and by the time I came back to the room, it was an indigo twilight. I closed the window, and read for a while before going to sleep; leaving the bedside lamp on, as is my habit.

About 3am, I was slowly awakened. Half-asleep, and with my eyes still closed, I gradually became aware of some odd sensation over my face; some disturbance of the air. I opened my eyes to see a bat flapping its wings mere inches above my face. I was being fanned by a flying rodent.

Roughly two seconds later, I had leapt out of bed, suppressing the screams that if uttered would definitely have roused the other residents. I held open the door to the corridor, and then waited. I know I should have opened the window, but frankly, I figured the door was a bigger escape route.

As it happened, the small hotel was full for the night: I was already planning on fleeing downstairs and sleeping on the sofa of the lounge where I had so recently had a carefree pre-dinner drink.

The bat finally flew out of the room, and into the darkened corridors with their long heavy curtains. I prowled around the room, shaking my own curtains, and looking everywhere in case there was another one. I did not sleep well for the rest of that night. I have never returned to that hotel. – Rosita Boland

I WAS 20, young, free and freckly and coming to the end of a two-month trip around Thailand. Myself my friends were on Koh Phi Phi and I was out sunbathing with my significantly more tanned friends, lathering on sun cream, sweating it off, swimming, more sun cream, sweat, and so on. By 2pm I figured some shade would be a good idea. I walked under a palm tree and looked down to see I was already red, not a good sign.

The next morning my whole face had swollen and I was covered in blisters. I woke a friend to come with me to the closest “hospital”. I had first-degree burns on my face. I spoke to the receptionist cum medic, who put red solution all over my face, big white bandages and sent me on my way with a course of antibiotics. I spent the next five days walking around with a full face of bandages in 35-degree heat. – Katie Harrington

TRAVEL CALAMITIES, there’ve been a few: The middle-of-the-night scratching sounds I ignored in Laos until daylight showed a rat had chewed through a rucksack to snack on some laundry; waking on an overnight bus through the Himalayan foothills to find it had swerved off the road and the back wheels were hanging over a ravine; convincing myself that Thai fisherman pants were a solid fashion statement and multiple pairs should be brought back to Ireland. . .

But the one that still makes me laugh is the hotel that wasn’t there.

An invitation to the southern Turkish coast sounded irresistible; a new five-star boutique resort of individual suites leading down to the glistening Mediterranean. Come for a week, bring a friend, they said.

A new boyfriend was invited, and two flights and a three-hour drive later we arrived at 2am to a building site on the side of the road. The taxi driver unceremoniously dumped our bags on the ground and hightailed it. No lights were on, no reception desk to be found, one phone was dead, the other couldn’t get signal. Eventually we located a waiter sleeping in a cafe down by the sea. He blearily showed us to a room.

A heatwave was blowing over from the Sahara, it was still in the high 30s at night. The electricity went. We sat in the dark, sweating. Then we discovered the bathroom that ran the length of the room had no walls or door, just a lattice-effect screen – just what a new relationship needed!

Morning came and we saw that the resort was far from finished. The electricity would be fixed in a few days (“holy day, no workmen”). There didn’t appear to be any other guests, though some arrived in the coming days and swiftly left. The manager quit, the restaurant sometimes had food, sometimes didn’t. We realised the private pool’s filter was just a plastic box after I projectile vomited across a room on day three.

It made Fawlty Towers look like the Ritz. The worse things got, the funnier it seemed. It was an unmitigated disaster, and one of my most memorable holidays. – Rachel Collins

IT WAS THE LATE 1970s and time for our annual trip to Blackwater in Wexford. Coming from Shankill in Dublin today, this would be a quick spin but back then you had to go through every town and village on the way so it warranted a stop for tea and sandwiches. The old blue suitcase was loaded up on to the roof rack despite the rain that hammered down for the entire trip.

We arrived at the holiday house a few hours after setting off, while the rain was still chucking it down. The old blue suitcase (at that point more like wet cardboard) was taken off the roof rack. As my mother unpacked, we heard a loud roar. The dye from the suitcase had run in to every piece of clothing the family had brought. So for two weeks, everything we wore was a shade of blue. At the local pub, on the beach or at the tennis court, we looked like some weird family experiment. – Neil McKeever

WHERE TO START? In a Norfolk holiday village Mum got us collectively cursed to seven years’ bad luck when she refused to buy lace from a woman who’d already had a lucrative visit the day before.

There were the tiger mosquitoes infesting the islands off Sicily, bringing us up in horrendous welts that outlasted the holiday. Or the very cheap all-inclusive holiday in Malta where our basement room had a prison-style window, high up and barred, and the only drink they didn’t water down was crème de menthe.

Possibly the worst was in Kenya. Dad was working there – our family holidays tended to be tacked on to his work. I was 14 and in a Difficult Phase, insisting on salad in Nairobi. Driving to Mombasa through the game reserves, I got sicker and sicker, but Mum and Dad were a little jaded by the Difficult Phase.

I probably wasn’t that sick actually, but convinced I was going to die I asked if they’d fly my body home. Tough love was applied. “Stop ruining our holiday. We’ll miss you very much, but it would be an awful lot of hassle to get you home, and after all you’d be dead so you wouldn’t mind.” Please do note, my parents are very loving and lovely. Just at the end of their tether.

I thought at least I should die with a clear conscience and decided to confess my sins. But the only thing I could think of was putting soap on my brother’s toothbrush many years previously – up till then long since forgotten. Everyone was horrified at my awfulness. It’s amazing, looking back, how the horrendous holiday happenings are now often the most beloved funny stories, treasures of family lore. – Gemma Tipton