I can’t remember the last time I took a holiday where there wasn’t some kind of adventure on the agenda. Be that climbing up or snowboarding down mountains in winter or various sea swimming, cycling or surfing missions in summer. Don’t get me wrong, I like lying on a beach and reading a book a lot too, in fact I crave it, but only once I’ve got the adrenaline-chasing super-active part of the day out the way.
Six years ago, when I had the first of my two kids, that need for adventure didn’t go away, if anything it intensified. Having children is awesome but it kills your free time, and, especially when they’re very young, the fun-to-drudge ratio can be quite low. So when I did find myself on a remote bike ride or in a fizzing ocean or up a snowy mountain it lifted my spirits in the most amazing way. And at the risk of sounding like a cheesy motivational tea towel being a parent also made me realise life is short and precious and we need to make the most of it.
"Last year the eldest caught his first wave on a bodyboard and the joy on his face was palpable"
The boys are now almost four and six, which are brilliant ages for introducing more adventure to our family holidays. Last year the eldest caught his first wave on a bodyboard and the joy on his face was palpable. This summer he wants to try it again and his younger brother seems keen too. Until now on our holiday bike rides they’ve both been bouncing behind in a trailer or on tagalongs, but this year the eldest should be able to ride some of the longer distances himself.
They love playing in waves and splashing in lakes, making forts in dunes and dens in forests.
It’s never occurred to us to take them on a more sedate style of holiday. Partly because that doesn’t interest us as parents but largely as they are crazy energetic boys who need exercising like dogs within a couple of hours of waking up. I also think it’s important in these screen-centric times to try and rewild your kids a little in the holidays. We don’t have a big garden, there’s a lot of concrete in their lives, and while they don’t play computer games yet they watch more tv than I’d like. I want the opposite of that for them on holiday. I want them to have outdoorsy active holidays, and to foster a deep connection to nature.
"We don’t have a big garden, there’s a lot of concrete in their lives…I want the opposite of that for them on holiday…"
And it seems we’re not alone. Adventure travel is one of the biggest growth trends in the travel industry. According to ATTA (the Adventure Travel Trade Association) the adventure travel market grew at a rate of 65 per cent between 2009-2013 and the upwards curve is continuing, especially when it comes to family holidays. The tour operator Thomson now runs its own active, family-focused adventure company called Robinson, which has resorts in Portugal, Turkey, Spain, Italy and beyond.
Paul Snedker, co-founder of cycling holiday company Saddle Skedaddle, has first-hand experience of that growth. He says: “We’ve seen a 30 per cent increase in bookings for our family cycling holidays in 2016; it’s one of the fastest growing areas of our business. I think the appeal for more active/adventure holidays comes from families wanting more out of a standard summer break. They’re a great bonding experience too. The feedback we receive from our customers is that it’s a great way to spend time together as a family."
Ali McLean is the MD of Activities Abroad. I ask him if he thinks more families are looking for these kinds of holidays and if so why. He says: “To be able to swap screen time for family time is sought by an increasing number of clients booking our holidays. Parents want to get to know their children again, to see bonds between siblings strengthen and to create long-lasting memories. What better way than on a holiday packed with adventurous activities designed for all the family to enjoy together?"
“It’s interesting how kids often suddenly think their parents are pretty cool when they are sitting next to them in a whitewater raft. Adventurous holidays are no longer the preserve of the daring or the wealthy, these days dream fulfilment is possible for everyone."
My kids are thankfully too young to know how cool or more likely uncool their parents are, so I ask 10-year-old Isla, whose parents try to take her and her 8-year-old brother on at least one adventure-type holiday a year, what she likes about those trips. She says: “I think it's fun because you can't do it at home. I've done paddle boarding in the Lake District, zip lining in South Africa and whitewater rafting in Costa Rica."
What’s been her favourite trip? “Costa Rica because we did lots of adventurous and exciting activities. We also saw lots of interesting animals."
Do you like talking about a fun holiday with your family when you come home? “Yes because it reminds me of the fun and thrilling activities we’ve done. It helps me not to be sad about the end of the holiday."
The bonding argument of a family adventure holiday is clearly huge, especially for parents who work long hours for much of the year, which for right or wrong is often the dads. An alarming 2013 Parent-Play survey by Playmobil found that one in six fathers said they didn’t know how to play with their child, while a third of fathers in the study said they didn’t have time to play. Canyoning or even bodyboarding with your family can go some way to redressing that balance.
I want us to have fun as family, to play and bond and lay down some solid family memories for the future. They love holidays with us now but will they enjoy them when they’re older? The happiest teenagers I see on holiday are the ones skiing or snowboarding with their parents, perhaps as they have a mutual adventurous passion. Maybe if we nurture a shared love of adventure now we’ll have an option beyond the mountains too for those tricky teenage years.
I ask Dr Eric Brymer, an academic psychologist at Leeds Beckett University, who specialises in the psychological impact of participation in action sports, why he thinks more families are choosing adventurous holidays. He says:
“For some families it really is: ‘My parents did it and their parents did it, it’s the way of being the family that we are.’ Where as for others it might be: ‘We’d better keep in with the people next door or on social media because they’re going off and doing those things.’ As there is cultural capital [kudos] in that you’re a good parent now if you minimise screen time and provide opportunities for being in the natural world."
“For others it might be a relatively new thing, but they’re taking the research seriously and realising the benefits and the downsides of the current way of living. Of kids staring at screens, and the bubble-wrap syndrome, where parents are clearly more cautious about letting children wander around on their own to do the sort of things that 30-40 years ago would have been ok." Parents want their children to have a more rounded life experience through an adventurous holiday.
I ask him why adventure is so important for kids. “It’s essential for their wellbeing, and for their development to be effective adults. Take something like fear and anxiety, culturally we’re told to avoid those feelings, whether that’s deliberately or more subtly, we’re told we shouldn’t be feeling anxious we need to feel positive all the time. But [with adventure] all of a sudden you have an opportunity to feel the whole range of emotions but also achieve something as well."
“Anxiety is part of being human. Now the question is: ‘Oh I’m afraid of it, we’d better leave it alone,’ but it should be: ‘I’m afraid but I’m still going to do it.’ And then you come away thinking that was wonderful. The beauty of adventure is it is actually hard work but people get pleasure from that and that can be at a family level."
"The beauty of adventure is it is actually hard work but people get pleasure from that and that can be at a family level…"
Dr. Brymer also believes there’s a mindfulness benefit to such holidays. He says: “There is also something about doing adventures in the natural world that facilitates mindfulness, or very-present-moment awareness. You can’t be thinking about whatever it is when you’re about to do a rapid on a whitewater raft. A lot of mindfulness is about a very proactive kind of activity, such as ‘Oh let’s focus on your breathing…’ but adventure stuff in the natural world does it for you and before you realise it you’re right there in the moment."
He also tells me adventure sports don’t have the same rules and regulations that traditional sports such as cricket and football have, which makes it a lot easier for kids to be creative and cooperative without worrying about competition or losing at something.
Dr. Brymer also reminds me that parents still need be informed about the kind of adventures they are taking on to make sure they’re at the right level for their kids. He says: “You certainly don’t want them to be scared too much." They should also remember how “powerful nature and the environment can be." And parents should use their judgement in terms of the reputability of the organisations they go with, perhaps choosing an established brand such as Robinson. Involving the kids in the decision-making, especially as they get older, can make the process itself more adventurous too.
Studies show you generate more memories on holiday than in your normal life especially if those experiences are positive or dramatic. I was lucky in that my parents did take me on some adventurous holidays, even though the provision wasn’t what it is today. I certainly don’t think cycle hire was as omnipresent or with such good bikes as you get these days.
I remember a fishing boat trip to an island and us all turning green as we journeyed back in a storm, and a morning trying to windsurf on a windless lake with a sail that felt as heavy as a jetski. And I remember getting stung by a stingray while trying to surf on a beach with no waves. I’m sure none of these were amazing at the time but they’re happy and vivid memories now.
My favourite recollection is of when my dad took a turn at a rope swing over a river in the Lake District. He took a giant run up and powered down the slope only for the stick holding him to snap causing him to splat dramatically into the river. All the kids on the bank including me howled with laughter and so did he. Only later did I see the bloody mess the rocks on the riverbed had made of his back. He still laughs about that moment and asks if I remember it even though I always respond with ‘Of course!’
Parents just want their kids to have good times and happy memories, it’s all they’ve ever wanted, and now that I have children of my own I fully appreciate the sentiment.