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Operation chill out: David Whitley

Some people like nothing more than lazing on a beach for a week. Others find sitting still a real challenge. For me, doing nothing always seems to go wrong…

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My wife was adamant. “We’re going away for a week, and we’re going to relax. You know, like normal people.” Relax. The word terrifies me. I can generally spend about an hour lying on a beach before the creeping paranoia that I could be doing something more interesting kicks in. I’m possibly the only person in the world who comes out of spa treatments more tense than when I went in. Put me on a massage table and my brain starts racing. It’s not an opportunity to embrace calm — it’s a chance to whip myself up into a panic thinking about all the things that need doing.

Enforced relaxation is the evil twin brother of enforced fun. Tell me to sit down and meditate for two hours and I’ll go just as loopy as I do when coerced into an organised pub crawl, with whooping numpties insisting that downing shots of filth is in some way enjoyable. Embracing my inner peace gives me the cold sweats. Frankly, my inner peace is a spiky little character that doesn’t like being cuddled.

Consequently, my idea of a holiday has always been about doing things. I want to explore, see something new, or learn something that was scandalously omitted from the school curriculum. Or, on a mundane level, I want to go on a boat, see some animals or play every mini-golf course within a 30-mile radius. People who can happily lie on a sun lounger for a week are to be treated with deep suspicion — they must surely be plotting something dastardly.

Even when I try really hard to relax, something goes wrong. The three days I’d set aside in a Nicaraguan beach resort in the middle of a breakneck tour through Central America were memorable, largely because my Kindle broke and I couldn’t find an English language bookshop. The do-nothing day in Thailand was defined by my haring around pharmacies in search of medical supplies when my wife’s dodgy salad from the night before extracted its vengeful wrath.

This time, however, something was different. We were both frazzled after working flat out for six months. Suddenly, the idea of lying by a pool with a book had begun to take on the sort of appeal that a gallon of wine has after a day of solid arguing at the office.

This is how we ended up in Tenerife, with very little intention of doing anything other than sinking into squalid, sunburnt catatonia. Lie on sunbed, plough through all those Kindle books I’d never got round to reading, occasionally have something to eat or drink. And repeat.

My wife was sceptical. “You promise you won’t get sidetracked?” I promised. And I managed to keep it right up until I discovered there’s an observatory in Tenerife containing Europe’s largest solar telescope. I kinda wanted to see that, as any right-thinking friendless geek would do. The only day we could visit the observatory, however, was the day after arrival.
The compromise was reached. We would go to the observatory on the first day, then start the holiday in earnest and be world-class nothing-doers. The mountain drive from the coast, through the Teide National Park’s volcanic moonscape, takes around two hours. And not a minute of it is anything less than entrancing.

But after getting back in the afternoon, we were eager to kick on with Operation Chill Out. Swimming trunks, sunscreen and sandals on, prime position by the pool snaffled, pina colada ordered, I rifled in my bag for my Kindle. No joy. I ferreted around in my wife’s bag. Uh-oh.

It took a furious disembowelling of the hotel room to make me realise where the Kindle was. I picked up the phone, and whimpered at the man on the other end. “I’ll leave it at reception,” he said. It is at this point that I discovered the golden rule of relaxing holidays: don’t start them by making a four-hour round trip to a solar observatory in order to pick up reading material you absent-mindedly left there earlier.


Published in the September 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)