Chaos and calmness on Cephalonia

October 29, 2009

Two-and-a-half years old and she wants to divorce her parents. “I don’t like my Daddy!’ she screams, face puce and feet planted on an uneven stone step overlooking the pastel-washed houses of Fiskardo. “I don’t need my Mummy!” The words feel like gunshots, but our provisional parenting licence (we’re novices) tells us we can’t crumple: show you’re wounded and they’ll think you surrender. In pink plimsolls, pink t-shirt and little white shorts, her big blue-grey eyes and golden curls peeping out from under a floppy blue hat that’s tied in a bow under her chin, she’s a pint-sized-cherub-turned-Exorcist-girl (minus the rotating head and green bile – so far).

Our 50-week-awaited, two-week-long Cephalonian summer holiday had promised to be worth every penny of our savings (just over £3,000): a stunning stone house in an olive grove with an entire valley and a small beach practically to itself; a private pool overlooking Ithaca; our own chickens and their daily eggs; a houseman on hand to clean (and who, on one occasion, held the back end of our hire car up with his bare hands, preventing it from toppling over a precipice while I took my time remembering how to find first); a hillside hamlet just up the road with a couple of really Greek tavernas and where we could find all sorts of inflatables and plastic beach bumph to keep the little lady happy.

But no. “I want to go back to London. I don’t like my holiday”. Admittedly she was getting over a bad throat infection, but we thought if we kept her plied with Calpol and ice cream, she’d see the benefits of being away. According to our miniature travel expert however, the beaches were too “stinty” (pebbly), despite the anti-stint shoes we went to great pains to find for her to toddle about in, in what were actually the most striking, practically deserted bays with cerulean, see-through water we’d ever seen.

The stunning pool at Hotel Emelisse on Cephalonia

All she wanted was to watch Winnie the Pooh, Chicken Run and Madagascar (in that order, over and over again) on the big telly in the sitting-room, and to make patterns with the pieces of the Connect 4 game we found in the cupboard. Seething with frustration, desperate to get our tans on the go, my husband and I sat with her, in silence gazing out of the windows at the green and blue, dazzlingly beautiful outside world, occasionally catching each other’s eye and trying to smile to belie the fact that our souls were under destruction.

By day five I was ready to go home. I even contemplated calling the Greek Islands Club (GIC) rep to find out about flights. I’d liked this lady, Anna, the minute I met her, which was on our first day: she arrived just as our delightful daughter finished having a poo on the terrace. I was mortified. She had (honestly) never done this before – I was having a (short-lived) attempt at potty training and just wasn’t being observant enough. As I ineptly scrubbed at the immaculately swept stone with washing-up liquid and kitchen roll, apologising profusely and assuring her that we were actually very clean, tidy people and would take excellent care of their property, Anna laughed and reassured me with stories of her own children’s embarrassing loo (or lack of) moments.

Anyway, I resisted the urge to call her, thinking that such capitulation on my part may well push my dear husband, so desperate to give his little family a fun holiday, over an edge that he was perilously teetering on. And amazingly, my resistance paid off. On day six, I nervously went into our daughter’s room to wake her up – preparing myself for the abrupt “Go way! I want stay in bed” we’d been greeted with every other morning – and she was sitting in her white sheets, grinning.

And from that moment on, either because she’d finally shrugged off the tail end of her illness, or because a pitying Greek fairy godmother had visited her in the night to perform a personality transplant, we had a relaxed, happy eight days of holiday. She started playing with other children on the beach, swimming in the sea, and even stopped worrying about the stints. We enjoyed early-evening dinners around Fiskardo’s buzzing harbour, and she ate her bodyweight in calamari, Greek salads, meatballs and spaghetti every night. She started sleeping like a log (or a twig, anyway) at night, napping on the beach wrapped in towels under an umbrella after lunch, and, most importantly, hugging us again.

An added bonus to our new-found holiday happiness was the discovery of the Emelisse Hotel, another GIC property recommended by a couple we met who also had small kids. A boutiquey design property, all serenity and contemporary style, we were utterly surprised it described itself as a ‘family hotel’. But despite the minimalism and mostly coupled clientele, it turned out to be the most child-friendly place (bar Center Parcs) I’d ever been to. The two enormous infinity pools, one cascading into the other, overlooked a breathtaking and expansive view over the calm sea and ‘Ifferker’ (as it became known) – the island whose majestic, mountainous dominance is inescapable in the area. One of the pools came up only as far as her chest, which meant hours of water-winged wading with bucket and spade; and the other had perfect steps for sitting on and colouring in with a watering can.

We stretched out on smart sun-beds, iPods on, ordering Diet Cokes, pretending to amazed onlookers that our daughter was always this easy with non-committal nonchalance. We lunched by the pool on tasty club sandwiches, smoked salmon-filled ciabatta, chips and fresh melon, while our angel, strapped into the latest funky high-chair provided by the hotel, smiled and said ‘efaristo’ to the accommodating waiters, desperate for one of her charming smiles.

Five days were spent in this delicious luxury, and although the pleasure cost us around 45 euros a time, we were just astonished, and incredibly thankful, that such an exceptionally cool hotel allowed children, and day-guests, in at all.

A picture perfect olive grove on Cephalonia

So in the end we had the best of both worlds, times two: the privacy of our own property and the facilities of a hotel; and the (eventual) joy of a family-friendly holiday without having to venture into happy-clappy Mark Warner-esque territory.

As we drove back to Argostoli airport, 90 minutes’ worth of winding and zig-zagging through the mountains, our little friend, after so many days of adorability, without warning took on her Regan-inspired traits again: shouting and kicking in her car-seat, and twisting her head violently (still not rotating though). We stared forward, ignoring her wails, determined we wouldn’t have this again. Then silence, and a repulsive smell. I looked around and she looked at me desperately, dolefully, covered chest to knees in white puke. The guilt! The shame of thinking so little of our girl, when all she was doing was being car-sick.

Thankfully, this came just at the popular viewpoint where you can pull in and marvel at Myrtos Beach (featured in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). As we stripped her down in front of a coach-load of religious Greek tourists and their accompanying Orthodox priests, I gave thanks to God that we had her back for good. Mischa Mack stayed at Olive Grove, featured in GIC’s portfolio of properties. Mischa Mack.