Rhyl Thrills: Childhood Trips to the Beach That Still Inspire Me to Vacation

MMy memories of the first time you saw the sea, deep inside. Once a year, during the endless hot summer in Birmingham, we went on a day trip. It had to be planned with military precision, as it was a kind of holiday for my parents, who worked in a cotton mill and took very few days off. The minibus will be ordered. Cousins, aunts and uncles got together to discuss logistics and, most importantly, meal schedules. No one went anywhere without paratha, pakora, samosa and desi tea.

When I saw ads on TV for golden-haired kids riding the waves looking incredibly happy on white sandy beaches, I pestered my parents to go to the coast one of these annual days. I usually lost this battle and we all headed to the theme park. I hated rides; still do. But at the age of eight, using all my powers of persuasion, I finally convinced them. So, one early August morning, we went – all 23 people – to Rhyl.

Naziia is eight years old with one of her cousins.
Nazia (left) at the age of eight with her cousin

This was around 1990, and completely oblivious to Rhyl’s not-so-healthy reputation at the time, I happily went on the trip. My face was pressed against the window of the van, the neon lights of tasteless passages and sickly pink cotton candy captivated me. From what I remember, perhaps with a dash of storytelling license, this windy north coast of Wales was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, although the sea was actually a muddy, brown color.

We spent the day walking the streets on the wind, our traditional Pakistani clothes fluttering around us, and we quickly became familiar with the crunch of sand in our food. The experience was complemented by curious looks from locals and other day travelers. I climbed back into our van with salty hair and glowing red cheeks. This simple day sparked my romance with the sea.

This must have been a moderate success for the rest of my family as well, as we ended up doing many more of these annual coastal pilgrimages, which always followed the same formula: we took our own food and shared transportation, and my mother decidedly took us away from the cluster of shops selling “plastic tattoos”.

At the time, I’d give anything for a donut-shaped inflatable boat, or one of those easy-to-break fishing nets, or even the occasional rubber duck that would never be used again. But these days, with two small children, I seem to be destined to repeat the same catchphrases and thrifty routines as my thrifty mother and find ever more imaginative ways to say no.

Sunset in Rila.
Sunset in Rila, where our author first visited the seashore as a child. Photo: Ruyan Ayten/Alami

Since I was a child, having left Birmingham, I have spent my holidays relaxing on beaches all over the UK and Europe, always following a familiar pattern. We book a house (self-catering) or camp within walking distance of the beach, spend most of our time playing endless games of cricket, building sand dams, and trying to inspire our little ones in the sea (she says the salt stings!), with sandwich picnics wrapped in foil.

It may not seem like a “real holiday” to some, but we eat out several times in two weeks, usually for lunch, which is cheaper. In the evening we usually cook; in France, the supermarkets are excellent, and in Italy, I can spend hours wandering through the open-air food markets, choosing ingredients.

To some, our holidays may seem like an exercise in endurance, but this is far from being the case, and through trial and error, I found that the easier they are, the happier we seem. We’ve tried hotel breaks, packages (both all inclusive and half board) and stayed at resorts that had plenty of kid-friendly activities, but we always come back to our easy self catering beach getaway.

The Nazia family enjoyed the beaches on the Elbe.
Writer’s family Sansone beach, Elba.

Last year we went to the chic French island of Ile de Ré. We camped for two weeks in a healthy Camping Les Baleines, within earshot of the coast, with the rhythmic muffled rumble of the surf as a constant background. Our children were free to bike until sunset while we cooked at the communal BBQ. All day long they combed the beaches, swam, hunted for crabs, watched birds and rode, stopping at beautiful village squares for spicy sherbets and at oyster shacks dotted along the coast. It was stripped down and fine.

We had a similar experience a few years earlier when we spent a summer in the Balkans, where attractive low prices but all the sun and charm of more popular European beach destinations. We stayed in a hilltop villa in the village of Lucici in Montenegro, not far from the coastal town of Herceg Novi, right in front of the Bay of Kotor. The area was relatively unknown at the time, so our accommodation with a shared infinity pool was incredibly reasonable.

My mornings did often start at less than a relaxing 5am – my unborn daughter pushed and kicked me – but that meant I woke up in time for glorious sunrises over the Adriatic Sea. At the harbor, we had delicious seafood at a good price and the opportunity to take a daily boat trip to the magnificent pebble beaches of the Lustica peninsula, where we even allowed ourselves the “luxury” of renting a sun lounger (for just a few euros for the whole day). There were hikes up Mount Orjen, where we saw geckos, moths, insects and butterflies, and one hike was accompanied by a spectacular thunderstorm, which our eldest son still talks about.

Italy is another favorite and we traveled all over the place looking for the perfect beach. Four years ago we landed on the island of Elba off the coast of Tuscany, where Napoleon had the good fortune to be exiled. Little known to the British – perhaps that’s why it didn’t go bankrupt – this is an island of true escapism, with a weekly food market full of fresh produce from local farmers and beaches to suit all tastes. We set up camp again, this time in Camping Rosselba-le-Palmebut most of our time was spent on Samson Beach and descending into rocky bays, beckoning clear sea. There was more food than usual on this trip, as it was hard to resist stuffed mussels in a brilliant tomato sauce and di squid pasta, washed down with decanters of fresh vermentino.

Beach in the Gulf of Scalieri, Elba.
The beaches of Elba – pictured by Scalieri – turned out to be attractive to the Nazia family. Photo: robertharding/Alamy

There were also trips to countries that could not be considered regular beach destinations. The Netherlands, for example, is a good choice for families who are limited to summer holidays during the peak season. Renting a car can be cheap compared to other countries in Europe, and traveling to the country can also be relatively cheap and sustainable. ferries from Harwich, Hull and Newcastle. There is also Eurostar which takes about four hours from London to Amsterdam.

The reward is a stunning coastline and serene countryside that is easy to explore by bike. well marked onlineso it’s almost impossible to get lost. Our favorite destination was the Wadden Islands, a few miles off the coast, with nature reserves teeming with wildlife and bike paths winding along wide expanses of white sand beaches. There are inexpensive camping and self-catering options throughout the country (see below). Landal Resorts), and we did both. Our few vacations have always been laid-back, with family-friendly amenities.

A child on the Lustica peninsula in Montenegro.
The writer’s son on the Lustica peninsula in Montenegro. Photo: Nazia Parvin

Without realizing it, that early experience of traveling to the UK resorts where you can quickly kiss me led to the realization that you need to get rid of unnecessary things. Given the cost-of-living crisis, it’s more important than ever for many families that this year’s vacation is a wallet-friendly one. I would suggest keeping costs down by camping or booking self catering away from hotspots. Once at your destination, pack your picnic, head straight to the beach, find a nice spot, and go to sleep during the day.

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