Before I birthed my boys, a holiday conjured up images of sitting on a sunbaked square, shaded by arching plane trees, their branches casting shadows over the cafe terraces below. A glass, beaded with drops of condensation and filled with sparkling bubbles of local brew sits in front of me as my toes play absently in the sandy dust beneath my sandals. The buzz of a Vespa breaks into the torpor of an afternoon wasted, the scent of sunbaked asphalt mingles with exotic cigarette smoke. An indolent city break spent wasting time and money under sunny skies.
Or perhaps a white beach, dotted with deep blue padded sun loungers, an umbrella propped between them to hide you from the burning sun. The sea, lapping turquoise and tranquil, the air tinged with the peachy scent of suntan oil and a fancy, frozen cocktail dripping into the powdery sand. A blockbuster hangs loose and unread from a lazy, sleepy hand, sunglasses shade my eyes as I doze, luxuriating in the precious freedom of escaping the office.
The arrival of my son ripped the sunglasses from my nose and the book from my hand as he demanded entertainment, all the time, and if we failed to deliver the perfect child-friendly break he would retaliate by ruining our adult fun. The first holiday we took as parents we were unaware of these demands, and booked ourselves into an idyllic mountainside cottage in Umbria. Big mistake. Huge.
He alternated from hurling his eight-month-old self at the untended and lethal rose bushes, attempting to leap off the precipitous (and therefore no longer idyllic) mountainside, he refused all offers of food and gave up sleeping for the duration of the break. We ended up spending most of our time hunting out elusive Italian swings and seeking out organic veg to mush in a vain attempt to mirror his diet back home. By the end of the break I really needed a holiday.
Next time we booked into the plastic pleasures of Disneyworld. Instead of sipping an icy cold cocktail in a pretty piazza, I slurped up frozen lemonade as I watched fibreglass elephants dip up and down on mechanised arms to the squeals of their preschool cargo. Instead of travelling the world it was brought to me in all its santised, Americanised glory on the 'It's a small world' ride, which bobbed me seamlessly from Israel to Iceland without a sniff of jetlag.
I should have hated it, and at times I did, but what made swapping culture and experience for kitschy cheese and crayons with every meal, were the smiles on my boys faces. While I may cynically sneer at the Disney machine, my boys are too young to see the corporate cogs and instead are dazzled by the spectacle. Their eyes shine as Mickey comes to life and Belle blows them a kiss, they are amazed by fantastic fireworks and amused by sprinkling and spurting swimming pools, and that's enough for me.
Thanks to the credit crunch and the arrival of my baby boys, this year holidays are strictly home based, which is how I found myself trying England's answer to America's family vacations, Centre Parcs. As we huffed and puffed up and down the hills on unfamiliar bikes, I missed the land trains and trams of Florida, but as I watched my boys dive like otters into the manmade waves and play fight with handpuppets made in the onsite craft room, I realised what it is that makes a good holiday for me now. It's a simple formula - if they are happy, I am happy.
Now I just have to bide my time until what makes them happy is to go away with their mates so I can return to those pre-children holidays again.