We snuck off to the sun in the last week of the summer holidays. There were tantrums at teatime, lollies in the pool and Aperol spritzes at sunset. Here, Matt and Anna give their takes on a James Villas stay. (In exchange for a press discount, we agreed to write an objective and independent review, with no copy approval by James Villas)
I have a friend who I’ve had about 120 unfinished conversations with over the last three years. She’s my eldest’s godmother and she’s the love of my life. But until three weeks ago I had barely got beyond the impossible-to-answer ‘how are you?’ before being distracted by a pressing Paw Patrol query or an urgent request for “TOYLETTT”.
So we wanted to unite/contain the troops for a week in the hope that nap times and bedtimes would offer up enough space for us to have a lukewarm glass of frizzante, some Lay’s salted crisps and a bosomy hug or two. The villa we landed on was part of the James Villas Group – a company my mum has used in the past and recommended after trying out Villa Plus and Oliver’s Travels, too. Mumsnet and TripAdvisor reviews are much of a muchness but whatever you do make sure you go through a reputable company – villa scams have been known to lead to losses of up to £5,000 with criminals using fake details to con wearied, hard-saving holidaymakers.
If you’re looking to be wrapped in cotton wool, though, this is holiday utopia. Everything from car hire to flights and travel insurance can be taken care of, although some reviews on Holidaywatchdog.com said they found slightly cheaper flights themselves so definitely do your research. Equally, if you just want to land in a heap pool-side with limited hassle, the option of having someone just whisk you away is there.
With four adults and four kids ranging from two to eight, we needed somewhere that was large enough to escape each other and private enough to save ruining anyone else’s holiday. Noone needs to hear the hollers of ‘need a wee wee’ or the relentless pinballing of “she stole my [insert toy of the moment]”. Equally no one needs to hear me croaking from my inflatable crocodile, “can you chuck us a Magnum?”.
We settled on Costa Del Sol, somewhere my Dad thought was where Del Boy from Only Fools And Horses once jetted off to for a quick mini break with Rodney. He’s not far off as we drove towards our villa past a pastel-hued compound called Hotel World that seemed to consist mainly of sunburnt bodies and adrenalin-pumping water slides with the occasional lifesize plastic elephant thrown in for good measure. On day one, I swore never to enter those gates but on day six we found ourselves at the Hotel World all-you-can-eat buffet faceplanting the bottomless paella wondering why we hadn’t succumbed sooner. Villa life is great until about day five when you need to break free of the Lay’s haze and chuck the kids down a water slide.
The villa itself was a marble-floored casa with an eclectic mix of aretfacts – heavy oaken cabinets that wouldn’t look amiss in Henry VIII’s boudoir are accompanied with shelves housing Paymobil figurines from the 70s. The views over the Mediterranean and aquamarine allure of the pool were the real winner. The overall feel is of luxury with a homely – almost too homely as the Playmobil figures stare down on you at night – vibe.
When it comes to child-friendliness, the villa had all the necessary bedding, toys (a whole box awaiting their arrival) and IKEA plastic cups and plates in position. The marble floor had us hollering, ‘no running inside’, and the un-gated pool was managed with a strict back-doors-closed-always policy on those rare moments when their wasn’t a grown-up lolling poolside.
One thing noone could fault is the outdoor space – something many James Villas reviews mention and apparently a solid poolside is part of their criteria. It was as if someone had taken my wearied grey matter, teased out its terrace dreams and truly delivered. It was breathtaking and while we ventured out for a meal (one couple stayed to babysit while the other honed in on the local Spanish tapas), I preferred nights sitting on the villa eating padron peppers from the nearby supermarket. By day three I felt like the view alone had eased my furrowed brow and relentless eye twitch.
In terms of cost, there’s a full range; from more rustic spots where you have to bring your own towels to mansions that wouldn’t look amiss in the Hollywood Hills. For prices, see ‘The Details’, below. It’s not a cheap holiday but once you factor in self catering over restaurant meals, it starts to compare well to many package deals. It is possible to be thrifty in the day-to-day when you have a pool to contain the life appendages and palatable supermarket rose for £3 a bottle.
There are three different kinds of parent buddies.
1/ Mates you’ve known for years, who feel comfortable giving you finely honed verbal abuse. They now have kids, though these kids don’t get on brilliantly with yours. Well, sorry kids, you’re going to be spending a lot of time together. You will, for decades, be explaining your unlikely friendship by saying: ‘we’re friends because our parents are’ and looking a bit glum about it.
2/ Mates who you’ve known for almost no time at all, but who’s kids get on really well with yours – like, ‘playing upstairs and not disturbing grown ups for hours’ well. These parents would have to be as unpleasant as a four hour ethics seminar by Boris Johnson for you to not spend time together.
3/ Mates who you have a natural click with, who have children who create scenes like the above, but who you also know will have a healthy attitude to shared washing-up responsibilities. These are the ones to go on holiday with.
So we did. Four grown ups, four kids, industrial quantities of sun cream and a pad on the Costa del Sol.
I had been to the area once before, on a 1995 trip to Benalmadena that, for £87 of my hard-earned Saturday-job money, delivered flights and a room shared with three spotty pals. There was a Scottish bar on the main strip that did shots for 25p. (No one knew what was in the shots, but they had been colour-matched with Cif Lemon Window Cleaner). I suspected this was going to be a very different kind of trip.
And, thankfully, it was. We’ve reached the stage where a good summer holiday just needs the following: sun, a pool, adult rooms out of ear-shot of kids rooms, some mates to share a bottle with, and a few local places to escape to if people start to feel boxed in.
This had all of those. As we peeled back the sliding metal door to the driveway and the kids got their first peek at where they’d be staying, all four started gasping and shouting ‘Swimming pool! Swimming pool!’
The place had white walls and terracotta roof tiles, with terraced gardens and a well-kept pool and barbecue area. Inside the decor was comfy, clean and not too worn. It was tiled and cavernous, and I would spend much of the week ambling around wondering where I’d left the suncream, my beer or my book.
The kids spent five minutes playing with the electric exterior window shutters that kept out the morning sun and meant will all had dark tranquil boxes to nap in during the day. And then, with room squabbles sorted and swimming kit donned, they raced to the pool (with the toddler waddling behind), where they would spend hours a day for the next week.
From our perch up a hill, the glistening Med spread out before us, with the beaches of Fuengirola and Torremolinos either side. On weekday mornings, with kids in tow, the beaches of these holiday towns are surprisingly quiet family-friendly spots, dotted with beachfront restaurants serving barbecued sardines.
But perched up here, with everything we need a few flip-flopped steps away, I wasn’t tempted to do much exploring.
It was a week of diving into the pool and slowly cooking meals, of impromptu ‘shows’ from the kids and carefully made drinks as the sun fizzled out in an Aperol-orange flare every evening. It was a week with time to properly speak to the kids and fling them around a swimming pool, instead of just telling them to get dressed or tidy up or do homework. And, it was a week of quietly ignoring them as they play among themselves, to take the time to look at who you’re raising them with.
These are the holidays we want now: everything you need within a few idle paces.
We stayed with a press discount at Colina Vista, a 20 minute drive from Malaga airport. It sleeps eight and is currently available for £779 (villa only) during Autumn half-term.
You can find last-minute deals on villas across southern Europe, The US, Caribbean and Egypt. Prices start at £389 per week for a family of four (villa only).
In exchange for a press discount, we agreed to write an objective and independent review, with no copy approval by James Villas.