10 things you don't know until you take your family abroad during a pandemic

Claire Irvin
·9-min read
Covid-19 has turned the world upside-down, including family holidays - CLAIRE IRVIN
Covid-19 has turned the world upside-down, including family holidays - CLAIRE IRVIN

With its borders opening to vaccinated travellers on May 1, family favourite Cyprus could now be one of the first places we can travel to. But beware. Travelling with kids in tow amid travel uncertainty has its moments. As Claire Irvin found out…

1. You’ll need to keep your options open

As a travel journalist, there have been many experiences I’ve looked forward to sharing with my family. #MyFirstPandemic certainly wasn’t one of them. On the upside, we certainly travelled the globe together in planning last October’s half term break – from our abandoned attempt to visit friends in the States, to a last-minute cancellation to Sicily, when borders closed days before we were due to leave, to leaving a man overboard when work got in the way of daddy’s long coveted annual leave (thanks Covid). With Turkey and Crete also options, we’d had numerous holidays in our heads without even leaving the front room.

With the hours ticking even faster than my list of no gos (Turkey got caught fixing its figures, Crete predicted 12°C and rain all week), Cyprus emerged as a front runner. Even with a new amber listing, the island seemed to be doing a good job of managing its cases, and was testing on arrival too (what joy, the kids, aged under 12 were exempt) – the only question was why we hadn’t been as a family before. Cyprus has been the scene of many personal firsts. First holiday without my parents. First (of many) girls trips. First work trip. First sunshine holiday with my now husband. Why not “first trip under restrictions”, too?

2. You’re going to need back up

With my energy flagging, it was time to call in expert help from tour operator Sovereign Luxury Travel. Previously filed in my head as a holiday “nice to have”, in a world that doesn't make sense, tour operators absolutely do. And with many now offering unprecedented booking flexibility (Sovereign, for example, has also launched two new initiatives in response to the pandemic: Travel with Confidence and Book with Confidence), it’s their expert support that comes into its own when baffling policy changes and tricksy administration mean you need to pivot your holiday plans. They addressed the “where” (three options for family luxury of the type I’d outlined), the “how” (no-nonsense instructions on timing and booking testing, and a simple checklist for required paperwork) and the “why” (from making soothing noises to the “should we even be doing this” niggles that had begun to feature in my frazzled thoughts).

A family holiday in a pandemic but make it fashion - CLAIRE IRVIN
A family holiday in a pandemic but make it fashion - CLAIRE IRVIN

3. Leave the lab tests to the professionals

With my eye on the new Amara hotel in Cyprus, we booked, well clear of last October’s Thursday night quarantine lottery. All that remained was to arrange my Covid test, 72 hours ahead of departure. Depending on the time of your flight, this can be more complicated than it sounds. I flip-flopped between lab test and home swab test before deciding it wasn’t important enough to leave home for and anyway, surely I was grown-up enough to test myself. Choosing a brand which claimed only 1 per cent of tests came back inconclusive, I spent half a day in a tailspin of self-induced anxiety before FaceTiming a qualified friend to make sure I did it properly. A day later, the results came back inconclusive. I ended up spending a day in London and £500 on a six-hour test. The moral of this story, I think, is clear…

4. You’ll be ready for a holiday as never before

And as holiday build-ups went, the fits and false starts were certainly setting me up for needing some serious R&R. My time was punctuated with cold sweats by night, palpitations by day. It would have been the ideal pre-holiday diet if I didn’t stress-eat every salty snack in sight.

Once booked, I activated push notifications to local Cyprus news sites, scoured websites for the latest micro restrictions and interrogated every person I knew with the most obscure Cyprus connections I could find. One day kids in swimming pools were reported to have been banned, then next, tourists were being made to wear face masks when sunbathing. Was it even going to be worth it? Calls to Sovereign and the hotel reassured me these were rumours, and the day before we were due to leave, it seemed Cyprus was playing ball. If only my daughter hadn’t. Played ball, that is. Rugby to be precise. As we sat in A&E listening to the doctor deliver her X-ray result, I was focused on one thing only: “What kind of cast will it require, and does it come in waterproof?”

Some much needed R&R... - CLAIRE IRVIN
Some much needed R&R... - CLAIRE IRVIN

5. There are upsides to pandemic travel

Among them an empty airport, no border control queues and an even emptier airplane. Sadly for my offspring, Mum’s Mask Enforcement policy meant they had to stay in their allocated seats for the entire journey.

6. It will all feel like the first time

Amara is just a 40-minute private transfer from the airport, and while it was unnerving to be in a car with a strange driver, masks and open windows adhered to Covid protocols and I soon relaxed into it. A stone’s throw away from the busy cosmopolitan city of Limassol, this is not the prettiest stretch of Cypriot coastline – its horizon currently a Covid cruise ship car park – but it is located close to the ancient kingdom of Amathus, and as with much of Cyprus, it is swathed in mythology (happily, this also dovetailed with my eight-year-old’s school project). The hotel’s sumptuous spa has been built around a section of Limassol’s ancient city wall, some of which has been left visible. Dozing on a lounger beneath it after a dreamy Rose Diamond Collagen Facial felt a world away from the trials and tribulations of leaving the UK in the first place.

Centuries away from its ancient foundations, Amara is more Dubai-style luxury resort than hotel. Its indulgent design oozes glamour, with each of the 207 rooms offering a panoramic view of the Mediterranean. Its image-conscious guests do their bit to add to the dazzle, with enough outfit changes to keep even the most jaded people-watcher happy.

7. You’ll find new joy in old favourites

By some fluke, our holiday coincided with a heatwave, but in many ways the week turned out to be one of the wettest holidays in my family’s history, with morning tides leaving the shallow, summer-warmed sea calm and inviting, inflatables allowed in parts of the pool in the afternoon and the occasional after-dark swim. The beach inspired stone collections and sandcastle building, activities not seen on holiday since both children were in single digits. Without daddy there for aqua-based rough and tumble, the kids invented new games – and at times, even I was encouraged to get up off my sunbed and into the fray.

Family holidays are a chance to jump feet first out of lockdown life - CLAIRE IRVIN
Family holidays are a chance to jump feet first out of lockdown life - CLAIRE IRVIN

8. You’ll remember why you go away in the first place

I thought we were all desperate for sun. And we were. But I had forgotten, during months of countryside living during lockdown, how people make memories as much as places. How much I'd missed the sound of other languages around me. The poolside people-watching (The 11am cocktails! The under-the-radar rows!). The personalities among the staff, from the sage wisdom of the restaurants manager, to Carlos, the exuberantly hilarious and exquisitely Italian maitre d’ of Giorgio Locatelli’s, one of several eponymous restaurants run by Michelin-starred chefs that give the hotel a sleek international edge. Never mind the amazing food (or is it art?), service and sense of occasion, Locatelli’s will be forever remembered as the place with the longest, bendiest bread sticks in the world (™). And whilst Nobu expanded the children’s tried, tested and approved Asian dishes by about 600 per cent, it will live on as the place mummy over-ordered to such an extent we even had to send dishes back. Along with the beachside fish restaurant and breakfast buffet (yes, even in times of Covid – albeit with gloves, screens and masks mandatory), the children loved it all, although nothing passed muster more than room service spag bol on the balcony…

9. If in doubt, just add stray cats

Just half an hour’s drive from the hotel, up in the Troodos mountains, lies archetypal Cypriot village Omodos, and it was to here that we headed for a day exploring the island. After a mid-morning tasting at Lindos Winery (the highlight Mediterranean Blu, which looked like the alcopop WKD and tasted like a Pinot Grigio, which seemed to sum up my previous trips to the island nicely), we arrived in bustling Omodos. Busy tourist traps are high on my “avoid” list at the best of times, but factor in social distancing and mask-wearing in 30°C heat and the appeal of its cobbled streets and traditional stone houses quickly palled. We made quick work of the stalls selling handmade narrow-knit lacing and arkatena bread.

Always be sure to make friends with the local wildlife - CLAIRE IRVIN
Always be sure to make friends with the local wildlife - CLAIRE IRVIN

If only the same could be said of lunch. The mezze I ordered at a recommended taverna turned out to be less the “bit of a houmous dip and a pitta” I was promised and more a seven-course extravaganza, each course more delicious than the last. My photo-feed of the morning, however, tells another story entirely. Picture follows picture of delighted child with mangy stray cat, each earnestly given a name and assumed personality, to add to the feline family they’d already amassed around the hotel. Now when we talk of Omodos, it is these they rapturously relive, our morning’s exploration turned into holiday highlight in one swish of a cat’s tail.

10. It will all be worth it

For all these reasons and more, every holiday hoop you have to jump through to get away safely will be worth it. Honestly. It will!

Double rooms at Amara from €382 (£329) per night, B&B. A seven-night stay for two adults and two children, Tui flights from London Gatwick on May 30, and private transfers from £8,646. All Sovereign holidays include the 'Book with Confidence', which offers a guaranteed refund if Sovereign have to cancel the trip and a full refund up to 21 days before departure, excluding any non-refundable costs, if the customer has to cancel the trip due to Covid-19 (01293 839588; sovereign.com)