Why taking a real staycation is the only way to guarantee a relaxing holiday

I’m lying flat on my back on a vast concrete plateau that juts into the sea – sun-warmed and strangely beautiful in its brutalism – while staring at the sky. I’m not crying as such. Good Lord, no! Then why are my cheeks wet? Um. Well. So maybe a couple of tears have somehow leaked their way down my cheeks – just because of the sheer gorgeousness of it all, you understand. The hazy June sun, edge taken off by a gauzy whisper of cloud, set in a washed-out denim sky; the crashing of matte-teal waves on rock the only sound breaking the otherworldly silence.

I often get like this when I’m travelling: overwhelmed by the surreal beauty of far-flung destinations when I have the capacity to fully experience them using all my senses, unencumbered by the constant distractions of work emails and social media and the urgent “ping!”, “ping!”, “ping!” of Whatsapp. Only now I’m not in some exotic locale; now, I’m on holiday in my very own home town.

Cast your mind back, if you can, to a simpler time. A time post-lockdown, but pre-traffic light system. A time when pandemic restrictions meant the only trips possible for Brits were within the UK. And, therefore, a time when the hottest debate in travel suddenly became whether the term “staycation” referred exclusively to a holiday taken in your own home, or a holiday in your home country in general.

Concrete splendour at the Warren

(Helen Coffey)

The former had been the original meaning, the latter what the portmanteau had somehow evolved to mean. Unlike many travel journalists on Twitter, I couldn’t seem to muster sufficient emotional investment in either argument. If pressed, I’d probably have said: “Well, if the majority of people now think it means any domestic holiday, that’s clearly what it means.” Language changes, and we must change with it.

In the post-pandemic world, when travel is largely back to normal again, it seems to matter even less. I only bring it up because I recently had my first real, proper “staycation” in years. And when I say “staycation”, I mean it in the purest sense of the word – I didn’t go anywhere at all. And it turned out to be one of the most relaxing holidays I’ve ever had.

The aforementioned swathe of concrete is part of the Warren, an area of largely untamed wilderness (and Site of Special Scientific Interest) comprising verdant parklands teeming with wildflowers, twisting coastal paths, and rugged beaches off the tourist trail in the town of Folkestone.

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I have lived in this wonderful Kentish seaside spot since September last year, but what with the busyness of building a life somewhere new – making friends, signing up to every local event, figuring out a new commuting and working from home routine – I hadn’t had a moment to stop and just be in the place I now called home. And so I did something that travel editors rarely do, what with the whole world of destinations to choose from: I booked a week off in the height of summer and made precisely zero plans.

What followed was the kind of frivolous, free-wheeling week that is only feasible when you haven’t got to keep track of seat reservations, hotel bookings, restaurant opening hours or museum ticketing slots. The kind of idyllic holiday that is only possible, in fact, when you stay firmly put.

(Helen Coffey)

It does take some getting used to, initially. On day one, a feeling of frenzied panic rose in my throat as I stared down the barrel of seven days of… nothing. What an insane waste of annual leave! I could be anywhere, doing anything: watching Flamenco dancers in Seville, kayaking across dazzling blue water in the Austrian Lake District, twirling strands of pecorino-coated cacio e pepe in Rome. What the heck had I been thinking?

The wall-to-wall sunshine I had envisaged also failed to appear, and I set out for the town’s trendy redeveloped Harbour Arm on a chillier-than-expected Monday under white-clad skies with a feeling of grim stoicism. Well, I could only keep my expectations low and make the best of it. Sail Box, a new lunch and brunch spot, had opened up, and I had yet to try it. That might be a start. Half an hour later, I was shovelling battered fish tacos into my mouth with greasy fingers; in between bites, my gaze kept drifting up from my book to stare back across the sea, all languid, ivory-stippled waves, to Sunny Sands beach, with its enticing strip of mustard sand. I sat outside – the sun even made an occasional appearance – and relaxed into the kind of two-hour lunch I rarely, if ever, indulge in.

It gives you the chance to step out of the manic, non-stop pressures of normal life and see your surroundings in a new way; to really experience the place you live

Next up came the aforementioned Warren excursion, accompanied by a can of cold beer and some fizzy sweets I normally only allow myself when long-distance running. Again, I kept picking up my book and putting it back down; the scene was just too expansive, the kind that inspires dizzying trains of thought (or, if you’re me, some lusty singing into the wind). Hours passed in minutes, and as the sun set I finally stripped off and let myself be immersed in the gasp-inducing chill of the English Channel while basking in the sky’s waning glow.

The next days passed in similar splendour: there were 10km runs to Sandgate, the next town over, rewarded by cinnamon buns and iced coffee from Orchard Lane; freshly baked banana bread and yoga classes at newly opened studio and cafe Yoke; beach meditation after endless sea swims; frozen margaritas at the Goods Yard and beers at Brewing Brothers. I felt so rejuvenated I even stirred up the energy to finally repaint my bedroom, leaning into the meditative process of rolling sage green onto bare walls.

Folkestone’s redeveloped Harbour Arm has plenty of places to eat and drink

(Helen Coffey)

The most adventurous thing I did all week was drive with a friend a mere 20 minutes out to the countryside on Folkestone’s doorstep. We tramped through Madams Wood, hoods slicked with rain, before retiring to the Five Bells pub for cauliflower pakora burgers and too many pints of Kentish Pip cider. I ended the week imbued with a bone-deep sense of contentment I haven’t experienced for some time.

It does, of course, help if you live in a coastal town, or any particularly attractive beauty spot or rural location. But even that’s not the be-all-and-end-all when it comes to the magic of a staycation. For one, it offers a less-stress version of a holiday that is otherwise impossible to recreate – unless you have a PA and endless cash reserves. Even then, the best-laid plans are no guarantee: nothing can really stop your flight being delayed, luggage lost, or hotel struck by a freak wave of norovirus cases.

Summer holiday vibes on Folkestone Beach

(Helen Coffey)

But, more importantly, it gives you the chance to step out of the manic, non-stop pressures of normal life and see your surroundings in a new way; to really experience the place you live in, and enjoy it like a visitor might. To indulge in a string of small pleasures – a flat white at that cafe you’ve always wanted to try, a walk in that green patch you’ve seen on the map but never explored, an afternoon in the pokey local museum you’ve passed a hundred times but never ducked into – that add up to far, far more than the sum of their parts.

Perhaps it’s time to reclaim the original meaning of “staycation” this summer – I guarantee it will be the cheapest, and likely most relaxing, holiday you’ll have all year.

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