So, back in January, after a year of hard saving, my mum and I finally booked a holiday to Portugal. Albufeira to be exact. For me, the three little ones and her.
Now, those of you who have been blessed with the challenges of having special needs kiddos will understand when I say that finding a holiday that met all of our needs was not easy! Firstly we needed to fly from a local airport (Luton for us), at reasonable flight times (no red eye flights), with a shortish flight, at a quiet time of year, to a secluded, secure resort with no horrendously long transfers.
Long gone are the days when I can just walk into a travel agent, ask what they have available within a certain price range and just go with it! Oh no! Now it is a military style operation! However, all that being said, it worked out almost perfectly!
We booked with Thompson in the end. We chose a private villa with a pool (not too deep and not too big), a short walk from a beach, close to amenities, with enough room for 8 people across 4 bedrooms! We also booked a hire car. This is not the cheapest way to go on holiday and it is the first time that I have ever been on a villa break but I was not disappointed.
Before I tell you about the holiday, let me tell you about some of the things I did to prepare the children.
We went swimming a lot!
We looked at pictures of the villa and aeroplanes (toilets and all) a lot!
We did dummy runs of the airport procedures.
We bought chewing gum.
We bought tablet computers.
We bought ear defenders.
We bought comfortable slippers for Dominik as he refuses to wear shoes.
We bought headphones.
We bought boiled sweets.
We bought travel games.
We agreed who would sit near the windows in advance.
We agreed who would sit in the front of the hire car in advance.
We took drinks and snacks.
We checked in online.
We visited our homoeopath for calming remedies.
And finally we booked disability assistance.
Ok, the holiday!
The kids were obviously very excited and they are all old enough now that I can't bluff about when an exciting event is going to occur so I was prepared for them to have trouble sleeping the night before our 8.20am flight. We left the house at 5.45am with bleary eyes and butterflies in our tummies (mine were obviously for totally different reasons than theirs). They were sleepy in the taxi so were quiet and calm but as soon as we arrived at Luton they woke up! The fresh air, the noisy planes, the busy airport brought them all to attention!
We went straight to baggage drop to request our disability assistance. Well, there arises our first 'bump'. There was no record of the request! The lady at baggage drop tried her best and did manage to give us priority boarding which was something, it did not however help us navigate security!
Security was by far the most stressful part of the Luton portion of our journey. The queues were long, hot, slow and boring! My eldest child, Dominik (aged 10) could not bear the proximity of all those people and to make matters worse, he was asked to remove his ear defenders. :-( He did comply but it was incredibly stressful for him and he needed to sit down quietly and catch his breath before we could move forward through to the departure lounge.
I guess thankfully, the security process was so slow, we had no time to do anything apart from grab a quick snack (Krispy Kreme doughnuts) and head to our gate. The gate was a fair walk away but the promise of the aeroplane kept us all moving.
We did get our priority boarding...well, kind of....if you class it as being put on the bus first and then having to wait for it to fill up and then moving to the plane with everyone else!
We boarded the plane and found our seats (no problems there), we settled in for take off (no problems there) and we enjoyed a completely stress free flight. Yay! :-)
Once we arrived at Faro, things started well. No queues at Passport Control and straight through to baggage collection. Hmmm, well, baggage collection was a 40 minute wait. It is now 11.15am and hot! We don't have any more snacks and we have run out of juice. There is nowhere to buy any so my mum and I are wishing the bags through quickly! They eventually arrive and we move through to Arrivals looking for our rep.
We find her and discover that we need to get a bus to the hire car shop. This was unexpected. We were expecting to just go to a desk, pick up the keys and away we go! Nope. The mini bus can only hold 8 people and there is only one running. We can't get on the first one so we wait approximately 30 minutes for the next. Sigh. Hot, hungry, tired, thirsty children abound. No distraction is working now as their tablets are all out of batteries and they are simply too excited to be calmed. They run up and down, scream at each other, play in the wheel chairs (oops) and generally annoy everyone.
So, we arrive at the hire car venue and the wait is another 40 minutes (and a ridiculous amount of hidden costs) before we get our car.
We get in our car after the children have let off some more steam (playing hide and seek, shouting through traffic cones, chatting to random strangers and screaming about how long it is taking) and we're on our way.
And you guessed it, we get lost. :-( A journey which should take 30 minutes takes closer to 1 hour and 30 minutes.
We're all still hungry, hot, thirsty and tired but we do make it to the villa at about 3.45pm. That is ten hours travelling. Exhausting to say the least!
But so worthwhile once the kids threw themselves into the cool pool and started their holiday!
The first afternoon was trouble free but by the time it was dinner time things were a bit fractious! I guess the exhaustion set in and everyone had a short fuse. Needless to say, we all had an early night!
Rather than ramble on about each day, I am just going to talk about notable events.
1 - Day three was tough. Dominik had realised that there was no internet in the villa, that he was miles away from all that was familiar, that mosquito bites are annoying and that it was warm in the sunshine! He went to bed after lunch and did not wake up until it was dinner time. This is his was of coping with large amounts of stress and sensory overload. I first noticed this defence mechanism when we travelled home from Peru. As soon as we got on the plane for the 13 hour flight, he went to sleep and slept the entire time! The trauma of leaving our home, his dad, the first, internal flight and the 24 hour delay in our leaving (a whole other story!) sent him over the edge...the same happened in Portugal. He simply needed to recharge and regroup. Such an important and valuable skill for all children, not just those with special needs.
2 - We did not force Dominik to come out for dinner with us every night and my mum and I took it in turns taking the little ones out for dinner. We allowed them to choose where and what we ate at all times.
3 - The middle of the week was by far the best section of the holiday. They were all confident in the pool by now and were able to swim a few lengths no problem. They understood the sun cream drill! They had their water toys (dive sticks, snorkels, lilos, goggles, etc) and were enjoying playing all the different challenge games we could come up with (running across the lilos, swimming under the lilos, standing up on the lilos, forward rolls, backward rolls, hand stands, how many people could fit on a lilo and the list goes on).
4 - Dominik had one major meltdown on the Saturday afternoon. I think by now he was tired and ready to go home (we left early Sunday am) as he knew it was close. I think this is down to the idea of transitioning again. He had just gotten used to it and now it was time to leave. He was very emotional after the meltdown had ended and he was cursing his Aspieness openly (which he rarely does). We talked about it for a while and he eventually agreed to come out to dinner and we all had a brilliant last night. I am SO proud of his self-control, his stamina and his willingness to try again.
The journey home was completely incident free and quite nice really! We were all ready to leave and we were looking forward to getting home!
Now we are home, life has been nice. :-) The children are loving having their rooms and toys and consoles back. Dominik is loving having the internet at his fingertips once more! And I am glad to be back in my own bed.
So, if you're thinking of taking your special kiddos on holiday....go for it! It was totally worth it and I cannot wait to do it again!
Just remember: preparation, patience and praise!
Thanks for reading.