A couple of years ago, before a two-week holiday to the Algarve, I decided I wouldn’t drink. I thought it would be difficult. There would be no more vinho verde to wash down a charcoal-grilled bream. It would be adeus to the icy Sagres lager that goes so perfectly with those fat, yellow Portuguese chips. Aside from the gustatory pleasures, I worried about being the sober one. Drinking is part of the routine of the British holiday. If I didn’t participate, it might endanger everyone else’s fun, too.
Besides, it was part of my “personal brand”. It wasn’t that I was an alcoholic, but I did think that being gregarious, and generally up for a good time and a pint in the sun, was part of the reason people wanted to go on holiday with me. At 32, I worried that I risked projecting Big Midlife Crisis Energy years before my time.
For the first few days, abstinence was hard. The rhythm of a holiday is bound up in drinking: the first beer of the day; cocktail hour; experimenting with local wines. Deflection tactics were required. I would drink dummy, ginless G&Ts, or say, “I’ll have one in a bit” whenever a drink was offered.
Slowly it got easier. Instead of boozing, I swam lengths and ran up hills. I eschewed my usual holiday diet of mindless thrillers to read books that required concentration. I was able to drive everyone back from long lunches at the beach. In the mornings, I became unrecognisably perky, advocating tennis “before the sun hits the court”. I was, said one companion, insufferable. When I got back, I felt like a million euros.
I’m not alone in not being especially worried about my drinking but also wanting to drink less on holiday; the pandemic has accelerated a growing trend for sober vacations. Lauren Burnison started her alcohol-free travel company, We Love Lucid, in March 2019, a year before the pandemic, but says there has been a 60% increase in bookings and inquiries in the past 18 months. While 70% of her customers are booze-free, 30% are simply “sober-curious”. In June, the New York Times reported thatof more than 20,000 Americans found that nearly a third planned an alcohol-free trip after the pandemic. , a US non-profit organisation, by 2022 wellness tourism around the world will be worth nearly $1tn, a fifth of the market.
The rise of alcohol-free beer and non-alcoholic spirits is further evidence that Britons are slowly changing their attitudes towards drinking – there’s money in them mocktails. The consensus is that coronavirus has had a polarising effect on British drinkers. While consumption in pubs and bars, which were closed, fell dramatically,. Drinking alone went up, and 2020 was for 20 years; more than 7,000 were recorded. For some, however, the pandemic has spurred a health drive.
“A lot of people have made positive lifestyle changes,” Burnison says. “Coupled with a desire to get outside after being cooped up, the pandemic has meant people are choosing different kinds of holidays. Often they are blown away by how they feel after a sober holiday, without the horrendous hangovers or empty wallets.” She moved back to the UK from Spain in 2018, and says a problematic relationship with booze on holiday is more prevalent in western and northern Europe. “In Spain or Italy they might drink on a night out, but they don’t binge in the same way,” she says.
The problem is, I like the odd binge. I know some people are able to measure out a single glass of nice wine with dinner and leave it at that, but they seem to me like paragons of self-control. The language around sobriety is off-putting to the dabbler: “Sober” and “alcohol-free” are not words to make the heart leap. The saccharine concept of “wellness”, tainted with images of green juice and yoga at dawn, makes me cringe. Although I abhor the idea of a “retreat”, which sounds like somewhere a gong might sound at any moment, I recognise that I crave a break from a work-hard-ish, party-hard-ish existence. There is a conceptual leap, though, from trying to drink less on holiday to going on a “sober holiday”, with its implications of 12-step and recovery.
“The words can totally put people off,” Burnison says, “especially people who just want a break, and maybe think: ‘I don’t want to go away with a load of people with serious alcohol issues.’” Her next tour will be led by Piers Burnell, who gave up drink by going cold turkey in 2018 after a particularly boozy ski trip to Austria. “I live in Henley, which is a town all about drinking,” he says. “My younger sister died 10 years ago; she drank too much. I didn’t want to go the same way.” He joined his first We Love Lucid tour last year. It proved such a good fit that Burnison invited him to work with her. “A lot of people who have just started sobriety can find travel quite daunting,” Burnell says. “You have to help people see that they can socialise and have a good time without the help of a drink.” His trip to Cornwall this summer will include kayaking, bodyboarding, pasty-making classes and restaurant meals. “When you’re sober, your appreciation for food goes through the roof,” he says.
Part of the cultural resistance to giving up alcohol on holiday comes from how we learn to drink. From the ceremonial airport pint to the trolley-dash around duty free on the way home, holidays and drinking are entwined in the British imagination. It’s equally true whether you’re a beers-at-Wetherspoon’s person, or the sort of sleek potentate who prefers a G&T in the Concorde Lounge at Heathrow Terminal 5. From to to in the tearoom to the , British culture bulges with examples of drinking on trips away.
While holiday drinking in my youth felt purely hedonistic at the time, in hindsight it was one of the ways I measured becoming a grownup. To travel to the continent as a teenager was to step briefly into the future and visit a universe where, for one splendid week, I could order a beer and say ciao, before I went back for AS-levels. Drinking has emboldened me linguistically, helped forge new friendships and papered over the cracks in old ones.
All the same, I reached a point where I tired of coming back and uttering variations of “I think I need a holiday to get over the holiday”. After the stress, cost and hassle of arranging the break, I was grumpier, fatter and more tired than when I’d gone away. For many, returning to work is a chance to restore some sober order. But as a food and drink writer, there was no shortage of opportunities, bordering on obligations, to get sozzled in the name of professional advancement.
Like Burnison, the writer Ruby Warrington, author of the 2018 book Sober Curious, quit alcohol for good, but says holidays were the hardest drinking events to give up. “Holidays are the thing I held on to for the longest, partly because I hadn’t learned how to relax without alcohol.”
She says it’s getting easier for people to reappraise their drinking. “It used to be that you’d have to hit some devastating rock bottom before you’d consider quitting. Now I think there’s more permission for drinkers across the spectrum to question things. Drinking is not aspirational in the way it was in the 90s. From climate emergency to political unrest to economic collapse, we’re more aware of the external pressures in the world. Drinking doesn’t make these problems go away. We need ways to feel calmer, and alcohol exacerbates anxiety. For me, a holiday would be to delete all my social media and go somewhere with as few people as possible.”
My initial booze-free holiday proved temporary, but the nagging sensation didn’t go away. After a couple of lockdown-frazzled nights last year, when I shamefully overcooked it, I resolved to have another holiday from the sauce. I have a 17-month-old child; my desire to be present for her dovetails nicely with my desire not to be hungover when my head is jumped on at 6am. The problem was that holidays were against pandemic restrictions. Instead, I gave up booze for the first two and a half months of this year, a kind of extended Dry January holiday-from-my-lifestyle. Again, it was hard at the start, but got easier. I lost 2st, felt better and wondered why I hadn’t done it sooner. Then I missed drinking, took it up again, and have been enjoying the post-Covid 19 hospitality glasnost.
Vacations are meant to help you reset and recalibrate. For many people, that means drinking. But it doesn’t have to. Learning to drink was part of becoming an adult, but learning not to is part of it, too. It’s a pity it took me 15 years to work that out. I’m going back to Portugal for a fortnight next month, Covid-willing, and I won’t be drinking. After the past couple of years, we have all earned a break from ourselves.
Make mine a tonic water: five tips for a drink-free holiday
An activity-led holiday – whether it’s walking or swimming or climbing or skiing or diving or yoga – makes it easier to avoid the fridge or the bar. Give the vineyard tour a miss.
Explore alcohol-free alternatives
There are lots of good alcohol-free beers now, as well as booze-free spirits and aperitifs, such as Seedlip or Ghia. If you’re self-catering, stock up.
Be the designated driver
If you volunteer to be the chauffeur it will be easier to avoid drink – and you will earn the eternal gratitude of everyone else.
Pick the right destination
Choose places where the culture is less focused on booze: Morocco rather than Magaluf. An out-of-the-way cottage or campsite may have fewer alcoholic temptations than cities or resorts.
Peer pressure is mostly in your head. Nobody actually cares if you’re not drinking. But you might find it easier to have an answer ready in case people ask why: eg, “I’m just taking a break” or “health or fitness reasons”.