Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Letting out the internal beach bum

For me at least, a holiday by the beach is not the time to fret about how my hair looks and what I’m wearing. It’s the time to let my internal beach bum out.

I potter around a swimming costume with shorts and football shirt on top – they dry brilliantly quickly, thus making excellent beach attire – a baseball cap to protect my head and a pair of flip-flops. My one concession to fashion is serious sunglasses.

For a substantial number of French women, though, that is most decidedly not the point.

It’s something of a shock to the system to see women turning up on the beach, not simply in designer swimwear and sunglasses, but with hair perfectly coiffed, immaculate make-up and plenty of jewellery.

Not that most of them make it any further into the sea than shin level, where they reveal something else: the gentle French art of posing.

Not, I hasten to add, that the men are immune. And not that it is remotely limited to any age group.

There are three main poses: arms folded, hands behind back or wrists on waist with hands behind. And they make it appear utterly effortless and utterly unselfconscious.

Mind, when they do go further into the water, they have to swim with heads up – which makes my clumsy breast stroke seem so much more proper.

I, on the other hand, spend my time in a constant battle to ensure that my skin gets tanned without getting burned – given a backgrounds that includes a Cornish Celt, I have to be grateful that my skin can even look at the sun without burning instantly (are Celts actually vampires?) and, of course, that I do not have red hair.

However, my skin has required training over the last 10 years since I discovered sunbathing. But this year, daring to apply actual cooking – sorry, sun – oil to my legs in an effort to finally persuade them to change colour, I achieved more of a tan for my work.

Then, instead of hovering around looking glam in the shallows, I like to bathe – actually bathe. I’m not a strong swimmer and even the usually calm Mediterranean waters at Collioure can make me panic quickly, wanting to get my feet down and on to something solid as quickly as possible.

Snorkelling had proved surprisingly easy in the previous two years, but I currently lack the equipment necessary to grip the snorkel properly. So in the event, after seeing another adult with one, I bought a cheap, plastic floatation device (a sort of small board) and then swum merrily back and forth, enough to benefit from the exercise.

But then I had moments of feeling a little like a beached whale: I wanted to move so much more freely and it was as though I were hampered by my fears.

So I did something that I’ve been promising myself I would for over a year: I hired a canoe from Cyril, donned a lifejacket, grabbed a paddle and headed for the sea.

I have never been in a canoe before. Many years ago, on a family holiday, I tried rowing and took to it with ease. I knew I could paddle a canoe – my only worry was actually getting in the thing without making a complete prat of myself or requiring help.

Amazingly, I managed that bit easily enough, and then it was off into the bay – far, far further out than I’d ever been when in the water, with no worries about being out of my depth; confident and comfortable.

You need to be aware that the paddles on the oar are at different angles, but it feels like a completely natural twist of the wrists.

I was able to paddle quite fast when I wanted to or simply putter about with ease.

When I got back to shore (okay, I fell arse first into the water when I got out), The Other Half remarked: “Tres impressive”. Which I took as a compliment. And the experience left me feeling suitably chuffed – and with a real sense of lightness; of being able to move comfortably and well.

Unfortunately, a day later, Cyril told me that they were backing up Bora Bora Beach Club for the year. I’ll have to wait to try it again. So it was back to working on my tan on San Vincent Plage, which has the fabulous Au Casot at the back of the sunlounger section of the beach, a restaurant that serves wonderful fish and seafood. That was the signal to halt picnic lunches and head for a table at lunchtime for the rest of the holiday.

Interestingly, where many of the most obviously touristy eateries in Collioure make a big thing of moules et frites (mussels and chips), Au Casot serves none.

What they do serve, though, is fabulously fresh dishes, cooked simply: I enjoyed the gambas one day (I just love getting my hands messy as I rip the shells off these beauties, and then them in the restaurant’s own aioli), monkfish and dorade. It might not be fashionable, but for ambiance and food combined, Au Casot is perhaps my favourite Collioure eating experience.

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