The real Shirley Valentines

Everyone loves a holiday romance. We meet couples who've tried to turn a foreign fling into a long-term relationship — with varying degrees of success.

By Clover Stroud
Published 9 Apr 2019, 00:16 BST, Updated 30 Jun 2021, 11:36 BST

A breathless email from a friend travelling across South America reminded me how potent love can be on foreign soil. She'd fallen for the charms of a Brazilian musician and wanted advice on whether to pursue this romance in the longer term. "I'm supposed to fly to Bolivia next week, but he wants me to stay on longer with him in Buenos Aires," she wrote. "Have I gone completely mad?"

It was a loaded question, and while part of me wanted her to enjoy that heady combination of sun, sea and sex, another part wanted to tell her to take a cold, hard look at her crush before throwing herself into a holiday romance she might later regret.

The odds, after all, are heavily stacked against her. According to a recent survey by TripAdvisor, 58% of Britons have enjoyed a holiday romance; 93% of which broke up shortly afterwards, with a hefty two-thirds apparently ending before the flight home. While a holiday romance is a bit of a cliche — particularly since the 1989 hit film Shirley Valentine — there's also something beguiling about the idea of falling in love abroad, as the experience of my smitten friend suggests.

But what happens to a holiday fling once you've washed the sand out of your hair and swapped the bikini for the business clothes? It's easy enough to convince yourself you've found the love of your life when he's whispering sweet nothings to you as you walk along a deserted beach. But back in the UK, how does that romantic fantasy translate into the mundane reality of everyday life? Is upping sticks to set up home on foreign soil with a new lover a better way to keep the relationship going? I spoke to a handful of people who'd experienced a holiday romance — with mixed results.

Risking it all

In our increasingly busy lives, travel provides a way to unplug from everyday life, to learn a new skill or embrace a different way of life. At the end of a trip, though, most of us expect to return to our normal lives, hopefully recharged and inspired by our time away. This is all Lisa White was looking for back in 2004 when a friend asked her to join her on a riding holiday on a ranch in Arizona. Lisa, then 27, had never been on a horse, but liked the idea of a challenge and an adventure. "Finding true love was really down to my friend, as it was her idea to go to a ranch," says Lisa, who at the time was working as a senior marketing consultant in the veterinary and animal health industry in Cornwall. Before she went away, she booked a series of riding lessons. "The holiday was fabulous, and I continued my lessons when I got home," she says.

Bitten by a bug for Western riding, Lisa booked a trip to the Island Guest Ranch in Oklahoma, in 2005.

"I loved that it was an authentic experience of cowboy life, with none of the 'nose to tail' riding tourists get," says Lisa, who started visiting the ranch once or twice a year.

However, it's one thing to fall in love with cowboy life on holiday, but quite another to adopt that as a permanent lifestyle. During her regular visits to the ranch, Lisa became close friends with the White family who ran the ranch — particularly son Ryan — even joining them on holidays in Europe. Back in the UK, she was frequently telephoning Ryan for advice on horse training.

Aware that her love for riding was more than a passing affection, she took a sabbatical and moved to Oklahoma for a three-month course in horse training at the ranch during the winter of 2009. Under the big skies of those wide-open plains, her relationship with Ryan blossomed, and he proposed, leaving a diamond ring that once belonged to his grandmother on some handmade spur straps. "My friends and family were worried at first," says Lisa. "But that changed after they met Ryan and could see how happy we were. After initial misgivings about taking such a dramatic step, they were happy I was going to live out my dream."

Ryan and Lisa married at the ranch in a small family ceremony in October 2011, and are planning a bigger party. "I was initially only able to stay on a fiancée visa for 90 days, so planning a big wedding in that time would have been difficult," says Lisa, explaining the biggest challenge for anyone embarking on a cross-cultural romance in the US is dealing with visa and residency regulations. "Getting into the US to live is a nightmare and, although not finished, has taken about two years. I wasn't allowed to live in the US during this time as I was undergoing interviews by the US embassy in London," she explains. Lisa has only recently received her employment card and is waiting for her residence permit, despite the fact she and Ryan have been married for a year and now have a daughter.

Her advice to anyone thinking of turning a holiday romance into something permanent? "This is a huge decision, so take as much time as you can to really get to know one another, to make sure it's the right decision. I had to adapt to the challenge of a totally different lifestyle, swapping a high-powered career for time on a horse, chasing cows. But stepping out of my wedding dress and into my cowgirl boots for good was exciting. I couldn't have guessed how far this holiday romance really would take me."

Long-term love

While Lisa took the brave step of totally changing her life in pursuit of true love, not all holiday romances develop in such dramatic fashion. Daniel Miller, a project manager, hadn't been looking for romance when he booked an eight-day walking trip in Montenegro. "While I'm sure that sort of outward-bound trip does attract like-minded souls who relish the satisfaction of group activities, I didn't think the holiday would be the place I'd fall in love," he recalls. Travelling with the group was Tracey, a marketing manager from Northern Ireland, and during the holiday the two struck up a bond.

"Meeting on holiday meant we spent quality time with each other, giving us happy memories to build on," says Daniel. He recalls a particularly enjoyable afternoon when they climbed to a fortress on the island: "We'd had a night out the previous evening, and progress up the 1,350 steps to a fortress was slow. Tracey and I were last to the top, but had great fun on the way, to be rewarded with stunning views neither of us will forget."

Daniel believes the time they spent together in Montenegro would help build the foundations for long-term love when they arrived home, including the logistical challenges presented by Tracey living in Ireland, and Dan being based in Kent. Testament to how far a holiday romance can take you, with the right person, is the fact they married in May 2012. Their love story in Montenegro was given even greater potency by the fact they tied the knot on the island, at Our Lady of the Rocks, one of the churches they visited on the trip.

"Lots of people have holiday romances," says Dan. "What makes our relationship different from the normal holiday romance is the fact it's led to something really meaningful in the long term." Does he feel that meeting while travelling contributed to that? "Without a doubt. That experience of travelling with a group was positive, and I'm forever grateful that it brought us together."

Daniel and Tracey's romance was born from group travel, something Charlie Hopkinson, managing director of adventure holiday company Dragoman, has learned is particularly conducive for fostering romance. Dragoman organises for clients to enjoy exotic experiences in remote destinations, from sleeping in yurts with Uzbek families to trekking through the jungle in Rwanda. The firm often receives letters from clients who've married after meeting on a trip. Each itinerary is overseen by a staff member, at least four of whom have had clients who've gone on to marry each other, as well as two of the directors, including Charlie, who met his wife on a trip to Kenya in 1985. The couple live in Suffolk with their three children.

"If you put 20 people in a truck and send them off, stopping in some of the most amazing places in the world, romance will blossom, although this wasn't something we envisaged when we founded the company," admits Charlie.

"There isn't much privacy, with shared tents and facilities — it's all part of the fun, though, and speeds up a potential relationship. You see people for who they really are, which can be useful in developing a long-term relationship, rather than just a holiday fling."

In Charlie's experience, longer trips of over three weeks allow a budding relationship to go through several new stages. "Travelling from Istanbul to Beijing overland, or along the Silk Road to Turkmenistan, is a challenge, and you get to see the good, bad and ugly of every person. It's a great foundation for a lasting relationship," he explains.

Indian affair

Lisa, Daniel and Charlie make holiday romance sound appealing, but what happens when it goes wrong? Anna Armstrong was travelling in India when she met good-looking Aussie, Sean.

"We partied on the beach in Kerala, visited the Taj Mahal at dawn and saw Rajasthan on an elephant," she recalls. "In those circumstances, it'd be hard not to fall in love, so I said yes when Sean asked to visit me in London."

But without the rose-tinted glow of an Indian dawn, their romance was more challenging. "I thought we could continue the relationship back in the UK," says Anna. 'But working in a bar in Clapham was far from romantic, and existing on a meagre wage wasn't half the fun it had been in India. We struggled on for two months after we came back to London. Once the passion had cooled, it was clear we had nothing in common."

Does she have regrets? "I wish I'd taken the relationship for what it was — a holiday fling — and kissed Sean goodbye on a beach in Goa. A romantic memory would be something to treasure, but as it is, I feel embarrassed for thinking it was something more."

Relationship therapist Laura Holmes believes Anna's experience is the norm, rather than the exception, and advises anyone thinking of bringing their holiday romance home to be cautious. "Trying to maintain romance can lead to nasty shocks," she says. "It's also important to remember the normal rules of dating are hugely accelerated while on holiday. Within normal life, most of us depend on a bit of subtlety to allow a relationship to develop, but while abroad there's a sense that if it doesn't happen immediately, you might miss the love of your life — which is quite unlikely. Remember, too, that in the age of global communication, keeping in touch isn't the challenge it was."

With this in mind, I emailed my friend in Argentina, and while urging her to enjoy the heady romance of love under a foreign sun, and to treasure the taste of caipirinhas and feijoada on a hot summer night, I also advised her to wait until she's back home before deciding if her fling has a long-term future.

Case studies

Louisa and Kevin, Argentina
Keen rider Louisa Fifield booked a holiday at Estancia Los Potreros, a working cattle ranch in Argentina, in 2005, before taking on a demanding new job at a brewery. Her host for the week was Kevin Begg, who ran the ranch as a family home. "It was on the third day when one of the other guests commented there was a spark between Kevin and I," laughs Louisa. But while they enjoyed each other's company, the relationship remained platonic, and she returned to England. "It was a case of wrong time, wrong place, as I had a new job to go back to in England, and Kevin was busy running the business in Argentina," Louisa explains. They did, however, swap details, and over the following months, started speaking with increasing regularity. "What started as a spark on holiday became a mutual attraction," Louisa says. A holiday was planned in Ireland, "to see what might happen", and romance swiftly followed. "Just four days after I picked him up from the airport, on the ferry to Ireland, Kevin proposed and I said yes," Louisa explains. "I resigned from work, packed up my flat and flew to join Kevin in Argentina six weeks later." It's difficult, Louisa concedes, "not to fall in love at Los Potreros." Nevertheless, she was sceptical that a holiday encounter could turn into something serious. "I honestly hadn't imagined hearing from Kevin once I left, as I'd never believed in holiday romances, especially when two people come from very different backgrounds and countries. But the Estancia is such a magical place, that a few days' stay can soften the hardest of hearts." The couple married in Argentina in 2007, and now run the estate together. "We intend to continue as hosts at the Estancia for the immediate future. We're always adding to our family, which currently consists of five cats, five dogs and 120 horses."

Pip and Christian, France
In 2010, Pip Watkins was in charge of a UK sports marketing agency, but she dreamt of running sports training camps for adults. In pursuit of her dream, she went to the Alps to research ski touring, and met Christian. "We instantly connected," remembers Pip. "In fact, I'd say it was love at first sight. During that first trip we went ski touring, off-piste skiing and paragliding together, as he's also the resort's paragliding instructor. We had about as much fun as one can possibly have in the snow." She reluctantly returned to England, but Christian urged her to return a month later. "I went for a long weekend and it was really wonderful. I'd met my soul-mate," Pip explains. "After that I'd come out as often as I could for six months. We started discussing how I could run athlete camps from the Alps." Pip moved there permanently two years ago to start her company, Adventures in the Alps, which runs weekend retreats, as well as fitness, adventure and skiing holidays. "The biggest challenge we have now is about communication. A relationship in two languages is difficult, and even though we speak each other's language reasonably well, there are often misunderstandings and cultural differences," says Pip. "I thought France had a similar culture to ours but it doesn't. We don't want to get married, but we do live together and spend our time together in the mountains. And having started the relationship as a holiday romance, travel is still really important to us. We're planning to go to Sri Lanka for a month during our off-season in October, to climb, swim, sail, surf and walk. My life has changed immeasurably. I'm outside all the time and really living life to the full. I have Christian to thank for all this."

Published in Nov/Dec 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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