It is a physical impossibility to go on holiday as a single person without assuming you are about to enter into the greatest romance of your life. Everyone you see from the moment you enter the departure lounge is auditioning for the love interest in a rom-com starring you – and once you’re basking in the sun and sipping a midday cocktail? Cue the strings.
When you can’t go on holiday at all then you need a bunch of strangers to live out your romantic holiday reveries for you, which is where Channel 4's First Dates Hotel comes in – the perfect vicarious escape from lockdown. Even when I go on holiday and don’t meet anyone, it always feels like the possibility was there – and that’s never more true than when you’re swept off to a gorgeous hotel full of potential love interests.
There’s something magic about exiting your real life and trying a different, more luxurious one for a bit. It makes you do things you wouldn’t normally do, like striking up conversation with a beautiful stranger or doing karaoke in a bar full of people. Everyone looks that bit more attractive, the meet-cutes just a little cuter. There’s a reason why that song you danced to reminds you of them long after you’ve forgotten their name – being thrust into each other's path as though fate itself planned it is a much more exciting story than "I swiped right and we went for a drink".
My favourite holiday romance happened in Portugal, where I met a boy at a music festival. He was tall, blonde and outrageously handsome. At home, I doubt we would ever have spoken but in the alternate universe of abroad, we ended up in each other's path. The first night of the festival, we watched a gig in a sparse crowd as we inched closer to one another. "Are you seeing anyone?" he asked semi-casually after a few beers. Reader, I was not. We spent three sun-kissed days (and twinkly, starlit nights) wandering around Porto, sheepishly holding hands as we crossed the staggering Dom Luís bridge, shyly snapping candid shots of each other eating ice cream and walking for hours in search of a beach which turned out not to exist. With anyone else, that failed expedition would have left me hot, sweaty and irate; with him it was a marvellous adventure into the unknown, the beach not existing a delightful anecdote which my friends would roll their eyes at later. There’s a photo a friend of mine took of us: I’m laughing at something off camera and he’s staring at me googly-eyed. That’s how I remember that week: I felt glamorous, gorgeous, happy.
Glamour plays a big part in that magic and holiday destinations provide stunning backdrops to perfect moments – which would explain why First Dates Hotel is set in Italy, not Ipswich. Isabelle met her part-time partner on the French Riviera where there are beaches to spare. "I had only been out of a long-term relationship for one month and was sort of thinking that I would probably never experience romance again," she remembers. But she was about to be proven spectacularly wrong: at dinner the first night she noticed a young man and, particularly, "how very long and blonde his eyelashes were". After realising they had a lot in common beyond the eyelashes, they began spending time together. "We went through all the stages of a relationship compressed into 10 days, so the first two days we were hanging out, the third day he declared his feelings and we planned our first proper 'date', then there were first kisses..." She’s starry-eyed remembering those few days, describing moments straight out of a romantic novel. "There were some real ‘scenes’ – like when we walked out on a rock pier and kissed in the middle of the ocean, far from the madding crowd. The ticking clock on our time together before being geographically wrenched apart added romantic drama." Though Isabelle and her Canadian beau are still in touch, video calling quickly drained the string-swelling drama of the affair and they left the romance in France.
Unlike Verity. It’s been almost 20 years since she met Mark at a resort in Fuerteventura; they’re now married with two young children. She hadn’t expected to meet anyone on that trip. "Me and my friend were at this all-inclusive resort which was obviously full of families and kids" – not necessarily the kind of place you meet the love of your life. "Halfway through our first week, we saw a group of lads turn up at the pool – obviously they stuck out like a sore thumb." They saw them again at the bar later, where Mark smoothly offered to take a photo of the girls, which turned into going out on the town with them, which turned into a kiss on the dance floor. "Then we were fully fledged, 0-100 as happens on holiday: we spent all our time together. It felt so intense! I thought, This person is perfect for me, I’ve looked everywhere for them and I’ve found them in Fuerteventura," she laughs. The lads’ holiday ended and after Mark went back to the UK, Verity spent the rest of her time in Spain tethered to the Wi-Fi as they relentlessly messaged back and forth. "We were boyfriend/girlfriend before I even left."
For Leonie, it was catching Steve’s eye across the stacks in a Canadian record shop that left them inseparable for the next week. Alice thought she’d met The One at a foam party in Magaluf where she won his heart (and free drinks for the night) in a competition; three days later, he went back to Scotland and they never spoke again. Whirlwind romances provide an intense shot of drama: time is against you, the unspoken question of 'what happens when we go home?' underpinning every kiss. When you stumble across someone who makes you feel giddy as the sea laps at the beach and the sun sets, is it any wonder that sparks fly?
As for my holiday romance? It faded as quickly as my tan when we met up in London. But the memory of it is as sweet as the ice cream we shared. And there’s always the promise of this summer, when our bikinis and flip-flops may finally come back into their own. Who is out there ready to sweep us off our feet? What heart-thumping excitement awaits us? For now, the thrill of First Dates Hotel will fill that void perfectly but when our turn comes again... See you by the pool!