Is there anything more stress-inducing - dispiriting, even - than leafing through a glossy magazine in the run-up to the holiday season? I ask after an afternoon spent reading through the reams of advice thrown out to ordinary mortals like you and me by the arbiters of all that is fun and fashionable. And I have to say that my head is reeling so hard that I might just have to take a break from writing this to have a quick lie-down.
Okay, so I am back. And on the grounds that it's never a good idea to suffer alone, I am going to tell you what I have learnt about what goes into the making of a dream vacation.
Well, first up is the destination. Now, this is trickier than you might think. It's not just a simple choice between beaches and mountains, Europe and Asia, spa break and walking tour, family holiday and romantic getaway. No, you also have to consider which are the trendy destinations of today and which are the no-go areas where nobody of wealth, style and distinction would be caught dead.
So Goa is passÃ©, unless you're partying with Vijay Mallya. Pattaya and Phuket have been done to death and if you're going to any place called Koh make sure it doesn't have Samui attached to it. The Southern hemisphere rates better than the Northern; the East scores over the West. Maldives is the new Mauritius (which is now too mid-market to rate). Or maybe Croatia is the new Maldives - I'm sorry, but it's impossible to keep up with this stuff!
All you really need to know is that it is imperative to holiday in a place that hasn't already been destroyed by tourist hordes (i.e. you and me); a paradise unspoilt enough for you to feel as if you are the first to discover it.
Once you've decided on the trendy location of choice, you need some trendy luggage to go with it. You need a lightweight bag with wheels so that you can zip around at airports across the world; a roomy carry-on so that you can pack a neck pillow and cashmere throw (both of which are apparently essentials on a long-haul flight) along with a nice trashy novel you can read if you don't like the in-flight entertainment. If you're going trekking, you will need a backpack; if you're headed to the beach, you will need a straw tote; if you're staying at a fancy hotel, you will need a smart clutch for the evening.
What to pack is a favourite topic. As is how to pack. Apparently, a white shirt and blue jeans are essential no matter where in the world you are going (so why is it that I never see anyone wearing this vacation staple no matter where I holiday?). We are all supposed to roll our socks and stuff them inside our shoes so that they don't get crushed beneath the weight of our skin-care products (and these have to be packed in sealed, see-through, zip-lock containers on pain of death).
The instructions don't stop even after you've safely boarded. Remember not to drink too much alcohol on the flight. Sure, the champagne and wine may be free, but you will certainly pay for the hangover once you land. Tea and coffee are both dehydrating. Just stick to water - and make sure to drink lots of it. And don't just lie there, slumped in your seat - walk around the plane once in a while to guard against deep-vein thrombosis.
If you think this is exhausting enough, well, you ain't seen nothing yet. If you go by the Glossy Manual of Vacation Planning, you will probably need a holiday to prepare for your beach holiday.
First up is the fitness routine. You can't seriously be thinking of venturing anywhere near a beach with that wobbly stomach which has the consistency of cottage cheese? Perish the thought. You have to have what is called a beach-perfect body even if it means giving up carbs, alcohol, hell, even the will to live. Every waking hour must be spent on the treadmill, pounding away till the pounds melt away, on the floor working those abs till they are washboard firm, lifting weights to give definition to your pecs and biceps.
Yes, the instructions come hard and fast. How to get that perfect bikini body; what to wear once you have got it; how to disguise it if it doesn't pass muster. You get lists of swimsuit styles so that you can puzzle over which works for your body type. You can choose from among sarongs, caftans, and see-through kurtis if you're looking to cover up. Honestly, it's enough to make you want to spend your entire vacation cowering in the bathroom, staring disconsolately at your cellulite.
Then, there's the beauty routine. Exfoliate, exfoliate, exfoliate. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise. Don't forget to pack a sunscreen with a SPF factor of at least 30. And re-apply every few hours to get maximum protection through the day.
Get a manicure. Get a pedicure. Get new flip-flops to show off your pedicure. Get a Brazilian (warning: this involves the use of hot wax, not a hot South American man). Get a bikini to show off your Brazilian.
Frankly, after an afternoon of this, all I want to say is: Get a grip. It's a holiday, for God's sake, not a military campaign that has to be planned to perfection. You don't need lists to make it work; it's not working that does the trick.
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Seema on Twitter at twitter.com/seemagoswami