“Accept everyone has different wants”
Lauren Quaintance, family luxury travel expert, praises a good kids’ club
Travelling with kids requires a certain kind of equanimity. You set off smug in the knowledge that you will make your children better people by taking them to exotic places, showing them a life outside their everyday existence while forging a permanent family bond. The next minute you’re taxiing down the runway, two kids screeching that they absolutely must have another handful of popcorn right now, and you wonder what on earth you’ve got yourself into. And that, in a nutshell, is why hotel kids’ clubs exist.
Parents visualise one thing for a trip, their kids something else altogether. On a recent visit to Singapore I stayed at the iconic Shangri-La with my eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son. We knew that the Shangri-La had a huge, new play space called Buds but we did not predict the hypnotic effect it would have on our children. At first, it was a welcome distraction; while we enjoyed dinner they threw themselves in ball pits and lunged headlong down slides. The next day they pleaded to return. Again the day after. When we did drag them out into Singapore they asked immediately to be taken back to the hotel.
Don’t get me wrong, Buds is remarkable. As well as the ball pit, it has a music studio, a fully equipped cooking classroom and a water-play area with a life-sized pirate ship. It’s proof kids’ clubs have come a long way. Time was a hotel might offer colouring-in, dress-ups and a film night. These days your offspring might learn to make dumplings under the tutelage of a Michelin-starred chef, or make like Bear Grylls and build a raft with their bare hands. And yet every parent I know has a love-hate relationship with kids’ clubs. On the one hand, they can offer some welcome respite. On the other, many parents feel uneasy about travelling far from home only to deposit their child in the care of strangers for hours every day.
Once, at an exceptionally family-friendly Pacific Islands resort, our children were assigned an all-day minder. This local woman watched them devotedly and would even ride down water slides still fully dressed. When we insisted on having an evening meal with our kids without her help she hid nearby, certain we would not cope. She was right; our kids started acting up just before the mains arrived – at which point she emerged and took them beach combing. It was an intuitive and, dare I say, welcome move, but it left us feeling strangely impotent. But that, I suppose, is the thing about kids’ clubs. When you travel with small people, the gap between expectation and reality can be vast, so it’s best to have a back-up plan.
“Turn the world into a playground”
Nigel Hosking, head of product at travel operators Cox & Kings, has the lowdown on 2018’s must-do family activities
Tarzan trail, Thailand
Thailand is not just about beaches. Go inland, stay amid the dramatic limestone karsts of Khao Sok National Park at Anurak Community Lodge. Small kids will love spotting dusky langurs in the forest, while bigger ones go rafting and hiking.
Chariot racing, Jordan
Seeing real-life chariots race at Jerash, one of the Middle East’s best preserved Roman sites, is a pinch-yourself experience. You sit on the benches, the same used thousands of years ago, and watch the beautiful two-wheelers enter the amphitheatre one by one to cheers. Wow.
Animal antics, Australia
A Melbourne to Adelaide road trip starts with Phillip Island, seeing the world’s smallest penguins. Down the coast, the kids can visit a sea lion colony on Kangaroo Island, then go on a bush walk in search of kangaroos. Finish with a visit to the koala park.
“Take the family out of their comfort zone”
Sometimes the best family holidays are the most unexpected, says The Daily Telegraph’s Hotel Guru Fiona Duncan
“I always hated sightseeing,” said my younger son, “until now.” It’s the response that every parent prays to hear on a trip, but seldom does.
And how did we achieve this conversion? By ripping up the usual family holiday rule book. The transformation started the morning after we had arrived at our hotel in the shadow of the Pyramids of Giza. “Wake up,” my teenage sons called, “there’s a giant pyramid out there.”
It turns out that the only surviving member of the Seven Wonders of the World is a great way to get the kids out of bed. The Great Pyramid of Cheops, framed by the bedroom window, was a gripping sight, and from that moment all four of us were hooked on the story of Ancient Egypt, its gods and kings, tombs and temples, hieroglyphic puzzles and stunning discoveries.
Our never-to-be-forgotten family holiday to Egypt took place not long after the January 2011 revolution and the crowds and queues had gone. It was a doddle, at the Great Pyramid, to be among the first 150 visitors per day allowed to penetrate the limestone mountain, then bend double and climb steeply upwards and into the tiny tomb at its core. In the enigmatic, dusty Egyptian Museum, it took seconds rather than the usual 10 minutes to stand before the mask of Tutankhamun.
The Nile, when we reached it by plane to Luxor, felt as quiet and unhurried as in the 19th century. So quiet, in fact, that we found ourselves upgraded from the cruise boat we had booked to something then new to the Nile: a modern-era dahabiya. These gaff-rigged craft, larger versions of the traditional felucca, have been reintroduced in the last few years to suit private groups of family or friends. They are able to tie up in shallow places where conventional boats can’t, enabling us to wander around the fascinating dock and quarry where sandstone was mined for the temples and to visit an island that seemed lost in time. Grazed by water buffalo, it was filled with groves of mango, lemon and banana, and fringed by a beach where we barbecued by candlelight and the boys swam in the river.
From the tiny, weathered rais (captain), in pale blue jellabiya and snow-white turban, to the comic belly-dancing waiter, we were looked after by the gentlest of crews. The food was exceptional, there was a welcome hot tub on the spacious roof deck, an elegant sitting room for evening games of cards and backgammon, and a shaded terrace beyond. But the real secret to the trip’s success was in the uniting of this luxurious but unusual mode of transport with an immersive learning experience – made all the more visceral by Bahaa, a hugely entertaining Egyptologist who travelled with us, popping up along the way to help bring the history of ancient Egypt to life.
Until our trip to Egypt, family holidays had been at the seaside, in camper vans or afloat in the Mediterranean where the boys learnt to sail the boat themselves. But this was our first foray together to a fascinating, mysterious country that was new to us all. Right from the start it felt like a boy’s own adventure and a voyage of discovery, and that’s what made it so utterly unique.
“Just relax and think about the memories”
Alyson Long, blogger with World Travel Family, reveals her tips for a stress-free trip
Pack only the essentials
Child-wrangling at airports is hard enough without unnecessary bags to watch. And if you forget something it’s easy to buy it at your next stop. Their special teddy bears are, of course, absolutely essential.
Pick your destination wisely
Know your kids’ abilities and interests, as well as basic age appropriateness. The key is to build in kid time regardless, be it playgrounds, a pool or just down-time to play between Dad’s museum and Mum’s mountain hike.
Embrace airport layovers
Layovers can have benefits. Fidgety legs get a good run around in preparation for the next flight, while airports give a little glimpse of another culture. If time allows, organise a trip into town.
It’s about making memories
The point of family travel is to bank great memories for both kids and parents. My eldest son’s best memory is our mum-and-son trek in dirty clothes to Tengboche Monastery in the Himalayas. It was one-on-one time and a huge personal achievement that’ll stay with him forever.
Alyson, James and their two sons have just entered their sixth year of full-time family travel. worldtravelfamily.com
“It’s all about the details”
It takes clever planning – and terrific food – to create the ideal family-friendly hotel, says Harriet Green, editor of The Observer Magazine
When you arrive late, and your hotel is glowing in soft yellow light against the black countryside sky, it’s tempting to believe you have arrived at a magical castle in fairyland. Especially if you have children in the car, cooing and gasping. But experience has shown that you should wait before coming to such a conclusion. Because not all hotels are suited to family holidays.
Some fail miserably, with fixtures and fittings unsuited to small people, or a cool indifference to them that seems calculated to alienate parents. Others focus too hard on entertaining the kids at the expense of their adult companions. Happily, the resort of Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, the heel of Italy, finds the perfect middle way.
The most decisive victory is achieved through ingenious architecture. With its hidden staircases, cobbled lanes and cottages dotted around a main piazza, Borgo Egnazia has the feel of an ancient village. But of course it’s not: it’s an enclosed space, and within its borders children are safe to roam freely, on foot or on the hotel’s bikes.
More importantly, the “village” is discreetly divided into different spaces, variously attractive to guests of different ages; there’s an award-winning spa, cocktail bars, six restaurants, a children’s club and four swimming pools. Thus, young children aren’t particularly visible if you don’t have any of your own and stay away from the pool designated for them.
And if you do have them, you can really enjoy being with them – especially around mealtimes. This is Italy, where family and food readily combine. Many parts of the country have their own cuisine. In Puglia, specialities include orecchiette, the Puglian pasta shaped like little ears, with turnip tops; stracciatella di bufala (a type of buffalo milk cheese) from Andria; fiaschetto (flask-shaped) tomatoes from Torre Guaceto; and grilled and raw fish from Polignano and Savelletri.
With my husband and my daughter, I joined a class in the local cuisine, run by one of the hotel chefs, Rocco. On the menu: orecchiette, of course, served with meat balls. Eggs are not used in traditional Puglian pasta-making, just water and flour. We roll it into thin snakes, snip it into pieces, then Rocco shows us how to shape it. As we cook, I notice that the guests in our lesson include three generations of an English family, laughing together.
Then Rocco starts to talk lyrically about Sunday lunch at his grandmother’s. This may seem like an aside, but gentle, unforced acknowledgement of family togetherness is hard to fake. And without it, even the most magical castle in fairyland won’t keep children cooing for long.
“When it comes to a place to stay, everybody needs to be happy”
Tamara Lohan, co-founder and CTO of Mr & Mrs Smith, on the best family hotels.
Best for island life:
Soneva Fushi, Maldives
This desert-island retreat is idyllic for both grown-ups and kids. It has soft sandy beaches and a calm lagoon with a shallow incline, and the currents and tides are gentle, so it’s safe for paddling. The Den, a free-to-attend kids’ club, has a pirate ship, ping-pong hut, mocktail bar and cooking classes, alongside other pint-sized treats, including an open-air cinema screening U-rated films. Older kids can explore the island solo on bicycles, or go on a subterranean adventure – all water-based activities are covered by a separate watersports and dive centre on the island.
Best for treehouse thrills:
The Fish Hotel, England
This charming countryside stay is easy to get to from London. Little explorers have 160ha of Cotswolds greenery to roam safely – watch them borrow a pair of wellies, or a Segway or bike, and bomb through the grounds. The brand new Treehouses, stilted huts hidden in the woods, are magical for all ages, each with two bedrooms and comfortably sleeping four.
Best for to-the-max luxury:
Rosewood Phuket, Thailand
Not only is this Thai outpost breathtakingly beautiful, it’s child-friendly, too, deftly combining luxury with a family stay. Little ones can learn Thai boxing and traditional kite-making after a stint at the fun-packed Explorers Club, while babies are well catered for with on-loan prams, baby bed linen, bottle-sterilising kits and more. And grown-ups will love the spa, delicious dining and cocktails, and flopping on Tri Trang Beach.
Best for sand and sea:
Eagles Palace, Halkidiki, Greece
The experienced staff treat guests of all ages like family. The range of rooms caters for new to extended families. The stylish and spacious two-bedroom bungalows have a private pool for those with tiny babies or swim-confident youngsters. The Blue Flag beach has calm waters so children can frolic freely, plus the beach restaurant is right on the shore, too, so kids can play in the sand by your table. The kids’ club and watersports pavilion both offer aquatic fun.
“A portable charger is a game changer”
Kirsten Maxwell, US-based family travel blogger with Kids Are a Trip, reveals her gadget must-haves to avoid family meltdown. kidsareatrip.com
As a family of five, we always have multiple gadgets we need to charge while travelling. Having a portable charger – one that can charge multiple devices – is a game changer.
Extended trips create huge amounts of luggage, but there’s an easy way to prevent this: a clothesline. Wash clothes in a sink, hang them anywhere, and once they dry, you’re ready to go.
Invest in a tripod for family photos. This one holds both DSLR and mirrorless cameras and takes a perfect picture every time. Set the timer, have your photographer jump in the photo, and you have a great family picture.
Families already have plenty of gear when they travel. So an inflatable booster seat is the one essential item in our book. Compact and lightweight, it saves money and space in the family luggage.