In search of the perfect family break

Conferences are squeezing children out of hotels
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The Independent Culture
I was once sent to try out an award-winning family hotel on the south coast. On arrival, we discovered that our three children were the only small children staying at the grand Victorian establishment that weekend.

Yet the hotel was nearly full - with conference parties. As I struggled with my noisy toddler along the corridors, I felt sorry for delegates trying to concentrate on their flip charts.

Further investigation revealed that pounds 1m of refurbishments favoured corporate, rather than junior, interests. The pool had been redesigned to allow the construction of extra conference rooms, which meant parents could no longer watch their children from the open-plan bar. A bigger gym had been built where the children's playroom used to be - the new playroom was small and dark and out of bounds to over-sevens.

I put it to Nigel Edmund-Jones - editor of the 1996 family guide And Children Come Too - that hotel loyalty is distressingly split between family and conference interests. "You've hit the nail on the head," he said. "This is what English hotels are like. The problem is that not enough families go to England for their holidays, and hotels end up with casual visitors and conference delegates."

Some chain hotels are even filling in their swimming pools to make space for more long tables and overhead projectors. Since children are barred from many country house hotels, sneered at in middle-range guest-houses and ignored nearly everywhere else, where should the discerning family go for a civilised weekend?

Unless you have city-centre motel mentality, it can be hard to find the perfect family weekend hideaway - somewhere children are properly catered for, without dominating the day. Those hotels which do open their arms to young guests are to be treasured. We have chosen four of the best. The only conference should be over which to sample first.

The Old Bell, Abbey Row, Malmesbury, Wilts (01666 822344). Sister hotel to the famous Woolley Grange at Bradford on Avon, the Old Bell claims to be one of the oldest inns in the country. The philosophy is relaxed elegance with family friendliness: silver service, stylish bedrooms, well- equipped children's playroom and nanny-on-site.

Parents relax by ancient fireplaces (the oldest dates back to 1220) while children are fed high tea. The Den is open every day and nannies' services are free during opening hours. Malmesbury is a small, busy town beside a picturesque twist in the River Avon. In 960 it was the capital of all England. You can't miss the Abbey - it's right next door. There are special winter breaks at pounds 195 per adult for two nights, including B&B and an activity allowance towards horseriding, gliding, golf, tours, beauty treatments or the wine list. Children pay pounds 5 only per meal taken.

Polmaily House Hotel, Drumnadrochit, Loch Ness, Invernesshire (01456 450343). One of my favourite hideaways, and the children's all-time best, with a menagerie of animals, a stable full of ponies, a lawn strewn with bikes, an indoor heated pool, treehouse, adventure playground, day trips and organised activities.

Adult attractions include a tennis court, permanently blazing log fire and cozy library. There's bicycle and ski hire, stalking, riding and fishing in the hotel's trout pond. Meals are plucked from the surrounding countryside: Aberdeen Angus beef, Tay salmon and Glen Affric trout. Full Highland breakfast includes game haggis. Special rate for two adults and two children, any three nights, B&B, pounds 399.

Holdfast Cottage, Little Malvern, Worcestershire (01684 310288). Featuring a teddy bear in every delightful room, Holdfast Cottage dates back to the 17th century, with a 60-year-old wisteria and a view that's (obviously) as old as the hills.

Grown-ups come for the food and the impeccable service, but the infant equipment list is superb: stairgate, sand pit, spare push-chairs, see- saw, disposable bibs, high chair and family pets on the large lawn. Baby back-carriers can be borrowed, and picnics packed for hill walks. Special breaks for any two nights are pounds 54 per adult per night, under-fives free, five to 10s charged according to appetite. A one-off charge of pounds 5 for put-up beds.

Armathwaite Hall Hotel, Bassenthwaite Lake, Keswick, Cumbria (01768 776551). This grand, 17th-century manor takes head-of-the-table position over Bassenthwaite Lake, looking south to the famous slopes of Skiddaw and Grisedale Pike.

The hotel's Free Bee Club includes a highly imaginative weekend activity programme for junior guests. There are swimming galas, lessons in chocolate cookery, young etiquette, cocktail shaking, junior beauty and survival training, plus free entry to "Trotters and Friends", an idyllic animal farm.

Any two nights from pounds 77.50 per adult per night, including splendid, six- course table d'hote dinner. Children sharing their parents' room go free, including high tea.