Families can live up to the pioneer spirit of North America by hiring motor homes and living on the road. Key to America offers vehicles equipped with showers, heaters, cookers and huge fridges. Power steering makes them surprisingly easy to drive. Camp grounds in the US and Canada usually offer a swimming pool, shops, laundries, picnic tables and barbecue plots, plus convenient hook-ups to electricity and waste disposal. Sites vary from big and boisterous, with every kind of recreational facility, to smaller, more tranquil camps in national parks and forests, where curious chipmunks come out to greet you, and the grizzly bear tales cap even those of the fishermen. Motor homes operate out of Vancouver (for the Rockies), Toronto (for the wilderness of Algonquin Park) and Denver (for the great canyons, lakes, cowboy towns and rodeos of Colorado and Montana). Eight- night holidays with flights, the first night in a hotel and motorhome rental costs pounds 929 (pounds 689 for a child under 12) from Vancouver, pounds 809 (and pounds 585) from Toronto and pounds 819 (pounds 419) from Denver.
Key to America 01784 248777
For families who prefer to stay put, Key to America also offers ranch holidays that would hardly be recognisable to your genuine cowboy. They feature hayrides, cookouts, barbecues, "cowboy nights", tennis, swimming as well as supervised horse riding for both novices and experts. The Mayan Dude Ranch at Bandera in Texas costs pounds 1,188 a week for adults (pounds 519 for children), including flights and full board, or can be combined with tours of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio.
Key to America 01784 248777
LES CANALS DE FRANCE
Holidays afloat on the French canals can provide a happy family compromise between parents' love of Gallic good life and their offsprings' over-abundance of energy. Hoseasons offers four-berth cruisers, often Norfolk-built and with all mod cons, costing from pounds 1,125 a week. Necessities such as lifejackets are provided, and folding bikes can be hired for 150FF (about pounds 19) per week for sorties along the towpath. Children can usually be willingly and enthusiastically harnessed to help out with the mechanics of the locks - and at five miles an hour, even take the helm.
There are 5,000 miles of inland waterways and canals to choose from, but two routes seem to have particular family appeal: the 110-mile Canal du Nivernais in Burgundy, is one of the easiest to navigate for novice boating families, with little commercial traffic, and locks operated by keepers (who appreciate help and a tip). The Nivernais offers much the best of French canal cruising - varied rural scenery, local Burgundian cooking, the vineyards of Chablis, and chateaux to visit. And as a bribe, Paris Disneyland is en route for the boating base of Laroche Migennes.
Much of the 63-mile Canal du Rhone a Sete slices through the Camargue delta of lagoons and reed banks, where there are ranches to ride from, teeming wildlife to spot, bull roundups to witness.
And from the ultra-trendy walled Aigues Mortes, the canal runs parallel with the Mediterranean, with huge flat beaches to cycle to, and dunes to roll down. The oyster beds and shellfish restaurants of Bouzigues, the bourrides of Sete (similar to the bouillabaisse of the Cote d'Azur and half the price), and the Languedoc vin rose from the Caves Co-operatives at St Gilles, will probably keep the adults happy.
Hoseasons 01502 500555
MAKING HAY IN THE SUNSHINE
Helping with haymaking, milking the cows or climbing up to the cattle in the High Alps, can give children a real insight into rural life in Swiss mountain villages and valleys. Holidays in traditional working farmhouses there are offered by Inntravel - though participation isn't, of course, obligatory.
Ida's farmhouse in Sorenberg is a typical example; it overlooks the village on a small plateau on the slopes of the Brienzer Rothorn mountain, midway between Lucerne and Interlaken. A path leads through the meadows, and ice-cold Lake Lucerne and Lake Sarnen for the brave to dip into are over the pass.
The farm's self-catering accommodation is in a wood-panelled apartment on the upper storeys, and costs pounds 281 a week for each adult (children under 14 go free of charge), for a self-drive holiday with ferry fares included in the cost.
Inntravel 01653 628811
As every parent knows, children can get bored with sun and sand, precipitating the question parents dread most on holiday: "What is there to do?" The problem has been solved by a handful of tour operators who have added an active dimension to their Mediterranean packages. Watersports are the speciality of Mark Warner, which provides equipment and tuition for guests of all standards and ages in four of its stylish but pricey centres, as well as aerobics classes, volleyball, boules, snorkelling and tennis coaching. "Mini-Clubs" are free for three-to six-year-olds, as are "Kids' Clubs" for six-to-13s and "Indy Clubs" for 13-17s. A creche is available for the under-sixes, supervised by English-speaking nannies, and there's a free baby listening service seven days a week.
The firm has three clubs in Corsica, where a week in August at the Club Hotel Roya, near St Florent, costs pounds 848 for adults, and from pounds 424-pounds 704 for children, with flights, all meals, and most activities included. There are similar activities at its hotel in Sardinia, where the prices range from pounds 826 and pounds 413 respectively, and in Turkey from pounds 875 and pounds 438.
On Sunsail's Club Holidays, the emphasis is very much on sailing and windsurfing. Over-sevens can choose from a variety of dinghy sailing courses, from beginners to specialised courses, costing pounds 50 upwards, with the option of a second week joining a flotilla fleet and cruising round local islets and harbours under the guidance of a lead boat. A week's stay-put holiday at Marmaris in Turkey costs pounds 675 per adult, pounds 340 for two-to-12s, for flights, most meals and children's clubs. If you add a week's flotilla sailing, the price increases to pounds 936 for each of four.
For families who prefer more independence, Sunworld offers surf and sail holidays based in self-catering apartments at Puerto Pollensa in northern Majorca, and Cannigione in Sardinia, with similar ingredients - kids' clubs costing pounds 15-pounds 40 per week, with sailing instruction and lots of other activities nearby. A week in Majorca with four sharing a one-bedroom apartment costs pounds 544 (pounds 539 in Sardinia), with a 25 per cent deduction for children.
Mark Warner 0171 393 3131; Sunsail 01705 222222; Sunworld 01273 626283
French specialist VFB (Vacances Franco-Britanniques) aims to keep the whole family fit and breathless on its France Active holidays in the resorts of Morzine, La Clusaz and Les Deux Alpes. They are based in self-catering chalets or apartments, with more than 20 activities on offer - fishing, summer skiing and whitewater rafting, and the new mountain sport of canyoning. All sports are accompanied by guides, with English-speaking reps. There's a VFB children's club for over-fives, and teenage evenings are organised. A 10-day holiday in August, for a family of four, costs pounds 850-pounds 1,010 for a large apartment, pounds 1,162-pounds 1,460 for a large chalet, both in La Clusaz. The prices include return ferry travel, accommodation, a VFB discount card offering reductions on sports, restaurants and in some shops, and a "Discover the Mountains" voucher for a half-day's mountain biking or guided walk.
Family holiday specialist Sun Esprit bases its one-week Alpine holidays in the traditional Savoyard-style Auberge Les Gourmets in Morzine, which costs pounds 298 per adult, to include Channel crossing, seven nights b&b, some evening meals and three nights babysitting, with under-twos costing pounds 52, and two-to-18-year-olds pounds 149.
There's a nursery for infants aged up to four years, and the Alpies Club with picnics, treasure hunts and nature trails, organised for children up to 12 - both run by qualified British nannies, costing pounds 48 per child. The Mountain Bike World Cup comes through Morzine on the 10 and 11 August.
"Discovery and Activity at Annecy" holidays from Headwater include weekly programmes of activities from volleyball and archery to mountain biking and chess. Prices of pounds 437-pounds 518 per adult, and pounds 207 for children under 12 in August, cover the crossing and full board. The hotel overlooks Lake Annecy, which claims to be the cleanest lake in Europe.
VFB 01242 240310; Sun Esprit Holidays 01252 616789; Headwater Holidays 01606 48699
CLUBBING IN ITALY
Far less known in Britain than their French Club Med counterparts, Italy's Club Valtur Holidays include unlimited food and wine with meals, land and watersports, evening entertainment and nightclubs in the overall price. Children's clubs cater for youngsters of all ages, and they can even eat in their own restaurants where furnishings and crockery are pared down to size.
All the Club Valturs selected by Italian Escapades for British guests are in Italy's southerly regions of Calabria and Puglia, bypassed by most tour operators, and the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. At Nicotera in Calabria, children are entertained and supervised from the age of three, with an Infants' Club available to parents with babies.
Prices at Nicotera are from pounds 75-pounds 96 per day in high season, and return flights cost pounds 249 each. The Club Valtur at Ostuni in Puglia, with similar facilities, costs slightly less.
The Sicilian-style holiday village on the north coast of the island at Pollina is only nine miles from the fashionable resort of Cefalu, and within easy reach of stupendous sightseeing to Taormina, Mount Etna, Agrigento and the Aeolian isles, but is more suitable for children over 12. Costs are slightly higher here; from pounds 96-pounds l09 per day, with return charter flights costing pounds 239, scheduled flights pounds 330.
Italian Escapades 0181 748 2661
CLOSER TO HOME
You can have a go at abseiling or climbing, pony trekking, caving, mountain biking, archery, canoeing, rifle shooting and gorge-walking - or do nothing more strenuous than pottering about in the rolling Welsh border country on one of Acorn's Activity Weeks, based at a country house hotel, the Pencerrig near Builth Wells. There are other activities each day, with barbecues, croquet and games in the evenings.
Prices for a week are pounds 475 per adult, pounds 375 per child up to the age of 17, sharing accommodation, with all meals, activities, instruction and equipment included. If a full week's non-stop activity sounds too strenuous, the YHA runs family multi-activity breaks in August for four nights, costing pounds 158 per adult, half price for the 10-18-year-olds, with full board at Edale hostel in the heart of the Peak National Park, surrounded by rugged moorland. The Peak District is the training ground for many British climbers, and ideally placed for hillcraft activities - caving, climbing, and canoeing are all part of the holiday, while in the evening there are discos, games and "initiative exercises". For those who can take a full week, the cost is pounds 255 for adults, pounds 127.50 for children.
Acorn Holidays 01432 830083; YHA Edale Activity Centre 01433 670302
Hotels that welcome children are thin on the ground in Britain. Here are two that do more than just tolerate them.
Woolley Grange near Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire, eight miles east of Bath, has been recognised for several years as top of the upmarket-but- child-friendly league of English hotels. The Jacobean manor house, once owned by a branch of the Baskerville family, was bought and restored in 1989 by London escapees Nigel and Heather Chapman. They also converted a Victorian coachhouse into the Woolley Bears Den, a staffed nursery and playrooms open every day, where children can play, paint, read and eat from their own menu under relaxed (and free) supervision. For older children, there are bicycles, pets, tennis courts and swimming pool. Family rooms cost from pounds 135 per couple per night, b&b; children stay free, paying only for meals.
A second family hotel, the Old Bell in the Cotswold town of Malmesbury has claims to be the oldest hotel in England. The Old Bell is also progressive in its approach to younger guests. A small nursery and a teenagers' room (with Nintendo) have opened, and children stay free in their parents' rooms.
The Old Bell is less expensive; family rooms cost from pounds 110 per couple per night, and there is a three-night short break (dinner, b&b) until 30 September, at pounds 198 per person per break.
Woolley Grange 01225 864705; The Old Bell 01666 822344
COTE D'AZUR ON THE CHEAP
It's rare to find accommodation on the Cote d'Azur in peak season, but these are bleak times for French holiday firms lumbered with the punitive franc fort. Eurovillages still has room in the Cap Esterel holiday village, and prices are modest; a family of five will pay pounds 958 a week from 3-10 August, pounds 858 on 17 August and only pounds 503 if they can wait until 31 August. These prices include crossings and studio-type accommodation (often with convertible beds in the living room). If you use the autoroutes, add another pounds 70-pounds 80 in each direction for tolls. The village is well-equipped for children, with their own clubs, a mini-train to the beach a mile away, tennis, archery, golf and cycles.
If you prefer to be under canvas (and many children do), French Country Camping can offer three very different sites where a family of two adults and up to four children under 18 pay pounds 739 for 14-night tent holidays including ferry crossings. On a hillside two miles from a sandy beach, three miles from Frejus and 20 miles from St Tropez and Cannes, Camping Le Dattier is relatively relaxed for a site in this popular area, with children's pool and play area, riding and a water park, nearby. Camping des Pecheurs, surrounded by vineyards on the edge of medieval Roquebrune, is a 20-minute drive from the nearest beaches, but has its own 25m pool and children's activities.
Further inland, on the terrace of an old lavender farm, with dramatic views towards Castellane, Camping Clavet Loisirs is about 11/2 hours from the coast, but close to the spectacular Gorges du Verdon for caves, kayaks and raft excursions, and the Lac de Ste Croix for watersport instruction.
Eurovillages 01606 734400; French Country Camping 01923 261311
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