ACTIVE family holidays where, according to the brochure, 'you don't have to have hairy legs and crampons' are organised by VFB in Morzine and La Clusaz in the French Alps. New this year is Le Mont-Dore, a 19th-century spa town in the heart of the Parc Regional des Volcans in the Auvergne.
There are French-run creches and clubs in all the villages (at extra charge), and a special VFB Activity Passport is included in the holiday price. Available to all aged over four, it gives access to a range of activities from golf and mountain biking to rafting, summer tobogganing and go-karting.
Accommodation ranges from hotels to apartments and luxury chalets. A family of four, self-catering in early July, would pay from pounds 690 for one week; from pounds 1,392 for two weeks in August. Ferry fares included.
VFB (tel: 0242 240331/2).
THE LEISURE DOME
Center Parcs runs 14 holiday villages in northern Europe where, even in midwinter, some of the family can stroll along the lemon groves while others play tennis or shoot the rapids of Jungle River - all without fear of frostbite.
The Center Parc philosophy is to make weather redundant by enclosing activities and entertainment in a vast glass dome where the temperature is always tropical. The villages are in rural surroundings, with individual villas dotted among the trees - happily combining leisure with conservation. Traffic is banned. Activities range from aromatherapy to archery, with a full children's programme for all ages, a kindergarten and discos.
In the UK, Longleat in Wiltshire, which opens this July, joins Sherwood Forest and Elveden Forest. A week costs pounds 282- pounds 691 for a two-bedroom villa, short breaks available. Food and some of the activities cost extra.
In France, a second park was opened last year at Chaumont in the relatively unknown but fascinating region of the Sologne. Stena Sealink package this and other Continental villages (phone 0233 647033 for details).
Holidays in similar all-weather centres in the Netherlands and Belgium, called Sunparks, are offered by the Belgian Travel Service.
Center Parcs UK (tel: 0272 244744). Belgian Travel Service (tel: 0920 467345).
Splash, a non-profit charity, co-ordinates single-parent offers, free child places and reduced-price holidays from various tour operators. Destinations include Florida, Spain, Bulgaria, Tunisia and Denmark's Legoland, as well as the UK. Sadly, except for Bulgaria, the dates do not include the main summer holiday period.
Send a first-class sae for brochure from Splash, 19 North Street, Plymouth, Devon P24 9AH (tel: 0752 674067).
LIFE'S A BEACH
Pioneered by Thomson Holidays, and frequently blessed by parents faced with the killjoy words 'I'm bored - what can I do?', the Big T Club operates in 22 beach hotels to keep children aged 4-11 occupied and happy. It's also free. Children's hostesses, many of them teachers and nurses, will entertain your offspring for two to four hours on six days a week, with beach parties, sandcastle competitions and treasure hunts. They also supervise early suppers and some evening activities.
Among other operators with children's clubs are Sunworld (the Jolly Roger Club for 3-7s and the Crew for 8-12s); Falcon (Trouble Club for 3-year-olds, Funsters for 6-11s); Enterprise (Sunbeam Club for 3-11s; Shock Waves for 12-15s); Airtours ( Getaway Gang for 3-12s).
Brochures from travel agents.
A new 'off-limits' Camping Adventure programme for children - designed to give them a taste of traditional, back-to-basics stuff - is offered by French Country Camping at 12 of its small family-run sites. Most parents prefer softies' camping, in tents with fridges, electric lighting and sprung beds. The children return to these more upmarket bases at night. Free bike hire is included at selected sites.
Canvas Holidays offers Beginners Tents for young campers and free babysitting in the off- season, plus Hoopi Clubs for children aged up to 14. The other large camping operator, Eurocamp, has similar arrangements.
Children under 18 usually travel free, and there are excellent family reductions in the off- season. An all-in family price for 6 people for 14 nights in June starts at pounds 279 per party, and includes ferry crossings. These prices can treble in the peak weeks of July and August.
French Country Camping (tel: 0923 261311); Canvas Holidays (tel: 0800 592895); Eurocamp (tel: 0565 626262).
Family specialist Sun Esprit organises alpine holidays (always very popular with French families) in Morzine in Haute Savoie, with qualified British nannies in attendance to give UK parents a break. Accommodation is in Les Gourmets, a simple one-star auberge run by British staff on a bed and (large) breakfast basis. Two family meals (such as fondues or barbecues), three nights' babysitting and children's activities are included in the price of pounds 228- pounds 288 per person a week, pounds 328- pounds 388 for two weeks. The first child goes free, with 30-50 per cent reductions for other children aged 2- 17, and a pounds 50 charge for under-twos.
For an extra pounds 48 per child, there is a three- days-a-week creche from 10am-5pm, for children aged 4 months to 4 years, and an alpine activity club for the 4-12 group, with picnics, nature trails and other activities.
Sun Esprit (tel: 0252 816004).
Canoeing, cycling, walking and multi-activity holidays for the whole family in rural France are a speciality of Headwater Holidays.
On a week's canoeing / kayaking on the Loir, an average eight to nine miles are covered on the water each day, and families are picked up in the evenings and transported to their hotels. Mountain bikes, mostly Peugeots, are provided for children (child seats on adult bikes for younger ones) on the 'Two Rivers Cycling' holiday, which includes a week pottering, covering about 16-18 miles a day , around the Lot and Dordogne.
There are free holidays for children up to 16 on self-drive holidays to the village of des Alberes. Two miles from the Mediterranean village of Argeles, it is a holiday complex with many sports facilities and organised activities. Four to five adults would pay from pounds 149- pounds 419 each (ferry fares included). There are good children's discounts on other holidays throughout the season.
Headwater Holidays (tel: 0606 48699).
SMALL PRINT FOR SMALL FRY
TOUR operators often boast in their brochures of 'free' places for children, and 'huge' children's reductions. But what exactly do they mean by these terms? The age at which children become adults varies from company to company, and from holiday to holiday.
With Thomson, for example, 12 is the stepping-stone to adulthood - but it's 16 if the family is staying in an apartment, or going to Florida. Falcon specifies the 2-16 age group 'except in non-family holidays'.
The Travel Club of Upminster allows 50 per cent reductions for under-20s in many of its villas and apartments (as long as the required number of adults is included), although hotel discounts are smaller. Enterprise allows the same discount for those aged 2-15 at one hotel in Tenerife, 2-16 at another in the same resort. At one hotel in Benalmedena the discount is for 2-16s, while another in the same resort is for 2-12s - though at least the brochure shows quite clearly who gives what.
THE PRICE OF AN INFANT
Children under two travel on air packages for a nominal pounds 15-19, depending on the company. It is clearly stated that they may not occupy an aircraft seat. Other 'appropriate infant charges' are, as one brochure states, 'paid directly to the hotelier'. Just what is and what isn't appropriate must be demanded in writing in advance; I remember a hotel in Switzerland where food for our infant was delivered to the room, and charged as 'a la carte delicacies'.
NO SUCH THING AS A FREE CHILD
Claims about 'free' holidays are the most dubious, even though they are generally qualified as being 'subject to availability'. The Consumers' Association magazine Holiday Which? quotes Airtours' Summer Sun brochure, which offers 'free holidays for children up to 19' - except in Majorca, Menorca and Ibiza, where it is 15 or even 12. In Enterprise's Summer Sun brochure, the only free child destination for single parents throughout the season is Bulgaria, and Cyprus from 1-22 May - school term-time.
Holiday Which? phoned a selection of tour operators last October to inquire about booking a holiday for the coming summer with free places. The magazine was either told that they had been snapped up, or they were hedged with tortuous conditions.
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