Family Travel: Q&A - Camp: where kids play safe?

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Q.Having lived in the US, where nearly every child goes off to summer camp, we find they're not nearly so popular in the UK. Why not? How do they operate here, and are they safe?

Mr R Swingles,

Worcs

A.It's true that nearly 80 per cent of American kids go off to summer camps (which date back nearly 100 years), often the same camp as Dad or Mum went to, and sometimes for three or four weeks at a time. Summer camps are very much part of the culture - kids talk about "going off to camp" as they would here about a trip to the cinema.

In the UK, summer camp is a much more alien concept - only about 3 per cent of children experience them - and though PGL, our longest-established operator, is over 40 years old, camps in general have only really come on the scene in the last 15 years or so. One organiser, who has worked in camps in both countries, reckons that British parents feel guilty about "dumping" their children, and that it's considered almost heresy, or at least neglect, to spend holidays apart.

There are an increasing number of centres around the UK offering unaccompanied children's holidays (some based in public schools, others in tented camps), while larger companies such as Camp Beaumont, PGL and Superchoice use their own permanent residential centres. Groups are usually divided into eight- to 10-year olds, 11 to 14s and 14s upwards. I would not recommend a residential camp for under-sevens, though there are a number of day camps operating from bigger cities where they take children from as young as three.

Children can choose between a multi-activity holiday where they try out abseiling, riding, canoeing, archery, mountain biking, go-karting and so on, or they can concentrate on one or two pursuits. My sons preferred the multi-choice when they were younger; "I was scared stiff when I went abseiling but it was really cool," said Dominic, then aged 10. He graduated to "soccer skills" camp, tennis and swimming in his teens.

Recently there's also been a move towards more sophisticated activities such as circus skills, stage and screen, "cyber zone", "Indiana Jones", farming, beach life-guarding and motorsports. PGL and Camp Beaumont also run camps abroad (mainly in France), some with visits to theme parks and (no doubt to please parents rather than children), the offer of French language tuition.

Average costs in the UK are around pounds 50 a week for a day camp, pounds 300-pounds 350 for residential camps, with "horsey" camps the most expensive. Prices cover full board and all activities but not travel. "The food was just as bad as school dinners," reported Dominic. "We got soggy sandwiches every day." The accommodation I inspected also looked spartan to adult eyes, though the children didn't complain; their washbags were returned in a pristine state.

With regard to safety, while no one can give absolute guarantees, it is still up to you as parents to carry out a number of checks, as the current laws for regulation, inspection and licensing of unaccompanied children's holiday centres are not sufficiently comprehensive. On the whole, the larger companies welcome inspections to monitor standards - by BAHA (British Activity Holidays Association), by AALA, (Adventure Activities Licensing Authority), by local authorities, sports governing bodies and tourist boards - but claim that while they are being inspected every week, because many of the schemes are on a voluntary basis, other companies can operate with very little external scrutiny. So the most vital inspection is from you, the parents, to satisfy yourselves as to the standards and security.

After the canoeing tragedy in Dorset six years ago, when four teenagers died, the AALA was formed to license centres which offer potentially dangerous pursuits, such as climbing and canoeing. But the Association itself admits that there are loopholes - some activities such as jetskiing are exempt, while licences are only needed if sports are carried out in remote areas away from the camp. A three-year review of the Adventure Activities Licensing Regulations was held in March this year, with the result expected to be announced in autumn, though any changes will not, of course, apply this summer.

Before you book, you must check the ratio of staff to children; one to five or six is advisable for younger children; one to 10 or 12 for older ones. Find out the qualifications and experience of both the helpers and instructors - the latter's qualifications for many sports should be approved by the appropriate governing body of the sport concerned, such as the British Horse Society or the British Canoe Union. Are there lifeguards on site for water activities, and are children tested for swimming before they participate in them?

Then, what happens in free time? Obviously younger ones need a stricter timetable, while teenagers prefer a more flexible programme, but I have visited camps where the older children seemed to spend too much time nipping off to the nearest town.

I don't want to sound too scary about the camps in the UK. After some pretty thorough vetting, our own children have enjoyed their stays. For both of them it was the first time they had stayed away from home (apart from in friends' houses) and, though the younger child admitted he'd been homesick on the first day, both wanted to return.

Contacts:

Adventure Activities Licensing Authority 01222 755715; British Activity Holidays Association 01932 252994 - which also supplies a free booklet listing their 31 members; Camp Beaumont 0171-922 1234; PGL 01989 768768; Superchoice 01273 691100

Q.We have travelled to many Mediterranean resorts with our children - Jessica, who is now nine, and Mark, five - but can find little advice about family resorts in Turkey. In particular, is the food OK for children?

Julia Riding,

Cambridge

A.Despite its low cost, genuinely hospitable people and superb food - the Turkish diet with its emphasis on fresh vegetables, fish, yoghurt, honey and fruit is considered one of the world's healthiest - Turkey has until recently rarely featured in the family holiday market. There's far less self-catering accommodation here, hotels tend to be smaller and fewer of them have children's clubs and pools than in, say, Spain or the Balearic Islands.

The three best-known Turkish resorts of Marmaris, Kusadasi and, even prettier, Bodrum, would not rate in the family charts with their urban sprawl, noise and skimpy town beaches. Don't be lured to Gumbet by descriptions that it is Bodrum with a beach - there won't be room to move on it.

If you are set on good beaches, here's a rundown of the best: on the Aegean Coast, Altinkum translates as "golden sand" and it lives up to its name, with a gently sloping beach. There's no great character to the resort (it's been colonised by the "kebab with ketchup" brigade) though it is well-placed if you want to visit stupendous sites such as Ephesus, Didyma and Miletus.

About five miles from Marmaris - and rather less well positioned for sightseeing by road (though there are some great boat trips) - Icmeler is a modern, relaxed resort, picturesquely situated against a mountain backdrop, and its dark sand beach (very crowded in August) is well kept. For a smaller resort with more of a Turkish village character, consider Turunc (about 40 minutes from Marmaris by boat). The swimming is safe, the water unpolluted and, since there's not so much traffic, you can let your children wander off a little without panicking.

Further south, you come to two of the best beaches in the Mediterranean. Olu Deniz has a peach of a beach that's always featured on the brochure covers. And there's a tranquil lagoon behind it if the waves get too choppy on the main beach. A decade ago Olu Deniz was idyllic, but 10 years of ribbon-like development haven't improved its looks. On no account get fobbed off with Hisaronu of Rovers Return fame which is one of the biggest cons in the holiday brochures. It's a dusty concrete strip, and far too far away from the beach to be able to walk there.

Best beach of the lot (all five miles of it) is at Patara, mercifully saved for the loggerhead turtles to nest on, so all accommodation is almost a mile back. You have to pay a small charge to get to it.

Just over half an hour from Patara (a pounds 1 ride by dolmus, the shared minibus), Kalkan is often described as one of the Med's best kept secrets - little cobbled alleys, picture-postcard harbour, bougain-villaea galore. It only has a tiny shingly beach, which has probably saved it from redevelopment, but water taxis will take you out to find your own. As well as hotels, there are a number of old village houses for rent with shady gardens which are popular with families.

East of Antalya, there are three resorts with impressive beaches, first discovered by German holidaymakers and now luring the British; Alanya is the biggest with an interesting Turkish old town and its own "Rock of Gibraltar", while Side's Roman remains are bang in the centre of town (the amphitheatre is currently off-limits); Belek is the new purpose-built resort with lots of genuine four-star hotels and holiday villages with children's facilities that are lacking elsewhere. But you could be just about anywhere in the Med.

Most of the larger tour operators now offer packages to the bigger resorts I've mentioned. For villages such as Turunc, Kalkan and Patara, send for the brochure from Turkish specialists such as Anatolian Sky (0121-633 4018), Tapestry Holidays (0181-235 7777) and Savile Row Tours (0171-625 3001).

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