Family Travel: Q&A: Room for youths of all ages

Q. Large, outdoor-loving family of very limited means, seeks fun holidays and short breaks with lots of space and like-minded company. Can you suggest a solution, other than to dream on? We have thought of youth hostels. Can these be suitable for young children or are they still the reserve of spotty teenagers and backpackers who would not welcome tots in their domain?

N Sorvich

North London

A. Definitely. The face of youth hostelling has changed out of all recognition in the past few years, so you can forget the cagoules, acne all round and fierce dragons posing as wardens. My family and I have had some great times in youth hostels - as far as the kids are concerned, better times than on holidays which have cost five times as much.

First you need to join the YHA (Youth Hostels Association). Annual family membership costs pounds 22, or pounds 11 for single-parent families. Along with your membership documents, you will be sent a brochure with details of the 108 hostels which have been designated "family friendly". This means that, at the very least, there will be a substantial number of small rooms - two, four and six-bedded - with hand basins or, in some cases, en suite toilets and showers. Some hostels have restaurants while all have self- catering facilities as well as a laundry room and lounge kitted with games. Some hostels are specifically designated as suitable for under threes, with cots and other baby paraphernalia.

However, the real appeal is the cost. For example, a family of four staying in the heart of the Lake District at the Grasmere Butterlip How hostel - a family favourite thanks to the play area in its extensive grounds - would pay just pounds 37.70 per night.

Another idea, if you can get a few like-minded friends together, is to take over an entire hostel. This is a possibility at certain smaller hostels - ones with 16 or 20 beds - between September and Easter. You book the hostel as you would a country cottage, and have full use of the facilities and a key to come and go as you please. Along with three other families, we had a ball at the Dartington hostel, in the Dart valley in South Devon, last November. Exceeding our expectations, the 20-bed facility turned out to be a 16th- century cottage with low ceilings, oak beams and a cosy log fire. Two- nights here costs pounds 255.

Contact: Youth Hostels Association (England & Wales), Trevelyan House, 8 St. Stephen's Hill, St. Albans, Herts, AL1 2DY (01727 845047).

Q.While most of our friends are off to the Mediterranean and beyond this month, work dictates that we must take our annual break off- season. There are five of us, including two pre-teenagers and a hyper- active six-year-old. Can you suggest a Greek island where we can spend a week in autumn or next spring, with a fair chance of sunshine? We would also like some walking and cultural expeditions.

C Godwin

Leeds

A.Yes, Crete. It is the most southerly of the Greek Islands, so the prospects of sunning yourselves in October or April are better here, than anywhere else - especially Corfu and the Ionian islands which are generally several degrees cooler at these times of year.

Major resorts in Crete which you may have heard of such as Rethymnon or Aghios Nikoloas are rather lifeless off-season. Instead, I'd plump for the far west, somewhere near the delightful old Venetian port of Chania which is a real town and feels like it all the year round, rather than just in the high season. The beaches in this area are superb - especially the coves of the Akrotiri Peninsula.

One of my favourite spots on the island is Stavros beach, which almost entirely encircles a calm, sheltered lagoon perfect for swimming, while a great imposing mountain looms above. Remember Anthony Quinn dancing away his tribulations to that famous music in the film Zorba the Greek? This is where much of the action was shot. The youngsters might even be up to climbing to the cave on the mountainside. Be warned, though. It will take at least an hour from the beach.

Specialist tour operator Simply Crete (0181 994 4462) has a variety or villas and farm houses to rent both in this area and elsewhere on the island. Expect to pay about pounds 1,500-pounds 1,800 for a villa or cottage with shared pool including flights and car hire, for the entire party.

Another company to try is The Travel Club of Upminster (01708 22500) which offers a selection of two and three-bedroom apartments in and around Chania.

And, if you want to be active, there are plenty of hiking possibilities in the White Mountains, which serrate the skyline south from this coast and which are snow-capped through to spring.

By far the best known walk is along the harrowing Gorge of Samaria, for which you need to join an organised excursion. However, your six-year- old would be much too young for this.

A far better solution would be to buy a copy of Sunflower Books' Landscapes of Western Crete for pounds 9.99. It is best to get it before you go there although it is available locally. Head for some of the gentler gorges. I have walked the seven-kilometre Ayia Irini gorge with Sebastian, my own six-year-old. If you start at the head, it is gentle downhill all the way and not too taxing, though the scenery is dramatic and worth a bit of hard work. You follow a noisy, but sparklingly clear stream tumbling between walls of sheer grey and black rock. For the kids, every twist holds a new adventure: there are caves to explore, patches of oleander and chestnut woodland to ramble through and pounding waterfalls and shallows you have to ford as the trail criss-crosses the stream.

On the cultural front, you will be just as spoilt. By all means drive to Heraklion for the famous Minoan palace of Knossos - it takes about three hours at a sensible pace from Chania. But, if you are staying in this area, there is a wealth of archaeology to see, starting with the 5th century BC ruins of Aptera.

I whole-heartedly recommend that you go "self-catering" but that you actually do very little catering yourselves. Why? Because eating out in tavernas is wonderfully cheap. You can all troop into the kitchen, choose what you want, then sit down and be served snapper and squid, crunchy green beans or whatever, and come out having spent less than pounds 30 for the five of you, including a bottle of wine and a round of soft drinks.

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