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Family Travel Q&A: Walk the fairways, and beyond

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
Q.I am currently hatching a plan for a family holiday in Spain's deep south during the February half-term. We have three children, ranging from 15 to eight. The older two, along with my husband, play golf and hope to get a few rounds in. We also want to explore inland and perhaps do a bit of walking. However, it is important to us to stay by the sea, though we do not expect swimming weather in February. How do the various resorts differ? What will they be like in winter? And have you got any other tips you can offer us?

Andrea Mason

Godalming, Surrey

A.The first thing to remember about the Costa del Sol, as the coast of southern Spain between Malaga and Gibraltar has been dubbed for the last 30 years, is that it has a split personality. On the one hand, there's Marbella and the other ritzy resorts, which have been a playground for film stars and royalty for decades. On the other, there are the high- rise developments offering budget holidays for ordinary mortals.

The second point is that although these are all year-round resorts, the atmosphere does change radically according to season. In winter, the pace is gentle - there is little opportunity for basking in the sunshine, or dancing in clubs till the wee hours. But the golfers in your family might fancy themselves in heaven. The mild climate is perfect for life on the fairways at this time of year, and there are 38 championship courses along this stretch of coast, as well as various other less-exalted (and cheaper) courses.

The three most popular budget resort towns are Torremolinos, Benalmadena and Fuengirola. In any of them, however, the winter scene is characterised by retired folk strolling along the sea-front and passing their days in the innumerable English bars and cafes. Hardly places to live the "vida loca".

However, despite its ritziness, there is some affordable accommodation in and around Marbella. Certainly, prices are higher than elsewhere, but the environment is infinitely more appealing. The enchanting Casco Antiguo, or old town, is made up of squares and courtyards dripping with plumbago and jasmine. Magic of Spain (0181-748 4220) has apartments sleeping five at Hacienda Beach, five minutes' drive out of town, for pounds 365 per person for a week's stay in February, including flights and car hire.

As far as other bases are concerned, I have two more suggestions, both towns with plenty of Spanish atmosphere. The first is Estepona between Marbella and Gibraltar, an old favourite. Behind the main seaside drag, along the wide, fine-sand beach, are squares and narrow streets lined with orange trees, little restaurants and tapas bars. EHS Travel (01993 700600) has a variety of properties for rent in this area. A two-bedroom apartment at Dominion Beach, just outside the town, is pounds 511 for a week, rental only. Flights would cost pounds 169 each; a group D car, suitable for five, would be pounds 105 for the week.

My other suggestion is Nerja, east of Malaga. This fashionable resort at the foot of the beautiful Sierra de Almijara, perches on a cliff above a string of sandy coves. Thomson Holidays (0990 502555) offers two-bedroom apartments at Capistrano village on the edge of Nerja during the February half-term week for pounds 229 per person including return flights from Gatwick.

Wherever you choose to stay, the greatest allure of the Costa del Sol is driving into the magnificent grey- and-ochre mountains of the Andalusian hinterland. Within a short drive of the coast are dramatic limestone gorges between jagged peaks, and dazzling white towns.

From San Pedro de Alcantara, west of Marbella, for example, the C339 road to Ronda crosses wild open spaces, with sensational views across the Straits of Gibraltar to the distant Rif mountains of Morocco. Ronda itself straddles a steep limestone cleft. Shaded streets hide Moorish courtyards and fountains behind wrought-iron gates and nearby is the mountain wilderness of Sierra de Grazelema National Park, wonderful walking country.

Q.My children and I have been saddened by the recent closure of The Exploratory science museum, here in Bristol. Can you tell us where there are other, high-quality, educational, "hands-on" children's museums around Britain?

G J Williams

Clifton, Bristol

A. I also lament the demise of The Exploratory. Having visited hands- on museums with my children all round the country, I agree that it was among the best. All the same, there are several others. In my opinion, head- and-shoulders above the lot is Eureka! in Halifax, right next to the station. The scope is vast - enough to keep children, and adults, absorbed for a whole day.

There are several displays you should not miss: climb up the skeleton's ribs; fire a distress flare from behind the stricken yacht; go behind the bank's counter and open its vaults; walk into a dream and feed the bits you don't like into Baku, the nightmare-eating dragon.

Just as at The Exploratory, there is no glass showcase or cordon anywhere at Eureka! - and every exhibit is to be explored, played with, learnt from.

There are four main sections - Things, Living and Working Together, Communication, and Me and My Body.

In the latter, children climb into a giant mouth and wobble its loose tooth, then run hands over a massive, lolling tongue learning which bits taste what. They can also present the news in a TV studio and line up satellite dishes to communicate with people in space.

Eureka! (01426 983191) is open daily from 10am-5pm. Admission costs pounds 5.75 for adults and the over-12s, pounds 4.75 for children under 12 and nothing for the under-3s.

Nearer to Bristol, there isTechniquest (01222 475475) in Cardiff Bay, also with a huge array of inventive exhibits, and a planetarium and theatre where shows on subjects such as global warming or natural disasters, are staged hourly.

And, if you are feeling inspired, you can try out other hands-on museums of this kind around the country, including the Discovery Museum (0191- 232 6789) in Newcastle upon Tyne; Herstmonceux Centre (01323 832731) at Hailsham, Sussex; and Stratosphere (01224 213232) in Aberdeen.