Family Travel Q&A;;Go south, young man

The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
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Q.Having had no family holidays this summer, we would like to take our 10-year-old to somewhere sunny for her October half-term, but not the Canaries, please.

Stephanie Ross (Mrs)


A. In my experience, there seems to be a rain cloud just waiting to move in over the Med at the end of October - half-term week for most children. I was washed out with my kids in Aegina and almost frozen stiff in Sicily before we learnt sense and moved as far south as possible. This, I'm afraid, excludes most of Greece, Italy, even Turkey - though you might, of course, strike lucky.

A country you might consider at this time is Tunisia, the ideal introduction to North Africa for children, with its well-tested sun, sand and sea formula. Attractively designed, occasionally bland hotels are extremely well-equipped for children, and if you do get the odd gloomy day, there are a number of easily accessible, genuinely top-notch attractions for all ages. Temperatures of 70F plus in October and several hours' sunshine daily are a great deal more pleasant than the 100F summer furnace, and the water is still warm in October, though the days are shorter.

If you want a lively resort, pick Hammamet, which has an excellent beach, a very picturesque old walled town, good shopping and a mix of Tunisian, French and international restaurants.

Even my son, whom I took there aged 11, found eating in the hotel somewhat uninspiring, while local couscous, brik a l'oeuf and fish he coped with magnificently. It's a bonus that Hammamet is less than 90 minutes away by car, bus or excursion from Tunis, where you'll enjoy the large network of souks and the dazzling white-and-blue villages of Sidi Bon Said, though you'll need imagination to make sense of the somewhat puny ruins at Carthage.

If you prefer a quieter resort, try Mahdia, further south. En famille we pioneered this pleasant little Punic port two years ago - it was once the capital of the Fatimid dynasty and has a delightful, dozy labyrinthine old town, excellent beach and high- quality hotels. There's a fast metro service to Sousse and Monastir.

Tour operators and the hotels run a number of excursions to Kairouan, the Holy City, to the Roman amphitheatre at El Djem, and to so-called "Bedouin Feasts", but the one not to miss is the two- or three- day desert safari - it may be called "The English Patient Safari" or indeed more likely the "Star Wars" safari, since both these blockbusters were filmed in practically the same locations, with the sand dunes, the salt lake of the Chott El Djerid, the 2 million palm trees of Tozeur, the troglodyte caves (still lived in) at Matmata, and strange granaries or ghorfas at Medenine, all used as movie backdrops.

On the Star Wars safari, you also visit the set, though in my opinion the amazing desertscapes of the real thing are much more dramatic. On the Jeep trip my sons and I took - on which there were two other children aged eight and six - we also visited Kairouan, El Djem, the Roman ruins of Sbeitla, and did a Lawrence of Arabia camel ride into the Sahara at Douz. Despite hideously early mornings when we had to get up around 5 or 6 am, and a lot of bumping over sand in vehicles, as a "safe adventure", we thought it was fascinating.

The trips cost from around pounds 90-pounds 120. Sample prices: a week in mid-October at Les Orangers Hotel situated on the sandy beach in Hammamet, where there's a free children's club for three- to 12 year-olds, and watersports, tennis, table tennis and fitness centre available, costs pounds 445 per adult, pounds 259 for your daughter on a half-board basis, with flights. At the El Mehdi Hotel in Mahdia, it costs pounds 389 & pounds 295 respectively on a B&B basis. From Panorama Holidays (01233 211998).

Another suggestion: family-friendly Cyprus enjoys a mellower October than its Greek counterparts, and prices that rocketed five years ago have steadied at a more manageable level. And being the crossroads of about 9,000 years of Mediterranean civilisation, there's plenty to see and do. But you need to choose your resort carefully - development has run amok.

Beachwise, by far the best are at Ayia Napa and nearby Protaras, but in October, when you may need to fill in the odd grey day, they would be too distant in my opinion from interesting family sightseeing. And neither sprawling and scruffy Limassol nor Larnaca would be my choice for a beach holiday. To the west, world heritage town Paphos can offer some excellent hotels with shingle and sandy strips, but the public beach is bleak, most holidaymakers preferring the busier Coral Bay beach five miles away, reached by a frequent bus service.

Though featured in few holiday brochures, I'd consider staying in Polis, on the quieter west coast, the once-flourishing Greek city of Marion, where tourism and tradition still strike a happy balance. It has a beautiful long sand and shingle beach; best of all, it's a gateway for the rugged Akamas peninsula, the wildest and most unspoilt part of the island with hidden gorges, bays and tiny farming villages now being restored. You can take 4WD drives into Akamas and the tourist office supplies free booklets, "Nature Trails of the Akamas", describing the flora and fauna of the area.

Thomson Holidays (0990 502555) offers a couple of small family-run hotels in Polis in their "Small and Friendly" brochure, adult prices are pounds 355 B&B per week, with a 20 per cent reduction for your child.

Q.We have done Florida twice, from Orlando to Key West. We love holidays in the US, preferably a bit more cultural than theme parks, while our children, Dan, 11, and Tanya, nine, still love the beach, but we would prefer not to travel as far as California.

Judy Finch

London NW

A.Two of our most successful family holidays ever have been in New England, first in Maine and later in Massachusetts. We chose to rent seaside cottages from New England Country Homes (01798 869020) - which offers around 300 self-catering properties ranging from log cabins in Vermont to artists' studios in Connecticut - car hire and insurance come as part of the package. So too does an overnight hotel stay on arrival in Boston, which we reckon must be the most child-friendly city in the US, with a host of family attractions: entertainment in the parks, the lively Faneuil Market, the "Boston Tea Party" on the replica tea clipper in the harbour, a Freedom Trail of the War of Independence, and the hands-on Museum of Science.

On our first foray, we drove 160 miles north of Boston to Boothbay Harbour in Maine, the most north-easterly of the United States and larger than Scotland, but with about a fifth of its population. HQ was a quaint clapboard cottage with a "deck", on stilts over the waters of a creek from which we could count the lobster boats leaving at dawn, and the island ferries chugging in at dusk. Boothbay Harbour is all about messing about in boats - it's also the home of the famous New England windjammer fleet with festivals during the summer.

Much of the fun was being part of an American community, enjoying clambakes and barbecues with our neighbours, trying to understand the intricacies of a local baseball over smothered hot dogs, sending the kids for brownies, blueberry pancakes and cookies at the local deli and buying lobsters at less than pounds 3 each, straight off the boats.

Compared with the occasional spartan furnishings and equipment we've experienced in Europe, American houses are like Ideal Homes, providing you have a degree in how to operate mod cons. Our own cottage was stuffed with everything, including the owner's binoculars and fishing rods, which we were invited to use. They clearly haven't experienced the Brit holidaymaking vandal as yet.

We did get out and about; there's an attractive port at Wiscasset, about 10 miles away, with superb Georgian mansions - formerly the homes of wealthy merchants and captains of clippers that travelled to the West Indies. There are fascinating maritime centres at Bath and Portland, and the world's largest factory outlet town at Freeport.

Our second New England holiday to Massachusetts took us to another house on stilts on the beach at Mattapoisett, west of Cape Cod - we'd originally been warned of Cape Cod in heaving August.

Mattapoisett is utterly laid-back; its inn, built in 1799, claims to be the oldest seaside inn in the US; Moby Dick author Herman Melville sailed on the maiden voyage of the whaler, Acushnet, built there in 1840. There's still an old-fashioned air about the town, with square dances on the waterfront every weekend, and children's and teens' evenings every Thursday, with not a drop of alcohol in sight.

As a base for sightseeing, Mattapoisett proved unparalleled. We caught the ferry to Martha's Vineyard, hired bikes to tour the island, and took a magical whalewatching day out from Cape Cod. Our attempt to inculcate culture met with a less than enthusiastic response at the Mayflower replica ship and Plimouth Plantation, where performers tried to tempt our stony- faced sons to re-enact the pilgrims' experience - they much preferred the low-key historical approach at former whaling centre, New Bedford, and fell for Newport, Rhode Island in a big way.

These and similar cottages can be rented until the end of October, with September and October the prime season for the "leaf peepers", who come to see the Fall and its foliage fireworks. A family of four could expect to pay between pounds 3,800 and pounds 5,000 for flights, a fortnight's accommodation, car hire and insurance, personal insurance and a night's hotel stay in Boston.

Send your family travel questions to S F Robinson, The Independent Parent, Travel Desk, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL