Q&A; Where cheap can be cheerful

FAMILY TRAVEL; The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered

Q.We are saving up for a big holiday later in the year, but we must have a budget week away this summer too. Our children are aged 11, nine and six, but please don't suggest a holiday camp.

ANNE HENDERSON (Mrs)

Stratford

A.Why not try an outdoor holiday with plenty of activities? The Forestry Commission (0131-314 6100) offers log cabins in Britain's woodlands and forests in its own Forest Holidays' programme. Sleeping up to six people with some bunk beds (which always go down well with children), the cabins are built in Scandinavian style and though they are simply furnished, they have all the bedding, crockery, cutlery and cooking utensils you'll ever need, even a microwave oven. Cots can be pre-booked.

Most sites have a communal television room, barbecue area, table-tennis and some children's play-rooms. Mountain bikes can often be hired on site for about pounds 10 a day, and several offer canoes and small boats for hire. Fishing and pony-trekking are also usually available. Forest walks start from every cabin site.

Some of the locations are exceptional. Deerpark, in 150 acres of mixed woodland near Bodmin in Cornwall, for instance, is built around an old gunpowder mill which once made explosives for Cornwall's lead and silver mines (one of its partially restored buildings provides the common room). The fishing villages of Prospero and Looe are eight miles away, and Deerpark is part of the Cornwall Forest, with miles of trails and family cycle routes.

If you prefer to head north, there are 44 cabins scattered along the loch among the spruce and birch of Lochaweside in Argyll, where you can hire boats to explore the loch's islands and bays. Trout and coarse fishing is free if you bring your own fishing rod, and if your children are horse- mad there is plenty of pony-trekking in the area. Other sites include Keldy Forest on the North York Moors, and Strathyre in Perthshire.

During the school summer holidays, alas, you'll pay peak prices, but they're not exorbitant - from pounds 359-pounds 409 in total for your whole family. If you choose to go off-season, you would pay as little as pounds 135 a week. Although electricity for storage heating is usually free, other electricity must be paid for either by meter cards or coins. Family dogs are allowed in some cabins for a small surcharge.

Here's another suggestion: why not consider a family holiday on a campus - no, I didn't say "camp". Almost every tourist area, in fact almost every area, has a local university offering a plentiful supply of college rooms, students' flats and halls of residence while the students are absent during the main holiday period from June until mid-September. Sports and recreation facilities, from badminton and athletics tracks to swimming-pools and fitness centres, are usually available at little or no extra cost.

Reasonably priced family accommodation is available at 69 members of the British Universities Accommodation Consortium. Campuses such as Bath or the University of East Anglia at Norwich are almost self-contained villages, and even the historic universities like Cambridge, St Andrews, Durham and London no longer turn their noses up at the extra revenue that they can make from holiday lets.

A typical price for a week's let in a self-catering flat is around pounds 250 - you can get a campus brochure from BUAC on 0115 950 4571.

Finally, you could try the Youth Hostel Association: several hostels have en suite facilities, along with gardens and laundry services. At the purpose-built Sherwood Youth Hostel near Nottingham, for example, five-bed en suite rooms cost pounds 44.20 per night and similar prices apply at several coastal hostels.

Outside school holidays - from September to Easter, the YHA has recently launched a Rent-a-Hostel scheme on which 86 smaller hostels are available for families or friends' sole use.

YHA Membership for a family costs pounds 22 (pounds 11 if only one parent), with children under 18 free.

Q.My husband is a history and culture buff but my 11-year-old twins are beach bums. And I am stuck in the middle. Can you come up with the impossible - some holiday suggestions to suit us all? We prefer to go early in September before the kids go back to school, and when it isn't too hot.

ANGELA PLATER (Mrs)

London SW

A.I'm going to suggest two resorts which are not too developed, with sandy beaches and a family atmosphere for the twins, and sightseeing possibilities so that your husband can sneak off on his own. To suit your requirements as the person stuck in the middle, I have made sure that the resorts are picturesque, with a genuine local life, a good choice of local restaurants and varying prices.

The only reason why more British tour operators can't get a foot in the door at Santa Maria di Castellabate is that Italian families book up the place year after year, as their children grow up.

The sandy beach is fun, with parasols, pedalos and poseurs, some hotels leading straight on to it (though note that watersports tend to be phased out after the first week of September).

You yourself will find the fishing harbour, small piazzas and 12th- century Romanesque church perfect for relaxed exploring within the resort, while your husband is off sightseeing. A hire car isn't really necessary because there are excellent bus, main line and local train services - Naples, Salerno, Pompeii and Vesuvius and Amalfi are all within easy reach.

The 540BC ruins at Velia are less than 20 miles south, and the ancient Agropoli next door to where you'd be staying has a ruined Byzantine castle. If that isn't enough, you can also take a family boat trip from Agropoli to Capri, when the crowds have begun to thin out around September time.

Crystal Holidays (0181-390 5554) offers simple self-catering apartments in a small 16th-century castle, the Torre del Mare, fantastically situated across a small promenade from the beach. A week in early September would cost pounds 430 per person (pounds 348 each for the twins), to include flights and either a transfer from Naples or a free hire car.

If you prefer something a lot more luxurious, CV Travel (0171- 591 2810) offers the Palazzo Belmonte, once used as a hunting lodge by the kings of Italy and Spain. Sharing an apartment in September, adults would pay pounds 768 each, children pounds 663 to cover flights and coach transfers.

My next suggestion for your family is to base yourself in Nerja, southern Spain. It is an attractive low-rise alternative to the excesses of the Costa del Sol further west, with whitewashed houses, not-quite golden sand, tapas bars, cafes and a palm-lined promenade - the Balcon de Europe - jutting out over the sea. There will be far more non-local tourists than in Santa Maria, but Nerja still has an authentic Andalusian atmosphere.

Local sightseeing is fun and easy - car hire costs about pounds 58-pounds 65 for three days, pounds 100-pounds 110 a week. On your doorstep you'll have the Caves of Nerja with what are believed to be 20,000-year-old paintings. Beyond that, get out to the pueblos blancos (little white towns hidden in the Sierras) like Frigiliana up in the hills, though note that these are jammed with tourists in peak season.

The Nerja Tourist Office will give you details of routes such as the Ruta Mudejar or the Sun and Wine route. Then of course there are the glories of Granada. Even Malaga should not be underrated since its recent clean up.

Portland Holidays (0990 002200) can offer a week's self-catering in the one-bedroom El Capistano Playa apartments in Nerja. They are slightly up the hillside with a swimming-pool and a walk of less than 300 yards downhill to the Burriana Beach. There's also a bus stop outside the apartment block with a regular service. The total cost in peak season for two adults and two children sharing would work out at pounds 666.

Magic of Spain (0990 462442), Mundi Color (0171-828 6021) and Simply Spain (0181-995 9323) also operate to Nerja.

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