The Independent Parent: Your Questions Answered
Q. Our two boys, aged 10 and five, are mad keen to go on a camping holiday. They have never camped before and nor, for that matter, have either my husband or I (unless you count a rain-drenched Girl Guides' weekend in the Peak District, longer ago than I care to remember!). So we're thinking of hiring a mobile home in France, or possibly a "ready- erected" tent, though we are not too keen on roughing it. What are the pros and cons of these two options?



A.Firstly, don't worry about "roughing it". These days camping is not an endurance test; a standard camping holiday package includes an all- weather tent divided up into "rooms" by means of zipped partitions, double or single beds, blankets and pillows, tables and chairs, electric light, fridge, gas hob, cooking utensils, you name it.

Companies such as Canvas Holidays (01383 644000), Eurocamp (01606 787878) and Keycamp (0181-395 4000) specialise in this sort of luxury camping and will also book your ferry or Channel Tunnel crossing. As a rough guideline, expect to pay about pounds 1,000 for the four of you, for a luxury tent for a fortnight with all the trimmings, and including the ferry crossing.

These companies also all offer the "mobile home" option. This means that instead of a tent, you stay on the same sites in a prefab trailer, pay about 50 per cent more and enjoy a higher degree of comfort, including, crucially for some, a bathroom.

However, you can't kid the kids that this is camping. Boys who are "mad keen" to camp, will relish the flapping of fly-sheets in the night and the creaking of guy ropes. Even the drumming of rain on canvas can be part of the magic of camping. I have found that my own children attune immediately to this sense of outdoor romance, though for the first few nights their awakened spirits of adventure can make sleep slow to come. So, if you can bear the communal shower and toilet facilities, I'd urge you to opt for a tent, and spend the money you save on a few meals out.

The next thing you need to consider is what sort of site suits you. They differ hugely in atmosphere: some of the larger sites in the Vendee on the Atlantic coast, are fast-moving resorts with water slides, video game arcades, fast food joints and pounding discos, but you might prefer the sedate ambience of a woodland clearing in the countryside, fishing in a nearby lake or cycling along woodland trails.

And while you've got sites in your sights, do ask the company you choose to go with, to find you somewhere that offers the facilities which are important to you. Tennis? Table-tennis? Sailing? Wine tasting or gourmet eating nearby? A beach within walking distance?

Check too, whether there is flexibility over which ferry route you take. Also, whether you can split your holiday between two or more sites, if this is a factor for you.

Campsite camaraderie is another thing to think about. For most kids, making friends with others of similar ages adds hugely to the fun. For this reason, we always book with a tour operator (such as any of the three listed above), which has trained child minders organising exciting activities for youngsters - typically, treasure hunts or romps in the woods for younger ones, or football matches for older kids.

An added benefit of this, of course, is that it can leave parents free for a few hours to have a game of tennis, read a book or test the springs of the double bed.

Q.We have often thought of taking a family canal boat holiday in the English countryside, and would appreciate some advice on some good places do this, and reputable companies from which we could hire a narrow boat. Also, should we take bikes, as our six-year-old twins enjoy cycling? We also have a toddler aged two. Is it a good idea to take her as well?


A.I have found over the years, that a few days on a canal makes a superb family holiday. However, in your case I feel I should offer a few words of caution. First, you really need two able-bodied adults: one to drive the boat, another to open and close locks, tie up the bow-line, and so on. With a baby to look after as well, you will not have enough pairs of hands. If you can't leave her with Granny, why not try and persuade a strong friend to come along with you? Or better still, suggest joining up with another family - there are some very long long boats about, which can accommodate up to 12 people.

The twins will love the holiday, but at their age are not strong enough to join in the brawny duties of operating heavy Victorian canal machinery. Bringing their bikes is an excellent idea - cycling along a safe and traffic- free tow path is one of the joys of a canal holiday.

As far as where to go is concerned, how about your own back-yard - the Kennet and Avon canal? Not only is it one of the most astounding feats of canal-age engineering with viaducts, tunnels and flights of locks, it is also one of the most beautiful stretches of waterway in the country. You could spend a few days pootling from Bristol, through Bath, Bradford- on-Avon and Devizes and along the Vale of Pewsey.

Try Blakes Boating Holidays (01603 739400) which can book you a six-berth, 55-foot narrowboat for pounds 542 a week.

It is fascinating how parts of the country you think you know well, look and feel completely different when viewed from a canal. Life "on the cut" is all about unhurried tranquility: slowing down to a pace where all the time in the world is just enough to take in the view as you chug along.

And after a whole day, you find you have gone about as far as you could drive in 20 minutes.

If you are intent on going further afield, I can recommend Bridgewater Boats (01442 863615), based at Berkhamsted. From here you can meander through the Chiltern Hills; there are, however, a large number of locks so you'll certainly get fit.

Another favourite of mine is the Monmouthshire and Brecon canal in Wales. Try Cambrian Cruises (01874 665315).

One final suggestion. Before you go, take the twins to the National Waterways Museum in Gloucester (01452 318054 open daily 10am-5pm. Adults pounds 4.75, children pounds 3.75). Housed in a Victorian warehouse on Gloucester docks, the museum brings to life the 200-year story of canals in Britain, and will add an educational dimension to your holiday.