Childsplay across the Continent

Family breaks abroad can be hell - but not if you know where to go, writes Deborah Jackson
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The Independent Travel
In pursuit of the perfect family-friendly hotel, I've travelled from Cornwall to Inverness, from the wild West (Pembrokeshire) to the remote East (Hythe and the Cinque Ports). But when parents ask me to recommend a decent family hotel abroad, it's not so easy to be specific.

Unlike British hoteliers who tend to turn their noses up at children, foreign hostelries take them so much for granted they often neglect to cater for them. High chairs are practically unknown across the Continent. Children are expected to wade through miniature versions of their parents' bouillabaisse, or subsist on repetitive junior menus. Kids may be welcome, but bouncy castles are more readily found on a beach than in the grounds of a European hotel.

So the best way to proceed is by word of mouth, and there are some establishments that have offered us - or our friends - the kind of family-oriented holiday we could really sink into and enjoy. For a start, there's the unusual Chateau le Mont Epinguet, a stunning French chateau a mile from the RN13 and eight miles south of the ferry terminal at Cherbourg.

The hosts are an intrepid English couple, Mark and Fiona Berridge, who have two children of their own, plenty of high chairs and a lawn full of bicycles. Once, this 1751 mansion stood in 2,000 acres of its own grounds. Today, three acres do well enough - the wrought-iron gates and magnificent facade are unchanged. Inside, the style is 18th-century faded grandeur, no central heating or carpets but lots of space and a sense of humour.

At Le Mont Epinguet, you get a quasi-Continental B&B (croissants in the summer, porridge in winter), a fantastic social atmosphere with lots of families (English, French, Dutch) and directions to the very handy local eaterie, so small it has no name, in the village of Rufosses. Here, Madame makes four-course meals on the open fire for Fr60 (pounds 6), pays heed to your children and takes them off for sweets in her other shop.

Mark and Fiona love entertaining families - they can lend you a bike with baby seat, or suggest some super hill walks. Nearby are safe beaches, a popular animal park, exciting indoor pool and a chateau with its own play area. At Fr2650 per week (about pounds 265) for a family room for four (or Fr120 per person per night) it's a highly affordable base for a beautiful and accessible part of France.

Equally relaxed, with a warmer climate, is the Hostal Los Pinos near Pollensa on the island of Majorca. "We love it because it's very simple," says Liz Doyle, who has returned numerous times with husband Paddy and various combinations of their three children. "My abiding image of peace and relaxation - walking along the clifftop opposite the hotel and looking back at the valley bathed in golden light."

Hostal los Pinos is run by Juan Coll and his wife Anna. Their style is laid-back: "You help yourself from the bar and note what you've taken in a book," says Liz. "People tend to go out to eat and return later to gather and chat. There are lots of Brits - some who we've met year after year. One family has been going for 27 years." Not specifically pitched as a family hotel, Los Pinos is nevertheless a favourite with children of all ages. There's a swimming pool, table tennis table, two sandy beaches nearby. The decor is Spanish rustic, with large pieces of old furniture and plates hanging from whitewashed walls. At 3,000 pesetas (about pounds 12) per person per night for bed and breakfast, Hostal los Pinos is a budget hotel with style.

For something a little more organised and inevitably more expensive, try the Theresia Gartenhotel in Austria, a member of the promisingly-named KinderHotels group. The Brettermeier-Egger family promises to "spoil you culinary", which they do with an inclusive price ticket that covers breakfast, dinner, warm buffet at noon, strudels and coffee in the afternoon, use of five swimming and whirl-pools, sauna, gym, table tennis and billiards.

Children are an essential part of the exhaustive programme at the Theresia. The owners themselves have three children aged three to 12, so they know what harassed parents are looking for. There's a teenage activity room with videos and computer games, a kindergarten for over-twos, and a resident nurse.

Constructed in Austrian chalet style, the Theresia is a jewel in a verdant, Sound of Music landscape. It leaves you breathless with its range of facilities and level of child catering and has the added advantage of being in the heart of skiing country - imagine bubbling away in the jacuzzi at 37C, with snow stretching from the mountain tops to the very edge of the steaming water...

A simple family room for four on the all-inclusive tariff costs from 1,040 Austrian schillings per person, per night (around pounds 50.) There are reduced rates for children and special offers depending on season. Packages can be booked through Lauda Air, with daily flights from Gatwick to Salzburg.

If you are looking for a wider range of personal recommendations, your best bet might be to talk to a small hotel bookings agency, such as Room Service, which specialises in family-owned independent hotels in Italy, Spain, France and Portugal. Room Service director Victoria Riela personally visits all the hotels on her books and only deals with non-chain establishments. The company can also arrange flights, car hire and personal itineraries.

Chateau Le Mont Epinguet, 50700 Brix, Normandie (00 33 233 41 96 31). Hostal Los Pinos, Cala san Vicente, Pollensa, Majorca (00 34 71 53 12 10). Theresia Gartenhotel, A-5754 Saalbach-Hinterglemm 208, Salzburger Land, Austria (00 43 6541 7414). Room Service: 0171-636 6888.