Could a package holiday with the emphasis on water-based activities keep the entire family amused?
Saturday 14 March 2009
Depending on your point of view, young children either add an extra dimension to travel or make it impossibly difficult. Wise to the possibilities, many families with young children opt for a week locked-down in Britain.
But some companies specialise in making it possible for parents to enjoy a more active break abroad. One option is an all-inclusive resort. Last summer I tried out the concept at Club Javelin on Turkey's Aegean coast, run by Sunsail.
It was a package holiday to a club complex. And, as I soon found out, clubs full of Brits abroad have an odd dynamic. This opportunity to befriend the like-minded is cut with the unsettling fact that you're holidaying in parallel with strangers.
And the parallel bit starts early. We checked into the car park, a bus ride from Gatwick, alongside other families and rode in tandem with them all the way to the Bodrum peninsula.
Club Javelin, once we'd arrived, turned out to be a smart place. It occupies the southern end of Camel Beach, a long, thin strip of sand facing – counter-intuitively – east, this being the side of the peninsula that looks back at the Turkish mainland across the expanse of Bodrum Bay.
The resort had recently been renovated, and the new rooms, built in tiered blocks above the main hotel building, all faced the sea – done up in a swish, brushed-steel-and-whitewash modern style.
Each room boasted a big veranda shaded by a sail-shaped awning. High-tensile wires cordoned these verandas off, and sang in the breeze. Air conditioning, flatscreen TV, fridge and safe: check. And down in the main hotel there was an infinity pool, an alluring bar perched on a jetty, a beachside restaurant and a whole series of kids-clubs.
Our accommodation worked well, one or two teething problems aside (the space-age keypad which operated everything within our room had a habit of locking us out/in and extinguishing the bathroom light: somewhat vexing when you're potty-training a toddler).
Location was the key to Club Javelin. Camel Beach is a windy spot – very windy. By midday, on every day of our week-long stay, the wind was turning sunshades inside out and sending flip-flops skittering unaided down the beach. Which was good, because the sharp end of Club Javelin, so to speak, was its sailing and windsurfing. It's why people choose such holiday clubs.
When our ruddy-faced tour rep welcomed us onto the bus at the airport, his genial "the week looks set to be sunny" got less of a cheer than "...and windy as well". The range of wind-driven watersports available was bewildering.
Together with a surprising number of my fellow guests (it being 6.30am at home) I got up on the first morning to be briefed about what was on offer that week. Group tuition, one-to-one instruction, formal skippering qualifications, day excursions, races and regattas in canoes, fun-boats, myriad sailing dinghies, catamarans and yachts were all on the menu. There were all sorts of boards and rigs for novices, intermediates and pros. And all of the kit was new, as the activities manager emphasised: "straight out of the box".
"Get your names down fast," she advised, her wrap-around shades flashing blankly. People did. As in their early-morning manoeuvrings for poolside pole position, they were a very organised lot.
The usual form in clubs like this is that using the kit is free. Formal instruction costs extra – much like the drinks and ice-creams in the bar, which helped us run up a hefty additional bill despite our best budgeting efforts.
It having been a while since I last windsurfed, but forever since I'd sailed a dinghy, I booked a lesson for the latter and winged it on the windsurfer. This strategy more or less worked. I was very impressed with the informal advice available on the beach; the club's instructors were more than willing to give tips as they rigged me up and sent me on my way.
Everywhere I looked there was someone waiting to help. The same staff positively took offence if I tried to put the kit away myself after using it: in this respect at least the deal is all-inclusive.
For £30, I booked a two-hour lesson in a Topaz sailing dinghy with an instructor called Vern. Like many of the English instructor-reps, Vern was working the season during his university holidays. Next to his mahogany legs, curled on the deck, mine looked like newly hatched maggots.
I managed to capsize the boat before we'd even untied it. Vern remained unfazed by these details, magnanimous even. He talked me through tacking and jibing while we were still on shore, then complimented me on my lurching attempts to follow his advice at sea. When I capsized us, he said politely: "I was too hot, anyway."
The idea is that parents can mess around in boats (most of them were far less messy about it than me) while their children are looked after in kids' clubs, with different age-categories catering for children from four months to 17 years old.
I had imagined, before I got there, that we would drop the kids off for an hour or two every now and then, and that's what we did. But I'd underestimated the scope of the childcare on offer: the kids' clubs ran activities from 9.30am until 5pm. Most parents, it seemed, docked their offspring into a club for the duration. "How was your day at the office?" I heard one deck shoe-clad dad ask his daughter over tea.
I'm sure her day had been more than fine. Each of the kids' clubs had its own well-equipped area, and throughout the day they undertook activities inside, poolside, and on the beach. From breakfast until tea, hearty instructors organise age-appropriate games. Lounging by the pool I watched troupes of children in colour co-ordinated T-shirts and hats crocodile this way and that all day, having sailing-related fun. Safety was paramount. Everyone wore a buoyancy aid on the beach; the younger kids even wore them in the paddling pool.
As well as the day clubs, you could check your children into night crèches and movie-rooms to free up your evening, effectively subcontracting their half of the holiday entirely. This clearly benefited the dedicated sailor-gourmet. But what appealed to us most, as well as having our meals prepared all week, were the activities – including tennis and mountain biking, as well as the watersports – which we could dip in and out of at will.
The food, incidentally, was magnificent: a huge buffet, including many tasty Turkish dishes, at breakfast and dinner, plus lunch and tea for the kids. And fruit everywhere. I overheard one guest complain that the meals were "samey". Unless she was slotting away 50 dishes a sitting, I can't understand what she was upset about.
Before dinner on our last night there was a prize-giving ceremony for the kids, with whooping and in-jokes and uproarious glee. After dinner there was one for the adults, a time when Club Javelin felt its most clubby. The parallel celebrations suggested that for many families such holidays are an opportunity to spend time doing things near one another, rather than together. While I can see that this irons out some of the prickly problems of holidaying with children, ultimately it wasn't what we were after, and Club Javelin was accommodating in its flexibility. We made use of the childcare when it suited us, but windsurfed, sailed, swam and generally messed about with the kids the rest of the time. It wasn't painless, but that's what keeps family holiday memories vivid, isn't it?
Sunsail's Club Javelin is not open this summer. An alternative is the company's Club Vounaki (0844 463 6578; sunsail.co.uk/clubs) in Greece. The price for two adults and two children sharing a double suite with sea view ranges from £2,291 to 4,966 in peak season. It includes half-board accommodation, return flights from Gatwick, transfers from Preveza airport, plus use of Sunsail's watersports equipment, fitness facilities, mountain bikes, tennis courts and spa.
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