Woolley Grange goes to Madeira, and the magic touch survives the journey

Kate Simon reports on the latest venture from the hoteliers whose Wiltshire retreat won the hearts of a generation of families
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The Independent Travel

First came the whoops and shouts, then a dissonant car-horn concerto, the fizzy whistle of fireworks and the rhythmic thump of a distant drum. The supine sunbathers around the pool at the Jardins do Lago hotel in Madeira looked up from their blockbusters and scanned the hilly panorama for the source of the commotion. Was it an approaching mob? No, Benfica had just won the Portuguese league for the first time in 11 years.

First came the whoops and shouts, then a dissonant car-horn concerto, the fizzy whistle of fireworks and the rhythmic thump of a distant drum. The supine sunbathers around the pool at the Jardins do Lago hotel in Madeira looked up from their blockbusters and scanned the hilly panorama for the source of the commotion. Was it an approaching mob? No, Benfica had just won the Portuguese league for the first time in 11 years.

It is unusual for the still of an afternoon to be broken on Madeira. After all, this island prides itself on being known as a peaceful, unchallenging holiday destination. Hence the tourists that come here are branded newly wed or nearly dead, and like all good clichés that pretty much sums it up. But a new breed of visitor is about to descend on the island - the never-endingly knackered, aka parents with pre-school children. And they are arriving courtesy of the team behind Luxury Family Hotels, the British company that runs Woolley Grange, the Wiltshire retreat that for the past 16 years has soothed the brows of many a stressed-out parent, in large measure through its excellent childcare facilities.

Devotees of LFH's signature mix - its mission is to please mum, dad and the kiddies not some of the time but all of the time - will no doubt be thrilled at the news. But they shouldn't expect to find a spanking new addition to their favourite hotel group in the middle of the Atlantic.

This is a tentative step into the foreign market for LFH founders Nigel Chapman and Nicholas Dickinson. While they have had one season running the Meriski resort in the French Alps, this is their first proper foreign hotel venture. But rather than open their own property they have sought out a hotel with a similar appeal to those in the LFH stable and cut a deal through new company Four Winds Holidays to invest in and run children's facilities and market the hotel to their kind of punter. The hotel they have formed that partnership with is the five-star Jardins do Lago, just outside Funchal, Madeira's capital.

"It is much quicker, simpler and better in our view to form a partnership with the current ownership of a hotel rather than try to develop or even buy something of our own," explains Mr Chapman. "We will be creating dedicated Luxury Family resorts - we are building one in Martinhal in Portugal's Algarve and another in West Cork in Ireland. But we wanted to get into providing holidays abroad to our market now. That's why we're reaching arrangements like this. Our hotels in the UK are aimed at short breaks. Madeira is all about us moving into the holiday market - one or two-week stays."

Beachless Madeira may seem an odd place to begin this project, but Mr Chapman points out that it has a mild year-round climate, which suits his company's key market, the under-fives. Plus there is no time difference with Britain.

But the decision was largely down to the choice of property. Jardins do Lago is an elegant hotel, set in a quinta, one of Madeira's traditional manor houses. Built in 1750, it was a private home long associated with the British Blandy family, which built a wine-exporting empire on the island. The current owners bought it in 2000 and turned it into a hotel with 31 double rooms and nine suites, adding new accommodation in the gardens.

The setting is glorious; the hotel is perched on one of the many lush hills that form Madeira's vertiginous landscape, which was created by a volcanic eruption 20 million years ago. The house has about five acres of garden, which are a botanist's joy, with species of tree, plant and flower from South America to Asia. There's a lake with a swan and among the shrubs is a croquet lawn, tennis courts and a patio with table tennis. At the bottom of the garden, shaded by mango and banana trees, is a large, part-covered pool with alfresco bistro and sun terraces, off which lie a sauna, steam room and gym.

Inside, the house has been cherished, from the polished wooden and parquet floors to the meticulously maintained antiques, which include a sideboard from when the quinta was the residence of General William Beresford, commander of the British forces here during the Napoleonic wars. A sequence of rooms on one side of the house provide a charming dining space, with the bar arranged in an atrium just beyond reception. Downstairs, a library offers a quiet retreat to adults. Upstairs,five styles of bedroom all have sitting areas and balconies, plus internet connection and cable TV.

So how has the involvement of Four Winds changed this landscape? Since shaking on the deal, the hotel has added a paddling pool and some outdoor play apparatus. But most significant is the introduction of Colombo's Den, an indoor play area modelled on the ones that have made LFH's British hotels so popular. Named after the 45-year-old Galapagos tortoise that lives in the hotel's garden, it has two playrooms; Colombo's Den itself is the supervised area for babies to seven-year-olds, supplied with toys, books, easels and colouring pads. Just beyond the safety gate is an unsupervised zone for older children with X Box, PlayStation, videos and table football.

Colombo's Den is overseen by Kirsty Neville, a qualified nanny who is also Four Winds' manager at the hotel. Though the facilities are always available, her team is only on hand from 10am-1pm and 2pm-5pm, Sunday to Friday. Staff numbers shift according to demand, with the Den adhering to Ofsted standards. Childcare is bought with hourly vouchers.

High tea is another new development, offered daily in the Pink Room, which spills on to a new garden terrace. The menu includes the usual suspects, chicken nuggets and hot dogs, but also more imaginative choices such as fish cakes, mild curries and risottos. Children may also dine with their parents in the restaurant in the evening, where the ever-helpful staff will adapt fine dining to children's tastes. A fancy tournedos of beef was sensibly turned into plain steak and chips for our son and charged at a much lower price.

Four Winds' service continues beyond the hotel. The company is negotiating access to a lounge at Gatwick airport and private transfers from Madeira's airport (just 15 minutes) are included in the package price. It has also signed up GB Airways to provide some flights. This is a preferable to TAP Portugal, with whom we flew, which needs to understand that customers expect to be offered entertainment on flights over three hours long, as well as decent food.

Introducing a new family clientele to a hotel formerly frequented mainly by adults may seem a tricky task, but Duarte Silva, the general manager of Jardins do Lago, is undaunted. He says the rooms nearest to Colombo's Den will be reserved for families but otherwise they will generally mix in.

"We are excited about the partnership," he says. "Some of the larger hotels, like Reid's Palace, offer children's facilities, but ours is the first quinta to do so. We will take care to introduce new clients while keeping the old ones. In any case, Four Winds is likely to provide a maximum of 30 per cent of our customers, so the majority will be our usual clientele."

With Four Winds aiming to create its own resorts, will this partnership be only temporary? "No," says Mr Chapman. "We will be looking to do a few more partnerships of this kind. We won't abandon our arrangement with Madeira."

GIVE ME THE FACTS

How to get there

Kate Simon travelled to the Jardins do Lago hotel on Madeira courtesy of Four Winds Holidays (01285 648510; www.fourwinds resorts.com). It is offering an introductory, six-night offer to the hotel during May half-term, 28 May to 4 June, for £815 per adult, based on two sharing, and £295 for children over two years, babies free of charge, when children share their parents' room. Prices include return flights, transfers, accommodation in a standard garden-view room with breakfast. Usual prices are £895 per adult and £295 for children sharing. Eighteen hours of childcare costs £100. Extra hours can be purchased for €12 (£8.25) an hour.

THE UK PORTFOLIO: Woolley Grange

The original Woolley Grange Hotel occupies a Jacobean manor house on the edge of Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire. There are 26 bedrooms, the Woolley Bears Den, an open-air pool in summer and outdoor activities. Spa treatments. Dinner, b&b from £200 per room per night. Call 01225 864705 or visit www.luxuryfamilyhotels.com.

Fowey Hall

A 19th-century mansion inspired by the Queen Anne chateau style, on the south Cornish coast at Fowey. There are 24 bedrooms, the Four Bears Den, The Garage and The Cooks Room, an indoor pool and outdoor activities. Spa treatments. Dinner, b&b from £160 per room per night. Call 01726 833866.

Moonfleet Manor

A rambling manor house on the edge of Chesil beach, just outside Weymouth in Dorset. It has 39 bedrooms, The Den, a second playroom, an indoor pool and outdoor activities. Spa treatments. Dinner, b&b from £160 per room per night. Call 01305 786948.

Ickworth Hotel

Occupying a wing of 18th-century stately home Ickworth House, near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk. There are 27 rooms and 11 apartments, the Four Bears Den and Club/Blu, plus indoor pool and outdoor activities. Spa facilities. Half-board £265 per night, with complimentary massage each, minimum two nights, Sunday to Thursday, in May and June. Call 01284 735350.

Prices include early morning tea and newspaper. Children sharing their parents' rooms pay only for meals

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