Making it a doddle for guests who toddle

Adrian Bridge tries to take the strain out of a family break

There were times when I wondered whether booking into a pension explicitly catering for parents with children under the age of five was such a good idea.

Six in the morning on 1 January was one of them. Having danced in the New Year to the strains of Strauss's "Blue Danube" (well, the pension was in Austria) and washed it all down with a heady mixture of Gluhwein, schnapps and bubbly, the last thing I really wanted was to be woken by a chorus of howling toddlers - even if two of them were my own.

Later, bleary-eyed at the breakfast table, I noticed that Tizian, a stocky little boy with a penchant for growling and lashing out at everyone in sight, was about to lay into my two-year-old son. I was reminded of Jean- Paul Sartre's famous line: "Hell is other people." Only he didn't get it quite right. Hell is other people's children.

The Bergfried "Babypension" just outside the medieval town of Gmund, on the road between Salzburg and Klagenfurt, is one of the growing number in Austria that are aimed at young families. With a child of their own already (and another clearly on the way), its proprietors, Horst and Andrea, were pretty clued up as to what parents with small children really need. Basics such as cots, potties, highchairs and bottle-warmers were an automatic part of the service. A colourful playroom, heated paddling pool and plates sporting the Lion King motif were nice extras. On top of that, there was plenty of organised outdoor activity: for those with children out of nappies, skiing at the nearby resort of Innerkrems; for the rest, snowman building, sleigh-riding and torch-lit treks through striking pine forests.

Having already experienced several less than stress-free "holidays" with our two (ages two and four), it seemed like an idea worth exploring. Tizian apart, having other children around was bound to make life easier. And if ours did start playing up - the inevitable temper tantrums here, spilling drinks and shouting loudly there - what would it matter: so would everybody else's.

A good case in point: mealtimes. Although occasionally we attempt to dine out en famille, it rarely gets beyond a single course and a single glass of wine and frequently ends in a hurried exit, with apologetic looks all round. Here, we could relax. When the children were through, they could run wild - and be in good company.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the Bergfried's guests are German: thirtysomething couples from Dortmund and Hanover who burn down the autobahns with their little Janinas and Florians to spend a week recharging the batteries in a classic Alpine setting.

Many who were there in the first week of January had returned for the second, third and even fourth time, clear converts to the cause (or to Horst's Wurzn, root-based home brew - something which, in his thick Austrian accent, he insisted was purely "medicinal").

That, coupled with the fact that we were only 10 families anyway, made for a genuinely intimate atmosphere. With so much in common, it was easy for us to break the ice. The obvious drawback was that much of the conversation was centred on our respective offspring - and, even worse, as the week progressed, on their little coughs and colds and other, less savoury ailments.

The Bergfried was one of the trail-blazers in what has clearly become a lucrative part of the Austrian holiday market. When it opened up in 1984 there were hardly any such establishments. Such has been their success that today there are more than 80.

Nowhere is the trend more marked than around Gmund itself, in the Liesar and Malta valley - otherwise known as the "Valley of the Baby Hotels" (clearly Austria's answer to the Valley of the Dolls).

You know you have arrived when, a few miles along the road going south from Gmund you are suddenly confronted by a gigantic model of a dummy alongside a sign announcing that this is Trebesing - "Europe's 1st Baby Village".

What this means in practice is an entire complex boasting a host of child- and toddler-friendly hotels and lodging houses, a special "Nappy Wanderers' Way" (buggies welcome), a mini-farm and "Ford Baby City", a mock American Indian village where the children can play at being cowboys.

The Trebesing village was the brainchild of Siegfried Neuschitzer, who says the idea came to him in the early Eighties after friends with very young children complained that they were being treated like second-class citizens wherever they went. From modest beginnings, the concept has grown. Recent refinements include ski school for two-year-olds (nose-wiping thrown in), and mountain climbing with nappy change at the summit (presumably an optional extra).

Back at the Bergfried, the general consensus was that one could probably take this baby business a bit too seriously, and that in the bigger establishments there was a tendency to over-organise. As we gathered at the bar when the children were safely asleep (but, of course, monitored through the computerised baby alarm system), we agreed that the most relaxing thing about the whole experience was simply being in a tolerant atmosphere.

And for all the wonderful facilities, toys and fun-type activities, there was equally a consensus that, with all our children still under the age of five, the earliest any of us could look forward to something approaching a real holiday would probably be about the year 2010.

For more information on baby and family hotels in Austria, contact: Kinderhotels Osterreich, Postfach 10, A-9580 Villach/Drobollach (00-43- 4254-4411); Bergfried Babypension, A-9853 Gmund, Treffenboden 13 (00-43- 4732-2147). Prices per person per week start at about pounds 300 - and there is no charge for children under six years old.

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