'Timetables actually gave us the freedom to do our own thing'

There were a lot of "returners" on our flight from Gatwick to Lemnos, a Greek island in the North Aegean Sea. They were families who had holidayed the previous year at the Portomyrina Palace, a resort just outside the island's capital, Myrina. The person I sat next to on the plane was a mother of two and a bit of an expert on family holidays. She said this type of "family active" holiday met all her criteria: for location, for the activities on offer, for the food and for the kid's clubs.

Not to be swayed by the enthusiasm of my neighbour, I resolutely kept an open mind throughout the four-hour flight. I have learned from bitter experience never, ever, judge a family holiday by its hype. When you travel with small children you are very much in the hands of the gods (Greek or otherwise). The last time we'd ventured to a Greek island was with two babies under the age of two.

It was a holiday approached with the naivety of new parents who had last visited the archipelago as students with backpacks, and thought a similar approach could be taken with children. What a mistake: the babies cried and screamed on the plane, vomited on the ferry to the island, failed to appreciate the blistering heat of the August sun, and didn't see the fun of playing in the too-hot-to-handle sand.

This time around things appeared very different. Our children were older, we were visiting during the climatically kinder month of May, we were flying direct to an island, and we were on a package holiday. We also appeared to be the only plane arriving at Lemnos's tiny airport that morning. We were greeted with roses, orange juice, pastries, smiling and bronzed holiday reps, music and dancing. An air-conditioned coach drove us the mere 20 minutes to our comfortable resort, where we were greeted by even more joyful reps and orange juice.

Our luggage was then taken to our rooms, a delicious lunch was served and we were told to meet in the bar at 5pm for an introductory talk before signing up for the week's activities: sailing, waterskiing, windsurfing, kayaking, scuba diving, mountain biking, fitness classes and tennis.

Each instructor took turns to step forward, say a cheery hello and offer their wares. And what a lot of options there were: beginner lessons, taster sessions, improver classes, advanced courses, safaris, treks, hikes and tours. At this point my husband left the scene – not a man to appreciate the jollity and heartiness on display he took three fidgety children off to the beach, leaving the bookings to me.

As soon as the instructors sat down, a well-mannered scrum gathered around each table as everyone rushed to book sessions, filling up their weekly timetables. The returners had a clear advantage – they knew what to do. To the novices it was all a bit overwhelming. I found myself wandering around in circles, needing the very helpful Chris ("Head of Activities"), to intervene on my behalf.

Day one of the activities was all go-go-go. At 9.30am my three children were signed up for three different clubs: Sea Urchins (two- to four-year-olds), Surf Busters (five- to seven-year-olds) and Sharksters (eight- to 12-year-olds). At the same time I was meant to be down on the beach for a beginner's dinghy session. It didn't go as smoothly as it might – especially when the four-year-old decided he wasn't really up for being a sea urchin and my husband started muttering about boot camp and how he was meant to be on holiday. So, a little late and frazzled I finally began my chosen activity for that morning. I then carried on with it for three days, and also found time for a couple of stunning mountain bike rides, several exhilarating water-skiing sessions, and some private tennis tuition. All of which I thoroughly enjoyed.

My grumpy husband positively blossomed as a result of his timetabled existence. He learned to sail a dinghy and by the end of the week was confidently taking one out on the water whenever he felt like it. He even started mumbling about signing up for courses back in the UK. And our progeny? Well, after our first morning, I wandered round the kids' clubs to see if any would join me for lunch. The answer, to my surprise (and slight pique), was no: they were having too good a time with their new-found friends.

It was a set-up that, for us, actually worked. Paradoxically the structure of the timetables, schedules and daily planners, gave us as parents a holiday with more freedom to do our own thing. Freedom because someone else is looking after your children – but also, more importantly, freedom from guilt about this arrangement because you can see your children are having such a good time.

There is also, should you wish, a parallel existence to be had on this type of holiday. Hypothetically, of course, you could spend the whole week in the resort without venturing out to the Hellenic island beyond. But this would be a big mistake. Lemnos is that rare thing: a Greek island yet to be maimed by mass tourism.

Historically, the holidaying hordes have been kept at bay by the large (but now diminishing) military presence on the island. For Greece Lemnos is in a prime location: not far from the Mount Athos peninsula, yet also close to Turkey and near the Straits of the Dardanelles. Hence, as you drive round the island you occasionally find yourself behind an army vehicle or hearing a fighter jet overhead.

Myrina boasts the ruins of a castle on a hill, winding cobbled streets, neo-classical mansions, and a harbour with an eclectic mix of fishing boats. There are also some great little shops, a few trendy bars and some very good beachside tavernas. It's a treat to sit at one of these waterside eateries and watching the sun go down behind Mount Athos.

A highlight of my week was sitting on a deserted beach at Gomati on the north coast of the island. And that's the clever thing about this holiday: on some days you could join in the full-on activity experience, on others you had the option of going it alone, being apart from the rest, and enjoying this wonderfully under-populated Aegean island.

Prices at the Portomyrina Palace at Lemnos, a Neilson Beachplus location, start from £909 per adult and £729 per child. This includes flights, family room accommodation, club board (breakfast, lunch and four evening meals), transfers, all on-water activities and other activities including tennis, fitness classes, mountain biking and use of the gym and spa. For more information call 0870 333 3356 or see www.neilson.co.uk