Last-minute family escapes this half term

Sarah Gordon assesses the options for brightening up the February gloom, from Alpine adventures to beach breaks

What's the attraction?

There has been thick snow and a deep freeze on our doorsteps, and it feels like Christmas was barely a moment ago. However, the half-term holidays are on the horizon – for most 16-24 February, but for some a week earlier – offering the opportunity for a winter escape to the sun, or deeper into the snow of Europe's ski resorts. It's the perfect excuse for a pick-me-up family adventure.

For a dose of sunshine, mid-haul destinations come into their own: Dubai offers average temperatures of 20C, while Egypt is a warming 19C. Meanwhile, ski resorts will see their busiest week as families pile in for the snow-sure conditions. And closer to home, self-catering cottages make for an affordable break and can be just as beautiful in winter as in summer – with plenty of local attractions almost empty. National Trust Cottages (0844 800 2070; nationaltrustcottages.co.uk), for example, offers free entry to local National Trust properties.

European escape

Make the most of off-season Europe, with quiet museums and uncrowded landscapes. British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com/nice) has a week at the Splendid hotel in Nice; the price of £488 per person includes flights from Gatwick on 17 February and accommodation.

Alternatively, immerse yourself in Spanish culture. Families Worldwide (0845 051 4567; familiesworldwide.co.uk) offers the week-long Rural Andalucia package; the price of £499 per child and £799 per adult includes flights from Gatwick on 16 February, half board and activities such as Spanish and cookery lessons and cheese-making.

Or live like Italian royalty in Umbria at the restored 16th-century Palazzo Seneca, set in its own gardens near Norcia. Abercrombie & Kent (0845 485 1143; abercrombiekent.co.uk) offers four nights at the palazzo; the price of £620 per person includes flights from Heathrow or Gatwick with daily departures, B&B and car hire.

A grand day out

You don't have to go abroad to make the most of the half term break. The National Museum of Scotland (0300 123 6789; nms.ac.uk) has a Living History: The Glasgow Vikings day on 17 February, complete with a Viking encampment. Admission free. Find out how the Victorians lived at the interactive Steam, Sweat and Sewers exhibition at The Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester, from 16-24 February. Admission free. Or live it up in Falmouth on 15 February with an overnight family stay at Pendennis Castle (0870 333 1181; english-heritage.org.uk). Sit down to supper, enjoy a twilight tour then bed down for the night; £240 for a family of four. In Herefordshire, families are invited to discover the first signs of spring on the daily nature trails at Brockhampton Estate (01885 482 077; nationaltrust.org.uk/brockhampton- estate) from 16 February. Children can look out for different birds and note them on a "spotter sheet" for the chance to win a prize.

Cruise control

Take to the high seas with the children. Thomson (0871 231 5938; thomson.co.uk) has a week aboard the Majesty on a circuit from Tenerife, taking in Gran Canaria, La Palma, Madeira, Agadir in Morocco and Lanzarote. The price of £2,349 covers two adults and two children sharing an inside cabin, full board, with multiple restaurant options, a spa and kids' club and flights from Edinburgh on 15 February. Many other UK departure airports are available.

Costa Cruises (020 3564 5219; costacruises.co.uk) has a seven-day tour from Italy to the Balearic Islands on board the Costa Pacifica; the price of £2,656 for a family of four includes a premium cabin, full board and flights from Heathrow to Genoa on 16 February. Or try a short hop to Amsterdam. DFDS Seaways (0871 522 9955; dfdsseaways.co.uk) has a two-night cruise from Newcastle to Amsterdam for £223 for two adults and two children including a canal cruise and zoo trip.

Seeking sunshine

Thaw out on warmer shores. Original Travel (020 7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk) is offering a week at the luxurious The Oberoi resort at Sahl Hasheesh near Hurghada on Egypt's Red Sea Riviera; the price of £920 per person (no child reductions) includes breakfast and return flights from Gatwick on 9 and 16 February.

Club Med (08453 87 87 87; clubmed.co.uk) is offering a week at its resort in La Palmeraie, Marrakech, set in the oldest palm grove in Morocco with free transfers to the city; the price of £929 per adult and £555 per child includes flights from Heathrow on 16 February, all inclusive.

Or hit the beach at Dubai's new Ocean View Hotel, near the Marina and The Palm, where every room has a sea view. DialAFlight (0844 881 4444; dialaflight.com) offers a four-night package; the price of £843 per adult and £799 per child includes departures any day from 10 February from Heathrow.

Insider information

"The most popular destinations for half term this year are Egypt and Tenerife, while alternative destinations such as the Algarve, which may not be quite so hot, offer great value for money but also have plenty to do on a family holiday. Flexibility is the key to keeping the cost down: for example, could you travel during the week rather than over the weekend? If you are looking for a skiing trip, try some of the smaller resorts .... If you are a beginner, you may not need the same number of runs to keep you occupied and often a smaller resort is ideal." Mandy Round, general manager, easyJet Holidays (holidays.easyjet.com)

Great British breaks

You don't have to go far for a restorative break. Cwmcrwth Farm (01558 669 160; cwmcrwthfarmcottages.co.uk) in Carmarthenshire, has seven nights' self-catering in a renovated stone barn for £375 from 16 February. Children are invited to feed the farm's animals, while the nearby village of Llandeilo is filled with boutiques and the renowned chocolate shop, Heavenly.

Live like Nottinghamshire's hero at the Clumber Park Hotel (01623 835 333; clumber parkhotel.com) in Sherwood Forest, which has a two-night Robin Hood Experience break for half term; the price of £299 for two adults and two children sharing a room includes access to the indoor pool and spa, bicycle hire, an introductory archery class and a Go Ape adventure course experience.

In Devon, the Dartmouth Golf & Country Club's lodges (0800 043 3669; dgcc.co.uk) sleep six from £599 per week, B&B with access to the Woodlands Family Theme Park.

An active escape

Follow ancient trails on a walking holiday in Portugal. Sunvil Discovery (020 8758 4722; sunvil.co.uk/alentejo) has seven nights in the cool but sunny (10-15C) Alentejo, with family-friendly walks to explore segments of the coastal Fisherman's Way and inland Historical Way. Discover rural villages, deserted beaches and cork-tree forests. Families can plan their own schedules, returning each night to the Casa da Eira apartment; the price of £1,865 for two adults and two children includes flights from Heathrow to Lisbon on 10 February, car hire, maps and accommodation.

Thrill the family with a chilly escape to Romania. Explore (0844 499 0901; explore.co.uk) has a five-day trip in the Transylvanian Alps; the price of £693 per adult includes flights from London on 20 February.

Freewheel Holidays (0116 255 8417; freewheel holidays.co.uk) offers a four-night, self-guided cycle tour on the unspoiled south-west coast of Sardinia for £499 per person, flights excluded.

Who said that?

"Experience, travel – these are as education in themselves" – Euripides, Greek playwright

"Travel, in the younger sort, is a part of education; in the elder, a part of experience." – Sir Francis Bacon

"Without new experiences, something inside of us sleeps. The sleeper must awaken." – Frank Herbert, American science-fiction writer

Slope off to the mountains

As many families know to their considerable cost, February half term is peak week for ski holidays. To try to keep the price within bounds, aim for a cheap destination – such as Bulgaria and the resort of Borovets, ideal for beginners with its gentle green and blue runs and affordable English-speaking ski school. Neilson (0844 879 8155; neilson.co.uk) offers a week at the Hotel Rila & Studios for £711 per person for a family of four, including flights from Gatwick on 16 February and half-board.

In Austria, Crystal Ski (0871 231 2256; crystalski.co.uk) has a week's all-inclusive at the Hotel Hofer in Kitzbuhel for £677 per person (based on a family of four), including flights from Glasgow on 16 February.

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