Travel: Baby on board

If you think children and holidays don't mix, you've been going to the wrong places, writes Hilly Janes
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The Independent Travel
"Mummy are we going to the toilet?" asked our two-year-old as we pulled up outside a group of squat, rectangular buildings after three hours in the car. In the twilight they could, indeed, have been mistaken for public conveniences. Yet this was not a toilet stop, but our weekend accommodation - the garden rooms at the Anchor Hotel in Walberswick, on the Suffolk coast.

In fact the rooms were splendid. Huge, withenormous double beds that left plenty of space for a pull-out sofabed for children, or a baby's cot. En suite bathrooms had a bath rather than just a mere shower cubicle - a hopeless place for rinsing sand from every orifice of a toddler who hates getting water on his face. Large plate-glass windows looking on to the lawns and flowerbeds gave the place an American motel feel. If the exteriors had been whitewashed and covered in bougainvillaea, it could have been Greece.

Ah, Greece. Or Turkey, or New York, the Egyptian desert or the Australian outback. The young woman who backpacked and bussed her way around all of them wouldn't have been seen dead in motel-style rooms round the back of a huge joke oak pub, even in a spot as delightful as Walberswick. But she grew up, got a job that demanded, like her partner's, long days at the office. And had a baby.

Of all the many things that change forever once you have a baby, perhaps one of the hardest to come to terms with is holidays. The need for rest is greater than ever, but the very break in routine that refreshes adults is likely to unsettle infants. Sleeping patterns are disturbed, or best remain at the usual 6.30am start, fully charged and ready for action.

Small children do not enjoy the grown-up pleasures of lounging around in the sun, or sightseeing, or eating meals at odd times and at leisure. Self-catering is not the answer because the adventure of shopping for and preparing food, even fresh fish straight off the boats in Cornwall, soon palls if you do it night after night. No chance of legging it to Rick Stein's either - no babysitters. Then there's all the clearing up and bed making and finding out when they collect the bins.

That is why we have spent all our time away this year in hotels, ferreting out those with family-friendly reputations in English bucket-and-spade locations - from the great sandy sweep at Studland in Dorset, to the safe shallow waters of Daymer Bay on the Camel estuary in North Cornwall, to one of the few pebble-free zones of the Suffolk coast at Walberswick.

The most successful was our stay at the Knoll House, whose huge private gardens lead down to the beach at Studland in Dorset. We returned from a week there in April having achieved the seemingly impossible feat of spending all day every day with an energetic toddler, but feeling totally relaxed. "A civilised oasis for 65 years," says the leaflet, "and the first hotel to provide any amenities for the extended family. Regular visitors, with or without children, are attracted by the traditional style, atmosphere, space and comfort of this country house hotel. It is managed by members of the Ferguson family, proprietors since 1959."

The Knoll House may sound a bit stuffy, but it's blissful stuff, especially as adjoining rooms for children means no creeping around like a burglar at night so as not to wake up the sprog sleeping in the same room. Adults can eat in peace in the main airy dining room, where the lights of ships in the channel twinkle back at you across the water at night. There is a totally separate children's dining room with its own staff, menus and equipment, no need to take even a bib - and the kitchen is accessible 24 hours a day for those who need to store and warm milk or sterilise bottles.

The dining-room staff, or "cook ladies", as Alexander dubbed them, transform themselves into nannies after lunch and will supervise children in the adjoining playroom, so that parents can eat in peace in the main dining room. Alexander always managed to land them with the least pleasant chore of the day: "He needed a clean nappy," they smiled sweetly through only slightly gritted teeth. "Thank you so much," we gushed, inwardly congratulating our toddler for his impeccable timing.

The "cook ladies" transform themselves yet again in the evening into a night patrol, listening out for children who have woken up so that parents can be summoned from the dining room by tannoy. The barest crackle from this instrument had the power to freeze the hand of every parent in the room between plate and mouth. "Please God," their expressions said, "I am enjoying the rare treat of a very good dinner alone with my beloved, don't let it be us."

At the Bodare Hotel in Cornwall, where we spent our summer holiday, it was also possible to enjoy the luxury of a good dinner together in pleasant surroundings. Here there are no nocturnal vigilantes, but the hotel has only about 20 rooms, most within range of baby listening devices taken into the dining room, or the ears of a responsible adult.

Children's tea was helpfully provided in the dining room around one large table, although the effect of a group of small children eating together in strange surroundings might best be described as a chimpanzees' tea party, were that not unkind to chimpanzees. Accompanying parents supervised tensely, waiting for the first refusal of a mouthful, a glass of Ribena to flood the tablecloth purple or, worse, the first order for jelly and ice cream to arrive, thus setting off the clamour for portions all round, regardless of how much main course was still on the plate.

There was sympathy for the member of staff who had to clean up afterwards, but this was always done with the grace and good humour that characterises the service at Bodare. Its intimate scale also ensures that children make friends quickly, have great fun cavorting in the garden after breakfast or meeting up for sandcastle and paddling sessions on the beach.

We would happily return to all these hotels, as many of their guests do, year after year. They don't come cheap - a five-night deal in low season at the Knoll House set us back pounds 800, but that included full board; 11 nights at Bodare with half-board cost about pounds 1,500, and two nights B&B plus bar meals and drinks in the evening about pounds 180 at The Anchor. The good news is that the accommodation, food and locations are so enjoyable that "spending money" can be kept to a minimum. What we have spent is about the equivalent of blowing pounds 50 a week on an evening out and a babysitter. That's something we actually manage to do about once a year - and then we get to put the bins out and make the bed.

Bodare Hotel 01208 863210; The Knoll House 01929 450450; The Anchor Inn 01502 722112

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