Travel: `I felt like Gulliver. Surrounded by lots of little people'

Family club holidays are a way of solving a dilemma - the children want to be entertained and you want to relax.
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The Independent Travel
One of the dilemmas when you become a parent is what sort of summer holiday to book. If you're brave (or free-spirited) you could throw caution to the wind, strap your baby on your back and head off on the same sort of holiday you always did. Whether this turns out to be a success depends on the destination, your temperament, the age of your child, and - probably more than anything - luck.

If you don't want to take this sort of gamble and don't think your little ones are ready for Thailand, it may be time to consider joining the club. Family club holidays are an increasingly popular choice as they aim to keep the children occupied while the parents relax. There are several companies now specialising in this type of holiday. Most of the clubs are in Mediterranean resorts, guaranteeing sea and sun without the long haul flights. They are usually fully or almost fully inclusive. Sounds tempting? If this sort of holiday is to be a success you have to understand what it entails and what sort of pitfalls to expect.

When our two children were three and one, we headed off for a week to a Mark Warner club in Greece. The flight itself was an enlightenment - sitting for three hours in a plane with about 100 children under the age of three is an experience in itself. Arriving at the hotel was like landing on an alien planet after so many years spent travelling as a couple or on our own. All of a sudden we were surrounded by little people, mostly under three feet tall, playing on the beach, splashing in the pool, making a mess in the restaurant and generally making so much noise that being an adult felt like being in a minority group.

We soon discovered, however, that there are distinct advantages of being surrounded by children. It certainly throws away any self-consciousness you have about your own disturbing the peace. What peace? The aim of such holidays is to send your children off for a couple of hours or even the whole day to a creche or mini club so that they are entertained while you and your partner relax. And indeed most of the people we met did just that. We foolishly hadn't considered the fact that our children might not want to spend the holiday without us. No amount of brightly coloured plastic toys and smiling nannies could coax them into the clubs and we ended up the only couple on the beach with two children sitting on top of us.

On similar holidays since then, we've learnt not to expect too much from our children, who are still both under five. The formula that works best is when my husband and I get an hour or two to do our own thing while they are in a club and then the four of us spend the rest of the day together. The secret to success is finding a balance that all the members of your family are happy with.

Choosing a club-style family holiday may not be very adventurous (if you are only there for a week you probably won't even venture off site) but at least you know that the resort will have been designed with families in mind so that you shouldn't find steep flights of steps leading to the beach and you should be able to buy nappies on site. Depending on the size of the club there is also usually a doctor or nurse. Although young children are often quite happy just sitting all day with a bucket and spade on the beach, when you are away in the heat of the summer, it is an advantage to choose somewhere that also provides play areas in the shade or indoors.

Usually on a club-style holiday, children eat their tea earlier and, again, the advantage of a company such as Mark Warner is that it cooks all the bland British foods that children like such as fish fingers and bangers and mash.

The choices

Although the aim of these family club holidays is basically the same - to entertain both you and your children, they do vary. Mark Warner feels like a ski holiday in the Med - there is plenty of action in the day and the staff are very friendly. We liked the little touches such as the early evening videos to unwind the children before bed and the fact that they offer a free baby- listening service in the evenings, which means that their staff tour round the rooms while you are eating and soon let you know if your little one is disturbing the peace. Individual babysitters can also be booked, at an extra charge.

Club Med provides a more cosmopolitan atmosphere as it tends to attract different nationalities. Although some young children may find it confusing not to have a British nanny looking after them, most of the older ones actually enjoy meeting children from other countries. Club Med also provides superb food and a vast selection of activities including circus schools in several of their clubs such as Kamarina in Sicily, Opio in the south of France, and Sandpiper in Florida. Club Med is very Mediterranean - there is no baby listening service in the evening as the children usually stay up late and eat with you although the children's clubs actually stay open until about 9pm in case you want to have an early dinner a deux in peace.

If you're a water-loving family, one of the best companies to choose is Sunsail as it has some of the best watersports (windsurfing, sailing, waterskiing) for all the family and also offers the option of a one- week land-based club combined with a week's flotilla. From about seven years old, children can learn to sail dinghies and it also has special children's windsurfers. Sunsail offers a baby-listening service in the evening and as most of its clubs don't hold more than about 100 guests they tend to be quite intimate and friendly.

For families who are into sport, I would recommend Club La Santa in Lanzarote as it has an Olympic-size pool, an athletics stadium with a running track, long jump, high jump, pole vault and hurdles and an indoor sports hall with badminton, volleyball and handball. It offers activities for children over the age of two although only for a few hours in the morning and then a few hours again later in the afternoon - it's better for slightly older and more independent children. The energetic staff, who are known as the "green team", will help keep them busy. Accommodation is self-catering and baby-sitting can be arranged.

The Forte Village on Sardinia is at the top of the family club league. It's a beautiful car-free private estate with a wide choice of sports as well as a health and beauty centre which includes a thalassotherapy spa. There is a large choice of accommodation, mainly in luxury hotels as well as a mini club for children aged 2-11, a junior club for teenagers and a daytime nursery for infants under two years old. Evening babysitting can be arranged.

If you can face the long flight, the Franklyn D Resort in Jamaica is an unusual version of the family club holiday as, in addition to the mini club (for children over two), each family is given the services of its own Girl Friday to take charge of the children during the day. They'll even cook you a meal in your suite at night or babysit if you want to go out for dinner instead. This is ideal for children who are not used to going into creches on their own as the Girl Friday can tailor the activities to suit their interests. Activities for the children include windsurfing, scuba diving, sailing, tennis, a fully equipped computer centre and a nightly disco.

A question of age

Family club holidays cater for a wide range of ages from babes in arms to teenagers. They can be ideal for babies, as they provide all the things you need such as sterilising equipment, high chairs, cots and buggies. Mark Warner, Club Med and Sunsail will look after babies from four months old in selected clubs.

Pre-school age children will spend most of the time in the clubs playing both indoors and out and doing arts and crafts activities. Once they are about five or six years old they can usually participate in some of the sports on offer.

One thing that often surprises people who go on a club-style holiday like this is how much teenagers get out of it. Clubs such as Mark Warner's Indy Club prove a big hit with most teenagers as they take a very relaxed approach without too much regimented supervision. Evening beach parties, discos, picnic sailing expeditions and the chance to try out many exciting sports ensure that most teenagers are quite happy to tag along with mum and dad on such a holiday.

FACT FILE

The Cost

Companies vary greatly in what they throw in for the holiday price, so do check the small print. Club Med is best, with flights, transfers, full board, sports facilities, children's clubs, evening entertainment, other leisure activities and insurance. For example, a week at Kamarina in Sicily costs from pounds 656 per adult, pounds 377 for 2 to 5- year-olds, pounds 456 6 to 11-year-olds.

Mark Warner offers similar packages, except you pay extra for the Baby and Toddler Clubs and for insurance.

A week at Sunsail's Club Punta Zeza in Greece costs from pounds 357 per adult and per child, and includes half-board accommodation, flights and transfers, free use of all sailing equipment, and free children's clubs for the over two-year-olds.

At Club La Santa it costs from pounds 324 for a one-bedroom apartment (sleeps four) including sports passes. Flights and transfers extra.

The Forte Village can be booked through Citalia and costs from pounds 865 per person for a week's half-board including flights and transfers, most sports facilities, evening entertainment and the mini club. There is a 20 per cent reduction for children 2 to 11-year-olds sharing with two adults.

A week at FDR costs from pounds 1,600 for a week. Children under 16 go free. The holiday is fully inclusive of flights, transfers, full board, all beer, soft drinks and bar drinks, all sports facilities, evening entertainment, children's mini-club and Girl Friday (from 9am-4pm; $3 per hour for her services out of these times).

Numbers

Mark Warner (0171 393 3123)

Club Med (0171 581 1161)

Sunsail (01705 222300)

Club La Santa (0161 7909890)

Forte Village (bookable through Citalia 0181 686 5533)

FDR (0181 795 1718)

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