Travel: We were in Italy, they were enjoying themselves: Sea, sand, rocks, animals . . . it doesn't seem to matter where. Maggie Brown tried out her formula for a successful family holiday in Puglia

AFTER 10 years of trial and error, starting from complete ignorance, I am now pretty clear about what makes a successful holiday with small children. It is worth noting that success has very little to do with how much you spend, or with how most adults would choose to arrange their free time if left to their own devices.

My children, aged 10 and under, like a combination of water, preferably the sea (although rivers and swimming pools will just about do as substitutes), sand, rocks, animals - preferably to feed and pick up - other children to play with and informality.

They loathe grand hotels, formal restaurant meals, strange food (octopus) and cultural activities such as visits to museums, art galleries and archaeological sites.

Car trips lasting more than half an hour are distinctly unpopular (the chorus of 'are we there yet' is one of life's greatest irritants), though cross-Channel ferries and aeroplanes, especially if they have in-flight entertainment (videos and sound channels to fiddle with), are great hits.

But they also love to stay in cosy places: just think of a Beatrix Potter tale. Heaven for them would be a holiday in a low-beamed thatched cottage a la Mrs Tiggy- winkle, with bunk beds equipped with sleeping bags, an open fire and a resident cat which had just had kittens, next to a beach, but attached to a farm where friendly children live, with nippy little palomino ponies to ride.

If there was an amusement park, say Chessington World of Adventures or Thorpe Park, at the end of the lane, with a McDonald's and Pizza Express in the next field, that would be perfection.

They would also love to go camping and caravanning: my children regard people who holiday in caravans as deeply privileged. I suspect a week on a pokey canal boat - my idea of claustrophobic hell - or the Norfolk Broads would work out well, too.

One of the best holidays they say they ever had was the cheapest: in Lyme Regis, off-season in October. We stayed in a quaint wooden house with funny windows in a medieval lane. Seagulls kept landing on the roof making giant clunking noises. There was a cat in the garden and ducks to feed in the river we passed on our walk to the beach.

This route also went past an ice-cream shop. It was too cold to paddle, but the children had wellington boots and did not seem to notice the wind. The rock pools had lots of hermit crabs and the odd swan floated up the river to inspect them.

They did like the local dinosaur museum, and were inspired to hunt obsessively for fossils at nearby Charmouth. When we ate out we had simple fish-and-chip-style cafe food - the only sort on offer. The low point of the holiday was a visit to Castle Drogo, a National Trust property on Dartmoor, which did not sell ice-creams. The children did not notice that the rented house was infested with cat fleas. You have got the message.

The problem is that parents have rights, too; it is your precious holiday, after all. As paymaster, you have to superimpose another set of adult criteria upon this kiddies' holiday matrix.

My husband (half-Italian) and I like to go to Italy for our main holiday because we insist on swimming in warm seas, under a hot blue sky, with simple but authentic Italian food and wine to fuel us. We also like to learn something: left to our own devices we look at ruins, churches, ancient frescos and paintings, archaeological sites, and do a bit of touring.

But we are not simply restricted by having children: we are tied to the school summer holidays, when you are competing with millions of Italians for the decent beaches (whole families plonk themselves next to the sea for the entire month of August). Prices for even a simple pensione, let alone hotels and villas, are sky-high.

We have found, from bitter experience, that holidays with small children in Tuscany and Umbria, classic British destinations, are a bad idea, basically designed for the middle-aged or child-free. They do not work for children and especially not in July and August.

The problem is that, even if you can afford the nicest swimming pool on hand, children want the sea and in this part of the world the coast is not pleasant. Viareggio, the most obvious resort, consists of miles of flat sand licked by dirty water.

At that time of year it is far too hot to visit the sights of Florence, except at the crack of dawn or late evening. One of my children, a toddler, was told off for making a noise in the Oratory at Pisa: she was upstaging the guide, who was singing to illustrate the acoustics. Such visits are likely to turn children off art and architecture.

We have had more success at Sabaudia, a lovely up-market resort in a national park, some 80 miles south of Rome, which consists of a long, clean, sandy beach backed by lagoons, developed after Mussolini drained the malarial marshes in the Thirties. If you fly to Rome and then pick up a rented car, the journey is surprisingly painless.

The drawback is that it is expensive, one of those well-kept Italian secrets. The town itself is pleasant, but laid out in utilitarian Thirties style. This is interesting but not exactly ancient or picturesque, although nearby San Felice Circeo (the rock of the temptress Circe) is an authentic hill town with good restaurants. There are few interesting day trips to inland sites because of the marshy history, though the local mozzarella, made correctly from buffalo milk, is sensational.

So for the past two years we have turned our sights, with considerable success, on Puglia, the province at the south of Italy, where the heel juts out into the Adriatic, towards Greece. If you are flying from the UK you might as well go to Brindisi, Bari or even Naples, as Pisa or Rome.

The plus points are that the sea is unpolluted while the food, based heavily on top-class vegetables and fish, is cheap and lovely and cooked in a simple style. Although extremely hot it is cooler than Sicily and Calabria. It is not an embittered province, though a version of the Mafia is spreading.

Last summer we stayed in a rented single-storey trulli. These are local round constructions, rather like the oast houses of Kent, which dot the rural landscape. This got full marks from the children for its Beatrix Potter-style quaintness, though it felt rather dungeon-like to me.

It also came with a huge garden with lines of tomatoes, green beans, tiny sweet pears, rocket and a laden fig tree, which they could pick and we could eat. The pinetum (a cool area of pine trees) also yielded up the essential holiday thrill. They found a scorpion whose corpse, in a matchbox, was lovingly transported back to England and taken the rounds of their schools. This made up for the lack of a friendly cat.

By staying in a white hill town (Cisternino), one of several that straddle the 1,200ft ridge of hills about six miles inland from the sea, we were cooled by pleasant breezes at night, which meant even the children slept well. The place had a touch of Tuscany in the south, minus the Renaissance.

There were also plenty of low-key inexpensive places to eat: the children could eat pizzas to their hearts' content at night in welcoming unpretentious restaurants, while we experimented with the local pastas, fish and meat courses. I am not saying they enjoyed eating out, or that there were no tantrums. But it was better than tolerable.

We also found a good compromise beach, Santo Stefano, near the town of Monopoli, though we paid about pounds 14 a day for access. Here we sat with the local bourgeoisie (it had an intercom system to call the local doctor away if he was needed). We chose it because it was clean, relatively uncrowded and had the, by now, essential combination of sand, for Stephanie, aged three, and rocks for the eldest, Nina (seven) and Elena (10), who love to snorkel.

The rocks produced a rich crop of crabs which they spent hours catching. Because of the great heat we tended to sit there, under umbrellas, from 3.30pm to 7.30pm, when we picked up drinks at the beach bar, carved from the rock. The Italians, who have regular sea mornings and afternoons, clearly thought we were odd.

The coastal road back to the trulli passed through a fishing town whose sea front had a children's roundabout. The owners spent the hot mornings polishing it to sparkling perfection. After dark, we spent hours watching our daughters try out every horse, fire engine, car and motorcycle.

We did aim for a spot of adult culture: there was a brass band playing The New World Symphony in the beautiful little marble-clad square during Cisternino's August festival. But this is a peninsula marked by ancient Greek ruins and Norman ambitions. We visited an extraordinary fortress town called Oria, where Frederick II had built a huge castle, but we failed to explore the ruined Greek town of Egnazia, one of Italy's important relics, which we passed each day on the way to the beach. The protests were just too loud.

However, the children thoroughly enjoyed a day out at the Fassano wild-life safari and adventure park. With its mixture of big wheel, miniature trains, performing dolphins and lions, this was hardly an Italian experience. But that is the point of family holidays: we were in Italy, they were enjoying themselves.

(Photographs omitted)

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