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What do you do when your children get too old for a traditional British bucket and spade holiday? Siobhan Mulholland was running out of ideas - until a friend suggested a trip to Pontin's

Over the past few years I have become very familiar with the south of England - specifically the seaside bit. It's an area of expertise I didn't imagine I would acquire - it was not on my top-10 list of things to do before I died. But when you have three small children and lots of space to fill - summer, Easter, Christmas and three half-terms - the seaside works. My progeny and I have holidayed on the coast of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Devon (north and south). All locations were visited in true English style: in rain, wind and occasional sunshine.

Over the past few years I have become very familiar with the south of England - specifically the seaside bit. It's an area of expertise I didn't imagine I would acquire - it was not on my top-10 list of things to do before I died. But when you have three small children and lots of space to fill - summer, Easter, Christmas and three half-terms - the seaside works. My progeny and I have holidayed on the coast of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Devon (north and south). All locations were visited in true English style: in rain, wind and occasional sunshine.

Sometimes it all comes together and works really well, as with Woolacombe, north Devon, in late September 2002: an apartment overlooking the sea, fantastic weather, a deserted beach and temperatures still high enough for infant nudity. Sometimes it's a complete disaster - Noss Mayo, south Devon, late October 2004: worst floods in the area for 30 years, family car (with family in it) flooded and written-off by sea water.

I am now also an expert on holiday accommodation, in particular what works and doesn't work for families. I've sampled the range, from expensive family pampering at one of the Luxury Family Hotel group's properties, to renting a cottage on an exclusive estate (so exclusive I cannot reveal where), to our most recent adventure: a couple of nights at a Pontin's holiday centre.

The truth is, what works best for your marriage/relationship might not be the best option for you as a relaxed parent, and where the children are happiest is a different matter again. For instance, if you and your partner want "quality time" together, then you need a truly family-friendly hotel - one that has a listening service and babysitters so you can dine à deux in the restaurant. And one where there is a crêche packed with fully trained staff, toys and activities so you can happily leave them while you go off and have a spa treatment.

For relaxed parenting, the holiday cottage is often ideal. You don't have to worry if everyone's dressed properly for breakfast, or if the children refuse to eat high tea because they've stuffed themselves with ice-cream all day, or if nocturnal screaming will wake the neighbours.

All this brings me to my latest research. I've discovered which type of seaside holiday is top of my children's list. They're getting slightly older (six, five and two), and a bucket and spade will only keep the elder two happy for a certain amount of time. I know this, and they know this. So when a friend said that she was thinking about what to do with her three boys for half-term, and would I like to come along, I jumped at the chance. She had considered camping - but it was February, so she racked her brains for an equally cheap alternative.

I was open to all suggestions. She suggested a trip to the Pontin's Camber Sands Holiday Centre on the Sussex coast that would cost £100 for four nights. I couldn't argue, could I - how cheap can you get? Our party of three mothers, two au pairs and nine children under ten, duly booked in.

I had no idea what kiddie heaven the place would be. It has a swimming-pool with water-slides, a games room with ten pin bowling, a giant chessboard, table tennis, an indoor and outdoor adventure playground, a bouncy castle, treasure hunts, football and karaoke competitions, a leisure zone with activity tower, go-karts, quad-bikes, abseiling and a zip-wire. However, the crowning glory for my children was the arcade. Here was a room full of slot machines - rarely have they come across them before, and never in such abundance. It was a truly surreal moment when I spelt out, phonetically, the word G-A-M-B-L-I-N-G to my five-year-old. Explaining the concept was beyond both her and me. Even my two-year-old found true joy in this den of iniquity: a game where a fluffy toy races across a track to be whacked over the head as many times as possible. For him this really was Christmas come early.

The entertainment for adults is also included in the price - in the evenings there are quizzes and competitions, star cabaret time, live bands, Bluecoat Madness on the dance floor and a late night disco. I left it to our Norwegian au pair to sample these activities. She found "Adult Competition Time - a game show with a difference", a very interesting cultural experience...

All the apartments have self-catering facilities, and there is an on-site supermarket that sells the basics. The Sands Restaurant serves breakfast and dinner, and we ate a pretty good fish-and-chip supper there. There's also a takeaway pizza bar and the Downtown Diner for hamburgers. However, if it's salads and lattès you're after, look elsewhere.

The rooms are warm, clean and basic. You get what you pay for, which doesn't include electricity - for that you need meter cards sold in reception. Reckon on a fiver for a four-night stay.

The accommodation itself is unimpressive: all very tired 1970s prefabs, which 35 years later do not even have any kitsch value to redeem them. The apartment blocks are on two floors with external corridors leading to the rooms. The passages are exposed and directly outside the bedroom windows. Guests returning from a late night out walk just inches from your head, and you can oh-so-clearly hear their footsteps and conversations.

A few minutes' walk away from this architectural bad dream, though, is a natural stunner - Camber Sands itself, seven miles of award-winning Blue Flag beach, dunes, marram grass, wildlife and sea. This is the British seaside at its best. The sand was wonderfully empty the morning we arrived, and seemed to extend forever. The tide was out, leaving its own playground of streams, puddles, wet sand and shells. It would take millions of holidaymakers to make this vastness seem crowded.

On the basis that rain is a near-certainty, handily the holiday centre is close to the town of Rye. The colloquialism "chalk and cheese" springs to mind - you leave the noisy, heaving world of Pontin's and minutes later you're wandering around the "medieval gem of the Cinque Ports" . Rye was once virtually an island, but the sea has long since retreated, leaving a hilltop town encircled by three rivers. No slot machines here - just cobbled streets, a museum, art galleries and historic houses.

At the heart of its historic centre is the Church of St Mary the Virgin, which has one of the oldest working clocks in Britain. As you walk into the church, you can see the clock's 18ft pendulum swinging above you. Other impressive landmarks include The Landgate Arch, a medieval gateway built in 1329, and the Ypres Tower and Rye Castle Museum - one of the town's oldest remaining buildings. On the cold, windy afternoon last month when we visited there were few people about, but the fact there are so many tea-shops and restaurants in Rye suggests that in season the place must heave in its own genteel way.

Camber Sands is well placed for visits to zoos and animal parks. The "World's Smallest Public Railway" is close by, as is the nature reserve at Rye Harbour. And if one country isn't enough for you: a Dover ferry company enterprisingly offers Pontin's clients a free day trip to France.

We stayed just two nights of the four we had booked. This had always been our plan, but my early departure elicited concern from the staff. Without exception, every employee I came across was friendly and helpful in a genuine, non- Hi-de-Hi! way. Our early departure did not go down well with my children. They were reluctant to leave, and keep asking when they can go back. The answer: soon. With prices at Center Parcs rising, and even Butlins moving upmarket with its new Shoreline Hotel at Bognor (due to open in September), Pontin's provides the ideal no-frills family holiday.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The closest rail station to Pontin's Camber Sands is Rye; call 08457 48 49 50 or visit www.nationalrail.co.uk for fares.

STAYING THERE

There are eight Pontin's centres around the UK. The Camber Sands Holiday Centre (0870 601 0475; www.pontins.com) has 96 "Club", 650 "Classic" (where the writer stayed) and 194 "Budget" apartments. One week's self-catering in peak season costs from £500, though special offers are often available. At the other end of the spectrum, the Luxury Family Hotel group (0117 957 6800; www.luxuryfamilyhotels.com) encompasses Woolley Grange, Fowey Hall, The Ickworth, and Moonfleet Manor; rates for a family room during the summer holidays are typically £1,925-£2,800, half board. This applies solely to adults - children are charged only for meals taken. Check the website for discounts.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Rye Tourist Information (01797 226696; www.visitrye.co.uk)

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