Active ingredients

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)

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

News
Performers dressed as Tunnocks chocolate teacakes, a renowned Scottish confectionary, perform during the opening ceremony of the 2014 Commonwealth Games at Celtic Park in Glasgow on July 23, 2014.
news
Life and Style
Popular plonk: Lambrusco is selling strong
Food + drinkNaff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
News
Gardai wait for the naked man, who had gone for a skinny dip in Belfast Lough
newsTwo skinny dippers threatened with inclusion on sex offenders’ register as naturists criminalised
News
Shake down: Michelle and Barack Obama bump knuckles before an election night rally in Minnesota in 2008, the 'Washington Post' called it 'the fist bump heard round the world'
newsThe pound, a.k.a. the dap, greatly improves hygiene
Arts and Entertainment
La Roux
music
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Fellows as John Shuttleworth
comedySean O'Grady joins Graham Fellows down his local Spar
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Voices
The Sumatran tiger, endemic to the Indonesian island of Sumatra, is an endangered species
voicesJonathon Porritt: The wild tiger population is thought to have dropped by 97 per cent since 1900
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him
musicIndie music promoter was was a feature at Carter gigs
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Story line: Susanoo slays the Yamata no Orochi serpent in the Japanese version of a myth dating back 40,000 years
arts + entsApplying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
News
Ross Burden pictured in 2002
people
News
Elisabeth Murdoch: The 44-year-old said she felt a responsibility to 'stand up and be counted’'
media... says Rupert Murdoch
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Extras
indybest
Sport
Arsenal signing Calum Chambers
sportGunners complete £16m transfer of Southampton youngster
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Day In a Page

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

    The air strikes were tragically real

    The children were playing in the street with toy guns
    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

    Britain as others see us

    Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them altogether

    Countries that don’t survey their tigers risk losing them

    Jonathon Porritt sounds the alarm
    How did our legends really begin?

    How did our legends really begin?

    Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
    Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Lambrusco is back on the menu

    Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz
    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on