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On the Dorset coast is a luxury hotel that's ideal for young families. Siobhan Mulholland also finds that the area has lots to keep kids busy

Parents of very young children often feel that their days of exotic travel are over. Long-haul flights, remote destinations and "independent" holidays are things of the past. Where you go depends on where you can stay: somewhere child-friendly and preferably not too far away. You book somewhere because it sounds like it welcomes kids and it's by the sea. This is as aspirational as travelling life gets.

Parents of very young children often feel that their days of exotic travel are over. Long-haul flights, remote destinations and "independent" holidays are things of the past. Where you go depends on where you can stay: somewhere child-friendly and preferably not too far away. You book somewhere because it sounds like it welcomes kids and it's by the sea. This is as aspirational as travelling life gets.

Before you know it, you've joined the bucket-and-spade brigade, embraced the cliché and spent a family holiday at the British seaside. You eat the fish and chips, go on the rides and build the sand castles. You didn't quite envisage your leisure time being spent like this, but, hey ho, it's all part of the fun. Then again, you hadn't realised that the UK was like this. You have spent so much time on cheap flights abroad that you are unaware of the domestic bliss that is available just a drive or a train ride away.

This spring my husband, our three kids and I spent a week on the Dorset coast. We went there because I had heard of the exceptionally family-friendly Moonfleet Manor Hotel in Fleet, near Weymouth. In metropolitan parenting circles it is very well known - it's as if every other person has either been there or is thinking of going. Hence it has a Fulham-by-Sea feel to it, but this really is the premier league of child-oriented hotels. They seem to have thought of everything: the indoor swimming pool and massive games area for when it's pouring with rain, the outdoor play area for when the sun shines, the well-staffed crèche for parents who want an hour to read the paper, listening services, high chairs, cots, Z-beds... You might think that the place is wasted on anyone staying without kids, but they can choose from a wide range of activities: angling, croquet, racquet ball, riding, skittles, snooker, squash, swimming, tennis and walking.

The hotel is well known thanks to J Meade Falkner's book, Moonfleet. He wrote it in the 1880s but set it in the 1750s in a fictional village called Moonfleet. It's a classic adventure story of smuggling and shipwrecks. At the centre is a family called the Mohuns whose ancestral home is Moonfleet Manor. Falkner based much of his story on fact; records show a family called Moone or Mohune had lived in Fleet since the 1500s and it is thought that they built the original Fleet House in 1603. This house was eventually to become known as Moonfleet Manor.

So where exactly did our visit take us? Obviously to Fleet, a tiny village in south-west Dorset, but also to the banks of the Fleet Lagoon. The Lagoon is separated from the sea by the magnificent Chesil Beach. It's the longest shingle beach in the world, starting at the Isle of Portland and stretching 18 miles to West Bay in Bridport. It's also very tall, like a mountain of shingle. The pebbles are all very smooth because they've been ferociously pummelled by the huge waves along this stretch of coast. And they're graded: they get smaller as you go up the coast from Portland. It's said that smugglers arriving on the beach in the middle of the night could tell where they were by the size of the pebbles. Chesil Beach is the type of place you might have visited on a geography field trip, but if you go there with toddlers, at least you will not have an impending exam to test you on the detail and dull your enjoyment of a fantastic landscape.

The other beach we visited in the area was in Weymouth. It could not have been more different. This is classic British seaside: sand, fairground rides, Punch and Judy shows, deck chairs and pedalos. On one side of the beach is the sea; on the other are elegant Georgian houses. The 17th-century harbour behind the seafront gives the area a sense of gentility. Many of the original buildings remain - the Old Fish Market, built 150 years ago, is still in use, and everywhere you look there is a small fishing boat bobbing up and down. In the Brewers Quay area of the harbour there's a gallery, coffee shops and pubs where you can sit outside.

Spending the day on a beach or wandering around a town are no longer the main components of a family holiday. At some point you usually find yourself going to an adventure playground, having a wildlife or farm experience, or visiting an interactive museum. It's debatable as to who needs the constant stimulation more - the parent or child - but either way, Weymouth has it all. The Deep Sea Adventure attraction provides the museum bit; Lodmoor Country Park will give you adventure; and Weymouth Sea Life Park (which includes a marine sanctuary) adds the animal component.

That was the theory, but our visit to the Sea Life Park cannot be counted an unmitigated success with the children. They showed a passing interest in the penguins, otters and seals, a brief flicker of excitement at the sea horses in the "National Breeding and Conservation Centre", and a slight buzz at the shark pool. But the point where they became most animated was at the bouncy castle, which was slightly galling after paying £30 for a family ticket.

A free attraction that the children did find interesting was the trip to the lighthouse at Portland Bill. It sits, bleak and exposed, on the edge of the island of Portland. We trudged down there on the first day of our holiday but were unable to climb the 153 steps to the top of the lighthouse because of the minimum height requirement of 1.1 metres. No matter, those under 1.1 metres were fascinated with the purpose of this beacon of light: to prevent shipwreck, death and disaster. The fact that over the centuries people had come to a sorry end on the treacherous rocks below proved to be fascinating.

What interested me was seeing the island celebrated for its limestone. Portland is just four-and-a-half-miles long and one-and- three-quarter miles wide, but it is littered with quarries that have provided stone for some of the nation's best-known buildings, including St Paul's Cathedral, the National Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Portland itself, though, is as architecturally bleak as its most famous edifice - the lighthouse. The drive to Portland Bill takes you through streets of austere, grey terraced houses. I couldn't help thinking that Portland stone looks better abroad than it does at home.

The contrast between this barren island and the nearby Dorset countryside could not be greater. Here are the lush green fields and picturesque villages, complete with thatched cottages, timeworn churches and country pubs, that so inspired Thomas Hardy. Abbotsbury is the most picturesque of the bunch, which helps to explain its bumper-to-bumper popularity.

The secret of a British holiday is, surely, to manage expectations. Plan for poor weather (and choose a suitable location with plenty of indoor options) and you'll be pleasantly surprised when the sun shines as it did for us. And accept that there is nothing wrong with travel aspirations that stretch no further than the modest universe of the British Isles.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

By road: aim for Dorchester, then take the A354 to Weymouth. Once in Weymouth you follow the signs to Chickerall/Bridport and Granby Industrial Estate. You go through the industrial estate, turning left onto the Chickerall Road until you come to a sign for Moonfleet Manor Hotel.

By rail: the nearest main line station is seven miles away in Weymouth, with trains from London Waterloo and Bristol Temple Meads. A taxi from the station to the hotel takes 15 minutes and costs around £8.

STAYING THERE

Moonfleet Manor Hotel, Weymouth, Dorset, DT3 4ED (01305 786948; www.moonfleetmanor.com). The hotel has 39 bedrooms, most of which have sea views. Large double rooms cost between £250 to £285 for dinner, bed and breakfast. Suites start at £330. Children sharing their parents' rooms stay for free - the only cost is their meals.

INFORMATION

Portland Bill Lighthouse Visitor Centre (01305 861233; www.trinityhouse.co.uk)

Weymouth Tourist Information Centre (01305 785747; www.weymouth.gov.uk)

Weymouth Sea Life Park (01305 761070; www.sealifeeurope.com)

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