Not complete relaxation, but close: Center Parcs
You learn fast when you travel with kids. Lesson one came the first time I booked a hotel as a father, only to realise that sharing a room meant spending every evening joylessly trapped in silence from the moment my son fell asleep.
Lesson two: don’t fly. If a parent gets on a plane with a child under two, they age visibly by five years for every 30 minutes in the air. We had to take our pair to a family wedding in Bali two years ago, and this is why I now look and act like an 85-year-old. Nobody needs stress like that.
Lesson three: kids don’t care. So long as it’s safe and they have room to run around, they’re going to have fun. And that’s why I would go back to Center Parcs in an instant. We went to Longleat last October, after I overcame a violent bout of “wait-am-I-basic-now” self-doubt, and it was the best decision we ever made. Center Parcs walks a fine line very skilfully. It isn’t so quiet that kids will go mad with boredom, but it doesn’t have the full-tilt whoops-a-go-go sugar-mad enforced fun of other holiday parks. It’s nice enough to feel like a treat, but not so intimidatingly fancy that you want to die when your kid upends a plate of dinner onto the floor in a misbegotten act of self expression.
My children exhausted themselves on a daily basis at Center Parcs. And when they did, I could just plonk them in a bike trailer and ride them around until they fell asleep. My oldest son has just turned five, which means I haven’t experienced anything like complete relaxation since 2015. I still haven’t, but in Center Parcs I came close.
If we were to go again I’d bring my own bike and food and save a month’s wages in the process – but I’m much more likely to go back to Center Parcs than Bali. Bali with kids is a fool’s errand.
Stuart Heritage, Guardian columnist
Mostly screams of joy: sledging, Bavaria
The first time, we were all nervous and had no idea what to expect. We hired the sledges at the lower cable car station and rode up. I remember looking down from the gondola at the narrow twisting track through snowy forest. “That cannot be it,” I thought. “Far too steep and dangerous!” But, at the top, we discovered that was our route. Maddy, then 13, threw herself down on her traditional wooden sledge and went over the icy lip of the mountain. Sophie and I waited. We heard screams, mostly of joy rather than fear. We followed. It was the start of what we all agree was the best family holiday ever: sledging in Germany.
We had hired a car in Munich to get to our farmstay in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, from where we could delve into all the various toboggan runs. That year many were shut, including the famous Wallberg run, but we found plenty to enjoy. Each had its own character: Oberstaufen, our first one, had a terrifying start but was actually a pleasant jog down; Zugspitze was the highest and fastest; and our favourite was Bad Hindelang. There was a cafe near the top, then a long fast winding run through forest, with plenty of sharp corners. We went en masse, overtaking, shoving, shouting, falling apart with laughter. I don’t think I have ever laughed longer or harder. There was one tight corner protected by a high net where Maddy somehow got stuck, hanging upside down by one foot, incapacitated by hilarity.
With self-catering accommodation, Germany did not seem so expensive. In fact, German supermarkets are probably a little cheaper than the UK’s. At the time that mattered, but looking back it was all priceless anyway.
Kevin Rushby, Guardian travel writer
Budget bliss in pricey Switzerland
Arriving at Gare du Nord on the hottest day of the year we did wonder if we’d made a mistake deciding to travel to Switzerland by train. The day before, overheated tracks had seen the Eurostar stuck for four hours in the Flanders countryside. But from Paris, our trains all kept moving, the aircon just about worked and we arrived sweaty but happy in Geneva ready to start our Swiss adventure.
With its (accurate) reputation for being expensive, Switzerland may not seem an obvious choice for a family. This was our second trip and we were budget ready: our accommodation (self-catering apartment and hostel) was booked, we’d researched what kids could do for free – quite a lot as it turned out – and even stuffed some basics from French supermarkets in our bags as we travelled through.
One of the appealing things about Switzerland in summer is that the mountains seem tailormade for families: cable cars whisk you to heights where the adults can drink in the incredible views while the smaller kids explore playgrounds and the bigger ones can try zipwires or go-karts. We even found an lake to swim in, which definitely got the heart rate going.
Back down in the valleys, our highlight was the day we spent floating (several times) down the fast-flowing Aare River in Bern. You need to be a strong swimmer so we’ll be taking our six-year-old back for her own turn one day, but her brothers absolutely loved it – especially when their parents took the plunge (literally) off the three-metre bridge into the rushing river. This trip gave all of us a chance to push ourselves, whether it was walking, swimming or jumping, while also giving us fresh air, stunning scenery and the sense that the Swiss have everything under control.
Imogen Hall, author of Lonely Planet’s Family Travel Handbook
(Wet)suits all ages: Cornwall
Every summer we spend a week in Trevone Bay, near Padstow. It began when our now-grown-up kids were small and is a destination that suits all ages: toddlers, teenagers and grandparents. Trevone has two beaches, one sandy and one rocky with a tidal pool. You can surf, go rock pooling, make sand castles and swim. I don’t mind cold water, but thinner, chillier members of the family hire wetsuits from Trevone beach stores.
There’s a pleasingly unpretentious pub, the Well Parc, a few minutes’ stroll along a little path from the bungalow where we stay. It often has charity fetes in the huge grassy garden, where kids can run around while parents watch the sun set behind a glowing ocean over pints of Proper Job. One teenage son loves playing pool and eating chips in the bar; the other prefers reading in a sheltered corner of the cliffs.
There are two farm shops within walking distance, where we buy local runner beans and marrows, Cornish fudge, cheeses like wild-garlic-wrapped yarg. Pasties from the Chough Bakery (made with a dollop of clotted cream) are perfect for treks along the coast path to Padstow, past a herring tower on the thrift-patched headland, or towards craggy Bedruthen steps, 10 miles west. We take the kids mackerel fishing and foraging (for rock samphire, mussels, sea spinach), creating locally sourced meals, some of which they actually eat.
At least a decade ago, we started getting the train instead of driving to Cornwall. It’s quicker, with better scenery. The railway crosses valleys and viaducts, running beside the wide Exe estuary and red, rocky Devon coast. Instead of crawling along inland roads and crowding into services, we play cards, have a picnic and watch the countryside get steadily more dramatic (advance tickets start from about £50 each way for four with a family railcard). The journey used to be a nightmare we had to survive before the holiday could start; now it’s one of our favourite bits of the week.
Phoebe Taplin, travel writer
Pregnant pause: Montenegro
You probably wouldn’t think my “best ever family holiday” would be the one when I was heavily pregnant in a sweltering Balkan summer. But after one of the busiest years (2017) I’ve experienced as a journalist – covering the Manchester Arena bombing and yet another general election – the break was long overdue.
We spent a week in a beautiful hilltop villa in Lucici village near the coastal town of Herceg Novi, crossing the breathtaking Bay of Kotor via a small car ferry for our first views of the dramatic mountainous landscape.
Our family holidays usually involve a lot of hiking or cycling, but this time we barely made it out of the infinity pool for days, with our three-year-old son Sebastian practising his swimming while we dived into our books. Absolute paradise.
My mornings did often start at a less-than-relaxing 5am – unborn Jemima’s prodding and kicking had me up and about in time for glorious sunrises over the Adriatic.
After those first few days spent lazing by the pool and ambling into town to sample the incredible seafood, we had acclimatised to the slower pace of life and had energy to head out exploring. There were boat trips to some of the most beautiful beaches in the Lustica peninsula and hikes to Mount Orjen. We spotted geckos, moths, insects and butterflies, and were pleasantly surprised by how green and luscious the area was.
One trek included a spectacular thunderstorm, which our eldest talks about to this day. We sheltered under a rock with another family as lightning crashed just feet away from us.
After a week we moved on to Kotor itself, with its market, wonderful restaurants, stunningly clear waters off pebble beaches – and even a water park for father-and-son rites of passage.
At the time, we noticed there was a fair bit of property for sale and got swept up in that holiday conversation about owning our own place in a country many people might not immediately think of as a perfect family holiday destination. But it most definitely was.
Nazia Parveen, Guardian North of England correspondent
More than just a beach holiday: Poole, Dorset
When I asked my two children what had been our most successful family holiday, I thought they would say CenterParcs, but the answer was unanimous and immediate: Poole. Why? “It was so relaxed.”
It was relaxed because it had been booked, with great care and thought, on the back of a holiday that hadn’t worked and was very unrelaxed. We had gone to Dartmoor – a place my husband and I adored, but as a family destination was a failure. It taught me a brutal holiday truth: what works when you are a couple doesn’t necessarily work for a family.
So I looked at all the reasons Dartmoor hadn’t worked for us and booked the opposite. The next holiday needed to have a town location with public transport, so we didn’t have to travel as a group of four if we didn’t want to (middle of nowhere with one car pretty much dictates you have to do that). There needed to be something for all of us to enjoy.
It’s fine to say, “I just want to sit and read a book,” if that’s your thing and you don’t generally get to do it. But some people need excitement and waterparks (the latter I loathe but my children love). So our tick list for Poole read: shops, beach (but we didn’t want a beach holiday per se), things to do locally, good day trips but also the possibility of just ambling about, an underrated, holiday pursuit.
So I booked an apartment down a quiet side street near the harbour. Fabulous beaches on the doorstep, good shops and bad shops to fall in and out of, a waterpark, plenty of restaurants in walking distance, Brownsea Island, fantastic bus trips into the surrounding area, fossil hunting and the bonus of friends not so far away so we could visit/host them. Just thinking about it now makes me happy.
Annalisa Barbieri, whose Ask Annalisa column appears in Guardian Weekend
Bikes, mackerel and no wifi: Scottish Highlands
When my kids were small, our best family holidays were on Knoydart, a rugged peninsula on the west coast of Scotland. Just getting there was an adventure. There is no road in, so we drove to Mallaig, took the ferry to Inverie and hitchhiked to our cottage on the edge of the loch.
We went back several summers in a row. The kids learned how to deal with everything from the clouds of midges to the risks of roving alone around the wild landscape. They even got to know some of the eccentrics who live on the peninsula year-round. Crucially, there was no wifi (except in the Old Forge, said to the remotest pub in mainland Britain), so the kids learned to entertain themselves in novel ways. They beachcombed, played “Live Cluedo”, caught mackerel off the pier and cycled into the village (there is only one road, and not many more cars), for hot chocolate in the cafe. Many outdoor activities – mountain biking, sea safaris, horse riding – can be arranged.
We spent most of our time simply picnicking on white-sand beaches, swimming in the loch and watching the wildlife (otters, porpoises, red deer, numerous raptors, sandpipers and pine martens). When the sky turned blue, we strode out into the hills. There are four Munros (mountains over 3,000ft) on the peninsula, including Ladhar Bheinn, considered one of the finest in Scotland.
On an immaculate summer’s day when my son was 11, we scrambled to the summit of Sgurr na Ciche, a cone-headed Munro towering over the end of Loch Nevis with staggering views over the sea to Skye, Rum and Eigg. He moaned all of the way up and most of the way down, but a decade later, he still talks about it.
Robert Penn, author of The Man Who Made Things Out of Trees (Penguin, £9.99)
Light bulb moment: Amsterdam
Every April, the already cheery city of Amsterdam ups its game even further with its colourful Tulip Festival. Throughout the month, the city’s public spaces are decked with vibrant bouquets of the national flower. So ever since my daughter discovered that her favourite flowers sound a lot like her surname (“I’m Heidi Tulip!”) it has been an idea of mine to go.
Though Amsterdam and the tulips would be the highlights, a key factor for us was making sure that getting there and back was part of the fun. We took the train from London to Harwich, where we caught the overnight ferry to the Hook of Holland. Heidi thrilled at the idea of travelling – and sleeping – on a ship.
Pods of tulips dotted Amsterdam’s street corners, parks and squares, and the pool that fronts the Rijksmuseum. My daughter giggled when she first saw them: “Tulips! Heidi Tulip!” Each day we played a game, seeing who could complete their full set of colours first – red, yellow, pink, orange, mauve and more. Amsterdam’s a wonderful city to wander around without these bonus blooms: Heidi was fascinated by the canals, little humpback bridges, houses stacked up slender and tall, and squadrons of bicycles.
Outside the city, it’s easy to visit flower farms and tulip fields, where long, thin strips of bold, bright colour stretch out like a child’s felt-tip dream. We took a bus to Keukenhof Gardens and walked through manicured grounds of seven million flowers. Heidi was entranced. The tulips that “look like fire” were her favourite. There’s no better way to describe them.
We took a different route home: high-speed train to Brussels, where we stretched our legs for a couple of hours and marvelled that the city centre smelled of warm chocolate. Then the Eurostar, rolling gently into St Pancras with a sleepy, happy Heidi Tulip.
Dom Tulett, whose tales of travel with children appear in Bradt Guides’ Kidding Around. £10.99
There’s something about Suffolk
Last summer was stressful. Our youngest child was rushed to hospital where he was diagnosed with a rare disease. He was thankfully given the all clear eventually, but we were all drained, emotionally and physically.
We longed to escape and craved an easy sort of holiday to recuperate, so we drove to Suffolk from London, which seemed a lot less challenging than doing anything else with three small boys all under the age of five.
Normally, I like organising holidays; I spend ages choosing somewhere to stay and make lists of day-trips and places to eat. This time I had neither the energy nor the headspace. All I did was book a cottage. But it turned out that going on holiday with no particular plans set in stone is the best sort of holiday. The boys were thrilled at being by the beach and so we spent most of our time at the seaside (we were close to Covehithe beach, which is a lot prettier and a lot calmer than Southwold). They spotted fish and got to build sandcastles; I got to read books. When it got too hot, we went back to the cottage where they played with a box of Lego we’d brought from home
My husband and I left them to it and put our feet up, or occasionally took it in turns to go for a woodland run. There was ice-cream most days and movie nights most nights and a vintage shop for me to browse across the road.
In the past, holidays abroad with the kids had been hit and miss but this was the first time going away from home did not feel more trouble than it was worth. It was just so easy, mostly because all we did was … nothing much at all.
Our little boy, who just months earlier had been so ill, turned two on that holiday in Suffolk. We celebrated by eating cones of chips on a bench at the quietest end of Southwold Promenade followed by slices of lemon cake. I picked him up and together we looked out at the ocean, the sea gulls, the bright blue sky. Out of all of it, that was the loveliest memory of all.
Huma Qureshi is a journalist and the author of In Spite of Oceans, a collection of short stories
Laughing all the way: Edinburgh Festival
I was 15 when my dad took me to the Edinburgh Festival. We’d never spent much time together, just dad and I. I wasn’t musical like my sister or sporty like my brother. But in Edinburgh we discovered common ground – comedy. In August the city becomes a giant venue: everyone is either going to a show, coming from a show or is on the street watching fire-eating, juggling or unicycling. After seeing eight acts a day, we slept in a double bed in a Travelodge by the airport and what with his snoring and the planes, I finished the week exhausted but with amazing memories, chief of which was of us laughing like children in a tiny underground venue watching a then unknown stand-up called Harry Hill.
Three years ago my wife, Dinah, and I took our children, Phoebe, 12, and Charlie, nine. At 4.30am we set off from Brighton. The kids slept in the back of the car until 8am when, at the Oxford Welcome Break, we woke them in their pyjamas for their promised two-for-£3 sausage rolls. By 1pm, having checked into our Airbnb off the Royal Mile, we were in our first show. Over four glorious sunny days we saw improv, magic, stand-up, impressions and theatre – half booked in advance, the rest we winged depending on daily deal availability at the Virgin half-price hut. We made packed lunches, and at night feasted on street food in George Square.
On day two we started to ignore age restrictions. It worked better and the performers in tiny shipping containers never minded. At one show the only other audience members were the performer’s parents. They laughed raucously at their son’s act – countryside stories set to rap – then craned round to check our awkward reaction. Outside we collapsed in hysterics. We were hauled on stage during an improv show, quizzed by a mind-reader. Then, in a space smaller than a family bathroom, we saw Jody Kamali’s Hotel Yes Please! Character comedian Kamali mocked his audience so warmly my whole family cried laughing. It was hilarious, life-affirming, bonding. It was just another day in Edinburgh.
We ended on Prince’s Street, eating halloumi burgers, watching the festival’s finale fireworks illuminate the castle. Back home, Charlie took up joke-telling while Phoebe invented comic personas she’d test on us, including vacuous beauty therapist Alison Spa Bodge. We’re back again this year. I like to think dad would have approved.
Ben Hatch, author of Road to Rouen, Headline, £8.99
Parathas and chips: our Bradford staycation
I was dreading last summer. Entertaining two smalls boys aged five and two, along with a baby, for six weeks was a frightening prospect. So, we did the only thing we could: we packed up the people carrier and travelled 200 miles north to Yorkshire to stay with family. Bradford may not be the most obvious choice for a break, but it’s interesting how the seemingly mundane becomes magical when viewed through the eyes of children.
As every parent knows, the key to taking small children out is organisation – early starts, snacks, knowing where and when to stop for lunch, where the cleanest loos are and, of course, where the free parking is. Our days were surprisingly full. We walked through Clayton village and spent time at award-winning Lister Park, as well as a huge indoor/outdoor soft play in Tong. We wandered around the Science and Media Museum, where the boys played with Lego, tried on space costumes and had fun while simultaneously leaving us with the smug feeling that they were being educated. We headed to MyLahore, the restaurant that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge made milkshakes at couple of weeks ago. The boys tucked into the cultural fusion of parathas and chips. Everywhere we went felt family-friendly.
The Hockney Gallery in Bradford was my clear favourite. We parked close by, walked along the canal, considered a barge, looked at our feral children, and then reconsidered. Hockney’s bright colours make his work easily accessible to children, and coupled with the expanse in which his work is housed, Salts Mill is a great place to take small children.
Staycations have been one of the surprising side effects of parenthood. We see much more of the country than we would have done if we were willing to fly. The boys keep asking when we’re going back to Bradford. Probably next summer, I tell them.
Saima Mir, journalist and author. Her novel, The Khan, will be published by Point Blank in January 2021
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