Katie Bowman from The Sunday Times Travel Magazine shares her Top 10 Holidays for Preschoolers.
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I’m a big Canaries fan, but this is the most surprising and stylish of the islands – you feel like you’re getting a grown-up holiday, as well as a baby-friendly beach break.
Homegrown architect and artist Cesar Manrique slowed down the island’s development in the 1960s (he saw what was happening to Tenerife), so lovely Lanzarote is low-rise and low-key.
Manrique’s art is also everywhere: wind sculptures on roundabouts; public miradors (viewing points); even the bus stops are cool.
On your first trip with baby, you’re probably going to want to bring help (grandparents or in-laws – if you’re lucky enough) and the Canaries are an attractive prospect for them, too: short-haul, yet warm and sunny all year round. The beaches in the south are safe and sandy; the best are in Papagayo National Park, but beware few/no facilities.
**Parents’ tip: Never pay for flights or accommodation until you have received your child’s first passport – I did, and when a small glitch in the process held things up (the witness signature not matching his passport!), I had to cancel an entirely paid-for trip. HM Passport Office is extra stringent on first child passports.
2. Center Parcs, UK:
I’ll be honest – I took some convincing, but am now a devout CP convert. It’s also prohibitively expensive to go during school hols (between £1-£4k for a house for four nights), so it works brilliantly for pre-schoolers.
Here’s the deal: you rock up in a car full of food, offload into your woodland cottage, then ditch the car in an enormous car park. Throughout the stay (three or four days), you walk or cycle around the car-free village, stopping for activities (zip-lining, pony rides, arts and crafts) or for meals (Strada, gastropub etc).
Only the waterpark and pools are under the dome (some people think the entire park is), and it’s open early till late for you to come and swim, as you please. There’s plenty to do for tiny babies (shelving shallow pool with toys) and toddlers (easy slides, splash den, wave pool). You don’t need to change clothes to eat lunch or even bring cash to the pool – there’s a snack bar that accepts payment from your wristband (which is also your house key). Genius.
How: don’t worry about where your Center Parc is geographically – you won’t be leaving to take day trips anyway. Woburn and Ireland are the newest and swankiest, but a tad pricier.
3. Atlantic France:
Only the French could come up with a fatty, delicious kid-friendly snack that manages to be chic: the croissant. And steak
The reason I chose the Atlantic coast is because it’s so close to home (90 mins from Southampton airport!) yet every bit as en vogue as the Cote d-Azur and without the brash bling.
The campsites are
We chose a Sunelia site called Les Oyats, which had pools, water slides, and sitting in the dunes of an amazing wild beach. The only down side was the endless campsite entertainment: pool bingo; aqua aerobics; karaoke; late discos (till
4. Abu Dhabi:
The travel snob in me felt the need to apologise every time I said we were going to Abu Dhabi last winter – but that was stupid. In fact, it’s much more cultured than Dubai and any trip will be packed with unforgettable experiences (even if they have been shipped in from around the world).
There are basically two families who will like Abu Dhabi. 1. Those who love to sit by the pool in a great hotel with top service – and scorching winter weather (28c in January). 2. Paradoxically, the other group is the family that hates to sunbathe and can’t sit still. That family has Ferrari World, Yas Water World, the Louvre, Warner Brothers theme park, Aqua Fun (playground floating on the sea), kayaking in the mangroves, shopping malls, and desert day trips (camels, dune bashing). The list is endless. But expensive! A kid’s ice cream in a hotel could be £9, and a small glass of wine averages £10-£15 (and is only served in hotels or swanky restaurants).
How: Because of the massive reach of the national carrier Etihad, you can grab a bargain for £275 return. If there aren’t deals, consider buying a cheap fare to Dubai (with equally enormous airline Emirates) then take a cab to Abu Dhabi – the journey is under two hours and a taxi costs £60-70.
Having done the Algarve a number of different times and ways, I still don’t get the attraction. (Please do reply to tell me what I am missing – I’d love to hear!) The ‘beautiful’ bit of Portugal starts as soon as you leave the Algarve and head northwards.
The Alentejo coast is a stunner (and very hip in and around Comporta), but for a picturesque and affordable trip, go even higher to the Costa Verde. Flights to Porto cost peanuts – then, after your city break (sardine lunch with wine £10pp!), drive to the Spanish border for incredible beaches that surround the towns Caminha and Viana do Castelo.
Pre-schoolers love the short flight, easy beaches (avoid those for surfing, which are clearly marked), comfort food (
How: I’m a proper villa nerd, and love to find a special home as much I do a special destination. See Boutique-homes.com for architecturally designed rental houses that cost a fraction of what they would in Spain or Italy.
Or consider the Martinhal group, which has family-friendly hotels all over Portugal. I loved it the first time I went, when my daughter was two (soft play in the restaurants, plastic cutlery). But it is full-on family and it’s chaotic and noisy at every turn – your ears will still be ringing a week after you get home.
6. Sri Lanka
So magical, we’re going again this year. Sri Lanka rocks! With a pre-schooler in tow, we kept things simple and left the Cultural Triangle and temples for another trip.
Instead, we did the south coast curve: Weligama Bay for blue whale watching and a gentle beach (rare in Sri Lanka; it’s more surfy); then coastal Tangalle because it breaks up the journey eastwards and has some amazing hotels but laid-back pace (Anantara, Amanwella; see also i-escape.com); on to Yala National Park for easy safari – elephants, leopard, crocs, monkeys; then Galle on the return as we wanted some culture (gorgeous colonial town with historic buildings turned into cafes and B&Bs). Galle is everybody’s highlight in Sri Lanka, probably because it’s on the beach – so you can chill in the daytime, then go sightseeing late afternoon.
We also loved the Turtle Sanctuary in nearby
Throughout the fortnight, we felt safe, secure, but not cossetted. The road trips are hairy, but a private driver is cheap and they know what they’re doing (ours provided a good car seat and stopped whenever we needed a break).
How: Scott Dunn is an operator that has nailed long-haul travel with kids – the hotels they use have great kids’ clubs and services; they even send your children rash vests before they fly. Give them your real budget and they’ll work something out. If you want cheap and cheerful, TUI has started flying to Colombo and does all-inclusive packages.
7. Walt Disney World,
As it happens, my daughter was too young to enjoy it fully (four years old); I wish I’d waited another year. She had fear issues when it came to many of the rides (lots of mechanical figures, shows, and dark tunnels), so you should take your child to Legoland/Alton Towers first before shelling out on Disney. There
The other two great parks are Animal Kingdom (my daughter loved the water rapids) and Epcot (Frozen; Nemo; Little Mermaid). You might think a villa makes most financial sense with Disney, but you’ll be in a car every day and paying for parking. Better to use an on-site Disney hotel and take the stress-free monorail to the park; it also means you can go back to the hotel room for an afternoon nap and return later. After five days, make for the beach – I love Anna Maria Island.
How: Virgin Holidays are the experts when it comes to Disney (virginholidays.co.uk).
**Parents’ tip: If you have one school-age child or you’re a teacher and must travel during school holidays, choose February or October half terms for Orlando (October in particular as it’s still technically hurricane season but the tail end, so unlikely) – both are far quieter than summer/Christmas/Easter.
The only bit that’s pricey is the half-term Florida flights, so buy them as soon as you can with a low-cost airline such as Norwegian (get alerts 9-11 months in advance by signing up
Sicily is so much more diverse, has tons more history and every tiny village is as pretty as a postcard. Sardinia is flatter, with good beaches, admittedly, but a scruffy centre, and hideously overpriced hotels (avoid Porto Cervo like the plague).
Low-cost flights get you to Catania, Palermo, and Trapani in Sicily for under £150 during term time. From there, the loveliest, calmest beaches are around Cefalu, which is also villa-central; or for some romance try Taormina, which is a fairytale Italian hilltop town with a beach at the bottom of the cliff (but rammed in summer – avoid).
Of course, Italians love kids and there is never any sense that children are a hindrance; they also stay up late (or sleep in the buggy) so you get a proper, posh dinner if that’s what you want.
Beware bad driving: just some of the nightmares we encountered were sudden roadworks; giant pot holes; roads disappearing into tracks; people parking on roundabouts; and satnav sending you up alleyways. There is a reason that the car hire excess waiver is so high in Sicily (20-euro a day compared to the normal 5). Buy it.
I’m not going to lie – this is a splurge. But it’s the sort of place I definitely couldn’t afford during school hols, so now seemed the time to do it (if ever). Of all the Caribbean islands, the Bahamas work really well because they’re so Americanised – that means they feel exotic for the adults but have water parks and fast food for the children.
Nassau is the hub island (flights direct from Heathrow) and is not a patch on the smaller islets – but is brilliant for Atlantis resort with its water slides, dolphin park, fairgrounds, and aquatic experiences, such as feeding rays and turtles. It’s like Disney with steel drums. Do three days here then see a couple of smaller islands – my favourites were the Abacos for the beaches (see Winding Bay on the
Domestic flights are frequent and affordable; while my daughter doesn’t love long-haul Jumbo jets, she loved the tiny twin-prop planes that were like a theme-park ride.
How: not many operators cover the smaller Bahamas – because it’s preferred by Americans over Brits. Instead, we built our trip on Ebookers.com who feature some cute, indie guesthouses. BA flies to Nassau nonstop.
**Parent’s tip: A good time to travel to the Bahamas – or anywhere in the Caribbean, for that matter – is after hurricane season and before Christmas (Nov 1-Dec 15); the hotel rates are rock bottom because it is low season, but you’re still getting to escape Britain while it’s cold and nasty. AND all the Christmas decorations are up. Magical.
I thought I should put a city break in here somewhere, because so many couples love to take them pre-baby – and don’t want to give them up. I avoid cities myself and will probably start up again when my daughter is 7 or 8; I found the buggy too stressful and had the constant nagging sensation that I was missing out (no midnight flamenco bar; no leisurely gallery mooch; no rooftop bars etc). But Boston was a breeze. It was summer, so I’d suggest you go then or autumn (snowy streets would be a pain).
We took a boat trip to see humpback whales; the aquarium was sensational; Boston Common pond has cute swan pedaloes, and the highlight was a frog boat out on the river. Plus, restaurants – even fancy ones – welcome kids, so we enjoyed oysters and crab platters while my daughter coloured in the children’s menu and drank kiddie cocktails.
The step too far was a baseball game; we took her to see Boston Red Sox, but the game lasts so long that we just ate a hot dog and left after 30 minutes.
How: if you can afford it, the Four Seasons is kid-crazy – they get their own check in desk, choose a cuddly toy on arrival; the hotel will even set up a tent in your room and provide milk and cookies every night. We couldn’t help but steal the kiddie slippers! Otherwise, a downtown well-known chain hotel is the best value.