A decade after a first family holiday in Greece, Martin Love heads to Paxos – and finds it wonderfully unchanged
The five of us stretched out on yoga mats with our toes pointing towards the sea. Above us the breeze stirred the leaves of the ancient olive trees. “Eímai edó,” intoned Sophie. “In Greek that means, ‘I am here.’” She continued in her gentle voice. “I am here in Paxos. I have arrived. I have moored on this rock surrounded by sea …”
Sophie was training to be a mindfulness teacher. When we lay down I’d have bet my favourite Speedos that we’d soon be in fits of laughter, but not one of us so much as sniggered. We lay in still, neat rows, like sardines, as her soothing words washed over us. After a while, Sophie brought us up from the depths. “I hope you are now at one with this island,” she said. We’d been on Paxos for less than half a day yet I had the giddy sensation I might just chuck it all in and stay here forever.
Kids will love the floor-to-ceiling, Postman Pat and Octonauts-themed fantasy on offer – and there’s a bar in the back for adults if their enthusiasm needs a boost
‘Designed through the eyes of a five-year-old” is how Alton Towers bills its latest theme hotel. If my nearly-four-year-old were in charge, there’d be a mermaid-filled swimming pool, ice-cream fountains, and the casts of Moana, The Jungle Book and Octonauts incarnated to be her best friends and French-plait her hair.
The CBeebies Land Hotel, created in partnership with the BBC TV toddler channel, gets close – it has Octonauts bedrooms for a start. Postman Pat, In the Night Garden, Swashbuckle and Something Special ones too. These 34 themed rooms and suites, alas, cost £75 a night more than the 42 standard rooms, decorated with those yellow blob CBeebies ident characters that no child ever gave a dirty nappy about. I imagine those prepared to indulge their little darlings enough to bring them here – and let’s face it, this is up there with a Disney trip as spoiling goes – will feel obliged to fork out on their favourite show’s suite, too.
Paul O’Grady obviously hasn’t visited Southend for a while … The resort where the East End still goes for old-fashioned seaside fun now has a thriving arts scene, too
At the Village Green arts and music festival in Southend-on-Sea earlier this month, festivalgoers were pictured waving placards reading “Southend is not a shit hole”. I thought this was a bit odd, until I learned it was in response to a recent outburst by presenter Paul O’Grady – during filming for an episode of Blind Date, no less – in which he branded the Essex seaside town a shit hole, and “full of single mothers”. Harsh, Paul.
Like generations of Londoners before me, I had my first taste of the seaside at Southend. No matter that the beach was more mud than golden sand, or that the water – where the Thames meets the North Sea – was a murky brown. I have fond memories of making “sand” castles in the silty sludge, riding the roller coasters at Adventure Island until I felt sick, and then walking to the end of the (world’s longest) pier for an ice-cream and to watch the container ships sliding in and out of the estuary.
Hop aboard one of these fantastic British railway adventures – with the chance to see wildlife and wonderful scenery along the route
The Ffestiniog winds its way from Porthmadog through more than 13 miles of stunning countryside. Waterfalls cascade and streams froth down mossy rock sides. Swathes of deep green grass soar on one side while valleys dip spectacularly on the other, affording the chance to look down on treetops far below. Sharp bends in the line offer splendid views of the engine as it chugs onward and upward to Blaenau Ffestiniog, where there’s a chance to travel on an even smaller train into a former slate mine. The slate-waste landscape at the top of the line makes a fascinating contrast with the natural beauties below.
• Adult rover ticket £24, one child under 16 travels free with each adult, under-3 free. Dogs and bicycles welcome, festrail.co.uk
The seaside resort has reimagined the classic British beach hut as a chic bolthole that makes for an idyllic family break
When it comes to tourism initiatives, you can’t knock Bournemouth council for ambition. A decade ago, it had the seemingly brilliant idea of creating an artificial surf reef off Boscombe beach aimed at attracting surfers from far and wide, and also help renew the immediate area, one of the most deprived neighbourhoods in the whole of the south-west, according to a local charity. Sadly, it was a disaster and the project sank without trace, though the huge sandbags are still teetering somewhere on the sea bed.
But despite its failure to make waves (at least the right sort – it did generate plenty of unwanted headlines), such was the hype surrounding the proposed reef that redevelopment of the Boscombe pier area began anyway.
Nostalgia, beaches and ice-cream come together in perfect harmony as 12 authors and locals choose their favourite places on the UK coast, with places to stay
Broadstairs must be in my blood. My mum’s family has been going there at least since Edward VII was on the throne. We have an old album of photographs of her parents horsing around in what is presumably Viking Bay. In one picture, my grandfather is posing in a woollen bathing suit with a half-crown stuck in his eye-socket as though it’s a monocle. Considering that he wasn’t known for his levity and that at the time it was taken, in the mid-1930s, the economy had gone south and the world stood on the brink of a terrible war, it says something about the restorative powers of Broadstairs.
From ziplines in Switzerland to walking holidays in Italy and France, plus mountain bike breaks and an outdoor festival, the Alps are worth a ‘peak’ this summer
Car-free family ski resort and outdoor activity base Arc 1950 has opened another bike route for the summer, one that goes through the centre of the village – so if staying in the resort, you can pedal right back to your apartment. Buying a mountain bike pass provides access to 180km of marked trails for all levels; that’s 23 trails with nine downhill runs and two cross-country circuits among the count. A short drive from Chamonix, the village enjoys spectacular views of Mont Blanc.
• Half-day mountain bike pass €15 adult, €12 children, arc1950.com
With half-term upon us and summer round the corner, the UK’s castles are rolling out all kinds of entertainment, including medieval-themed activities, theatre, glamping – and a dash of Harry Potter
A 15th-century moated castle surrounded by a 300-acre estate, Herstmonceux is a tranquil site with a range of themed gardens to explore, including an Elizabethan, a magic and a butterfly garden. From May to October, Herstmonceux also offers horse and carriage rides around the estate (from £3 adult, £2 children, under 5s free). The castle hosts England’s Medieval Festival 2017(26-28 August), which is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a weekend-long bonanza of battles, jousting, archery, banquets and all the other elements and ephemera of medieval life.
• Adults £6, children £3, under 5s free, family (two adults three children) £14. herstmonceux-castle.com
Our series of city guides for families heads to creative, community-minded Bristol, with its fab, and often free, attractions and acres of parkland nearby
More in this series: London | Brighton | Berlin | Paris | Barcelona | Rome | Amsterdam
Bristol isn’t the most beautiful city in the world (the blitz and brutalist post-war planning saw to that), but it compensates with a unique, offbeat charm. Cycle paths, community farms, street art, street food and a potent live music scene make it a multicultural, civic-minded kind of place with an alternative approach to city planning, green credentials and an unshowy, creative vibe – characteristics that also make it a family-friendly destination.
Few tourists venture beyond the Mani’s spectacular Diros caves, but further south lies a dramatic coastline of sleepy fishing coves and fortified villages
The Mani, the central southern prong of mainland Greece, is divided into two halves. The Outer Mani, with the pretty coastal villages of Kardamyli and Stoupa, is now well known for offering a more authentic holiday experience than many of the islands. The Deep Mani, further south, is a different prospect, with its rugged coastline broken by only the occasional cove. Far fewer people visit here, and even fewer stay.
Central Portugal’s pristine beaches are pounded by the Atlantic and dotted with simple restaurants, but barely touched by tourists, making it a haven for those who crave space – and great seafood
Theo and I saunter along the road from Aveiro that crosses its wide, shiny, tame lagoon, and arrive in north Africa, or so it seems. We find scissored-leaf palm trees and heavy white sand dunes on the march, and the relentless wild rumble and roar of the unquiet Atlantic.
Portugal’s Centro region is baffling. It’s between Lisbon and Porto, thus easy to get to and easy to get around. It has peerless beaches, a treasury of gorgeous historic towns and villages, and endlessly lovely people. The pristine coastline, horizons and skies go on forever. Yet there’s almost nobody here. This isn’t spooky: indeed we feel privileged, transported to earlier, more innocent times when Theo was a kid and I was a new, naive dad. So we spend timeless days basking in the richness of space, and soaking in the luxury of simplicity.
The 2015 relaunch of the 1920s amusement park proved disappointing to both investors and visitors. Now it has high hopes for its latest incarnation, with new rides, bars and food stalls, and a live music venue
It was hailed as the revival of a seaside mecca that would consolidate Margate’s regeneration, but the fanfare around the reopening of the town’s retro amusement park in 2015 soon fizzled out. Barely one year on, Dreamland was in administration. Now, following a £25m investment, and under a new management team, the attraction is preparing to reopen for a second time, promising a radically different experience.
Dreamland’s second relaunch, just in time for the May bank holiday weekend, will showcase new rides, new landscaping, modern art installations and a better food offering, all of which its management team hope will transform its fortunes.
Avoid moans of ‘walking’s boring’ by trying a children-focused tour, where guides channel Robin Hood and Mary Poppins, or lead ghost trails and fossil hunts
If you’re looking for “gently spooky” rather than “give the kids nightmares for weeks”, then this is the ghost tour for you. Follow “Victorian undertaker” Bill Spectre as he leads you through the back streets and courtyards of Oxford. This twilight tour is peppered with ghost stories, which are illustrated with props, pyrotechnics and illusions. Plenty of jokes and audience participation ensure it never goes to the dark side and is suitable for kids of all ages.
• Friday and Saturday evening at 6.30pm from the gift shop of Oxford Castle Unlocked, 1¾ hours, no need to book. Adults £9, children £5-£7. ghosttrail.org
This cycle-friendly city on the river Loire has family attractions galore, super street art and tasty food options for children
Not any more … Nantes is a wonderland for kids and parents. The city, on the river Loire, has seen a cultural reinvention in the past 10 years and there’s easily enough to do to fill a week – or a few days en route south, as my family and I tend to do. The best place to start is the Île de Nantes, the creative hub of the city on an island in the river. Here, the masterminds at Les Machines de L’ile Nantes have created a steampunk playground where a robotic elephant carries passengers on its back (rides €8.50 adults, €6.90 children) and sprays water on bystanders. Nearby, a carousel inspired by Nantes native Jules Verne and his novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea whirls visitors around on mechanical masterpieces such as smoke-breathing dragons, flying fish and fearsome anglerfish (ride prices as above). It’s possible to tour the workshop and see future creations taking shape.
On a group family holiday at a Normandy chateau, a sceptical dad is pleasantly surprised by how much fun the entertainment and activities are – and that doing nothing is an option, too
Call it an exercise in contrasts. At the summit of Mont Saint-Michel, the bronze statue of the archangel is glinting in the midday sun, sword raised and wings outspread. At the foot of Mont Saint-Michel, a small jam-smeared boy is wriggling through a tiny window in the fortress wall and idly breaking into the courtyard of a gendarmerie. The archangel is the protector of the mount. The boy is my son.
Four of us – me, my wife, our four-year-old daughter Bethan and seven-year-old apprentice cat burglar, Joe – have come to western Normandy to join 15 other British families on an all-ages adventure break. This group day trip is a mere bit-player in the week’s itinerary. The holiday is primarily based 45 minutes inland, at an old countryside chateau near Les Chambres on the Manche coast, near Brittany. It’s a wholesome setting in which rabbits hop, peacocks preen and mobs of croissant-fuelled children tear around, brandishing makeshift lightsabers.
The authors of the latest Cool Camping: France book pick the best family-friendly sites from Normandy to the Pyrenees
Since its commission – by none other than William the Conqueror – Château de Monfréville, 10km from the Normandy coast, has housed everyone from Walt Disney’s whole family to invading German soldiers. Today it is limited to just 25 tent pitches, with ample room for little ones to roam and Bert the donkey to graze. There’s a natural swimming pond, an honesty shop (stocked with organic veggies from the garden) and fresh pastries delivered each morning. It’s a 30-minute drive to the medieval town of Bayeux, home of the world’s most celebrated tapestry.
• Tent and 2 people from €26.50 (tents only)
Big-name attractions are heaving over the spring break but the UK has a wealth of spectacular, less-well-known days out. Our experts reveal their favourites
The sea is not warm over Easter (just 9-10C), but sunshine and warm air make a difference, tempting swimmers to strip for a quick dash and splash. I love Wales for a spring break. Trefalen Farm campsite at Bosherston in Pembrokeshire is basic but perfectly situated – who needs a shower block when you can scramble down to the sea for a wake-up dip? From the site, you can walk across Broadhaven, Barafundle (accessible only by foot) and on to Stackpole Quay, where a National Trust cafe does wonderful hot soups and drinks. Afterwards, you could explore the paths around Bosherton Ponds, where otters are frequently seen.
• Kate Rew, founder of the Outdoor Swimming Society and crowd-sourced swim map wildswim.com