Holidays in Heaven

Friday, September 16, 2005

Malaga: The Forgotten City

Malaga is far more than just a portal to the costas, as Cathy Packe discovers

WHERE?

The capital of the Costa del Sol sits at the point on the Mediterranean coast where the Spanish peninsula begins to dip down towards the Straits of Gibraltar. The city is dominated by the Gibralfaro hill, from which there are superb views in every direction; on a clear day you can see across to North Africa.

Immediately below is the bullring, and from there, heading west, is Malaga's main thoroughfare, the leafy Paseo del Parque, which leads into the Alameda Principal and, eventually, to the Guadalmedina river. North of the main drag is the old centre with its museums, pleasant squares and attractive churches; the beaches stretch for several miles to the east of the city.

The main tourist office is near the centre, at Pasaje Chinitas 4 (00 34 952 213 445), an alley tucked away behind Plaza de la Constitucion. It opens 9am-8.30pm Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm on Saturday and 10am-2pm on Sunday. This is a good area for shopping, too, in the pedestrian streets between Calle Larios and Plaza Felix Saenz. If you want everything under one roof, try the vast Corte Ingles department store at Avenida Andalucia 4-6 (00 34 952 076 500), which opens 10am-10pm Monday to Saturday.

The airport is 7km west of the city. The suburban trains on line C1 stop at the airport on their way from Fuengirola to Malaga's main station and on to the more convenient Centro Alameda stop. They run every half hour, take 15 minutes and cost €1.05 (75p) for a one-way trip. Bus 19 is also a possibility; it leaves every 20 minutes or so from the airport and runs into town along the main Alameda Principal, which is convenient for many places to stay. It takes around half an hour and costs €1.20 (85p).

Malaga has fewer hotels than many of the other places along the coast, so it can get very booked up. The Hotel Larios at Calle Marques de Larios 2 (00 34 952 222 200) is on a pedestrianised street right in the city centre, and offers the personal attention typical of a smallish, boutique hotel.

It has a stunning roof terrace, where there is nightly entertainment, ranging from jazz nights to film shows; these will move inside to the new L2 bistro lounge in the autumn. Rooms here start at €160.50 (£115), with €12 (£9) for breakfast.

On a more modest scale further down the same street, the Hostal Larios, on the third floor at Calle Larios 9 (00 34 952 225 490), has double rooms from €60 (£43), singles from €49 (£35), without breakfast. There are few hotels on the beach, but the Hotel Las Vegas is only a block away at Paseo de Sancha 22 (00 34 952 217 712). Double rooms are available from €94 (£67), singles from €76 (£54); breakfast is an extra €6.25 (£4.50).

Malaga is a lively city at night. Most of the late-night action is around Plaza de Uncibay, where there are lots of clubs and bars; Onda Pasadena on Calle Pallete is a bohemian jazz club that opens late and stays open until well after most people have had breakfast. For free entertainment, many of the locals take a bottle and sit chatting and playing guitars in Plaza de la Merced.

WHY?

Malaga is Andalucia's forgotten city. Those in the know have started to come here in preference to Seville, attracted by its architecture, museums, shops and, crucially, the lack of tourists. Although people flock into Malaga airport on their way to the Costa del Sol, most bypass Malaga itself, leaving behind a relaxed city whose inhabitants are happy to welcome visitors.

WHAT?

Malaga's main attraction is the Picasso Museum in the newly restored Palacio de Buenavista at Calle San Augustin 8 (00 34 952 602 731). It contains more than 200 works by the artist, donated or loaned to the museum by members of his family, and representing every period of his work. The museum opens 10am-8pm from Tuesday to Thursday and Sunday, 10am-9pm Friday and Saturday. Admission is €6 (£4.30), with an extra €4 (£2.85) for the regularly changing special exhibitions; the next of these opens on 24 October and looks at mythology in the artist's work.

The house at Plaza de la Merced 15 (00 34 952 060 215) where Picasso was born and spent the first 10 years of his life is also open to the public. Although its contents pale in comparison with those of the Picasso Museum, it contains some interesting sketches, ceramics and family photographs. It opens 10am-8pm from Monday to Saturday, and 10am-2pm on Sunday; admission is €1 (70p).

Elsewhere in the city are traces of Malaga's varied past. The ruins of Gibralfaro Castle, which was built by the Moors, are on a site once occupied by the Phoenicians. The museum inside the castle chronicles the town's history and opens 9am-7.45pm daily; admission costs €1.80 (£1.30).

Down the hill, and with walls connecting it to the castle ruins, is the restored Moorish fortress or Alcazaba at Calle Alcazabilla (00 34 952 227 230). It opens 9.30am-8pm daily except Monday, and 8.30am-7pm in winter. Admission is €1.90 (£1.35), but is free after 2pm on Sunday. In the heart of Malaga is its 16th-century cathedral on Calle Molina Larios (00 34 952 22 84 91).

It is an imposing building with an impressive façade, notable for the fact that only one tower has ever been finished; this has earned it the nickname of "la manquita", or the one-armed lady. Admission to the cathedral is €3.50 (£2.50), and it opens 10am-6pm Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm on Saturday, and for mass only on Sunday.

British Airways, operated by GB Airways, flies to Malaga from London Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester.

FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK

El Palo, east of the city centre, is the latest place to eat, and El Tintero (00 34 952 204 464), on Playa del Dedo at the point when the coast road comes to an end, is one of its most popular restaurants. Fried fish is served on different sized plates designed for sharing, with prices starting at €5 (£3.50) a plate. It opens every day from 1pm-4.30pm and 7.30pm until midnight or later.

The Café de Paris, at Calle Velez Malaga 8 (00 34 952 225 043) is one of the finest restaurants in the city. The menu reflects what is available locally, and there is a "market menu", varying every day, for €39 (£28). It opens from 1.30pm-3pm Monday to Saturday, and 8.30pm-10.30pm Tuesday to Saturday.

El Piyayo, at Calle Granada 36 (00 34 952 220 096), is a great place for tapas and is often packed late into the night. House specialities include fried anchovies, and cod in a tomato sauce. It opens 1pm-4pm and 8pm until midnight daily, and until 1am at weekends.

El Chinitas, at Calle Moreno Monroy 4 (00 34 952 210 972), is a long-established city centre restaurant serving a good selection of regional specialities. It opens 1pm-4pm and 8pm-midnight daily.

El Pimpi, at Calle Granada 62 (00 34 952 228 990) is a popular city centre venue and a good place to drop in for a drink; the tapas are also excellent. It opens from 12pm-2am Tuesday to Sunday, and from 6pm on Monday.
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Edited from an article in The Independent, Travel, Cathy Packe (Independent Online).

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Cricket — Now Book A Holiday

As most English cricket-lovers have been biting their nails to the quick, the smart ones have been picking up the phone. Travel-and-ticket packages for the team’s next three big challenges — the Test tour of India in spring; the Ashes in Australia, around Christmas 2006; and the World Cup in the Caribbean a few months later — are going fast.

Many dates and venues have not even been finalised, but specialist tour operators have been inundated with fans pre-registering to secure their places. “Since Michael Vaughan and the boys won the series, registrations have been up by 300%,” says Kuoni Sport Abroad (01306 744345).

You’ll need to post a £125 refundable deposit to give yourself the best chance of match-day tickets. “We’re confident we can get places for everyone who’s registered so far, but things are getting tight, especially for Australia."

“We’re expecting a big surge in demand this week, as the Ashes are decided,” says Gullivers Sports Travel (01684 293175). “If you want to follow the team, it’s a good idea to get in quick.”

Audley Travel is planning itineraries through Guyana in early 2007, which will incorporate an England fixture in the World Cup. Call Audley on 01869 276235 to register your interest.
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There’s another reason to stockpile annual leave for the World Cup in the West Indies — low-cost island-hopping in the traditionally pricey Caribbean has just been given a significant boost.

A new ferry service has been launched linking Barbados, Guadeloupe and points in between.

The Star Ferry service (00 1 246 422 0546) comes in the wake of EasyCruise’s new low-cost Caribbean itinerary, with a high-speed vessel calling at Barbados, St Lucia, St Martin, Dominica, Martinique, Marie-Galante and Guadeloupe. It plans to expand the network further in 2007, just in time for the World Cup — so now you can follow Freddie Flintoff and the gang on the cheap.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Bracing Exercise, Fine Cuisine - The Perfect European Match

Autumn is coming to Europe, and as the air cools and the crowds disperse, now’s the time for an outdoors adventure. It’s the best way to justify some serious holiday gluttony. Anthony Peregrine proves the point in southeast France

It’s September, and what lies ahead? The refitting of school uniforms, wall-to-wall party conferences, shortening days and darkening nights. Also conker competitions and firework displays. Vital matters, all. But if I were to suggest a week in the maturing Mediterranean sun, combining a certain amount of inspiring exercise with a healthy portion of excellent eating, might you not be tempted?

Nobody will blame you for escaping south for a few days this autumn, especially as there’s such a fine spread of gastronomic activity breaks on offer. The sun will still be fully present, but shorn of its high-season bite. Perfect, therefore, for doing something mildly — very mildly — strenuous without risk of melting. You could cycle, ride or kayak, but, personally, I prefer to trust my own two legs (which don’t get punctures, gallop off unexpectedly or sink).

I chose a week in the lip-smacking Gardon gorges, near Nîmes: walking by day and rewarding myself with southern French cooking on balmy restaurant terraces each evening. Part of the point of a trip like this is to sabotage the healthy daytime stuff with evening-tide shamelessness — and, blissfully, activity-holiday companies are becoming aware of this. Increasingly, they’ll not just send you a route, they’ll book you several delectable tables at strategic dining points along it. It’s all about getting the right life balance.

I felt awfully smug when I finished the walk. Then again, I felt pretty smug when I started it. I spent my first day strolling the tight-packed medieval streets of Uzès, turning down a chance to visit the Ducal Palace (12 euros? For that kind of money, I’d expect a droit de cuissage) and instead taking a pastis among the trees and arcades of the central square. In the late- afternoon sun, the stone buildings glowed with the light and heat of centuries.

Then, next morning, I was off, loping into the limestone hills of the garrigue scrubland — “The last sigh of the Cévennes,” as some poet said. Thyme, rosemary and lavender scented the air, the sky was huge and the light clear, as if it had just come through a carwash. The dryness was palpable — bad news for drought-stricken growers, but heady for the rest of us.

Interspersed with the rocky scrub and holm oaks were olive groves and water-starved vines, their leaves limp, their fruit plump. Behind, villages rambled among the trees. Ahead were the gorges. Over the coming days, I would raise many, many toasts to thank the autumn gods that I was here.

Winding down to walking pace takes time. My six-day tour ran from Uzès to Castillon-du-Gard, roughly eight or nine foot miles per day, and came with excellent route notes that gave estimated times for getting to key points along the way. I’m a man, so naturally I spent the first part of the first morning trying to beat them. Which I did, easily.

Now, women don’t do this kind of thing. They don’t care, even if they’re behind schedule. Sometimes they dawdle. Gradually, it dawned on me that they are right. I was on my own, so impressing nobody. And I was moving at such a lick that, though I was looking at things, I was tuned to the wrong wavelength to see them. So I ditched the timetable, slowed down, sniffed the thyme and ran lavender through my hands. When I got to the gorges, I sat on the edge and let them batter my senses.

These may not be as terrifyingly dramatic as the Verdon gorges, in Provence, but the drop of the cliffs is void enough for most people’s vertigo — and there’s nobody else around. You can’t get anywhere near by car, so I had the dizzying gash and thread of water at the bottom to myself.

It was pretty wild. Too wild. After sitting there for a bit, I had an urge to hurl myself hundreds of feet to certain death — with, I noted later, my picnic uneaten. A potential double tragedy. I scrambled back, took a couple of deep breaths and ambled on.

I met nobody for hours. All was peace, light and solitude — which can do strange things to a person. I talked with goats in distant stretches of scrub (“Hello there, I am a friend to all goats” . . . you know the sort of thing), sang out loud and claimed a particularly lovely length of the river in the name of the Queen.

Big birds circled overhead (Bonelli’s eagles? Egyptian vultures? Turkeys? Ornithology isn’t my strong point). Normal subject matter emptied from my mind, which rambled all over the place. This hadn’t happened for ages — and can, of course, be overdone. So I wasn’t displeased, at the end of the day, to bump back into humanity, especially on thelimited scale available in the village of Collias.

There was, in fact, nobody on the steep, sinuous streets. They were all at the river beach, swimming, jumping off rocks or steering canoes into the bank. I had a beer and noted that, despite everything, I’d still arrived pretty much on schedule. Strange, that.

Notwithstanding my new-found determination to dawdle, however, I believe it’s a good idea to have a goal. Something that keeps you going and gets you excited as you approach.

Mine was the Pont du Gard, the stupendous Roman aqueduct — 902ft long, 157ft high, all golden stone and arches — that straddles the lower Gardon gorges. It was part of a 30-mile system delivering water to Nîmes, in the days when waterworks were a little more grandiose than they’ve ever been since. I’d visited a few times, but never approached entirely on foot. Yes, I was excited. You stroll up through scrub, burst out onto a clifftop and there it is, just below you — one of the most epic sights in France.

Running from hill to opposite hill, and down to blue river and white rocks, its scale and isolation are awesome — yet absolutely fitting. “It seems,” wrote Evelyn Underhill in 1949, “to be the completion of a landscape — left unfinished by mistake.” Quite.

It’s mesmerisingly perfect in every light and from every angle. I spent hours roaming around. I visited the museum, went for a swim in the river and still didn’t want to leave. Here was the pure power of Rome — at once technical and political — expressed with simple majesty. That’s what I call a goal.

Holiday evenings exist, as we’ve mentioned, to undo any good you’ve done earlier. The Gardon gorges walk succeeded brilliantly. The hotels along the route went from pleasing in Uzès to excellent in Collias and stayed that way in Castillon-du-Gard. All were venerable old buildings — labyrinthine stone corridors, surprising staircases, long memories — transformed for the comfort-seeking classes, with terraces, pools and splendid bathrooms.

The food followed the same progression. Though pretty deep in the country, this was gourmet stuff: the best lamb I’ve tasted this year, with baby vegetables, at the Castellas, in Collias; monkfish with truffles and a watermelon pud crafted like fragile modern sculpture at the Vieux Castillon. All this was included in the holiday price, so that was great.

But such food in such surroundings — absurdly picturesque terraces in Uzès and Castillon; overlooking the little garden in Collias — requires at least one apéritif, wine, then coffee and possibly something a little stronger afterwards. Other- wise, you’re not really working at the life-balance thing.

Drinks were not included, of course, and the following morning at the Vieux Castillon I got a bill I deserved, but hadn’t quite expected. No regrets, though — especially not when, shortly afterwards, I took a call from a friend in Britain. “Sheeting it down here, mate,” he said. Smug? You bet.

Details: with Inntravel (01653 617906), a six-night independent walk along the Gardon gorges to the Pont du Gard starts at £1,068pp, including British Airways flights from Gatwick to Montpellier, rail and taxi transfers, half-board accommodation with gastronomic dinners, two picnics, luggage transfers, maps and notes. It is available until November 16.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina - The Impact On Tourism

Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the Gulf coast states of the USA on Monday, has left the infrastructure of Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi in tatters.

It also hit northern Florida and the Pensacola region, but resorts on the Gulf coast such as Clearwater and St Petersburg, although lashed by heavy rain, were relatively unscathed and are functioning normally.

Virgin Holidays reports no impact on its Miami and Orlando programmes.

For those who were due to visit the affected areas, though, what are the options? If you were travelling with a tour operator, contact the Association of British Travel Agents (020 7637 2444, www.abta.com).

Abta said last week that travellers booked with a tour operator will be offered a new itinerary, but if this represents a “significant alteration” to the holiday, travellers have the right to a full refund.

Tour operators are asking those booked for a date some months away to “sit tight” and see how the situation develops. Visit the Abta website for updates.

Both United Airlines and American Airlines describe the situation as “fluid”, with continuing disruptions to domestic services. American is offering cash refunds to customers booked to New Orleans — even on nonrefundable tickets.

American is allowing change of destination and dates or refunds (vouchers only on nonrefundable tickets), with all rebooking fees and most restrictions (Saturday-night stays, for example) waived, for flights to Baton Rouge in Louisiana, to Mobile, Alabama, and Pensacola and Fort Walton, both in Florida. All its other airports and hubs are functioning normally.

Most US and international airlines (including BA) are operating a similar policy — some until September 30, others up to October 31— but this may change. Check airline websites for daily updates.

Although a hurricane is an “act of God”, you should still be covered by your insurance company: they baulk at acts of terror or war, not natural disasters. The travel insurer Journeywise says that normal insurance applies, except for anyone unfortunate enough to be in an area under martial law (and thus in a “war zone” — at the time of going to press, only New Orleans). Otherwise, accommodation and repatriation should be covered as usual.

Because Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama have been declared disaster areas, forthcoming trips there will also be covered. Contact your insurer to see what is and isn’t covered. For future reference, your policy will be void if you book after a hurricane has been forecast and named.
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From Times Online.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

A Final Shot Of Sunshine

Summer isn’t over yet — Cyprus is just reaching its warm and wonderful best. David Wickers explains


Cyprus


Why here? Just take a look at the map. Cyprus is more southerly than Tunis and 10 times nearer to Syria than Athens. You can’t rely on winter sunshine, but you can safely bet on a wonderful autumn. During October half-term last year, the Cypriot thermometer nudged 23C and the sea, at 20C, was still warm enough to bathe a baby in.

Where we stayed: Le Meridien (00 357 25 862000) is a great big dollop of concrete, part of a row of whoppers stretching east from Limassol. But while it may be no looker from the outside, the hotel’s innards are very impressive indeed. For active families, it is known as Limassol’s playground central.

Le Meridien feels more like a five-star cruise ship tied to a permanent mooring than a hotel: so big and so busy that tours are organised for new arrivals. It has 329 rooms, eight restaurants — ranging in style from the Japanese Kojima to the kids-only Mickey’s — and an Olympian quota of sporting facilities, including tennis, football, bowling, volleyball and a mosaic of 16 — repeat, 16 — pools. The hotel also has its own nightlife microclimate, including a disco, a theatre, a cinema and several bars.

The resort manages to marry two unlikely bedfellows: a superb spa and one of the best children’s clubs in the Med. The huge, and free, Penguin Village welcomes tinies aged 3-12 into a world of bouncy castles, football, climbing frames, basketball and theatre. Older ones graduate to the less structured Leisureland — all the sporty stuff resides here, as well as an internet cafe and a games room. There is also a crèche for tots aged 6 months to 3 years, paid for on site at about £5 per hour.

Happy in the knowledge that their bairns are having fun, parents can check into the super-serious thalassotherapy spa, which offers a menu of more than 100 treatments, from underwater massage to hot stones and seaweed wraps to micronised marine algae facials. The spa is open only to residents, so there’s no sharing your thermal dunks with pay-and-play punters or “club members”.

What we did: much of the coast has been scarred by crass development, but we found that there is plenty worth seeing out the back door. After mornings spent kicking and screaming in “the club”, we spent our afternoons on outings com- bining lots of fresh air and a soupçon of educational merit.

We found various Unesco-protected Byzantine churches and frescoed monasteries, and checked out the crusader castle of Kolossi, the Roman theatre at Kourion and the mosaics in the archeological park in Paphos. We went for a jaunt into the Troodos mountains and explored the Akamas limestone peninsula, one of the last great expanses of wild countryside in the Med.

There’s a fair bit of Cyprus that’s not to like (most of it man-made), but a little that we liked a lot, including the mountains — fabulously cloaked in cedar, oak and pine.

Would we go back? On balance, yes: maybe on a three- or four-year rota, and probably in the same October half-term week, when other parts of the Med have less reliable sun.

The package: a week’s B&B starts at £885pp, and £289 for each child under 12 sharing, with Planet Holidays (0870 066 0909) including Excel charter flights from Gatwick; departures from UK regional airports or Ireland from an extra £9.

Other options: the new Columbia Beach Resort (00 357 25 833000) is an architectural triumph, with 94 individual suites built out of pale stone, wood and reclaimed terracotta tiles. In the middle, shaded by palms, is a lagoon-like pool, fully 260ft long. It has a spa with a heated indoor pool (which swims into the outdoor one), a gym, squash and tennis courts, two restaurants and a children’s club during October half-term.

Halfway between Paphos and Limassol, the German-run hotel faces Pissouri Bay and a mile-long spread of Blue Flag beach, one of the best in Cyprus. Above the hotel perches a whitewashed hilltop village with a couple of tavernas. A week’s B&B costs £1,323pp, and £1,190 for under-12s, with Sunvil (020 8568 4499), including car hire and scheduled flights from Heathrow; regional departures available on request.

Alternatively, consider staying in one of the 50 or so traditional houses in a hugely successful agritourism project that is breathing life back into the Cypriot hills. You’ll plug into the slow pace of rural life, eat at local tavernas and get to meet the welcoming, English-speaking locals.

The Linos Inn, at Kakopetria in the Troodos mountains, comprises several restored houses, with a week’s B&B starting at £547pp (same for children) with Sunvil (020 8568 4499), including car hire and Excel flights from Gatwick; regional departures available on request.

The kids' verdict

“This was like two holidays — one in and around the pool, the other having quite a good day out.” Francesca, 15

“I loved the trout and chips at Kakopetria — but the sea was too cold.” Madeleine, 12

David Wickers travelled as a guest of Planet Holidays

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The last three posts have been edited from an article in The Sunday Times, Travel (Times Online)

Monday, September 05, 2005

Algarve All-Stars

Mark Hodson takes to life in the slow lane


Algarve


Why here? The Algarve is a perennial favourite with Brits: it is safe and friendly, English is widely spoken and children are not tolerated, but treasured.

Eating out is excellent value, and if your offspring don’t fancy fresh Atlantic clams or stone bass, most kitchens will happily knock up some spag bol. Flying time is less than three hours, and the sun can usually be relied on to shine. October tends to be T-shirt weather (18C-22C), with a chance of cloud.

Where we stayed: Pine Cliffs (00 351 289 500377) is a Sheraton-run five-star with a loyal following among British families — many return several times a year. It’s a huge place with an embarrassment of facilities: six restaurants, four swimming pools, all-weather tennis courts, a golf academy (and a nine-hole course), a health club and one of the best-equipped children’s clubs in Europe.

Unusually, the hotel manages to be both big and beautiful. The look is classical Portuguese, with tiled courtyards and manicured gardens, fountains and lemon trees. And the location is superb — perched above dramatic brick-red cliffs, with a lift to whisk guests down to one of the best sandy beaches in Portugal.

The kids’ club, Porto Pirata, is like a hotel within a hotel, with its own pool, mini-golf course, volleyball court, sandpit, climbing frames and cycle track. The main attraction is a pair of pirate ships that house the dining area, the games room and a nursery. The enthusiastic staff organise activities, including treasure hunts, mini-Olympics, football and tennis tournaments.

Once a week, the children are taken to the hotel’s golf academy for a lesson with the resident pro. There’s one additional ingredient that makes Pine Cliffs a recipe for happy family holiday — the rooms. As well as standard doubles, the hotel has well-equipped suites overlooking the golf course, each with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and a living room. Spot-on for a family of four.

What we did: with cloud and light rain forecast, we took precautions, packing Travel Scrabble. In the end, we didn’t need it, mostly because there was so much to do at the hotel. After his first golf lesson, eight-year-old Callum was hooked, and we divided much of our time between the driving range and the mini-golf. When the sun shone, we hit the beach; when it didn’t, we swam in the heated indoor pool or played table tennis.

Away from the hotel, the options are limited. By late October, most of the Algarve’s theme parks, water parks and zoos have closed for winter — so, if the weather is patchy, you are better off in a hotel with facilities than stuck in a villa, gazing out at your (unheated) pool.

Some of the hotel food was excellent — especially the breakfast buffet and the Moroccan restaurant — but some was uninspiring and overpriced.

Fortunately, there was a good supermarket across the street, as well as a strip of three restaurants, all of them popular with both hotel guests and locals. The best is Adega Ti Costa (00 351 289 502781).

Would we go back? Yes, but we might need to confer with the bank manager first.

The package: Scott Dunn (020 8682 5040) has a week, room-only, for £3,725 during October half-term, for two adults and two children under 11, including British Airways flights from Gatwick; regional connections on request. Porto Pirata caters for children aged 6 months and up; a full day costs £26, including lunch. It is open from April to October and over Christmas.

Another option: Vila Vita Parc (00 800 2888 8882), near Porches, is in the same league as Pine Cliffs, with beautiful grounds, a gorgeous beach and 182 rooms, including 30 family suites (though the standard doubles are large enough for two adults, a child and a baby). It has half a dozen restaurants, several pools, tennis, an impressive spa and diagnostic medical centre, 18 holes of mini-golf and a nine-hole pitch-and-putt.

The kids’ club has a playground, football, volleyball and a trampoline, and is free for guests aged 4-12. The resort also has a teen club for children aged 13-19 and a particularly spacious crèche for tots aged 6 months to 3 years (£34 per day). A week in a standard room costs £2,864, B&B, for a family of four, including British Airways flights and transfers, with ITC Classics (01244 355527). A family suite costs £ 4,208.

The kid's verdict

“I thought I might be too old for the kids’ club, but once I got there, I didn’t want to leave. The only downer was that some of the activities got cancelled. And some of the girls got on my nerves.” Callum, 8

Mark Hodson travelled as a guest of Scott Dunn

Part III: Cyprus

Sunday, September 04, 2005

No Half-Measures This October

Summer’s over — but you can get one last burst of Mediterranean sun and family fun next half-term. Three writers, and their kids, report

Summer is over, the new school year is beginning, the photos are back from Snappy Snaps and the tan has long since drained away with the bathwater. But families can still enjoy a second helping of summer during the October half-term, and often at prices well below their August peak.

Our experts have selected three favourite family desti- nations for the autumn break, all odds-on for good weather and within a few hours’ flight. They’ve picked the best all- action resort hotel (and suggested a few alternatives for good measure), checked out the nearby attractions and asked the kids for their verdicts, too. So, here’s to October — and your longest summer yet.

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Unless stated, all package prices are for October half-term week and include flights and transfers. Most half-term holidays begin on Saturday, October 22, but some schools are off the week before, hence the inclusion of departures that cover this period too
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Tunisia

Why here? Because it’s an easy dose of exotica on our doorstep — just three hours away — and scheduled flights mean you aren’t hamstrung by weekly charters. You can take four-, five- or six-day breaks and skip the worst of the half-term airport bottlenecks.


Tunisia is also safe — a highly secular country where women got the vote before they did in Switzerland. Don’t expect blistering sun in October, though, at least not in the north. Temperatures range from 15C to 25C, with an average of seven hours of sunshine a day.

Where we stayed: compared with many of the modern monoliths that dot the Tunisian coast, The Residence is cool and understated, with extensive grounds and a vast swimming pool (only heated, alas, until October 15). The hotel is on the Côte de Carthage, an easy 30-minute cab ride from Tunis, so a real working city is on the doorstep, with one of the most manageable — and most friendly — medinas in North Africa, not to mention Roman and Phoenician ruins, excellent museums and lots of beach.

The hotel has plenty of dining options, all with children’s menus — including a swanky Chinese restaurant (the owner is from Singapore). Rooms are large, comfy and well equipped, with de rigueur marble bathrooms.

Our children’s eyes lit up when they saw the public areas — planted on the lawn near the paddling pool was a large climbing frame, complete with enthusiastically climbing kids. There’s also the Dolphin children’s club — basically a supervised playroom — and the beach, with camels for hire.

The Residence has a good spa, where treatments are not only exceptional, but exceptionally cheap. At a time when massage inflation is rampant, you can get a thorough 45- minute going-over for £22.

It is also restricted to over-16s.

But if you are thinking of barricading yourself in the spa (as many guests do), note that the children’s club does not run all year: make sure you check when booking. However, the hotel says that it will run a club this half-term, from October 16 to 30.

In addition, the tour operator Powder Byrne plans to feature The Residence for the second time this half-term, and will be installing its own kids’ clubs — but these will be available only to its customers.

What we did: each morning seemed to begin with some friendly bartering with the camel owners down on the beach. The Camel Ride Price Index jumped around like the Hang Seng, veering from 20 dinars (£8.50) to 5. We got it at 7 per child and 10 per adult.

We tore ourselves away from the pool for trips to Tunis’s medina, to the charming blue-and-white village of Sidi Bou Saïd and to see the stunning mosaics at the Bardo Museum. We also did a quick tour of Carthage, which is a tad dis- appointing for children — you need a vivid imagination to re-create the glorious past from the rubble that remains (although the museum, closed on Mondays, is worthwhile).

If you want something more extant, the best Roman site in the country is at Dougga, a two-hour car ride away. We also had a wonderful dinner in the medina, at Dar Hamouda Pacha (56 Rue Sidi Ben Arous; 00 216 71 566584), a new restaurant around the corner from the better-known Dar El Jeld. No kids’ menus, but plenty of grilled chicken and lamb chops, which suited them just fine.

A shuttle bus into town, even once a day, would be a good addition to the hotel setup.

Otherwise, you’re left to negotiate with cab drivers (as with everything in Tunisia, a smattering of French goes a long way), who have a tendency to throw in guided tours and the odd carpet-shop visit.

There are a few signs of life near the hotel — a bowling alley/bar across the road, a couple of other hotels along the strip — but your holiday will revolve around The Residence.

Would we go back? For sure — but preferably during the period when the pool is heated.

The package: ITC Classics (01244 355527) has seven nights, room-only, in a pool-view suite from £1,580pp and £215 per child, based on four sharing, including BA flights from Gatwick and transfers; Irish and regional departures from £60pp.

Powder Byrne (020 8246 5300) has seven nights, half-board, in a double room from £2,212pp and £1,166 per child, including BA flights from Gatwick and transfers. The Powder Byrne crèche (6 months to 3 years) costs £250 per week; Scallywags (4-9 years) is complimentary; the Zone (9-14 years) costs £185 per week.

Other options: the Mövenpick Ulysse Palace Hotel, on Djerba, an island off southern Tunisia, has outdoor and indoor pools, a fitness room, volleyball, table tennis, riding and a thalassotherapy centre. It offers a kids’ club called Picky for children aged 3-12, a mini- cinema and a large play area.

A week at half-term costs £785pp, and £549 per child sharing a room, with Wigmore Holidays (020 7836 4999), including flights from Heathrow or Gatwick; regional departures available on request.

The Hotel Melia El Mouradi Hammamet, in the newish resort of Hammamet Yasmine, has a mini-club for children aged 5-12, with organised activities. The family entertainment programme includes live music and occasional shows, and baby-sitting is available.

The resort also has a marina, a casino, a “traditional” (but newly constructed) medina and an amusement park. A week’s half-board at half-term starts at £459pp, and £349 per child under 12 sharing, with Tunisia First (01276 600100), including flights from Heathrow with Tunisair (regional connections on request) and transfers.

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The kids' verdict

“I liked the grounds, the beach, the camels, the pool and the staff. The pool was a little chilly, though.” Gina, 9

“I was fascinated by the medina — it was the first time I’d been to a bazaar.” Bella, 12

Rob Ryan travelled as a guest of ITC Classics
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Part II: Algarve