Steering clear of the traps will keep the whole clan happy on your next all important break together.
The family holiday was never simple, but back when you packed up the station wagon and headed up or down the coast for the annual trip, it was a lot less complicated.
While the traditional holiday on the coast remains popular, time is now the new luxury and choice has never been greater.
When asked what they thought was “true luxury”, almost 90 per cent of respondents to a recent survey said “more time for ourselves, and our family” with “experiences tailored to our tastes”.
Gone are the days of kids being herded into homogenised clubs. Bespoke is the buzzword in this burgeoning sector, according to the survey of 5000 Visa customers.
“Because of declining birth rates, there will be fewer children, therefore the importance of spending time with them is viewed as a luxury experience,” Tomorrow’s Tourism forecaster Dr Ian Yeoman says. “It’s no longer about materialism.”
Traditionally developers have built resorts for the archetypal family of a mother, father and two children. Now they recognise the changing make-up of today’s modern family. In Sydney alone, a million people live in multi-generational households because of economic pressure, an ageing population, and more women working. Resorts are finally catering for extended families and “grandtravellers”: nanna and pop who take the kids away to give mum and dad a break.
Cruises, which have become floating family resorts, are perfect for this kind of holiday, while on dry land, Sea World on the Gold Coast and Bali Dynasty Resort at South Kuta have large interconnecting suites, and the Residence at Fiji’s Vomo Island Resort boasts four bedrooms and bathrooms.
Not many baby boomers would enter an ice-cream-eating contest (although I have, on the odd occasion), so activities are being expanded to include lawn bowls, bingo and guided tours of historic sites. Beaches Caribbean Family Resorts offer family reunion packages, with “grandma and me manicures”.
Ramada Resort at Karon Beach, Phuket, has connected themed rooms for kids, including Outer Space and Underwater. For pure escapism nothing beats the Sound of Music-themed Trapp Family Lodge in Vermont, or Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel & Spa.
On the flip side, families are demanding more educational, cultural and sustainable activities. “Travel should be part of kids’ education, not an interruption to it,” as Keith Bellows, editor of the US-based National Geographic Traveler magazine and author of 100 Places That Can Change Your Child’s Life, writes.
Resorts are offering off-site activities, such as Sigatoka River Safaris to remote Fijian villages, Le Meridien Phuket Beach Resort has Thai language and dance courses, while Kingfisher Bay Resort on Fraser Island has its award-winning Junior Eco Rangers program.
These days, eco doesn’t come at the expense of luxury. Turtle Island, which has hosted Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, welcomes families during the Australian school holidays, disproving of the adage that “There are two classes of travel: first class, and with children.”
So what are the dealbreakers – and dealmakers – when choosing a family resort with a view to creating the perfect family holiday? Here is my advice, after countless family holidays all over the world and plenty of research.
WHAT PARENTS WANT
“Kids’ clubs, a separate adults’ pool, and babysitting services have become standard, so parents can slip away and enjoy a little ‘me’ time,” according to Kristen McKenzie from HotelsCombined.com.
But the devil’s in the detail. If the resort has no communal or in-room washing machines, there’s the option of an expensive laundry or dry-cleaning service, or filling the sinks with smelly socks.
For families with babies or toddlers, too many stairs can lead to a bad back, twisted ankle, or cracked skull. And a kitchenette is required for preparing cheap healthy meals, especially if your kids have allergies or intolerances. Since January, the menus at Castaway Island Fiji have been gluten-free.
Robust research is the key. Call the resort to find out about menu options, age groups for the kids’ club and qualifications of the carers. I was surprised to discover many American kids’ clubs don’t take under-fives. So, you have to hire a private babysitter at a substantial cost.
Some Australian centres lump the three-to-10-year-olds in one group, with the littlies at risk from rough play. And, in the Philippines, one kids’ club employed unqualified teenage nannies, who kept running to reception to answer the phone. Make sure you call the resort before you book to ask about the qualifications of the carers.
Then there is the matter of the sleeping arrangements. I’m not a fan of kids sleeping in the adults’ bedroom: it intrudes on intimacy, as we discovered after one unfortunate incident. We ended up putting the kids in the bathroom, on a pile of cushions. Speaking of which, a bathtub is essential if you have a baby.
Alternatively, check whether you can hire a baby bath, high chair, and pram from the resort. Rooms at the Hilton Queenstown in New Zealand have sliding walls to separate the kids’ and adults’ spaces, while the Embassy Suites in Waikiki have two bedrooms, each with en suite.
There needs to be a balance between the amount of personal space in your living quarters, and time together outside it.
The author of 1000 Great Places to Travel with Kids in Australia, Anna Ciddor, only goes to resorts that offer activities the family can do as a unit. “I can’t see the point of going away on a family holiday if you’re going to spend most of the time apart,” she says.
WHAT KIDS WANT
They’re not just kids – they’re mini-consumers.
With the rise of the so-called democratic family, children are taking an active role in decision-making. No self-respecting 14-year-old wants to be shoved into a kids’ club and handed a packet of colouring pencils.
The Outrigger on the Lagoon and InterContinental in Fiji have casual touch rugby and volleyball games for teens. “Staff will wander around the resort, asking the teenagers whether they want to play a game,” says family blogger for the Little Nomads website, Deborah Dickson-Smith. “It works a treat, because kids of that age don’t like organised activities.”
The Marriott chain has developed an app for teenagers on site to connect while another app, Bound Round, will soon allow them to upload their own photos and blogs. “It’s like TripAdvisor for kids,” Dickson-Smith says.
Younger consumers are being targeted by Atlantis, the Palm in Dubai with SpongeBob SquarePants holiday camps, where kids can ride in a submarine or swim with sharks.
The popularity of MasterChef has spawned a range of children’s cooking classes, from the deliciously-named Luscious Affairs in Bali to the Chef for a Day classes at Wequassett Resort on Massachusetts’ Cape Cod.
Many resorts, such as the Novotel Twin Waters, are offering a “take away” food service for teens and tweens. Called “Grab it n Go”, it allows teenagers the freedom to take their food wherever they like in the resort grounds, and eat in privacy.
After years of “beak and claw”, resorts are finally cleaning up their kids’ menus. Sofitel has its new De-Light menu across the Asia-Pacific, and the Hilton Surfers Paradise features a Luke Mangan-designed selection for kids who want more than nuggets and chips.
I’m all for healthy menus, but I worry about the kids one day asking, “Can I have the Sicilian olives with the Danish feta and a sprinkling of sumac?” One thing’s for certain – the iGeneration will only become more demanding.
HOME OR AWAY?
One friend, when asked whether they would consider a family holiday in Australia, replied negatively, saying it is expensive, the resorts are run down, and the staff arrogant. However, not everyone shares that view. Travel to Fiji and Bali flattened in 2012, with domestic family travel in Australia up 5 per cent.
According to Tourism Australia, it’s because of our beaches. “It never fails to amaze me that people are prepared to battle through queues and immigration to sit on busy beaches, sharing the sea frontage with noisy pubs and heaving night clubs,” says Andrew McEvoy, managing director of Tourism Australia, and a parent himself.
He’s right. Flying with kids is difficult, especially when you arrive in Vanuatu at midnight with hundreds of other travellers, and one customs officer.
When it comes to cleanliness and serenity, nothing compares with the Whitsundays, Sunshine Coast, Byron Bay, or Broome.
McEvoy predicts a drop in “fly-and-flop” tourism, where families check into a resort, dump the kids in the club and laze by the pool.
Not surprisingly Tourism Fiji disagrees, pointing to the 340,000 Australian visits each year. Bali attracts almost twice that number annually.
This might sound unpatriotic, but I prefer to go overseas. It’s cheaper, the locals are lovely with the children, and you can relax into Island Time. So, how does Australia compete? Ian Yeoman says, because of the relatively strong Aussie dollar, local resorts will have to become more cost-effective and all-inclusive.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In terms of value for money look for resorts that are all-inclusive. Then there are no nasty surprises. You can book a four- or five-star resort overseas, including airfares, accommodation and some meals for $900 a person for five nights.
Often kids stay, play and eat for free. If you can’t find all-inclusive, make sure it has a buffet breakfast as part of the deal. Fill the kids up in the morning then graze on healthy snacks bought from the local fruit market for the rest of the day.
Unless it’s a special occasion, never shop at the deli or grocery store in a gated resort community. You’ll pay $15 for three slices of ham. And if resorts aren’t for you, there are plenty of self-contained apartments where you can self-cater. The most important thing is to spend simple – uncomplicated – time together.
FAMILY RESORTS: CHECKLIST
1. Ask about the resort’s carers’ qualifications.
2. Find out if you can hire a cot and high chair.
3. Make sure there’s a washing machine in the room or on site.
4. Check if the kids’ club is age-appropriate.
5. See if there are activities for the whole family.
6. Separate adults’ and kids’ pools are a must.
7. Peruse the kids’ menu.
8. Take jet lag and travelling into account.
9. Check educational experiences on offer.
10. Check whether the resort has free in-room wireless connectivity.
HOLIDAYS R US: 10 TOP RESORTS
1. DISNEY’S GRAND CALIFORNIAN HOTEL Five minutes’ walk to the theme parks, three pools with slides and a spa, four well-priced restaurants, and Pinocchio’s Workshop. $$$
2. THE HILTON HAWAIIAN VILLAGE WAIKIKI BEACH RESORT Where else would you see pink flamingos wandering the grounds and take a submarine ride off the jetty? $$-$$$
3. SUN VALLEY RESORT, IDAHO Ice skating, mountain biking, horseback riding and tenpin bowling. $$$
4. THE BEACHCOMBER RESORTS IN MAURITIUS: SHANDRANI AND PARADIS The beachfront restaurants at these resorts define family-friendly. At Paradis’ mini-club, kids as young as four can learn to water-ski. $$-$$$
5. JEAN-MICHEL COUSTEAU FIJI ISLANDS RESORT One nanny per child, separate adults’ pools, a degustation menu, and world-class diving. $$$
6. AGGIE GREY’S LAGOON, BEACH RESORT & SPA, SAMOA The dolphin kids’ club offers a true cultural experience. For mum, there are spa treatments under the rainforest canopy. $$
7. HAYMAN ISLAND RESORT The grande dame of five-star family resorts. Children can choose from beading workshops, wildlife encounters and diving lessons. $$$$
8. INTERCONTINENTAL FIJI GOLF RESORT & SPA This resort gets rave reviews for its teen and grandparent programs. $$$-$$$$
9. EL NIDO RESORTS, THE PHILIPPINES Lagen and Miniloc are in one of the most pristine marine reserves on Earth. $$$$
10. CRESCENT HEAD HOLIDAY PARK, NSW Beachside paradise with comfortable cabins and campsites, skateboard bowl and lawn bowls. $-$$
ABOUT THE WRITER
Inveterate traveller and mum of two Tracey Spicer specialises in family travel and has previously written about her adventures in Morocco, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Samoa, Abu Dhabi, India, Fiji and the US.