How to travel with your children without losing your mind
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
On the way to the Maldives this summer, transiting through Doha, our seven-year-old son accidentally tipped his one-year-old brother out of the buggy onto the floor. Both burst into tears, prompting a man in the queue behind me to mutter, “Happy holidays, huh?”
If an ideal vacation’s definition is relax, revitalise, reset, then “family holiday” – particularly when small children enter the equation – can feel like a contradiction in terms. With dispiriting accuracy, a friend captures the whole farrago of ferrying toddlers and babies abroad, where early starts and tantrums, nappies and nap times continue apace (albeit with better weather), as merely “routine on tour”.
Parents of teenagers report that it gets easier as children leave the era of snack-related meltdowns, though holidaying with teens presents its own unique challenges (swap “snacks” for “WiFi”). Which is not to say that travelling with children is not rewarding or, indeed, fun; only that the magic ingredients to a successful trip en famille are often difficult to predict.
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Family travel can feel weighed more toward effort than enjoyment, particularly if a hotel has sold itself on its brilliance for children but laid on nothing to facilitate the actual running of a family holiday: babysitters, top bunk barriers to stop children plummeting to the floor at 2am, blackout curtains, kids’ menus, available meal times (“the kitchen is closed until 7.30pm” is a phrase to strike dread) or family pools. Journeying to London from Switzerland this summer, my husband and I broke up the drive at a hotel in Troyes. Having been trapped in a hot car for five hours, our seven-year-old jumped into the pool and began a game of “pretend” in which his baby brother’s fist contained preternatural strength, enough to send him flying across the pool amid much splashing and noise. Within minutes, all six of the couples who’d previously been snoozing in the afternoon heat had vacated the area. “Oh God,” I whispered to my husband. “We’re that family.”
Our destination in the Maldives, Soneva Jani, is intent upon alleviating the pressures (and potential mortifications) of parenting on the hoof. An exquisite dot of sand and sea floating in the Indian Ocean, Soneva is owned by Sonu Shivdasani and Eva Malmström Shivdasani, whose first island resort, Soneva Fushi, helped to launch the Maldives as a high-end tourist destination when it opened in the Baa Atoll in 1995. The brand now encompasses three properties; alongside Fushi are Soneva Kiri in Thailand, and Soneva Jani in the Maldives’s Noonu Atoll. Unlike at other Maldives resorts, families make up a substantial proportion of Soneva’s repeat visitors, a significant draw being the brand’s world-beating kids’ facilities. At Soneva Kiri, the Den, as those facilities are known, is housed inside a bamboo manta ray, while at Fushi, a water slide and pirate ship augment a hideout devoted to creative play.
Soneva Jani is huge by Maldivian standards – 150 acres of thick jungle interior crossed by sand paths that guests traverse by bicycle to reach 51 overwater villas topped with swooping shingled roofs. This summer, after five years of planning, Soneva Jani debuted its own Den – the largest kids’ facility in the Indian Ocean. The building resembles a turreted castle of undulating planes, its silvery walls curving like the flanks of a whale. From its heights protrude slides: one dry, one jetting with water, the latter dropping into a pool where a cave-grotto swim-up bar serves fruit smoothies and a zip line runs overhead. Bright, airy rooms offer jewellery making, sensory play and dressing-up. In one, a table heaves with Lego, in another there’s a drum set and guitars. Upstairs, in the teen area, there are pinball machines and a ping pong table floating in a shallow pool. A skateboard ramp is apparently imminent.
It’s a bold example of how the kids’ club has become as important to a destination’s positioning – and revenue – as the spa. Hotels – particularly those at the ultra-luxe end of the spectrum, which is very much where the Soneva properties sit – now spend vast sums kitting out their resorts with facilities for every age group and eventuality. There are families who wouldn’t summer anywhere but Borgo Egnazia in Puglia, Sani Resort in Greece, Spain’s Marbella Club, or Anassa in Cyprus, such is those places’ provision for children – including pre-booked prams and maxed-out kids’ activities such as sailing camps, movie screenings and pottery classes. At Palmaïa in Mexico, staff at the hotel’s “holistic centre for children” are trained in the Steiner education method, and activities foster children’s spirituality. At the other extreme, kids’ entertainment specialists Sharky & George lead raucous water fights at The Peligoni Club in Zakynthos.
The broad-strokes metric is that if the children are occupied for a couple of hours a day, their parents get the same unencumbered time increment to themselves: to open a novel, swim in the pool, have a spa treatment or even an uninterrupted conversation (at Soneva Jani, these were usually spent wondering what the children were up to). “You’re either covered in poo or stickers when your children are small,” says Melinda Stevens, creative director of the soon-to-launch travel and lifestyle website Loupe and the former editor of Condé Nast Traveller. “All you want is to walk out of your room to the beach. Ease is everything.”
Soneva Jani intuitively works for those families lucky enough to be able to afford it, since the resort’s design is evidence of Shivdasani’s remarkable child-like imagination. Our villa, which is enormous without being grand, has both a water slide and a huge infinity pool. Inside, there’s a rustic aesthetic of sun-bleached wood, paper lamps and chunky, hand-hewn furniture, meaning there’s no fear of anything getting scratched or broken by excitable children. A tiny bedroom, disguised as a cupboard just behind the main bed, is a thoughtful addition. “If you have young kids you don’t want them in a bedroom far away, especially when there’s a pool,” says Shivdasani. A retractable roof is thrilling; at night, all four of us lie in the enormous bed to spot shooting stars, the velvety night sky filling the room.
Such places know their market. Problems tend to arise when a hotel tries to be all things to everyone, families and couples alike, consequently pleasing no one. Jessica Diner, the beauty and wellness director at Vogue, tells me that at one English country hotel she was seated outside in a hailstorm to feed supper to her one-year-old, despite her pleas, because his meal time fell outside the hours in which the restaurant accepted children indoors.
By contrast, a child-free friend recalls a summer night at a plush resort in Puglia, watching a couple enjoying their dinner at the other end of the terrace well after 9pm. “We enjoyed ourselves a bit less,” she reports, “given that their very young child was tearing around in that state of near-psychosis that attends exhausted kids who are allowed to stay up too late and do whatever they want. The parents were ignoring him, while everyone else’s evening was ruined.” She clarifies: “The kids are never the assholes. The parents are. There’s a reason there are separate kids’ pools, restaurants. That’s where to let them run rampant. When you enter the grown-ups’ zone, adjust behaviour, and parent accordingly.”
But often the best holidays are those in which no such delineations exist, no eventuality has been planned for, where the pleasures are harder won and the gratifications more ephemeral. A mega-resort of six swimming pools and 15 restaurants is perhaps what you need with children but not always what you want. (A friend recently returned from one such place texts: “Soul-crushing. Obviously the children loved it.”) With older kids, adventurous experiences are newly possible: safari, trekking, horse riding, desert camps. “Some of the best trips I’ve done with my three daughters have been road-tripping in an RV across America,” says Stevens. “You want them out in nature, with dirty knees, dust in their hair, chasing butterflies in their nighties.” One of the most deeply relaxing aspects of a recent multi-family trip I took to Eilean Shona House in the Inner Hebrides (alongside the patchy connectivity which forestalled screen-time spats) was the fact that when tea was spilt on the carpet or the children tracked mud into the hallway, it was hard to identify which particular stains were ours.
The appeal of these sorts of getaways is impossible to manufacture (a stained carpet doesn’t exactly sound good on paper). A week surfing in Cornwall is one family’s bliss, another’s rain-soaked, argument-filled disaster. Like all travel, it’s the unexpected moments of family vacationing that make for indelible memories. An unanticipated drama of the designer Olivia von Halle’s stay on Tresco last summer was the asthma attack her son had in the middle of the night – but it delivered an unexpected highlight in the form of the island-wide assistance rally that, as dawn broke, found her rental cottage filled with local lifeboat crew and medical volunteers chatting over cups of tea. Meanwhile, exquisite Hotel Esencia in Mexico will be remembered in my family not for the superlative food or warm-water waves but for the fact that the baby was allowed to commandeer the beach’s communal foot bath as his personal infinity pool.
The dream of family travel, then, is a combination of ideals: a place that anticipates the varying needs of different generations while offering the chance to tap into travel’s less quantifiable joys. At Jani, it’s the staff who prove themselves indispensable, taking the baby off for a toddle to find hermit crabs and letting the seven-year-old help at the juice bar in the spa, of all places (I know, I know – zones). Everything is easy, from cycling to the overwater silent cinema where my son sits with headphones to watch the kids’ movie while my husband and I enjoy a supper of sashimi undisturbed, to accessing the island’s more numinous joys: fruit bats as big as seagulls flying at dusk, eagle rays leaping out of the ocean. The baby, seated in the back of my bicycle, batting a fat fist towards the water – “Sha, sha!” – as a tiny reef shark slips through the shallows.
For all the challenges of travelling with children – which, let us be frank, are born of privilege rather than anything remotely verging on hardship – having them in tow makes travel more enriching. Children generate interesting connections, and can provoke unexpected and sometimes rarely accessible encounters. I would not know, for instance, what the kitchens of Sri Lanka’s Amangalla hotel look like had my baby niece not been whisked into them by a member of staff to be shown off like a visiting princess. And even the most impressive kids’ club is no substitute for time spent in each other’s company, elbows in the sand, looking for treasure, or playing UNO with sticky, ice-cream fingers. (A tip for a peaceful denouement: always let them win.)
Charlotte Sinclair travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent, which offers seven nights at Soneva Jani (soneva.com) from £19,500 for a family of four, including international flights, sea plane transfers, accommodation and half-board