Five star kids
As well-travelled families demand more for their children on holidays, the days of the old-style kids club are almost over.
By Hilary Doling | Published #40, Spring 2009
The two primates stare at each other in mutual fascination. Then the small ginger one, who it seems is the more polite of the two, holds out his hand. My son (the not so polite one) stares at the long hairy fingers and his face lights up in a delighted smile. A face-pulling competition follows. Getting up close and personal with orangutans is part of the joy of staying at Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort in Sabah, one of a smart breed of five-star hotels that have realised that the well-heeled, well-travelled family needs more than babysitting and an in-house DVD to persuade them to check-in.
“The traditional kids club isn’t enough anymore, families are looking for something experiential and unique,” says Wendy Buckley owner of Travel with Kidz, which specialises in family travel. And they are prepared to pay for it. “Generation Y would rather book two nights at Palazzo Versace than a family apartment on the Sunshine coast for two weeks”, says Ms Buckley. Here is our pick of the world’s most unique family five-star experiences.
Children love to be where the wild things are so as well as extravagant pools and a swath of cultural experiences at the kids club Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort offers kids their own special slice of the Borneo jungle with a private hotel reserve which is home not just to rehabilitated baby orang-utans but civet, bearcats, deer, slow Loris, porcupines and 63 species of birds. Half-day programmes allow children to get hands on and assist rangers with animal feeding and welfare. For lasting memories children can Foster an Animal, pledging funds for care and feeding and have their name and the name of their animal listed on the hotel website.
Not to be outdone the Anantara Resort Golden Triangle in northern Thailand offers children no taller than a jumbo’s trunk the chance to become elephant mahouts. The three-day training course takes place in the resort’s own elephant camp, set up in conjunction with Thailand’s National Elephant Institute and its Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang. Children are taught elephant driving skills, river bathing and feeding by a qualified Thai mahout and an English-speaking guide. At the end of the course, there is a short driving test and the kids get a certificate to take away.
There is no official age restriction and the resort says they have had children as young as eight participate, it really depends on how your offspring reacts to the prospect of straddling a large jumbo so far above the ground. Parents are encouraged to ride the same elephant as their child, you just need to remember one vital word, “how” – which means stop in Thai.
Sometimes it is the design of the children’s facilities themselves which make a luxury resort a chid-magnet. Without a doubt, the world’s most original kids club is at Soneva Kiri resort in Thailand, which opens in November. Peter Pan’s Lost Boys would be in heaven in this wild flight of fantasy. The main children’s club house, called The Den, perches on stilts like a mad rattan spaceship high above the curling jungle. Escher-like balconies and staircases crisscross the interior. A library has crazy, uneven shelves and a mesh floor, like a circus safety net through which children can see the water below. Dotted around outside eccentric sleep-over pods, where kids can spend the night, squat like hobbits in the tangle of trees.
Everything in Dubai is bigger, brighter and brasher, so if you are into glitz with your glamour then the kids’ club at Atlantis on the man-made The Palm island is for you. The club is unbelievably extravagant with four separate areas including an underwater adventure room where sting rays and tropical fish swim behind glass in the children’s own personal giant aquarium. For older kids a pumping, lights flashing, screen-blaring surreal games arcade has state of the art games, some of which the hotel claims are debuted here, so kids get to play them before anyone else in the world. Club Rush for teenagers also has the latest in Xbox, Wii and Playstation 3. At Atlantis children also have an aqua adventure theme park to play in with adrenalin-pumping slides which spill out from a centre tower into a lagoon where real sharks glide behind glass. For an experience with more benign creatures of the deep children can get in the water for a guided swim with dolphins in the hotel’s three vast lagoons. After all this frenetic technicolour fun the real world is monochrome by comparison, will they ever want to go home again?
Dolphins are also on offer at the legendary The Kahala Hotel & Resort in Hawaii where children can have a close encounter in the resort’s private 7,000-square-metre lagoon or be Trainer For A Day and learn all aspects of training and looking after the resort’s six bottlenose dolphins. The Keiki Club for kids offers a range of activities from Hula dancing to fishing with bamboo poles. Recently refurbished, the guest rooms are some of the grandest on the island of Oahu. The best rooms for families are the Dolphin Lanai overlooking the porpoise pool and the Beachfront Lanai that opens directly to the sand.
For a wild time of a very different sort, you can’t beat an African safari. Some of the best family safari camps are run by andBeyond with excellent child-friendly guides and a range of activities from tracking paw prints and identifying animal poo (always a big hit that one) through to cooking classes.
For the ultimate family experience head to andBeyond Ngorongoro Crater Lodge in Tanzania, perched in the mist on the rim of the 600-metre-deep crater the lodge is in a malaria-free area and takes children from five years old, it has board games and DVD’s in child-friendly communal areas and organises private family game drives to see some of the 30,0000 animals that roam the crater floor. Children can also spend a day with the majestic Maasai learning spear throwing and other exciting pursuits. For parents, the lodge itself is a unique place to stay, part Versailles chateau, with brocade sofas and chandeliers, part safari camp with designer stilted huts.
To sample a real chateau, take your children to the Loire Valley where UTracks can organise family cycling holidays, supplying kids’ mountain bikes and bike trailers for the very small. You can spend the days cycling and visiting chateaux, and at night return to your own fairytale accommodation, Chateau du Breuil in Cherveny.
Those who would rather not share their historic luxury accommodation with anyone else can go one step further and book a private stay at Villa Giuseppina, one of the grandest houses on Lake Como. The current owner has just given the house a multimillion-euro transformation with the dream of making it one of the most celebrated villas in Italy and opening it for exclusive rental. It has seven bedrooms (six ensuite), TV and hifi in every room, a dedicated children’s floor and playroom, separate spa and gym, outdoor infinity pool, extensive gardens and parkland, a hi-tech wine cellar and landing facilities for your helicopter.
Just to make sure your children can cope with this kind of grown-up glamour take them first to One&Only Hayman Island in the Whitsunday Islands, which offers etiquette classes through its kids club, so the young and privileged learn exactly which knife and fork to use for all that silver service dining.