With two kids under five, family holidays are not something I believe in at this point – at least, not in the traditional sense of having a holiday that's lovely and relaxing and restful. Not to mention good value for money.
But I think that's because we've never done the holiday-with-kids thing right. We've just brought them to wherever we wanted to go and hoped for the best. And we learned the hard way: that technique doesn't work.
So when the opportunity to try out a holiday geared for the kids presented itself, I couldn't wait. Is it possible to escape the daily grind, get out of the city with the kids and actually have a pleasant getaway? Only one way to find out...
Off we went to Butlins in Bognor Regis (a two-hour drive south of London), the weekend before Christmas, on a Just for Tots break, which caters especially to small children. And when I say caters to small children, I mean offers everything an under-5 could dream of (that includes Frozen merchandise for sale).
We stayed in the underwater-themed Wave Hotel, which was the first exciting bit for the girls: within our main room they had a separate room with cabin beds (each bed had its own TV screen) and underwater murals, which Diana (my older daughter, four), immediately took over and started adorning with her drawings and artwork (I've learned to never leave home without colouring books, doodle pads, crayons and pencils).
My husband, after being told there was no parking space in our hotel, was somewhat less excited after he had to limp from another hotel's parking lot. He was particularly grumpy because he'd broken his toe the night before, but that's another story...
Liv (nearly 2) was also thrilled about the room even though she is still in a cot; our travel cot easily fit in the girls' space and thanks to the closed door between us, it meant that we managed to achieve that all-too-rare thing when travelling with little ones: a decent night's sleep.
And our girls stayed in bed until 7am, which is a huge feat for us.
Not that I'm surprised. In the hours they were awake, there was so much visual stimulation, so many activities to try and so many tantalising things to play with they didn't stop moving. Or enjoying themselves.
Our first day, we spent most of our time in the Skyline Pavilion, where the kids had fun at an arts and crafts session in the Toddler Zone (a good refuge when we wanted to sit down and relax a bit while they drew/painted/played with blocks), drove toy cars around the Castle Courtyard and enjoyed various free indoor rides on toy trains and planes.
After a lunchtime meal in the 1950s-style The Diner restaurant, where wait-staff broke into impromptu song – much to the delight of the girls - we took them to an outdoor kids football class which Diana adored before heading to the Magic of Christmas stage show (starring the resort's popular Skyline Gang), aka a fun excuse to listen to Christmas songs for an hour.
There were a million other options for how we could have spent our day: the indoor soft play centre that I avoided because Liv was too small to go in the main bit, taking photographs in a giant snow-filled snow globe, watching sing-a-long stage shows with characters like Bob the Builder and the Butlins bears, Billy and Bonnie, hitting the on-site shops, getting temporary tattoos and hair braids, going ice skating, seeing Frosty's Frozen Dome, go-karting around the resort...
I was particularly desperate to go on the outdoor rock climbing wall, which unfortunately wasn't age-appropriate for the girls, so seemed a bit desperate for me to do on my own.
Our next day was even more hectic: we went to the Splash Waterworld, which had tons of waves, water slides for all ages and even toddler-friendly playground apparatus and was absolutely fantastic.
We had fun putting on the outdoor miniature golf course even though it was grey, wet and rainy.
My husband – despite himself – got hooked on a carnival-style electronic milk toss game, and spent an hour perfecting his throw and winning prize tickets which we redeemed for sweets and plastic toy 'princess sets' for the girls (their choice, not mine).
This made me incredibly smug after he'd told me off the day before for putting a £1 coin into a ride (there are rides everywhere, some free, some not, and they were irresistible to my children. I eventually relented) for one of the girls. Let's just put it this way: he spent way more than that on those milk jugs...
I took the girls to the see the panto production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which we had to leave early because Liv wasn't able to sit through it. This may have been because she'd already gone to the morning's Billy and Bonnie's wake-up session (an AM performance to get kids moving) and we'd already been swimming at that point. I didn't even attempt to put her down for a nap because it seemed like a futile exercise.
We also walked around the fairground (the girls are a bit young for most of the rides but had fun going around the carousel together) and ended the day with an enjoyable Christmas-themed puppet show in the Puppet Castle.
I can't believe how much we packed into those couple of days - there is so much to do under just a few rooftops at Butlins – or how happy the girls were with absolutely everything. They had a great time. And having everything planned out for you and within easy walking distance does save a lot of time and stress.
It was still work for us parents because we were running around most of the time (although the entertainment stops were a good chance to sit and catch our breath) and I think if we did it again, we'd go with a slightly older youngest child, so that they'd be able to participate in everything (although all of the parents walking around with newborns and infants seemed super relaxed).
It was a busy weekend, hence the lack of parking spots, but we didn't have to queue for most activities, so it didn't feel like we wasted time waiting for things. In fact, the only thing I was a bit put off by was the chaos and noise of the games area, with slot machines and neon lights that were very reminiscent of Vegas...
For breakfast and dinner, we ate buffet-style at The Deck Restaurant, which opened from 8:30am for breakfast (ideally we needed a restaurant that opened from 7:30am because the girls were up and hungry by then, but we snacked on bananas we'd bought at the on-site Spar).
The resort did realise the necessity for early dinners, which were available from 4:30pm. When we arrived sheepishly early at 4:45pm our second day, we were greeted with a busy dining room.
Annabel Karmel has been tapped to help design the kids' menu and there was a salad bar, fruit section, and veggie options (the best choice was the made-to-order pasta bar with lots of different fillings, including veg), among the many other foods on offer. But I did spend most of my weekend eating burgers, chips and all things fried. Although I was impressed to see there were gluten-free meal options as well, so even Gwyneth Paltrow would be able to find something suitable to eat.
Even though everything was geared to the kids, there are plenty of adult-friendly things to do (booze available everywhere, a spa on the premises which I sadly didn't get to visit because of the grumpy, broken-footed husband and evening entertainment for those travelling in groups where parents could take turns babysitting).
Overall, I was pleasantly impressed with our Butlins experience. And in terms of our holidays so far with the girls, it definitely ranked as one of the better ones.
Have you been to Butlins?