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Are these the best kids' clubs in the world?

From baby butlers to teen hideaways with DJ booths and mocktail bars, Carolynne Dear finds out how resorts around the world are embracing family travel

Big fun at The Den, Soneva Jani's super-sized kids' club in the Maldives.

My first brush with a kids’ club was aged nine on a family camping holiday in the south of France. It ran in the afternoons and on day one of our two-week break I was duly shunted off, with my younger brother and sister in tow, as my parents headed to the pool, mum with a copy of Woman’s Realm tucked into her beach bag and dad with the latest Robert Ludlum thriller.

The club, it turned out, was led by a couple of British university students on their summer vacation and the club house was a selection of plastic chairs in a field at the back of the campsite.

To be fair to the guys, they probably hadn’t had any training and they did their best to fill a hot afternoon entertaining 20-or-so kids of mixed nationalities, including a few non-English speakers. We played a raucous game of ‘Stop the bus’ which involved sitting in a line and shouting ‘Stop the bus’ as loudly as we could and then they found us some Orangina to drink and cracked open a couple of cold beers themselves. Then we played a running around game which culminated with a Dutch boy falling over on a rock and splitting his head open. Then we were all sent home.

A lot has changed since the 1980s. My own children (thankfully) have had very different kids’ club experiences; trapeze lessons in Thailand, batik-making in Borneo, cooking s’mores over bonfires on remote Indonesian islands, ski school in Japan and cooking classes in Vietnam are among their favourite memories. Entertaining the children, it seems, has come a very long way.

Family travel is in fact one of the strongest growth areas in the hospitality industry right now. Family bookings, and particularly multi-generational family bookings, are soaring as groups look to reconnect post-pandemic. And hotels and resorts are embracing the trend with ever-more exciting offerings for kids and their extended families. Areas of the world that were once the preserve of honeymooning couples and firmly in the ‘adults-only’ category are now embracing younger guests.

Seven pools and a water park on board Icon of the Seas, the largest ship in the world.

It’s no coincidence that the largest cruise ship in the world due to launch in 2024 will be dedicated to family travel. Billing itself as the “ultimate family vacation”, Royal Caribbean’s Icon of the Seas boasts a water park with cruising’s first open free-fall slide, the largest drop slide at sea and the first family raft slides at sea. There are seven pools, one specifically designed for babies and toddlers, and a part-skywalk, part-ropes course with a rope swing more than 150 ft over the ocean - something that will no doubt have the teens TikTok-ing with excitement. And this from a sector of the industry that has traditionally served the older traveller.

In the Maldives, once the home of the honeymooner, resorts are falling over themselves to capture the child-led market. Luxury resort group Soneva has consistently wooed this sector with outrageously imaginative offerings. This year its Soneva Jani resort has taken the kids’ club concept to the next level with The Den, a two-storey entertainment space with dedicated areas from toddler to teen. The Den incorporates Soneva’s slow living philosophy, with a ‘no news, no shoes’ ethos. Phones and tablets must be left back at the villa in a bid to encourage children to play uninterrupted by technology. And there’s a lot to capture their attention. There’s a swimming pool with waterfalls, a water slide and catamaran nets, and the pool is crossed by a 32m zip line. Beyond is a pirate ship and skateboard ramp. There’s a secret grotto for teens, complete with DJ booth, dance floor and mocktail bar. And inside The Den they’ll find a bowling alley, Lego and craft area, dress-up room, library and cinema, and a separate space with sensory play for toddlers.

Hanging around at The Den, Soneva Jani.

Still in the Maldives, Hard Rock Hotel launched a second summer camp this year based on the unanticipated level of success of its trial summer camp in 2021. This year’s Summer Family Camp-Cation 2.0 offered a raft of imaginative activities, from aerial arts training with silks, hoops, juggling and trapeze, to a self-defence programme led by a gold medal-winning jiu-jitsu master, as well as dance lessons, music classes, gardening tutorials and marine life discovery classes. Further activities ran to s’mores bonfires, glow parties, a family funfair and pool parties.

Even babes-in-arms are being embraced. Cheval Blanc St-Barth in the sun-soaked French West Indies has recently launched a ‘baby bonding’ experience. The programme has been carefully curated to provide parents with new skills as well as the chance to relax.

“We noticed that there is no baby offer on the island,” explained Eva Sitarz, director of sales and marketing at the resort. “We wanted to propose a unique and memorable experience for families and our younger guests.”

The experience includes a private baby massage session led by an expert therapist to introduce parents to the benefits of massage. Mothers receive a ‘new mother ritual’, a calming massage to ease the aches and pains of pregnancy. And families can enjoy a baby’s first swimming lesson with a qualified lifeguard. The resort also offers aqua-osteopathy for babies, the warmth and gentle sway of the water mimicking the mother’s womb, which encourages the baby to relax while the therapist works.

Taking it easy with mum at Cheval Blanc St-Barth.

Cheval Blanc St-Barth welcomes children of all ages, with staff on-hand to design family activities such as treasure hunts, discovering the tropical garden with the head gardener and age-adapted art and yoga classes. According to Sitarz, the family market is a substantial segment for Cheval Blanc St-Barth, so much so that there are plans for a dedicated family space in the hotel by the end of next year.

On the other side of the world in Fiji, young families staying at Vomo Island are offered the option of a baby butler, no less.

“Every family receives four hours a day of baby butler care, which is a babysitting service to help parents relax into their holiday and make use of the Vomo facilities,” said general manager Justin King. “We assign the same baby butler to each family for their entire stay so children feel comfortable and get to know their nanny.”

Additional hours can be bought for around US$20 an hour and butlers can care for up to two children at a time.

Hanging out at Kids Village, Vomo Island, Fiji.

The resort also offers a Kids Village, an air conditioned space that’s open twelve hours a day. Kids Village coordinators entertain children split into two groups of three to seven-year-olds and eight-years and over with activities such as grass skirt and lei-making, tee-shirt painting, watermelon smash, kayak races, turtle preservation, coral cookie making, hermit crab racing, beach picnics and coconut husking. There’s even a dedicated Kids Village chef with a daily changing menu. After dinner in the evening, coordinators deliver children back to their parents or the baby butlers take over at the villa until the parents return.

According to King, around 60% of Vomo Island’s clientele are families.

“We’re a private island with excellent accommodation options (for families), be they resort villas, adjoining beachfront villas for larger families or multi-bedroom private residences,” he said. “Accommodation is mostly on the beachfront with a safe, swimmable ocean on your doorstep.”

But according to King, the best thing about Vomo Island is the 150-strong staff. “Their zest for life and happiness is totally contagious and keeps families returning year after year.”

According to neuro-psychologists, we are what we remember about ourselves. And because holiday memories take a prioritised position in the realm of experiences, travel and travel memories literally have the power to shape our personality.

Forty years on, I still have fond memories of my kids club experience, despite the warm Orangina and the sticky plastic chairs. It seems that this generation will be coming away from childhood with super-charged memory banks.

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