Everywhere is family-friendly these days. But family-friendly is easy to say and far less easy to achieve. I’m tired of the number of times I’ve stayed at a ‘family-friendly’ hotel only to find that the wall around our balcony is so low I daren’t let the six-year-old twins out. Or I’ve spent the whole of supper whispering ‘shuuuush’, even though they’ve said they welcome children in the restaurant.
A few places actually are family-friendly; over the next few months, I’ll let you in on my favourites. They’re often not those places you’d expect. They may not have kids' clubs, or state-of-the-art highchairs, or baby listening. Because at the heart of family-friendliness isn’t facilities but attitude. A family-friendly destination has to make us feel welcome.
In Georgetown, Penang – on the northwest peninsula of Malaysia – there’s a beautiful blue mansion called Cheong Fatt Tze (cheongfatttzemansion.com). It’s the perfect setting for Vogue fashion shoots – all ancient fretted screens and lovingly arranged giant vases of bamboo. Yet my motley tribe – a teenager and two small twins – were welcomed as if Kate Moss had strode through their beautiful gold inlaid doors. My kids sat peacefully in the inner courtyard, listening to the tinkle of the stone water channels running through it and watching other guests practise their evening tai chi.
Georgetown itself is a fabulous family adventure. We travelled about town by rickshaw, from Khoo Kongsi, the outrageously golden temple smothered in dragons, to Fort Cornwallis, where we wandered around the battlements and clambered over the cannons. Street vendors hawked satay on every corner; my kids called it ‘chicken lollipops’.
We combined the bustle of Penang with a week on the nearby small island of Langkawi, where we found another surprisingly family-friendly resort. Bon Ton (bontonresort.com.my) is a cluster of 19th-century Malay fishermen’s houses on stilts, gathered from all over the island by the resort’s owner to prevent them being destroyed. My kids loved sleeping on traditional wooden beds under mosquito nets.
If you put children in an environment that is cared for and special, they immediately sense that and behave accordingly. Put them in a themepark, and they run riot, just as they’re supposed to. So why not risk staying in an unusual type of accommodation with your kids? It may turn out to be the most family-friendly experience you’ve had.
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