So the days of getting home from work in the light are over. There are puddles lying all around, your local park is beginning to look like Glastonbury and another ‘colder-than-average’ winter is being forecast. It’s time to start thinking about booking a dose of winter sun. But there’s a problem. 100% guaranteed heat between November and March requires the guaranteed stress of a long haul flight, not to mention a significant dent in your savings account. What’s more, if you fly east (Thailand, Maldives) or west (Florida, Caribbean), you are into jet-lag territory – a potential showstopper if you have kids that need to get back to school.
In terms of no-jet-lag options, the Gambia (about 6 hours flight due south and on GMT) is a good value package holiday destination that ticks the sun-and-heat box – I’ve been in December and the weather was perfect. But with malaria pills and jabs required, and a higher-than-average risk of tummy upsets, I wouldn’t be dashing to book with under 5s. There’s the new kid on the block, Cape Verde. I have researched these islands a lot – a 5 hour flight and no jet lag makes them a contender on paper. But I remain unconvinced: tourism is still in its infancy, the hotels look sprawling and bland (seeming to cater for Italians en masse) and the islands themselves appear rather barren with a lack of attractions for small kids other than the beach. Someone do tell me otherwise but, for now, they remain on my back burner.
Closer to home, Cyprus tries to market itself as year-round, but I don’t believe it. Yes, the temperature might hit 20 degrees on the odd day in December, but it averages in the mid-teens – hardly bikini weather. The truth is this: there are only really two places you can go to get sun and warmth in the depths of winter without flying longer than 5 hours, the Canary Islands and Egypt (and here I’m talking about the Red Sea resorts, as opposed to the antiquities of the Nile). I’ve been to both, with and without kids, so here’s the The Trunki Files’ verdict:
Travel time: The Canary Islands win on this front. With flights lasting about 4 hours, getting to the Canaries takes about an hour less than Egypt. And when you have a wriggling toddler on your lap screeching for the iPad, that extra hour can be purgatory.
Weather: It’s swings and roundabouts here. Egypt has a better sunshine record and you are less likely to see cloudy days (rain is possible in the Canaries, especially in certain parts of the islands: avoid the north coast of Tenerife and the island of La Palma unless you enjoy a good dousing). However, there’s a chill wind that blows along the Red Sea coast in winter which can make things fairly uncomfortable and will certainly give you an icy blast as you step out of the sea or pool. In either destination, you really need a heated pool if you want to swim in the winter months (and I mean a proper heated pool, not a solar-heated one – beware!)
Food: For starters, it depends how much you (or your kids) like pork. Pork is obviously off the menu in Egypt, whereas it’s a big part of the diet in the Spanish Canaries. Personally, I’m a pork fan, as are my sausage-loving children, and a week of chicken and beef gets a bit boring. Throw in the lack of fresh milk in Egypt, together with an absence of independent restaurants (most people dine exclusively in huge refectories in their hotels) and I would give the Canaries the food prize, hands-down. That said, I’ve not found the food in Egyptian hotels to be of particularly bad quality; and it’s unlikely your kids will be overly worried about gourmet dining out options – this is more about what makes Mum and Dad happy.
Accommodation: If you want to self-cater, it has to be the Canaries. There’s a huge choice of villas on the island of Lanzarote (particularly around Playa Blanca in the South); less so on Tenerife and Gran Canaria, which tend to have more apartments. In Egypt, it’s all about the mega-hotels. Whilst these can have lots of facilities, sometimes with kids you just want a kitchen to rustle up a snack or quick meal without the formality of dining out. Moreover, as the kids grow up, you increasingly want them to have their own room and this gets very expensive with hotels as, more often than not, you need to buy two. What Egyptian hotels have in their favour is value-for-money – pound for pound, you are likely to get a higher standard of accommodation in Sharm than you would in the Canaries. What they lack is intimacy: rooms frequently come in their thousands. If you like boutique, definitely head to the Canaries – there are some lovely child-friendly places listed on i-escape.com.
Things to do: There’s plenty to do in Egypt for older children. One day, I look forward to taking mine snorkelling and diving in the Red Sea reefs – they are truly magnificent, in fact, the best I have seen in the world. Plus I love the Egyptian desert (I’m a geographer) and trips on camels and quad bikes are all fun for kids. But whilst kids are still young, I think Egypt has less appeal as a family destination. The beaches aren’t actually that great: you often can’t paddle far into the water because of the reef and the coastline is rocky. Many hotels have to construct artificial beaches and allow access to the sea only via a pontoon (watch out for this if you have a toddler). And there aren’t many attractions outside of the hotels such as wildlife parks to distract you when the allure of the beach or pool wanes. You are reliant on the hotel kids club or playground.
Not being purpose-built for tourism, the Canaries have much more of a life outside of the hotels, with attractions both natural and man-made that will appeal to children. On Tenerife, you can go up Mount Teide in a cable car; see bananas growing; or spend a day at the fabulous-looking Loro Parque with it’s collection of butterflies, killer whales and parrots. On Lanzarote, there’s the cactus garden; a drive round the volcanoes, a boat trip across to Fuerteventura… In summary, my advice would be that, if you are the sort of person that likes to explore and get out and about with your kids, then the Canaries win hands-down. But if you just want to stay put and relax, then Egypt will probably deliver.
Time: Whereas the Canaries are on GMT, Egypt is two hours ahead of the UK. Whilst this is not really a problem with regards jet lag, it does mean that days in winter are very short. The sun rises early but you are off the beach at 4pm and it’s getting dark at 5pm. If your child sleeps in the afternoon, this poses a problem: by the time they wake up at 3 or so, you have less than hour to do something with them before you’re back to your room, getting ready for dinner. In the Canaries, the sun sets later – making you feel like you get more out of your day.
Let’s face it: any winter sun is a good thing. The freedom of being able to be outside without four layers and muddy wellie boots is liberating. Just a week of the kids in t-shirts and shorts again can get you through the murkiest of Januaries. So the bottom line is this: if you see a good deal, take it! My guide is simply intended to help you narrow the search if you do have a choice. In conclusion, I’d say Egypt is a great bet for older kids (swimming and snorkelling by themselves), or if you are just with a baby and want the ease of a resort-based holiday. We took Leo to the Four Seasons in Sharm when he was 7 months and it worked. However, for toddlers and young kids, I’d go for the Canary Islands. With direct flights to 5 of them from the UK, there’s plenty of variety to keep you going for a few winters!
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