Best Holiday Childcare in Greece • Mark Warner Holiday Clubs • Part Two
As I finished writing this post my mum was stood behind me kindly working her way through a pile of post holiday washing as tall as me. She has come down to save me from sinking not only in washing but from a bursting inbox, a photo library that desperately needs editing and new school uniforms that are waiting patiently for name labels. Surviving the school holidays and working is a challenge. No scrap that, surviving school holidays is a challenge all by itself! If your children are anything like ours they like being entertained. They play together nicely for a certain period of time, then one vies for top dog position and it descends into a wriggling, shouting, two headed species with flailing limbs and, more often than not, kicking legs. I've relied on help from very generous grandparents and Ollie's pre school holiday club, who on some days through the holidays were open just for the Heath brothers! Two boys and two lovely leaders which must have been tough on all on them I am sure. I know for certain - it's a long day with just the pair of them to entertain!
They are like a pair of greyhounds that need a couple of good long walks, where they get to run off the lead every day. But more like puppies with wide "walk me" eyes excited for new smells and sounds! If they could they'd do 6 activities in a day. They have boundless energy and sometimes I feel exhausted just watching them hurtle around the trampoline. Since we came back from our holiday in Kos, they have talked about Mini Club and Junior Club "Mighty, mighty, Mini Club" (more on that ditty later) and asked me when we are taking them sailing or windsurfing or playing beach volleyball next?!
Before we left for Greece we'd never experienced any sort of holiday club or resort childcare. We had had one, slightly disastrous attempt at using a trusted listening service at a beautiful hotel in Bradford on Avon, which ended in us leaving at gone 11pm with a poorly boy. We had spent the weeks before we flew researching the types of activities each club would offer, explained over and over to the boys that they were not going to be together, so it wouldn't be a surprise and showed them photos from the Mark Warner website and Trip Advisor.
We've realised that our holiday at Lakitira has been the only 5 days our boys have had some time away from each other!
Sammy was booked into Junior Club for the morning and afternoon sessions and Ollie was just booked into Mini Club for the mornings. Heed my advice tired parents out there searching for the ultimate family holiday, book your places early! If you just choose mornings or afternoons the sessions are free, but for a week of both you pay £180. Money absolutely well spent. We chose to go to the Lakitira resort in Kos at relatively the last minute and were so lucky to get the places at all.
It's a strange concept, holiday childcare. My head was saying woooooo hooooo! Bring on a quiet swim at the adult pool, a romantic kayak for 2 mid morning and sunbathing on the beach. Yes I had to keep repeating that one, sunbathing! On a lounger, with the time to indulge in my favourite magazines, to try and switch off for the first time in a very long time. But in my heart I was thinking what if they don't like it, what if they don't make friends, should I feel guilty for wanting time away from them on our first real holiday just the four of us?! Will it totally defeat the object of a "family holiday" to drop them off with a school like routine? Would I be a bad mother to use every second of the evening care, would they be the last two left like abandoned kittens?! My heart was torn.
They sat, not very patiently, through the half hour Saturday afternoon childcare briefing. I was a tad embarrassed that they seemed incapable of listening to all the glorious activities and evening movie nights on offer, but fortunately the family sat on the white sofas in the outdoor terrace area behind us, were experiencing the same. To be honest what did we all expect - the pool was right behind them! Calling to them, jump in me now! Luckily they split the briefings so we only went to the 2 out of the 6 different services offered that applied to our boys. There were some families with bigger age gaps than ours who had one in Baby Club, and one in the older Kidz Club for 10-13 year olds. And they looked like different people by the end of the week. Quite rightly you pay more for the Baby and Toddler sessions for under 2s at £360 for a full week. But once you get to Junior Club age all sessions are free.
I needn't have worried about my fidgety boys, the Childcare Manager gave me a sympathetic and reassuring smile (She had charmed us all by the end of the week. Imagine your ideal primary school teacher when you were four. Sandy blonde hair, beautiful smile, sun kissed skin and a natural talent for winning over the hearts of small people and possibly the dads.) and was quite happy for me to take the two registration forms away with us to fill in all the boys details back in our rooms.
At first I was worried that Ollie at 4 would be too grown up for Mini Club, which is for 3-5 year olds and wish he was with Sammy at Junior Club. But how wrong I was. He immediately bonded with a little 5 year old boy and suddenly came into his own. They became a double act for the week, following each other around the resort like baby chicks, with Rhia, their nanny as the mother goose. As soon as we walked into the Mini Club building above the main Terrace restaurant he was in a home from home.
The large open space looks just like any other British pre school. From the handprint art work on the walls, to the crinkly painting aprons hanging on brightly coloured hooks. It's really clean but homely, not sterile but lived in. The wooden kitchen is well loved, with racks of books with dog eared corners, but it is exactly what you want to see, to reassure you that the toys actually get played with, the bean bags get filled with small bodies all clambering round to listen to a favourite story. The staff are all British and if you ignored the searing heat as you walked outside, you'd think you were back home. It's only the drying racks full of swimming costumes and sun suits and the towers of buoyancy aids above the sink that give it away.
The Junior Club in contrast couldn't be more different. A wide open car port type structure with willow panels for the roof, a beach shack on land, cooler, more grown up. On more than one occasion, we crept past when we knew his Pico group were having some shade, to sneak a look at Sammy, and there he was, "chilling" on the bright red bean bags, lolling about laughing and singing various songs that involve gorillas picking their noses. The Junior Club nannies know exactly what impresses 6 year old boys and girls for that matter!
The clubs split the children into 2 groups depending on their age, so Ollie became a Turtle with the older children at Mini Club and Sammy with the younger of the 6-9 year olds. He was thrilled that the little boy he'd met on the coach from the airport was in the same group and every lunchtime they darted across to each other's tables, chatted at the dessert station and swapped stories about how many slices of pizza they'd eaten!
The day's activities are written out on large chalkboards through the week, but Saturdays are a day of rest at Lakitira. All the children's clubs are closed and even though we arrived on the first weekend of the school summer holidays, the pool didn't feel overly crowded. There's a big change over on Saturdays with two flights arriving from the UK and we spent a couple of hours at the pool watching the second raft of newbies arriving, walking around the resort, getting familiarised with where the activities were, flapping their t-shirts from the plane whilst they adjusted to the scorching sun, just like we did a couple of hours before.
On Sunday morning the resort was buzzing. We wandered down to breakfast at 8.45am and were like salmon swimming upstream against the tide. We knew the clubs all started at 9am but hadn't realised there would be a surge 15 minutes before with hoards of feet pounding the resort pavements, like commuters at Waterloo. But those in the know, knew the score. They had their bags all prepped. Sun hats, check. Factor 30 (minimum) check. Change of clothes, check. Towel, check. The seasoned Mark Warner parents remembered that the water activities often start at 9am and as we pottered over to the Junior Club at 9.20am we suddenly panicked that the rest of Sammy's Pico group were heading out to sea from the smaller, more secluded, Kid's Beach for their first attempt at sailing.
There was no need to weigh their bags down with bottles of water that would sit getting hot in their bags, as the staff insisted on drinking water throughout the day, just as the managers do for their teams. We spied bottles of water labelled with each staff members name which had to be finished by a certain time of day. Subtle but clever.
Nicole, the head of Juniors was there to greet us and didn't bat an eyelid at our lateness, "You are on holiday, don't worry!" She said with a friendly smile and bent down to Sammy and reassured him that we could call the boat back in. We headed to the shore line, stopping at the military style line up of life jackets on low wooden poles so the children could help themselves, and once Sammy was suited and booted, in his sun suit, buoyancy aid and water sandals (I got the boys a pair of velcro slip on shoes especially for the sea from H&M for less than £5 each, which were fantastic to help them walk over the pebbles to get in the sea and clamber onto the boats and windsurf boards.) his nanny for the week Char, hauled him into the water and onto the boat and they started chanting their song of the week.
He waved back at us anxiously, biting his finger nail on his big tooth that has finally replaced the gap at the front, then smiled a huge grin and joined in the singing. Phew! We waited on the edge of the shore until they became little dots, and although they seemed far out to sea I honestly didn't feel too worried. One nanny to 6 children, a safety boat in place hovering near them, the sound of "Mighty mighty Junior Club" resonating back over the lapping waves.
That was to be the song of the holiday. As we walked back up the steps and passed the Junior and Kidz Club cabana we saw a group of younger ones being led to the little pool. 6 Mini's holding onto a long snake like piece of fabric. Each one held a plastic ring and was repeating the lines after the nanny at the head of the snake, each line getting louder and louder! "And if they can't hear us, and if they can't hear us, we shout a little louder, we shout a little louder!" It was funny, but as the week went on, we actually loved hearing these noisy 8 headed snakes meandering through the resort. Especially when it was one of ours trying to sing the loudest because all of them were beaming from ear to ear. Some parents "escaped" to the adult pool for some peace with just the sound of tennis balls being batted back and forwards on the courts next door, but I loved seeing the groups come in and out of the main pool area all singing in unison.
In fact we couldn't have asked anymore of Ollie. He bounded in the first day, was full of stories when we picked him up at 12.30pm and after a half hour swim before lunch (which became our routine of the week) we headed to the buffet lunch at the Trattiora restaurant. Sammy of course would have spent all day in the pool or the sea but quite cleverly the activities were split during the day with enough shade time to keep them out of the intense heat. The trouble with being in the water is you forget just how strong the sun is, so breaking up the afternoon or morning sessions with craft activities, practising their dance routines for the end of the week show and games of giant Connect 4 meant that by the time we collected him at 5.30pm, he wasn't a hot sweaty mess. There were some days where he popped out to join us on a kayak or for diving competitions with Ollie and his little buddy, but then the draw of a ready made gang of mates won him over and he rejoined them for the next hour of fun.
I think it's a great testament to the nannies when your child is within spitting distance of you around the pool and after an hour of competitions, races and games in the pool, they will wave and say goodbye, see you later! The nannies are young and fun but they take their roles seriously. I wandered over one morning to take some photos and Nicole was lying on the bean bags with a little boy with special needs. They were cuddled into each other reading stories and I felt overwhelmed by her complete devotion to this children, who up until a few days earlier was a complete stranger. She explained the one on one time Mark Warner offer to children with disabilities or who require extra care and I was bowled over.
At the airport we watched the family say goodbye to the staff who had helped us all with our bags off the coach and to the check in desks and I had to choke back some tears. I had this lump in my throat that I couldn't swallow and my eyes just welled up at the mother hugging the Childcare Manager so tightly. Her cheeks were stained with salty tears and she kept repeating "Oh thank you, thank you so much." You could see emotionally and physically just what that holiday meant to them. How all of them had experienced everything a holiday should be. Actual relaxation, a chance to feel refreshed and time away from the stresses and demands of everyday life.
One morning I was chatting at drop off time with one of the Junior Club nannies and she said something that stuck with me. She told me that everyday at their briefing the manager reminds them that they have responsibility for the the most precious things in the world to us. To not forget we are trusting them with the ones we love the most. There were times when I felt I should be playing with the boys instead of chatting to another parent with our legs dangling in the pool, but not once did the staff give you anything other than encouragement to have some quality time to yourself. They have totally nailed what makes you a better parent. Instead of feeling ever so slightly resentful of being splashed for the 100th time as Ollie practised his belly flops, you had a defined period of time to just enjoy them and spoil them with your attention.
When we picked them up at 12.30pm we were desperate to hear what they had been up to, no one sat at lunch with iPads or children on their parents mobile phones. Everyone was talking. Totally engaged as a family. It sounds sentimental but for the first time in a long time it didn't feel like hard work. We didn't need bags full of colouring books, tins of mini figures and sandwich bags decanted with Lego to get us through a meal. Everyday, we ate lunch together and they barely stopped for breath to fill us in on who painted this, who told a funny joke, who they were going to sit next to at movie night. And at 2.30pm Sammy dashed back to join his chums.
I loved how the energy changed throughout the day at the resort. The frenzy of activity just before 9am, with scores of brightly coloured hats, paisley and striped backpacks all bobbing along on the backs of excited littler ones, the calm on the beach mid morning as the beach bar started to fill up with parents ordering a midday cocktail and as the wind picked up in the afternoon, an impressive fleet of white sails would slowly move across the horizon. The older Indy Club who would saunter in to meet for breakfast and occasional flirtatious poolside wrestles between gangly teenage boys and giggly, tousled haired girls as the younger children all made a mass exit at 5.15pm for high tea.
And the came the magical movie night. I'd read about the evening entertainment on the website, a sleeping space for little ones available until 11pm. I had in my mind a giant sleepover but couldn't find any photos on the internet to show the boys how it worked. Every afternoon we gave the boys the choice of what they wanted to do. Eat "high tea" with the other younger children between 5.15pm and 6pm and then go on to movie night or stay at the pool and eat with us later. Guess what they chose 5/7 nights?! I sort of felt a little offended at first, we'd really made the effort to be more attentive to them at meal times, not rely on our phones to keep them entertained so we could have "grown up talking time" but as Rich and I sat down for our second evening meal in a row, and raised our glasses, I breathed a sigh of relief that we could just talk. We didn't have to juggle 2 plates at the buffet, hurriedly trying to get the children fed before we even sat down. It felt indulgent, a real treat, people even commented on my Facebook update of the cheesy selfie of the pair of us, "Ooh date night!" Well here every night could be date night!
Night after night the boys giggled at the novelty of going out in their pjs. The Junior Club ran an activity from 7.30pm for an hour before the movie started but because Ollie couldn't join them we decided that both boys would head to Mini's together and after the first hour or so (often once Ollie was tucked up in his sleeping pod) we moved Sammy to join his pals. You'd think there had been some sort of natural disaster when you dropped them off. Little camp beds lined up in rows with large name labels at the end of each fleecy sleeping bag. And as you crept in after dark to carry your snoozy babes back to your rooms, you couldn't help but do a comedy tip toe past all the bodies, legs hanging over the 6 inch high bed frames, open mouths and soft bunnies and dogs littering the floor, discard as they drifted into deep sleeps.
By the third night everyone loved the new routine and we totally understood why so many we met around the pool used the phrase "Once you go Mark Warner there's no going back!" It's true, you feel totally spoilt! But so do the children. There's no hiding in bathrooms, or reading your phone under covers like we've been forced to do in the past. We even sat in the dark eating a pizza earlier this summer with the light of the iPhone dimmed slightly so as not to wake our tired boys. And that's just not fun night after night. Whilst your children are young you make compromises but suddenly ours eyes were opened to a holiday where you didn't have to!
And it's totally safe. Not once did I feel any sort of panic or worry leaving them to fall asleep with their nannies for the night. The password system means NO parent can pick up their child, without giving the nominated word from your registration form.
There was one night when the boys fancied the kid's disco put on by the hotel entertainment team. Their European accents gave it away that they were not part of the Mark Warner staff and the cheesy, slightly cringey, ABBA tribute show was exactly what you imagine hotel cabaret to be. The kids LOVED it and spent the week singing Mamma Mia whilst we loved it for possibly different reasons...! We wandered down to the stage area with new friends and polished off the bottle of wine we hadn't quite finished at dinner, splitting our sides at the slightly awkward dancing, a touch out of time, and inventive costume changes! We looked over at Sammy who was snuggled next to a little girl and got chatting to her parents.
We soon discovered a little holiday romance had blossomed between the pair of them and overheard her asking for his telephone number! It was a joy to watch their friendship develop through the week, how their eyes both lit up when we spent the afternoon around the pool, which meant they could swim around under the water together like a pair of love sick lobsters. And that's something I wasn't expecting from the holiday childcare. That it would provide ready made friends, for all of us! Ollie and his buddy were like two sheep for the week, and when it was time to dry off and head for some lunch, they just followed each other to a table with Sammy the sheepdog behind them, which was lovely for us all as we got to make our own grown up friends. By the end of the week I actually felt quite tearful when we all said goodbye with big hugs. And more than a little bit envious at them staying on for another week! Ps you should totally follow Claire's blog - she's a superb personal stylist and I almost wanted to take notes in the pool as we chatted about our post baby body hang ups and mum uniforms we seem to have slipped into!
When you are an Ambassador for a brand it's hard to be critical, torn between your feelings of loyalty to promote the brand you effectively represent, whilst offering an honest opinion of your personal experience. There's a great temptation to blast the photos of the sea to make them seem bluer, edit out the piles of towels thrown over loungers by the pool and crop the air conditioning unit out of the shot, but I want to show you what it really is like. Greece is unique. And it will steal your heart. Apart from Sammy learning a song about a gorilla picking his nose with crude words that Grandad is particularly keen on the boys repeating at full volume, we can't find fault with the childcare on offer with Mark Warner. It's a winning formula.
Rich remembers being in Indy Club and I am not sure much has changed in 20 years! They know what works. From teenagers who get the choice to eat with their parents or as a group, swapping Instagram and Snapchat accounts (I'm up with the cool kids - oh dear how mummy did that sound!) to small babies being sung to in buggies on their way to a shady palm tree for a seemingly endless games of stacking cups, it's an unrivalled service. I am not aware of any other UK provider who offers the same level of care with British teams. And as absolutely everyone who we spoke to around the resort said "It is worth every penny."
Dedicated staff who week on week welcome new and old faces. One family was on their 4th year to Lakitira and the children were thrilled to see their beloved nannies again. The highlight of the week for the Junior and Kidz Club is the stage show. A sea of parents on plastic chairs, holding phones towards the setting sun and a sea of brightly coloured shorts and dresses, all moving in time to One Direction, smiling back at them. Each child gets their moment in the spotlight to receive their certificate, lolly pop and shiny Mark Warner metal badge. Like a pin of honour that you are officially part of a special society. There was the Prince Charming award for the sweet little boy who been terrifically well behaved all week, Sammy was given the Michael Phelps award for his fantastic swimming and a few Haribo awards for the sweet girls in the group.
Both boys clutched their glossy certificates, we have those precious photos where they hold them in front of them, beaming like cheshire cats, Ollie covered in black face paint (Luckily it all washed off in the pool after I'd checked with the life guard that it wouldn't cause any damage to the water!) next to his best bud painted as a tiger. Can you guess which award Ollie got after the Mini Club rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Chocolate Bar? The Ant and Dec Award! For being glued to his new pal the whole week and keeping the nannies entertained!
You have to be a certain type of person to work with children. To know when they need comforting, to know how to talk to 17 year olds when there might only be a few years between you, to know when to encourage them to go out of their comfort zone and when to let them just sit on your lap and watch the others try out paddle boarding. And that's a skill that you see in people from when they are children themselves.
We can't speak more highly of the Childcare Manager and her team. We watched as they waded into the pool in their uniforms for "Splash your nanny" time. Encouraged the children to shout as loudly as they could when they jumped into the pool. All the things our 6 year old's dreams are made of! Ollie never once complained that the Mini's all stayed in the shallow pool and Sammy (who is a confident swimmer) only mentioned a couple of times that he didn't need a buoyancy aid for the pool sessions. But do you know, from our point of view it was another tick in the box for how Mark Warner are committed to quality, safe childcare.
Somehow we are almost at the end of the school holidays, one week to go and our boys will start a new chapter at a new school. We bought Ollie his first pair of school shoes today but I can honestly say the happiest I've seen my boys all summer was in Greece.
Memories to last a lifetime and a longing to go back next year. This mama has a lot to thank the staff for.
I am writing up our time at the Lakitira resort in the only way I know how, a story, our story.
If you book your holiday before the 30th September 2015 Mark Warner are offering a £50pp discount on your total holiday price using the code LucyBlog50. That's almost your upgrade paid for for full board!
T&Cs: Get an additional £50pp discount on all Summer 15 & 16 bookings made by 30 September. Not valid for free child place and can’t be offered in retrospect.
Disclaimer *I am a Mark Warner Ambassador this year and everyone we spoke to say their holiday was 100% worth every penny. We travelled in state school holidays to Kos for one week and paid the supplement to upgrade to Full Board and all expenses during our week.*