I was a bit nervous about going on a long-haul package trip as our holidays have always been UK/France self-catering where we've booked cheap flights then found somewhere quiet and remote to stay. Clearly an all-inclusive resort that caters for families was never going to be quiet or remote - and with an 8 hour flight (each way) and 30+ degree heat I was more than a little worried that this wouldn't be for us.
Before we actually went anywhere we got the chance to experience Gatwick's V room - the world’s first leisure lounge, which is available to anyone when booked with or added to a Virgin holiday (price £20 for adults and £12 for children). This made a huge difference to our airport experience and I would definitely go for it in future (it's available at Gatwick or Manchester) A really bright lounge with comfy seating, free wifi, hot and cold buffet and drinks, a play room for small kids and computer games/table football for older ones (all included in the price). Bright and spacious, nice clean loos (always vital) and a brilliant view of the runway so you can enjoy your free brekkie while watching all the planes taking off and landing. Food was lovely too and it was great for the kids to have somewhere to let off steam before a long flight.
The flights themselves were on Virgin's newly refurbished (and very smart!) Gatwick fleet. Small girl was delighted with the goody bag handed out to all kids on boarding. We flew out Premium Economy which was utterly luxurious and I could seriously get a taste for. Staff couldn't have been more friendly and helpful. Food was good. Most of all loved the new touchscreen entertainment system. Seat to seat messaging! (Warning - addictive) and tons of movies and TV etc for adults and kids too. Being able to start movies when you like and pause/rewind them too (a la Sky Plus) is a VERY handy feature when travelling with kids with an uncanny knack of dropping their crayons all over the floor just as the plot reaches its climax.
Flew back economy - although (obviously) the seats were smaller still very comfortable and service no less impressive. Drinks on tap. Plenty to eat and loads to watch and do (Who Wants to Be A Millionaire game a very popular choice in our row though nobody did make their millions...) Had not flown Virgin in years but will certainly be choosing them the next time we fly.
The hotel/resort we stayed at was Coconut Bay...less than five minutes from the airport. When travelling with tired kids this is a massive plus. Nothing worse after a long flight than having to spend hours in a bus or a car. Because there are only a couple of flights a day out of Fort Vieux there's no problem with aircraft noise shattering your peace either.
The hotel is split into two 'wings' - one adults only and the one we stayed in, for families. The decor of our room wasn't necessarily the most modern or up-to-date but it was, far more importantly, a really good size (two double beds, loads of wardrobe and drawer space, a decent shower room plus a lovely sitting area by French windows onto a balcony. Worth mentioning that the beds were supremely comfortable and have prompted me to buy a new mattress for home...
Yes - there were lots of people, but actually they all got on with their own thing just as we got on with ours. No problem finding sunbeds. Swimming pools and water park enormous so tons of space for everyone. No queueing at meal times. Swim up bar was a particular favourite - and one of the things that made me realise what great value all-inclusive can be. Cold drinks whenever you want or need without having to shell out $3 or $4 dollars a pop. This definitely helped with the heat - as did the breeze from the adjacent beach.
Food was decent and plentiful - a mix of local dishes and 'standards'. Breakfast particularly impressive - a huge buffet with plenty of choice. There are also various restaurants offering different cuisines that you can visit in the evenings (also included in the price). We tried the Italian one - where they were particularly helpful when asked if they would use the wheat-free pizza base we had brought from home (DD has allergy) and took great care to cook it away from anything else to avoid contamination with wheat flour products.
We spent one day getting to see a bit more of the island, trying out an excursion to the volcano and botanical gardens. Great for the kids to be able to see avocados and cocoa growing 'wild' rather than packaged up in shops. Highlight was an afternoon on a catamaran complete with snorkel stops (especially cool for a child who had never dipped so much as a toe in the sea before). Heavenly and a trip well worth taking.
The hotel also has a spa (which it would have been rude not to try...fab) and a kids' club (which we used briefly. Looked really good but we wanted to hang out together)
All in all the whole experience taught me a lot about holiday making. Long haul doesn't actually have to be a problem - even with small kids - as long as you are with the right airline. Heat is fine - as long as you are somewhere with a pool and cold drinks on tap. Having someone else do all the cooking is great! (I really need an omelette chef at home now but DH just isn't playing ball no matter how well I describe how it works.)
A package trip - for me at least - is about the whole package and not just the accommodation so my review is based on this fact.
I'm not sure that this is the sort of holiday that we would have thought about had we not been offered the chance to try it out for a few days. But it's definitely changed my perception of what works for a family with kids and we are already looking at the map and working out what far flung destination to save up for next.
In terms of prices for this trip: 7 nights on an all inclusive basis starts from £1,199 per adult and £689 per child (based on 2 adults and 2 children (under 12) travelling and sharing a deluxe garden room in June 2013) All taxes and surcharges are included.
If you want to do your own thing you can just go for the scheduled Virgin flights to St Lucia (three times a week) starting from £639 in economy (price until 5 December 2012)
Mumsnet was invited on this press trip by Virgin Holidays/Virgin Altantic