If you're a parent of young children planning to go on a family adventure travel, there are a number of familiar phrases guaranteed to send a chill through the bones. One is "Zippo's Circus" (if you haven't had the pleasure, think Billy Smart goes Eastern Bloc); another is "Carter's Steam Fair" (charming for the first six years, tedious thereafter - and mind-bogglingly expensive), and, finally, "Legoland" - the most costly, the best loved and the most gruelling of all, as it involves at least one entire day of your life. More if you're silly enough to be persuaded to return.
For parents living in the north of Italy, the word "Gardaland" probably invites a similar response. Of course, if your family adventure travel begins in Gardaland, Italy's biggest theme park, which graces the southern shores of Lake Garda, the place was positively heaving with child-free adults, ostensibly in their right minds, yet with no obvious excuse for being there. An ebullient nine-year-old had not dragged them to the gates. They had gone, it seemed, entirely of their own volition.
Lake Garda, though lovely, is not one of the family adventure travel that shouts: "Come here, this place is great for kids". Garda is a beautiful, serene place: the mountains are monumental, the villages picture-postcard pretty and the lake is a glorious, vast expanse around which motorbikes, motorists, coach passengers and - most terrifyingly - cyclists risk life and limb negotiating the coastal road. Traffic dangers notwithstanding, Lake Garda seems to attract pensioners in inordinately large numbers. The hotel is often stuffed with lovely old folk, British and German mainly, who find rampaging boys and girls endlessly entertaining, as they run helter-skelter round the dining room, loading up their seventh helping of self-service cake and coke. (Free every afternoon at the hotel Leonardo da Vinci in Limone sul Garda. The cake is just delicious.)
There are many noisy families there with kids who seem to be doing GCSE revision while their parents relax by the pool. (It's that sort of place.) But the tour operators in the area are obviously keen to make it a more obvious destination for such people; at the hotel there is even a kids' club on offer.
The evening families arrive, a rather serious young woman with brown shorts and brown legs pursues them down the hillside, asking if the boys want to take part in a production of Grease, which will be performed in the hotel bar in the evening. Some kids decline, some don't. Perfectly understandable.
So instead of hikes and runs and John Travolta, you can have a lovely, gentle family time. It's possible to spend much of it messing around in the hotel pools or play lots of rounds of minigolf - the course at the Leonardo da Vinci is not a lot to look at, but the view is second to none. Or talk to the hotel macaws, one of which appeared to have laid an egg; or watch an Italian TV show about how salami is made (ghastly but gripping).
The hotel can provide sufficient entertainment for a family of four for at least a month (and the Brazilian dance troupe goes down very well with the gentlemen residents), family adventure travel includes a boat tour of the lake, spying on Mussolini's extravagant mansion and George Clooney's hideaway. The hotel operates a children's club (6-12 years) and a junior club (13-16 years). The hotel also has windsurfs and pedalos for hire.
The kids like the boat. They like the sports shop in Limone. They like the pizza at Ristorante al Pirate in Limone and they like watching the windsurfers on the water. But some of them don't like the idea of a cable car ride up Monte Baldo, Garda's highest mountain.
But most Gardaland is the highlight of the holiday. Ask them weeks later what they remember of Italy in adventure travel, and they will say the volcano in the wildwater ride and the Thunderbird-style spaceship that lifted them into the air and rotated them around v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y so they could appreciate the scope and magnificence of Gardaland. They loved it - even though there were queues, and it was hot, and the car was parked miles away.