Losinj in the Adriatic is home to a little-known hotel that’s perfect for toddlers, writes Matthew Teller.
There’s a disco on the hotel terrace, overlooking a fiery sunset. But the spectacle is going unwatched as nodding heads draw back to let the stars of the show make a grand appearance. The music segues into a chirpy tune, mouths drop open in wonder and Papa Smurf skips on to the terrace with Smurfette in tow.
Welcome to Croatia’s only Kinderhotel. This network of independently run, family focused European hotels pioneered all-inclusive stays centre around children. Of their 50 properties, 48 are at high altitude, mostly in the Austrian Alps, with a handful in Bravia and the Italian Dolomites. But we didn’t fancy the mountains. I investigated the two remaining, both on the Adriatic coast, and it was essentially a choice between big and small. Big would have meant an over developed beach resort outside Venice. We went small.
Family Hotel Vespara is the southern-most property in the entire group. It lies at one end of the island of Losinj (pronounced “losheen”), at the tip of a line of island emerging from Croatia’s Kvarner Bay, midway between Venice and Split. It’s all about location. I counted 121 paces from the Vespera’s back door, across a lawn, through a grove of pines to reach the shore. Even on a slow morning that’s four minutes from duvet to sea.
But first, our arrival. After a long transfer from Pula airport, watching falcons wheel over hillside scrub and blowing away cobwebs on the island ferry, reaching the Vespera was a bit of a bump. Boutique it isn’t. The Vespara and its sister hotel alongside, the Aurora, are long, low blocks put up in 1977 as a Communist era seaside getaway. Both were rejuvenated and relaunched in 2009- the Aurora as an upscale wellness retreat, the Vespera as a cheery family resort. Each has about 400 rooms, tasteful but compact, and all with balconies facing either the forest or the sea.
First glimpse notwithstanding, the Vespera quickly grew on us. As there are no other hotels (or anything else) nearby, guests at both share all facilities. We loved the Aurora’s beach at Veli Zal, an idyllic little bay of flat stones, and also the outdoor play-pools that cascade between the two hotels. One big plus is that guests at Vespera can use the Aurora’s spas, which included heated indoor pools (another hit with the kids) and two big hot tubs with powerful bubble-jets. “Dad, it almost blew my pants off, “giggled our six-year-old.
The main reason to book at Kinderhotel though, is the childcare, and the Vespera has this done to an art. As part of the inclusive rates, the hotel’s Pino Club will look after kids aged 2 to 16 (split into three age groups), from morning until well after bedtime. The club has its own suite of rooms on the hotel’s ground floor, including big play areas for games and activities, a quiet space for little ones to nap, games consoles for older kids and a secure outdoor zone for supervised play. Thirteen dedicated childcare staff and entertainers work every day throughout the season.
Losinj also feels more international than the quiet corners of Austria, where hotels aren’t great at accommodating English-speaking children. Here, all the games led in Croatian, German, English and Italian, and the Pino Club team leaders were scrupulous about tailoring things for individual kids. It made for a bit if a whirl, but was part of the fun, with loads of parents joining in with the open-air parties and costume discos each evening on the hotel terrace.
Mary and Chris Gibbons, from Dublin, who were coming to the end of a ten-day stay at the Vespera, told me they were delighted with the Pino Club-their two under-fives had loved it, Mary said “And it’s been brilliant for us to get a break,” Chris said. “We’re well impressed with the staff. The only thing is the food- but you don’t come to Croatia for the cooking.” I didn’t think it was bad. Breakfast and dinner- included in our half-board package- were in Vespera’s giant buffet restaurant, seating 650 or so, a curious mix of clean-cut Swedish dads and tiger print Austrian grannies. It could be a bit of a bunfight with so many eating at once, but there was plenty of choice, if heavy on the meat: non-carnivores might find their options a little repetitive. We found better food a la carte at Borik, the hotel’s beach restaurant- a sunset trap. Eating out cost about half of what you might expect at home.
One warm morning we followed the woodland trail from the hotel into the island’s pocket-sized capital, Mali Losinj, for ice creams, and I climbed the 15th-century stone tower beside the harbour in nearby Veli Losinj. Veli is Croatian for roofs and dozy grandpas. Mali, by contrast, means “little”, though Mali Losinj has the island’s shops and resturants. In Mali’s fish market, I joined trilby-hatted gentlemen and wrinkle-elbowed grandmothers for a browse of crates of ice-strewn grouper and octopus.
We didn’t do much sightseeing, though and even spurned the chance to join daily boat excursions to nearby islands. The hotel was too much fun. We filled days exploring rock pools, cheating at crazy golf, ordering cocktails and extravagant milkshakes and studiously ignoring the public sessions of fitness and aerobics.
Change are afoot. The island’s airstrip is being expanded and from next year it will be able to accommodate short-haul aircraft, cutting out the need for long transfers. Losinj is about to become known. Catch it before that happens.