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Family travel: Hunker down in a youth hostel

Forget noisy dorms, hostels are a cheap and cheerful place to stay for all the family — especially if you book the place to yourself

Family travel: Hunker down in a youth hostel
A view of the valleys in North Wales. Image: Ben Lerwill.

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For the second time since breakfast, I accidentally tread on a spaceship. I’ve stayed in dozens of youth hostels over the years, but I’m fairly certain I’ve never been in one quite so full of Lego. Other things are different, too.  “Let’s make a den on the bunk beds,” one resident is suggesting. “Mummy, can we watch The Little Mermaid?” enquires another.

Youth hostels tend to divide opinion. What some see as a laid-back travellers’ lair can appear to others as a daunting, sock-scented hellhole. But when you have a hostel entirely to yourself, most of the usual gripes go out of the window. That, at least, is the thinking that has led six of us (three couples) to exclusively hire a hilltop YHA property in North Wales for the weekend.

It’s possible to book YHA Rowen year-round, but we’re here in winter, an off-season period when short-term availability is at its best. Between us we’ve brought five kids ­— ranging in age from one to five — 11 pairs of wellies, and a quantity of wine that’s probably best left undisclosed.

The hostel is an old farmhouse converted into four dorms. It has two open fires, an enormous kitchen and some glorious views over the villages and rivers of the Conwy Valley. The final stretch of road leading up to the house is the steepest I’ve encountered in the UK, but it makes the panorama all the better earned. It’s the highest building as far as the eye can see.

Naturally, there are downsides. It’s a hostel rather than a holiday cottage, meaning swing-shut fire doors and regimented bunk beds. The kids love it, though, spreading their books and toys over the communal tables and skittering around the gardens looking for hiding places. There’s the feeling of being somewhere special.

Which we are, of course. The house is a short drive from the medieval bulk of Conwy Castle, sitting in the shadows of Snowdonia. There’s a measured pace to life in North Wales that quickly draws you in. And once we manage to cajole all five children into their identical green bed linen at night-time, the evenings are as relaxing as can be.

More coal on the fire, more music on the laptop (there’s no TV or stereo) and more cooking in the kitchen. We all decide that a hostel trumps a holiday cottage in one important respect: it has a sense of adventure.

By Sunday morning, the sun is out and the valleys are spread below us in their finery. We play a few games outside: “Simon says… point to a hill,” at which the assembled kids, surrounded on all sides by rolling Welsh slopes, aren’t sure whether to point north, south, east or west. I can’t help but smile.

Best for: Young kids and tweens.
Highs: “I liked the bunk beds and the garden best.” Joe, 4.
Lows: Having to bring toddler-friendly equipment such as stair gates.
How to do it: YHA Rowen sleeps up to 20 and offers year-round weekend hire from £395. yha.org.uk

If you liked this… try these

Loch Ness: The Scottish Youth Hostel Association operates a rent-a-hostel scheme, including a 20-bed property ideally located for Nessie-spotting.

T: 01320 351274.

Lake District: The Thorney How Independent Hostel is well placed for family walking and cycling breaks,  just half a mile from the village of Grasmere. thorneyhow.co.uk

Cornwall: The YHA has a 31-bed hostel in Land’s End with sea views and an open fire, making it a good bet for surfing families. yha.org.uk
Edinburgh: For a city break, Haggis Hostels is an independent hostel sleeping 34 close to the heart of Edinburgh. haggishostels.co.uk

Published in the Summer 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)