VENICE ..FOR LESS; Get the city AND the beach when you camp.
AFTER years of self-indulgent holidays - staying out into the wee small hours, that sort of thing - we now get up at around the time we used to go to bed.
And it's all thanks to our 18-monthold bundle of never-ceasing energy, Raffi.
So when it came to planning our first holiday as a family, we had to consider him while keeping ourselves happy.
We are partial to the great outdoors, so camping appealed... but the idea of a small tent with a toddler didn't. Imagine the amount of stuff you'd have to lug on the plane!
Then we discovered Canvas Holidays. They've got campsites all over Europe, and everything is already set up and fully equipped.
It means you don't have to work out which pole goes where while your kids run riot - or realise that, even though you spent five hours packing, you've forgotten the bottle opener/pillows/kettle.
They've got massive tents big enough to walk inside, with camp beds, fridges, stoves - the lot. Or you can opt for a unit with two bedrooms, shower, toilet, AC and - the best bit - your own decking and barbecue.
We opted for one of their Italian sites, Residence Village, in the tiny beach town of Cavallino - just 30 minutes from Venice.
Yes, camping in Venice! Who'd have thought? You see, we knew holidaying in the Most Beautiful City in the World was a no-go with a small person in a buggy - all those bridges, all that water, all that culture.
But this way Raffi could spend his days building sandcastles, and we could break it up with a visit to the city at the top of our wish list.
The campsite was perfect. Raffi made friends with the neighbours and loved it so much that the second he woke each day, he'd put his Crocs on and run out to play.
The freedom for the kids is the big draw, and the facilities were top notch - playgrounds, dance classes and an awesome swimming pool with water slides - which Raffi wanted to go down again and again and again.
The beach was two minutes away and, while we've seen better sand, it was clean and perfect for kids - and it's only for campsite residents.
And, this being Italy, the food in the restaurant was exceptional. My husband is obsessed with seafood spaghetti and he declared theirs was the best he'd ever had - and I can testify he has eaten a lot!
A meal for three with a half-carafe of local wine came in at under EUR30. We all developed an unhealthy obsession with the pistachio ice cream... and with the reasonably priced on-site supermarket selling Prosecco for just EUR4, it meant we could happily have never left.
We did, however, venture out to the local markets - most surrounding towns have them in the mornings on different days of the week (helpful camp rep Kim was on hand to inform us of them all), including one in Jesolo, a 20-minute drive away. The bustling old seaside town is definitely worth a mooch along the promenade, for a spot of shopping and more gelato scoffing.
But, of course, the real draw is Venice. To get there you catch a bus or drive (parking is just EUR5 a day) to the port of Punta Sabbioni, less than 30 minutes from Residence Village. From there hop on a boat - the cheapest is Marco Polo Shipping Company, for EUR9 return - and 40 minutes later you arrive at the glorious St Mark's Square.
Venice doesn't seem real, somehow. It's like walking around a film set. Every corner you turn there is something stunning to look at. But such beauty does come at a price, as we discovered when deciding to make a night of it - it was my birthday - and searched for a cheap hotel. We managed to track down an affordable place by heading to Dorsoduro, a few stops on the vaporetto water bus from St Mark's Square.
Palazzo Guardi, our traditional Venetian hotel, was hidden down such a narrow back alley you'd struggle to squeeze down it if you'd overdone it on the rigatoni.
As we expected, Venice is not really the place for young kids.
It is however great for exercising those arm muscles, picking up Raffi in his buggy to go over yet another bridge every few minutes (they don't do ramps).
Our tip would be to buy a lightweight buggy or, better still, pop the young 'un in a backpack. We couldn't do much in the way of culture, other than the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, which has a cool sculpture garden.
The rest of the time we just wandered around, marvelling at the buildings (there is no ugly side to Venice) and eating yet more gelato... the best place is Grom in Campo San Barnaba, as the queues will testify.
We also headed to the famous Rialto food market, at the northern end of the Rialto Bridge, where the locals really do shop. When it comes to finding somewhere to eat, avoid the touristy Piazza San Marco and its environs, and head for the back streets away from the crowds.
Dona Onesta (Ponte de Dona) is a cheap, family-friendly (they have high chairs - most places don't) place where we tried the local delicacies of cuttlefish spaghetti, sarde in saor (sardines with onions) and a spectacular seafood salad - each for around EUR6. With Raffi in tow, we were never going to paint the town red, but we did manage a quick birthday Bellini in the famous Harry's Bar (Calle Vallaresso 1323). Well, it'd be rude not to.
Our first family holiday had a bit of everything for everyone and left us with smashing memories. There's now a pistachio ice cream ban in force. Until the next time...
What's the deal?
SEVEN nights at Residence Village in a maxi tent arriving on September 3 costs EUR397 with Canvas Holidays. For more information go to www.canvasholidays.co.uk or call 0044 845 268 0827.
MONARCH flies to Venice from Birmingham and Gatwick from EUR47, one way. Go to www.monarch.co.uk Palazzo Guardi hotel can be booked through www.hostelbookers.com, which has double rooms from EUR102 a night.
Jaw-dropping... St Mark's Square and Basilica Splash hit... pool was a big draw Swim champ... Raffi Charming... Palazzo Guardi hotel Grand views... Venice is a great place to wander around, taking in the sights