Mark Harris took his wife Jane and their two sons, Charlie and Frankie, for a week of camping and fun in the Loire. Here’s how they got on…
Packing two large adults and a pair of rugrats into the family car every August and heading for France is a British tradition that goes back to the late 60s. The heady mix of promised sun, cheap wine and a dazzling selection of smelly cheeses has been enough to keep families coming back again and again. It’s a totally different experience to flying to the Costas or Balearics. There’s a genuine sense of adventure that comes with packing up the car with half the house, heading for a ferry port and cleaning vomit off the car seats! There are good deals to be had on the ferry network – especially if you book early. Go online and take a look at www.aferry.co.uk – a one stop site with access to all the leading ferry operators that ensures you get the best prices available. Obviously the great Calais debacles of recent years have put a bit of a damper on travel plans.
However, it doesn’t appear to have put off thousands of families from making the pilgrimage to Brittany, the Dordogne, the Loire and Provence – to name but four of the favourite destinations for committed Francophiles. Accommodation options on the other side of the channel are many and varied, with gites (that’s country cottages to you and me), villas and camping the most popular options. And it was to a campsite just outside the Loire-side town of Saumur that the Harris family found itself heading towards on a late August weekend. It’s a lengthy 330 miles from Calais to the Loire – the equivalent of driving from London to Berwick on the Scottish border. It sounds horrific, but driving in France is nothing like the hell on earth that is the British road network. The roadside cafes actually serve decent grub – much to Mrs Field-Harris’s approval – and there simply aren’t the same number of cars on the road. Plus, though the motorways are toll roads, roadworks are few and far between and the speed limit is 130kph (80mph).
Having said that, the temptation to exceed this limit is still enormous, which is why I found myself being flagged down by the gendarmes just short of Le Mans! I daren’t admit just how fast I was driving. However, the polite officers simply relieved me of 90 euros and sent me on my way with the heavily accented words of advice, ‘Slowly, Monsieur Harris!’ ringing in my ears. Despite the unscheduled stop-off we found ourselves pulling up outside Domaine de la Breche in late afternoon. The pretty site is one of 38 four and five-star ‘outdoor hotels’ that come under the Les Castels banner (www.camping-castels.co.uk). Take a look at the website and you’ll see a stunning selection of sites right across the country.
Domaine de la Breche opened in 1973 with 35 plots on the site of an abandoned farm. Since then it has grown and grown, although it still has a nice intimacy for a site with so much space and so many amenities. It has been run by the same French family ever since it opened. The site is equally popular with British and French holidaymakers and there’s a smattering of Germans and Dutch, which adds a nice cosmopolitan atmosphere. First and foremost, this is obviously a destination for families with under-18s so, in terms of keeping the demanding Harris boys entertained, the site ticks all the boxes. Obviously the pool complex is the jewel in the crown. There is an impressive self-enclosed pool for toddlers, a large family-friendly general pool and a traditional 20m pool for those who want to do their lengths. A big favourite with the kids were the water slides and chute, which have a splash pool of their own.
The weather was very warm when we were there and it hadn’t rained for weeks – Jane could easily have spent all day sunning herself on a sun lounger eating cheese and drinking the excellent local wines as the boys caused havoc in the pools. But that would have done the other amenities a disservice. There’s a riding school that provides everything from treks around the site for tots to oneon- one riding tuition for the more adventurous. Domaine de la Breche has its own 18-hole pitch and putt course, there’s bike and go-kart hire, an astro turf multi-sport facility, at least half-a-dozen children’s play areas and an excellent kids club operating every day throughout July and August. Our accommodation was the jewel in the Domaine de la Breche crown – a three bedroom, two-bathroom Key West cabin. Just a year old, it bore absolutely no resemblance to a tatty caravan on a wet and windy British campsite.
Air-conditioned and equipped with every kitchen mod-con you could require – including a dish-washer – this is quality accommodation. In fact, on a site with plenty of hardy types sleeping under canvas, we were slightly embarrassed by how swish our cabin was! It’s not expensive either. Take a look at Les Castels website and you’ll fi nd options for all budgets. Of course, there’s plenty to do off-site in this historic region of France. There are more chateaux than you could possibly want to view and plenty of vineyards selling their own quality vines – the reds are particularly good in the Loire.
But if you want a real family day out, head 12 miles south of Saumur to Doué la Fontaine and you’ll find Bioparc. It is, quite simply, the best zoo we’ve ever visited – and we’ve done a fair few! Built on the site of an old rock quarry, the park provides an incredible experience. Take a look at their website www.bioparc-zoo.fr and you’ll get some idea of the scale and scope of this unique zoo. Undoubtedly you will hear stories of rude French people slamming doors in your faces and muttering under their breath, but we’ve never found the locals to be anything other than friendly and welcoming (obviously I’m not including Paris!)
If you’re a family that doesn’t like to spend too long in the car then it’s probably not the ‘vacance’ for you. But it’s only a few miles across the channel, the climate is far better than the UK, and a different language makes any visit feel like you really have been abroad. So if you want something more than a traditional beach holiday, France is just about the perfect destination.