One son’s conquering a waterslide. The other’s at the soccer pitch leading French, British and Dutch teammates to victory. Mom’s getting a massage. Dad’s poolside chatting to his new European neighbors and plotting a barbeque.
You might not recognize this as a typical holiday in France. But this is how French families celebrate summers at 10,000 campsites nationwide, half of Europe’s total. It’s rural France at its most flexible and relaxed. Options range from frugal to fabulous. Pack a tent, fly into any French airport, rent a car and head out.
Don’t like roughing it? Neither do most Europeans, who bring their designer dogs and satellite dishes, and choose hard-roofed accommodation from mobile homes to fairy-tale cottages. The most exclusive options are booked months in advance.
I’ve gone the scruffy, improvised tent-in-suitcase route three times, sampling sites from Normandy to the Pyrenees. This summer I took my partner and sons, aged 4 and 16, to three five-star camps.
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Domaine Des Ormes, Brittany, northwest
How flashy is this mega-camp? The resident owner takes helicopter day trips from his medieval chateau.
Des Ormes (The Elms) has an 18-hole golf course, hotel with spa, equestrian center, three restaurants, pub, three pools (two outdoor with wave pool and slides, one indoor with steamy jungle plants), playgrounds, turf field for sports, lakes with fishing and paddle boats, and a treetop adventure course featuring log bridges and zip lines.
You’d need a week to do it all, never mind nearby attractions like the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, walled pirate city of Saint-Malo and D-Day sites.
Activities for young and old run several times daily. On our last night, hundreds gathered at the poolside amphitheater for a camp-produced film featuring time-traveling knights. The heroes found themselves in modern-day Les Ormes defending their “castle,” the owner’s residence – and appeared live at the pool, with dozens of extras, to duel the villain. Amid eyebrow-singeing blasts of fire, the bad guy got chest-kicked into the water.
Fireworks ran 15 minutes. The boy on my shoulders loved it. Everyone else was impressed it happened at all.
Sunelia Interlude, Ile de Re, mid-Atlantic Coast
A four-hour drive south, the Ile de Re feels exclusive, starting with a 16 euro ($21.50) bridge toll.
Re is best seen by bicycle. The island, 20 miles long and three miles wide, is flat as a pancake with one of Europe’s most extensive bicycling networks. Paved paths run through salt beds and vineyards. Haggle at rental bike shops in one of the 10 villages, not at the campsite, to save money. Bikes can include child seats or canopied two-wheeled chariots for infants and pets.
We camped beside the beach on Re’s sandy south coast. Nature here is schizophrenic: At high tide, the sand’s been swallowed up; six hours later, you can walk a quarter-mile into the Atlantic, in bath-like calm, before your feet leave the muddy sand. Hundreds of parked bicycles – and zero cars – mark the beach entrances, flanked by surf schools and catamaran clubs.
But the Interlude campsite, run by the Sunelia chain, proved a letdown despite its five stars. Its indoor complex of water-jet pools was overrun by children and had only one toilet. Its playground and sports facilities were cramped, some pathways were crumbling – my younger boy got bloody knees falling in a pothole – and its too-formal restaurant had short hours and extortionate prices. We stuck to ice cream and pizzas from the overpriced convenience store.
Fortunately, three nearby villages of whitewashed homes with pastel shutters – Le Bois Plage, with a daily market and old-school amusement rides, fortress-enclosed Saint Martin de Re, and yacht-filled port of La Flotte – offered buckets of atmosphere, seaside dining and competitive superstores.
Wildlife around our tent included feral kittens, rock-hopping lizards and a praying mantis. We fed spiders to the ruthless, muscle-armed mantis and took it home as a prized family pet.
Sequoia Parc, Poitou-Charente, southwest France
An hour’s drive south past La Rochelle and Rochefort lies the oyster capital of France and, inland, one of the finest family campsites, Sequoia Parc, on the grounds of a grand chateau.
A four-pool complex offers water slides for every age, even toddlers; a lazy river; and sundeck with non-alcoholic bar.
At the camp’s mini-zoo, my younger son loved visiting goats, chickens, geese, a sheep, badger and alpaca. There are pony rides and weekly visits from a traveling circus featuring acrobats, jugglers, camels and stunt cats, including one who escaped under the bleachers.
Nighttime entertainment beside a barnyard-converted pub and restaurant included a laughably unfunny mime and a live Shrek show that mesmerized my 4-year-old. His big brother bonded with other boys playing basketball, tennis and soccer, then hit the pools with his gaggle of Euro-lads.
My partner indulged in massages, 60 euros ($80) an hour, while I enjoyed simple things: an herb garden for cooking, starling nests inside tropically gardened shower blocks, and chatting with neighbors over candlelit Bordeaux or Cognac.
One warning: Sequoia Parc is flanked by marshland. If mosquitoes find you delicious, you’re doomed.