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France's camps offer family-friendly flexibility

Published on NewsOK Modified: August 6, 2014 at 8:45 am •  Published: August 6, 2014
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SAINT-JUST-LUZAC, France (AP) — 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, ages 4 and 16, to three five-star camps.

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DOMAINE DES ORMES, Brittany, northwest France

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.

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SUNELIA INTERLUDE, Ile de Re (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, 30 kilometers (20 miles) long and 5 kilometers (3 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 (half kilometer) 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.

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