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A French lesson
My wife Claire looked doubtful when I suggested driving to our campsite holiday in South West France’s Aquitaine region.
“It looks a long way,” she said.
“A day, tops,” I said with authority.
Lesson one: always listen to the missus.
We booked our holiday with Canvas, who gently suggested to me that Claire might be right; it was rather a long way to drive in one go. Our ultimate destination was the sprawling Le Vieux Port campsite in Messanges, about an hour north of Biarritz, and our Canvas agent suggested we might want to break up the journey with an overnight stay half way. We plumped for Le Parc de Fierbois, an inland campsite built around a lake.
The first leg of our journey was not as exotic or exciting; a 3am start from West Yorkshire to make the 9am ferry crossing at Dover, which is included in the Canvas holidays price. “It’ll be an adventure!” I declared. Our children, Charlie (seven) and Alice (five), agreed. Motoring down the M1 in the dark, however, they decided to put the spirit of adventure on hold for a bit and, thankfully, slept most of the way.
We crossed the Channel with P&O, a straightforward, comfortable affair and our car was disgorged at Calais just before lunch-time. I’d worked out that we would be at our first stop in the Loire valley by late afternoon. Lesson two: Driving in France always takes more time than you expect. We had numerous navigational aids, our favoured method being print-outs from the AA’s route-planner website alongside conventional road-maps. But this time we also had the advantage of 21st Century technology: My dad had lent us his new sat-nav. Our location and destination programmed, we set off.
Lesson three: A sat-nav will always try to take you in a direction you’re not really expecting. By the time we’d joined the autoroutes and were heading towards Paris (the sat-nav didn’t want us to see the City of Lights) we’d muted the thing and were concentrating on the written directions.
Seasoned Francophile travellers have since shuddered when I told them we did the Paris route, joining the never-ending stream of traffic that seems to have its own rules of the road (to which newcomers are not party) that is the Peripherique. This immense ring-road circles Paris and can be quite hairy for the novice. Thankfully, Claire’s clear-headed navigation and my edge-of-the-seat driving proved a winning combination to getting us through, then it was plain sailing towards Parc de Fierbois, which we found fairly simply, although after 6pm, compared to my 3pm ETA.
When it comes to holidays, you’re either a seaside person or a countryside person. I’ve always been a seaside person, but I did find the small Parc de Fierbois a tranquil, beautiful location. The lake around which the park is built is beautiful and perfect for watersports and swimming. There’s also a nice little pool complex and on-site shops and bars. The Canvas reps are particularly helpful and hands-on there, and it’s a fantastic base for exploring all that the Loire Valley has to offer.
But my sandcastle-building hands were itching, and one night in the mobile home and we were keen to be off on the next leg.
Lesson four: With no-frills airline luggage restrictions so severe, you’ll love the fact that taking your own car means you can pack buckets and spades, bikes and even tins of beans (a can of Heinz beans in France costs about the same as you can buy a four-pack for over here).
Lesson five: You’re going to use a lot of petrol driving almost seven hundred miles. Small children want to use the toilet a lot, so you’ll stop more than you think. And driving such distances on the autoroutes comes at a premium: leave plenty of cash for tolls.
We had one wobble around Bordeaux, when we hit a traffic jam that set us back an hour. But this was the road that headed south to Spain, and it was the first weekend of the French holidays. I say one wobble, make that two. We’d been on the road about 30 hours at the point where we passed signs for Bordeaux Airport. “Oh, look,” said Claire. “We could have got here in about an hour and a half from Leeds-Bradford airport”.
You have to be strong at moments like this, and we motored on to Le Vieux Port, getting there just after tea-time.
At last, our destination.
Le Vieux Port is an immense campsite, and 2010 was the first year that Canvas, an established and highly-respected operator we’ve used many times before, has pitched up here. There’s one rep, an amiable Irishman called Colin whose enthusiasm for his job in general and the site in particular shines through. Claire wasn’t enamoured by the festival-style wrist-bands we had to wear to access the site’s facilities, and the mobile homes are a little closer together than our all-time favourite Canvas site of Les Tournels near St Tropez, which gives a great deal of privacy.
But we soon settled into the wonderful pace of life in the pine-clad campsite. Our Comfort-plus mobile home, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a large living and kitchen area, was equidistant between the wonderful pool complex and the fantastic beach, and we split our time between the two of them. The pools are designed in the shape of a pirate ship, which isn’t as tacky as it sounds, and the waterpark-quality slides kept Charlie and Alice occupied for hours, under the watchful eyes of the pool attendants.
The beach is a wide expanse of golden sand, well served with a small bar and cafe and surf schools to take advantage of the crashing waves which are a feature of this coast, and which require careful supervision of small children.
After a hot day on the beach, there’s the ‘petit train’ available at 15-minute intervals to take you back to the shady pitches, and then the site offers a wealth of evening entertainment with a variety of restaurant options, takeaways, bars, shows and visiting circuses.
It seems a crime to drive so far and not see the surrounding area, but to be quite honest we’d had our fill of sitting in the car after our journey, and with so much to do on Le Vieux Port we didn’t feel inclined to leave.
Certainly not when it came to packing the car up for our long drive back.
Here endeth the lessons, save for one more: Next time I suggest driving so far, can someone please point me in the direction of an airport?
- The Barnetts went to France with Canvas Holidays (www.canvasholidays.co.uk, 0845 268 0827).
- They stayed one night either side of the main holiday at Le Parc de Fierbois (www.fierbois.com) and eight nights at Camping Le Vieux Port, Messanges (www.levieuxport.com).