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Intent on 'real' camping

PUBLISHED: 18:12 05 March 2011

A bungalow tent at La Loubine campsite in the Vendee region of western France.

A bungalow tent at La Loubine campsite in the Vendee region of western France.

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After a decade of mobile home holidays in France Stephen Pullinger's family braves a tent for the first time and finds it makes for a value holiday.

The campsite's impressive pool complex.

We had toyed with the idea of ‘real’ camping before and had even looked round the tent of a family staying next to our rather palatial mobile home.

But although the children had declared it would be a real adventure staying in a tent for a change, and we were certainly surprised by the space and level of equipment, those memories had faded by the time we booked our mobile home again the following year.

What made us finally opt for two weeks under canvas on our annual trip to France was something families across Britain will relate to – the increasingly tough economic climate, with soaring fuel prices and a miserly exchange rate.

Although saving money was the big driver, we certainly had no regrets when our friendly Vacansoleil rep ushered us past a row of mobile homes to our waiting bungalow tent on the La Loubine campsite at Olonne-sur-Mer on France’s western coast.

Or perhaps I should say no regrets after the first evening. The tiny field mouse that scuttled into our tent caused quite an upset until we managed to reassure our two youngest girls it had probably disappeared and could not get into the zipped bedroom compartments any way.

It was our third holiday in the Vendée region which is blessed with a micro-climate that generally makes it agreeably warm from late May onwards.

The other big draw for us is the fact that the distance from Norfolk can be covered in one day provided you are prepared to make an early start to catch a 7am ferry from Dover.

While the South of France has many appeals, not least the climate, the strain of a two-day journey is not much fun, especially on the way home.

Staying in a tent for the first time somehow immediately made me feel at one with nature; and that could not have been more appropriate in such a glorious rural location. In fact it made me realise how we had been getting further away from the camping ideal during the decade we had been taking mobile home holidays.

Constant upgrading meant that what started out as a fairly basic caravan had become more like a luxury bungalow with all mod-cons – more like being at home than on holiday.

In June the campsite was quiet, but the lack of high-season entertainment was more than compensated for by the freedom to enjoy the splendid pool complex which caters for all weathers with heated indoor as well as outdoor facilities.

We all enjoyed the water slides and our only criticism was that the pool appeared over-chlorinated at times causing eye irritation.

The off-season peace and quiet made it perfect to enjoy the teaming wildlife of Les Salines, the extensive salt marshes bordering the campsite and running to Les Sables d’Olonne on the coast.

Each day we enjoyed the sight of a red kite flying to and fro, feeding its young in a nest on the site, while another frequent and vocal visitor was a cuckoo.

Our one apprehension about tenting had been how we would get on with using the toilet and shower blocks. We need not have worried because the children had no problems merrily going back and forth – and even cheerfully helped with the washing-up. And as we have usually observed in France, the facilities were kept clean to a high level.

The one strange thing, which we later discovered was a cause of complaint on some online campsite reviews, was the mysterious lack of toilet seats. Was this a bizarre case of theft for the local gendarmerie?

June in the Vendée is often like fine summer weather in England and we were blessed with temperatures around 22C and just the occasional shower.

The region is one of France’s premier holiday playgrounds with plenty to see and do and one of the country’s top resorts, the elegant town of Les Sables d’Olonne, a short drive away.

However, after a decade of camping holidays in France, we have come to realise that one of the great pleasures is just to take it easy and savour the gentle pace of life.

Days are happily whiled away with trips to the local farmers’ markets, sorties to the beach – the nearest, Sauveterre, just a 1.5km walk away through the coastal forest – and simply relaxing on the campsite.

And when you tire of self-catering, there is a reasonably-priced restaurant and takeaway on site – we enjoyed a pizza on our first night after sorting the mouse drama.

The site is kept in good order and there are plenty of play facilities for children as well as the pools.

An attraction of campsites, even out of high season, is that there are invariably other youngsters, of all nationalities, to make friends with.

And for anyone who enjoys walking, running or cycling, the area around the campsite is a paradise.

My early-morning runs either took me along the waterside paths of Les Salines towards the elegant town of Les Sables d’Olonne or through the coastal forest, spotting red squirrels and one day startled by a deer crashing across the path in front of me.

We did not bother with Les Sables d’Olonne, apart from excursions to hypermarkets on its outskirts, until the second week.

But its seafront and beach are impressive and we enjoyed a memorable lunch in the port district where there is a good choice of restaurants to suit all pockets – and you can even park free outside of the high season.

Another reason to visit the resort is the delightful zoo which has a strong focus on conservation and beautifully-kept gardens to walk round.

Another worthwhile afternoon out is a boat trip around Les Salines, which includes a commentary translation in English.

The history of the area as a salt-producer from Roman times is explained during the two-hour trip along quiet waterways which offers ample opportunities to observe the teaming birdlife.

The excursion ends at the Jardins des Salines where salt is still produced and the process is explained – there is even a gift shop where you can come away with souvenir salt.

On the one wet, grey day of our holiday, we drove the 40km to Noirmoutier to visit L’Ile aux Papillons, the largest greenhouse for butterflies in France with more than 100 species.

It is exhilarating to walk around the tropical gardens as butterflies – many large with extraordinary colours – flutter up in front of your face.

At the end of our holiday, it would be fair to describe us as happy campers. Even the violent thunderstorm that led to a torrent leaking inside our tent failed to spoil our newly-discovered love affair with canvas.

And the children were quite positive that they wanted to stay in a tent the next time we go on holiday.

It was our first holiday with Vacansoleil, which offers a range of mobile homes as well as tents, and the experience left a good impression.

Our rep was friendly and helpful – even providing mouse pellets to deter further visitors – and its brochure offers plenty of smaller-size campsites that would especially appeal to families with young children.

Vacansoleil’s tents and mobiles do not match the high end of some other holiday companies but they certainly represent good value for money. Our tent was spacious, the bedrooms were comfortable – more so than some mobile homes – and the cooking facilities and other equipment were more than adequate.

For us, the holiday adventure begins as soon as we have packed the car and left home, and the ferry is an important part of that experience – forget the dreary Channel Tunnel even if it does save an hour on the journey.

This was our first time with SeaFrance and we found its ships a little more cramped, with less places to browse round compared with P&O.

And we found its very average food rather pricey – a breakfast snack at restaurant dinner prices.

French roads are a joy to drive on compared with many in England, and another advantage of heading west to the Vendée is that the tolls incurred are a lot less damaging than on the long trek south. We find that holiday excitement prevents too much moaning and the early start means the children can sleep away some of the journey.

FACTFILE

A week’s stay with Vacansoleil in a Navajo tent at Camping la Loubine ranges from £275 to £683 per party. All accommodation sleeps up to six people. There are no extras or surcharges and you can arrive any day of the week. For low season (before July 2 or after August 27) there are discounts that give seven nights for the price of five or 14 nights for the price of seven. Price example for May 28 for 14 nights – £333.

To book telephone 0333 7005050 or book online at www.vacansoleil.co.uk

A Dover-Calais ferry crossing is included in the price if you travel Monday to Thursday with small supplements for weekend crossings. Other ferry crossings available at varying supplements. If you opt to fly-drive and book your own low-cost flight and hire a car at the airport, Vacansoleil will deduct £90.

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