Camping with les enfants

The fun factor, if not the sun factor, was sky high on a family camping holiday in Brittany

Sat, Feb 1, 2014, 00:00

A few days in to our first camping holiday in France last summer, we looked across from our mobile home where some new neighbours were moving in to their accommodation. Encouraging our twin daughters to wave a welcoming “bonjour!” to people we assumed would be complete strangers, we found ourselves instead saying “howiya!” to some acquaintances from Dublin.

It was our first big lesson in holidaying camping-style in northern Brittany: You might be in France but what with the weather (it can rain a lot) and your fellow travellers (mostly Irish and British) it often feels much closer to home.

This is not a complaint. If you asked our children what they loved most about the holiday, after they’d stopped telling you about the morning croissants and the donkey rides, they’d say Sarah and Fiona. They were two Irish and Scottish teenagers who worked with Keycamp – now Eurocamp – the organisation that provides a daily schedule of children’s entertainment at a dizzying array of camping parks across France.

But we had to get there first and another thing the children would tell you is that the journey was as much fun as the destination.We travelled to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries from Ringaskiddy in Cork. The ship was, in the words of the children “ginormously big” and that’s a pretty accurate description of the Pont-Aven. If you wanted, you could go swimming in the pool, check out a live magic show, see a cabaret, catch a film, go shopping, get a facial or, if you were so inclined, go for a run up on deck.

We got to the port early which was a good move because it meant that when we left the car and dumped our gear for the overnight journey in the cabin, we could head to the restaurant before the crowds. They have children’s meals sussed in the restaurant we chose, including an impressive toy in the box of above-average chicken nuggets. Apart from a bit of the magic show and a go on the jungle gym, we made our own entertainment on board. The roomy cabin had a large window onto the rolling sea that was declared “better than television”.

Arriving in Roscoff, we’d been worried about finding our destination, Dol-de-Bretagne, just over 200km away. But the GPS function on our phone made it easy and added a bit of surreality to the two and a half hour car journey – the woman with the South Co Dublin accent reading out the directions had worse French pronunciation than Del Boy.

It had been tricky to choose a park from the hundreds available on the eurocamp.ie website. In the end, we were swayed by the 400 acres of parkland around Domaine des Ormes in Dol-de-Bretagne and the fact that visitor reports on Tripadvisor seemed consistently positive. There was also talk of an on site circus which swung it, although in the end we never visited the impressive big top.

Originally the summer residence of the bishops of the Dol-de-Bretagne region, since 1860 Château des Ormes has been in the same family, who ran the place as a farm until the late 1970s when it was transformed into a camp site. The family still run it, and in addition to the mobile homes, apartments and luxury tree house accommodation, the site now has a 18-hole golf course, equestrian centre, crazy golf, three swimming pools and a tree top activity centre. If the owner wasn’t buzzing around in his helicopter, (“one of the most eligible bachelors in France,” I overheard one visitor say dreamily), people were whizzing through the trees on a zipline.

The accommodation was basic but spacious, our mobile home had decking, a gas barbecue, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. A word of warning: if you’re going by ferry it’s no harm to pack a couple of duvets in the car as Brittany nights can be freezing. Actually, the beauty of travelling with the car was that it took a bit of the pain out of packing, and you could throw things in the boot at the last minute.

Once we settled into our campsite, Sarah and Fiona, those Eurocamp teenagers, instantly became a huge part of our holiday.They gave cycling lessons, played games on the huge lawn and led their charges on a treasure hunt. There were devastated tears rolling down cheeks when our two four-year-olds presented them with their painstakingly painted farewell cards on the day we left. The people you meet on holiday can make or break a trip. Sarah and Fiona made ours.

The children loved the routine of leaving our mobile home every morning for the Eurocamp activities which were based in “fun stations”. For the parents, the routine served to highlight the fact that a holiday like this is all about the children, as it should be, no matter how much we’d like it to be at least a little bit about us. We spent a lot of time nodding to other parents who were waiting around like spare parts as the children finished their latest round of water fights or teddy bear’s picnics. The site’s swimming pools were a huge hit, especially the water slides and the rolling rapids in the indoor pool.

The weather was pretty terrible. After a few days of June sunshine the rains came and never seemed to go away. The portable DVD player was a godsend when it got so bad we couldn’t leave the mobile home. A full-on electrical storm one night led to a power cut, but staff on the site couldn’t have been more helpful.

Options for days out included exploring nearby towns such as St Malo or Rennes, but there was so much to do on-site that apart from regular trips to the huge Super U supermarket 10 minutes away, we stayed in the leafy confines of the park.

We did have one big day out and it turned out to be a highlight of the holiday. We went to visit Mont-St-Michel, a 30 minute drive from the site, without knowing how magical it would prove to be for two children obsessed with Rapunzel and fairytale castles. Visited by three million tourists each year, the soaring turrets and towers of the 11th century abbey are like something out of a story book. We spent the afternoon trailing after the children up the stone steps (there are lots of steps; wear runners) as they knocked on doors looking for princes and princesses, gathered stones and picked daisies. It felt, in a surprisingly good way, like being in a Disney princess movie.

It seems incredible that people still live on these winding street. You can even stay here in quaint but I’m guessing overpriced hotels – even a small coffee from a kiosk was €3.50. Our advice? Bring your own picnic, and lunch like kings on the ramparts overlooking the fast moving tides that surround the site. It’s a tourist trap, yes, but you forgive the place everything for that feeling of walking into the middle-ages.

We did feel a little institutionalised by the end of the holiday, but that was our own fault for mostly staying put on site. Next time, we’d make a bit more effort to explore and try local restaurants beyond the gates of the complex. The one night we went out to eat we felt shortchanged by sloppy adult pasta portions and overcooked children’s food in the main restaurant on the site – €50 for a meal that was not even half as good as the barbecues we were making every night was disappointing. And what with all the laundry and the cooking you need to do on a holiday like this you might feel, as we did, that you need a nice holiday and a lie-down afterwards. But the litmus test: the children are still talking about our not hugely French, French adventure and even factoring in the thunder storms and power cuts we’d definitely go back.

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