Luxury camping with kids in the French Vendee

by Julia Cons

Sunshine, a swimming pool with slides, a smoking barbeque, a glass of something, and a relaxed family. What more could anyone ask of a budget summer break?

Can you imagine taking a family of six on holiday for a week to a luxury 4* resort, where the sun bakes down while the children swim, ride the flumes, cycle, play tennis and row on the lake - all for less than a thousand pounds?

If the thought of camping induces a shudder, and memories of cold showers, condensation-soaked sleeping bags and sausages and Smash for tea, stop harking back to the torturous days of Scout or Guide camp immediately, and open your mind to glamping at La Garangeoire, 15km from the breakers and sand dunes of France’s Vendeen coast.

It’s amazing what a difference that 15km makes. In contrast to the cramped beachside french campsites, La Garangeoire boasts huge pitches of lush grass, mostly separated by hedges that guarantee an unprecedented degree of privacy.

Accommodation is in top quality mobile homes or luxury chalets with up to three bedrooms, touring caravans, or tents –pitch your own or move straight into one provided by either Canvas or Eurocamp, complete with beds and a quite adequate kitchen. And the facilities are top notch and well maintained - the spotless showers have an endless supply hot water and there’s no carrying your own roll of paper to the toilets here!

There are organised activities on offer – the odd barbeque and a disco just once a week, a painting on canvas class and a discovery walk, but Butlins this isn’t.

There is a new indoor pool as well as a choice of outdoor pools, with a separate toddler area, and three slides. There’s a playground, crazy golf and a ballgames area. There’s a barn full of table tennis tables, a games room offering pool, pinball, air hockey and table football, and somewhere tucked away there’s a go-kart track where kids with too much energy can race round for half an hour for 5 Euros.
Riding lessons are available on site (18,5 Euros for an hour), but most people opt for a gentle hack through the chateau’s grounds and woodland, starting at just 8 Euros.

Listing all the entertainment on offer makes La Garangeoire sound like a hive of activity, but the truth is it’s a peaceful haven of quiet lanes, wide open spaces and stunning countryside.

The Famous Five

Every year it takes our horde a day or two to realise they really are free to roam. Then they go all Famous Five on us for a week or so. Initially it’s tempting to take advantage of the peace and quiet, and kick back with Hello and a (small, honest Guv) Pinot Grigio, but the kids seem to be having so much fun that pretty quickly we get drawn into the action!

New to Eurocamp, and the last word in luxury camping, is the Safari Tent – big enough to hold a party in, with a decked floor, wooden furniture and an enormous balcony area providing a dining area and shelter from all extremes of weather – be it blazing sunshine or pouring rain.

So, imagine this. We awake slowly under the dappled light cast by the trees behind us (later their cool canopy will provide some shade as the sun heats up), and the sound of our children stirring. And while we pop the kettle on to boil, and spoon fresh coffee into the cafetiere, the kids head off on their bikes – available onsite for 35 Euros a week each if you don’t want to transport your own – to the little campsite shop to fetch crispy baguettes and warm croissants for breakfast. While they’re gone, and the coffee’s brewing, we rifle through the fridge for butter, raspberry jam and Nutella, pour six glasses of fresh orange juice, and lay the table.

Over breakfast, an animated conversation ensues. The day ahead’s activities are discussed, and hopefully a consensus is reached –after all, what we don’t do today, we can always do tomorrow.

We’ve recently discovered Geocaching - a treasure hunting game where you use a GPS (often on your mobile phone) to seek out treasure hidden by others. We did a quick online search, at before we left home, and we know there are several caches in the vicinity, including one at the nearby Lac du Jaunay, where you can also get the most delicious crepes and moules frites at Le Pre (85220 La Chapelle Hermier, France, tel: 02 51 34 68 20 ).

But the creperie is shut on Wednesdays, someone remembers, so we defer treasure hunting till later in the week.

The boys (politely including dad in that youthful description) are angling for a morning’s fishing in one of La Garangeoire’s four lakes, where they hope to catch, amongst other things, perch and pike which they generously offer in advance for lunch.

But the oldest has her eye on the campsite take away, and has perfected the phrase, Pizza Margarita et une petite portion de frites, s’il vous plait,’ which she was planning to make use of at lunchtime (pizzas start at 5,90 Euros, and chips at 1,60 Euros). And anyway, she was hoping to try her hand at archery (6 Euros for a three hour lesson) before putting her French into practice.

After exhausting the coffee and croissants we finally come to a compromise. An hour later (we are so relaxed that everything seems to take an age) we are milling round the friendly reception, fitting the kids with life jackets and selecting paddles and oars. Needless to say, on emerging, the children hop on their bikes and shoot off down the woodland path towards the lake, leaving us to struggle with all the equipment. ‘Next time we make them wear the life jackets,’ I mutter.

We split into pairs and grab a canoe, a pedalo and the rowing boat. Miraculously the kids manage not to capsize anything, though standing up in the rowing boat sets off a wild rocking that causes much parental shouting. We chase each other, race each other, and manage to thoroughly wet each other. And then one of the kids spots the lake snake. We stalk the yellow and black patterned reptile around the lake and in and out of the rushes. And when he swims towards us, dad attempts to scoop him up on the end of his paddle, but instead of taking a peek at the people and flipping promptly back into the water, the lake snake takes one look at dad and starts to wriggle at great speed up the shaft towards the boat. Cue much screaming and a hastily discarded paddle. Good job they float.

A later Internet search reveals we’ve had a close encounter with a Western Whip Snake. And for future reference, we know that a snake with round pupils is non-venomous, as oppose to those with slit-shaped eyes. With relief we note that the lake snake was of the round pupiled persuasion.

A day at the seaside

If the lake snake temporarily puts you off freshwater activities, head for the sea. This is tourist territory and your choice of resorts is wide. Our favourite beaches (three and a half km of golden sand!) are at Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, situated about twenty minutes away between St Jean de Monts and Les Sables d’Ollone.

Saint Gilles has everything you need for a day out – a quaintly French harbour surrounded by cafés, creperies and restaurants, and a wide, sandy beach barely populated by people out of high season. Parking is easy and mostly free – except on market days, which are Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturday mornings. Although it can be harder to find a space then, the market is well worth a visit for basic groceries, cured meats and cheese.

As the sun goes down

The barbeque is cooling, delicious aromas still lingering, the kids are settling for the night, and we light a citronella candle to deter the odd mosquito, and recline with a cold beer and a warm feeling of satisfaction…