If you are looking for a quiet spot to chill out in France but worry about keeping the kids happy, head for Herault in the Languedoc, where you are sure to find something to please everybody
Planning a family holiday together in the South of France
This can prove as difficult as reaching an agreement at the Copenhagen summit, especially if you have teenagers. Whereas parents may dream of finding a quiet spot in the French countryside, this is unlikely to please everyone. A villa with a large pool or a hotel may seem the ideal compromise. But even if you cram the car with inflatable toys, high tech goggles and flippers, the pool won't keep everyone entertained for the whole two weeks. Sooner or later you will risk mutiny. A judicious balance between relaxing by the pool and a few well planned outings is called for.
How about Herault?
This area of contrasting landscapes is of such great beauty that you might well expect to encounter coachloads of visitors everywhere you go. It stretches from the limestone plateaux or causses in the north, through spectacular valleys and gorges, to the coastal plain in the south, with its endless vines, sandy beaches and little fishing ports. Yet it is easy to escape the crowds, even in the height of summer. What's more it offers a wealth of activities for children of all ages. Here are some suggestions to keep an energetic family firmly on your side.
Five itineraries for happy families:
Day one: donkey trekking
Suggest a long walk and you may well receive groans. Suggest a donkey trek and I guarantee everyone will be keen to join in. Balthazar, Lily, Narcisse and Gideon are just some of the long eared, fuzzy creatures that accompany walkers over the stony tracks of the Causse du Larzac. Donkeys come equipped with special paniers and will carry luggage and small children. I promise you a unique experience, traversing countryside, where limestone outcrops have weathered into weird and wonderful shapes, and isolated tracks suddenly reveal views over the Mediterranean and the Pyrenees to the south or the Cevennes to the north. Best of all, your pace of life will adjust to that of your new found friend(s).
"Sherp'Anes" is based in the village of La Vacquerie. A donkey costs 40/30 Euro a day (Sherp'Anes, Le Village, La Vacquerie; +33(0)467446899; www.sherpanes.com).
Day two: canoe safari
Swap donkeys for canoes and head off down the dramatic River Herault. Starting at the Unesco World Heritage village of St Guilhem le Desert, you are transported upstream to join your canoe. The whole day lies ahead. Paddle back through wonderful gorges, stopping at fine sandy beaches to swim, or enjoy a picnic. This is a perfect river for families as the rapids are gentle and the water crystal clear. Even four year olds can participate on the 4km stretch. Canoe hire: 22 Euro per person for 12 km course; 14 Euro for 4km. Single kayaks are slightly more (reservations +33(0)467557575; www.st-guilhem-le-desert/canoe-rapido).
Before you leave, don't forget to visit the village and its Romanesque abbey. I especially love the cloisters here, part of which, I am sad to say, now reside in a New York museum. The pond's enormous fish, once kept to supplement the monks' diet, should fascinate restless kids.
A little further down stream is the medieval Pont du Diable, a popular spot for bathing. This can get a little crowded in summer though.
Day Three: up in the air....Parc Aventure Accro Roc
If your children have a spirit of adventure and daring, this is for them. A tree-top height assault course offers challenges in the form of bridges, walk -ways and rope swings. A thrilled nine year old I know wasn't at all nervous, unlike those of us who watched from below. Rigorous safety equipment is provided, and an instructor is present at all times. Cost ranges from 9 Euro for younger children to 18 Euro for adults (Parcours Accro Roc des Infruts; +33(0)5 65 993 067; www.activites-sports-loisirsaveyron.com/parc_aventure). This company also offer other adventure sports such as caving and canyoning around Millau.
Close by is the fortified Knights Templar Village of La Couvertoirade. This is well worth a visit for a real taste of history without the commercialism.
Day four: going underground
There are some wonderful limestone cave formations in Herault. Two of the best are:
Grotte de Clamouse in the Herault Valley (5.50 /8.90 Euro; +33(0)467577105; www.clamouse.com)
Grotte des Demoiselles in the Upper Herault (1 to 8.90 Euro; 33(0)467737002; www.demoiselles.com)
Save your subterranean visit for a rare rainy day.
Day five: in the steps of the dinosaurs
Is there a budding palaeontologist in your family? Why not investigate the footprints of Therapsid and other mammal like reptiles near the village of La Lieude by Lac Salagou. These actually pre-date the dinosaurs. A trip to the museum at nearby Lodeve will add further excitement. Here, locally discovered dinosaur footprints are on display among the museum's prehistoric remains. This museum also hosts top class art exhibitions (Gaugin et al in 2010).
In 1996 one of the world’s largest collection of dinosaur eggs was discovered at Meze. Many species of dinosaur roamed here, laying their eggs in the ancient tropical forests. Meze Dinosaur Museum Park displays the largest complete dinosaur skeleton in the world, a brachiosaurus, and much more (admission 5.50/7.00 Euro; +33(0)467430280; www.musee-parc-dinosaures.com).
Food and accommodation
There is a wealth of self catering accommodation in Herault ranging from simple gites to large villas with pools. www.ownersdirect.co.uk or www.abritel.fr. are just two of many internet sites to explore.
Auberge des Causses is the French inn of your dreams; basic rooms (from 45 Euro) and excellent food. Typical menus include gigot d'agneau, local trout and daube de taureau. A substantial three course meal costs 19 Euro. Local wine is served in pottery jugs.
Sherp'Anes arranges simple gite accommodation for longer treks (see above).
Hotel de la Paix (11 Boulevard Montalangue, Lodeve; 33(0)467440746; email@example.com) has twin/double rooms from 55 Euro and is a pleasant hotel in the market town of Lodeve. Typical French cuisine with menus from 18 Euro. Be sure to ask for a table on the terrasse, overlooking the pool. I love its Moroccan feel in the heart of town.
Hotel Port Rive Gauche is in Marseillan. I admire this stylish new warehouse conversion on the edge of the Etang de Thau, with wrought iron balconies overlooking the water. This offers an excellent compromise between hotel and self catering. A family suite for four costs from 124 Euro per day.
Sample some of the many cafés and restaurants along Marseillan harbour. This place is buzzing even in winter. Also visit the factory where Noilly Prat is made.
I do like Chez Philippe (Porte Rive Gauche, Marseillan; +33(0)467017062). Alas Philippe has retired since Rick Stein gave this bistro style restaurant the thumbs up, but with dishes like saffron infused cuttle fish stew, the food is still excellent. Menu 27 Euro.