“Living The Dream” … what an amazing phrase. When I first wanted a campervan the dream was to start touring the South of France, hopping from one site to the next, enjoying the views and the local customs. Getting to a point in life where I could actually afford to live the dream meant growing up, forging a career and saving. Part of growing up often means starting a family and this usually means that the dream needs to go on hold for a while the new members grow up.
When the kids were little we toured the UK in a touring caravan. Having a small baby was no problem, the caravan had space and a separate washroom. We learnt how to go away and travel light and we learned that we could enjoy ourselves as a tight knit unit, confined to a small space, often when it was raining outside. We did this for over five years until my original dream of owning a campervan became a reality. Selling the family wagon and caravan allowed me to indulge in a Volkswagen Campervan – not a 60 year old super cool vintage model but a newly converted T5 Transporter.
Touring The South Of France
It’s quite a jump to go from a four berth touring caravan into a campervan. It is four berth, but the kids sleep in the roof – and the tiny kitchen/galley converts into a double bed area. There’s no room for playing games (unless digital) and rainy days while on holiday mean pub visits and meals out (hang on, that actually sounds like it was planned). But with dedication and family teamwork, we managed to get away for days out and long weekends without too much strife.
When it was time to book the traditional two week summer holiday we had a decision to make. Could we survive in a campervan touring to the bottom of France and back or would we need to book somewhere once we arrived. Amazingly Jane said we would be OK in the campervan and save a heap of dosh. To be honest, I was pretty amazed at this and started feeling a bit nauseous.
The route was meticulously planned. Google maps helped us plot our route (map embedded at bottom of post) and this enabled us to identify areas to look for campsites. We decided to add seven different stops to our round trip as we didn’t really want to subject the kids to more than five hours of driving in any one day. Each stop vetted for certain facilities such as pool, restaurant, shop, playground, bar (not necessarily in that order 😉 and they were pre-booked either direct or through The Caravan Club. Each stop was viewed with Google Street View to determine the GPS location and these were pre-set into CoPilot Live for the iPhone with full European mapping.
This year we decided to try the Chunnel for the first time, having previously taken the car and caravan on the ferry. What a great experience this turned out to be, we drove from Derbyshire to Folkstone with hours to spare and the operators literally just waved us onto the train ahead of schedule. Thirty minutes later we drove off the train ready to tour the South Of France.
As the UK leg of the trip was about four hours we had decided to stay the night on a site that we have previously used that was only a few miles from the port; Camping La Bien Assise with pool, restaurant and bar, it ticked the boxes for the first night. We parked up next to two other Volkswagen Transporters and headed for the pool. As with all French campsites we remembered to pre-order our croissants and French stick for the morning. The site is a melting pot of travellers mainly stopping one or two nights either heading out of, or heading to the UK and everyone congregates in the outdoor restaurant area for a few beers and pizza.
After sending the young servants to collect the bread based items (which is quite harsh really seeing that my son is a Coeliac) we folded up the bed and pulled the roof down ready for the 400+ mile journey to Castel-Camping Château de l’Epervière in Southern Burgundy. The Jewel in the Crown of this site is the restaurant serving the beautiful Haute Cuisine of Burgundy, the setting is magnificent and the atmosphere is sophisticated. The kids get a couple of small swimming pools to choose from and also a paddling pool hidden in the middle of the site between the pitches. Having the ability to sit outside the van watching the kids play in the shallow water made for a relaxing couple of days.
The next part of the trip was five hours to get us right to bottom of France near St Tropez. The heat in the van was becoming pretty severe with no air-conditioning and the 12volt fans were working overtime. The scenery was beautiful and we made regular stops in the motorway Aires for ice cream and a rest in the shade. Castel – Caravaning de I’Esterel is an interesting site – land is obviously a premium in the South of France and this site was nestled upon a hill with terraces cut into the hillside to allow for flat pitches. Not much grass to be found, mainly dusty pitches with winding tarmac routes inbetween. The scenery was stunning from our pitch, it felt like we were in a Western Movie and that cowboys would come riding over the hill at any moment. The fact that wild boar roamed the no-man’s land adjacent to our pitch added to this authenticity – whether we liked it or not.
In fact, we didn’t actually like it. To hear some poor animal being hunted down by a wild boar and then spend a good hour screeching didn’t make for an enjoyable first night. Then a tropical thunderstorm washed rain water down the hill and flooded most of the campers that didn’t have the advantage of having four wheels between them and the ground. The morning made for a depressing site of campers sweeping mud out of their awnings and hanging out groundsheets to dry. Drying was swift, it was 30 degrees centigrade in the shade … at 9am in the morning.
At this point the dream turned into a nightmare.
It didn’t take long for us to decide that there was no way we could stay on this pitch for a week as we felt it wasn’t suited or safe for the kids. So we hot footed it (literally) over to reception to explore our options. To cut a boring story short, after some assurances that if our pitch could be re-rented we could get a refund – we upgraded to an air-conditioned ‘MOBILE HOME BASTIDON’
So let’s now just pretend that we used the campervan to get us to our destination with a few lovely overnight stops on the way and let’s get on with the good points of this site and location.
Once in a mobile home (of the static variety) this site is actually pretty amazing. It has some lovely outside pools and the bar, restaurant and entertainment is superb. A short drive out of the site and down the hill gets you to Agay, a seaside bay on the Cotes d’Azur. Surrounded by the Esterel Mountains, the winding mountain roads provide amazing scenery (for the passengers) and the Route Nationale 98 runs along all the Cotes d’Azur. The site is a good base for Cannes, Monaco and Saint-Tropez.
As the arrival and departure dates for the mobile home and the pitch were different, we were left having to find a last minute location. The Hotels.com iPad application came in handy once again and within 10 minutes we had read reviews, booked and confirmed a hotel in Cannes called Residence Les Bruyères.
This is a 3 star hotel with a small pool, the idea is that you’ll probably be spending your evenings in Cannes – although at 5 Euro for a beer you probably won’t be getting too tipsy 😉
Getting back to the original plan, the next stop was in the Ardèche, just 160 miles away. I’ve always wanted to visit the Ardèche after hearing all about it from Jane. I was not disappointed. Such a beautiful area and a stark contrast to the far South. Lush, green, trees, grass and general living beauty.
The site, an Indigo site that typically doesn’t see that many English due to the main advertising being based in France, Germany and The Netherlands was fully equipped with a pool, restaurant and a riverside bathing location. It’s a pretty cool site, with roulottes (gypsy caravans) and pre-setup large canvas tents with decking and the evening entertainment was even ‘groovy’. The location in the Ardèche was central for us to visit the amazing Pont Du Gard and Vallon Pont d’Arc – and when I say amazing, I actually mean breathtaking. Once again Indigo have provided us with another favourite site to which we will return.
Here’s a video I recorded while driving over the top of the gorges of the Ardeche:
If you love driving then you may want to drive the road that follows the top of the gorges of the Ardeche. It’s a breathtaking route with numerous viewpoints (belvederes) where you can stop and enjoy the view.
After a few nights at Indigo we travelled 200 miles towards Paris and landed at Camping Pont De Bourgogne. This is a fairly simple site overlooking the River Saône. The shower block was immaculate and to my delight the bar served local bottled beer. If you are thinking of visiting this site, don’t rely on sat nav to get you to the door. If you start going over the river on a bridge, you’ve missed it! Most of the campers here were using the site as a stopover. There’s plenty to see in the area, the town is called Chalon sur Saône and the Cathedral with its neo-gothic towers dominate the old part of town.
Another 220 miles and we land in Paris and we opted to stay at the same hotel as last year Novotel Marne Vallee Collegien. This is a modern hotel with great facilities and welcoming for kids. It has an outside pool, a small bar and a large restaurant – however, the plan isn’t to hang around the hotel when Disneyland Paris is a 5 minute drive up the road.
There isn’t much I can write about Disneyland Paris that you probably don’t already know. We opted to do one park in one day again and this means getting there before 10am and leaving at 10pm (if you’re hard enough). The kids had an amazing time – and that’s what it’s all about.
Note: You can take your own food if you wish and there are plenty of areas to eat it. If there is a Coeliac in your family I would suggest taking your own food as although they do try and offer a solution, it’s not good enough.
The Chunnel is 180 miles away from the hotel and home is another 200 when back in the UK and that, my friends, is where the journey and this story comes to an end.
2,260 miles in a campervan. I’m quite happy to say we lived our dream and won’t hesitate to live it again (with a few minor alterations).
After a comment, here are my thoughts on what I would do differently …
- Break the journey down into even smaller chunks and take more time exploring. This is more for the kids benefit.
- Maybe always have two nights at each stop rather than rush.
- Get aircon and ideally one that can be used when driving and also when sleeping.
- Don’t ‘camp’ at the final destination, pre-book accommodation so you get a break from the van and a bit of space to look forward to.
- Book any accommodation through something like Eurocamp rather than direct with the site. We didn’t enjoy having to fully spring clean before we could leave.
- Visit Monaco!
- Spend much more time in The Ardèche