There is no one size fits all approach to choosing a campsite. Different people like different types of campsite, from the family-run, low key campsite to the large camping ‘village’ with all singing, all dancing facilities.
When it comes to choosing a good campsite things can quickly become a bewildering choice. There are campsites for active families and campsites for get-away-from-it-all couples. Whichever you plump for, there are certainly ground rules that help you arrive at a decision.
Drive through fields of purple in Provence
How far to drive?
First consider how far you are happy to drive. For some driving in France is no greater a challenge than driving in the UK. Indeed some prefer the better quality roads, often disconcertingly empty autoroutes and clear signage. Once you’ve been round a roundabout the ‘wrong way’ once, you’ll realise it’s not as tricky as you first thought. For others it’s a big step, and maybe with youngsters in the back you don’t want to drive too far anyway.
If so then it might be an idea to stick to northern France, at least the areas north of the Loire. You can reach the Loire Valley within a day’s drive, and it’s good for family days out, museums, cycle rides and lots of beautiful châteaux for little princesses and princes. Brittany is great for sandy beaches and crêpes, while Normandy is very laid back with beaches of its own (notable are the D Day landing beaches). And don’t forget the Hauts de France in the north, a region of peaceful countryside, lovely old towns and rolling fields.
What ‘style’ of campsite?
Are you planning to get stuck into everything that’s on offer? Do you want loads of activities? Or just a decent beach? Maybe you want some good cycling routes nearby. Whatever kind of campsite you’re after, do your research: check the websites, read the reviews and take note of the assessments from - ahem - authoritative guides like Alan Rogers.
Many campsites will trumpet their star ratings. This is fine but bear in mind what these mean. A star rating will reflect certain things you may, or may not, value. You could have the most idyllic, beautiful campsite, excellent in every way, but if it has gravel avenues instead of tarmacked roads it will not get five stars. Similarly, a lack of night time illumination may deny it a higher star rating.
Star ratings will not provide a reliable indication of a campsite’s ambience and don’t necessarily take into account the quality of a campsite’s facilities. So treat star ratings as an indication of quality, rather than an absolute definition of quality.
Wake up to a sea view
Campsites for beach holidays
When choosing a campsite with access to a beach bear in mind that to be too close can, for some, be a disadvantage. As a rule of thumb, the closer the campsite is to the sea, the smaller the pitches (space is at a greater premium). Additionally, it sometimes follows that the most lively campsites are those right on the beach. Campsites closer to the beach can also have sandier pitches which not everyone likes. These are not prescriptive of course.
For many, the appeal of being able to escape the hurly burly of the beach life and head back a few miles to their campsite retreat is most welcome. That said, you can’t beat the wonderful early morning walk along the beach, perhaps en route to collecting the daily croissants.
Campsite catering in France
A popular on-site restaurant is generally a good sign – especially a fully fledged restaurant with wine list and proper menu that is frequented by the locals. Often the restaurant is situated adjacent to the pool meaning mum and dad can enjoy a bite to eat while keeping an eye on the kids.
On the continent most offer some kind of takeaway service which is handy. This might serve anything from simple, family favourites like chicken and chips to really good quality dishes like confit de canard or fresh moules – and of course everyone’s favourite: frites! Collecting a big bowl of frites to accompany the family ‘barbie’ on a French campsite is one of life’s simpler pleasures.
Many larger sites have all-singing, all-dancing water parks
Most French campsites offer great swimming pools, many with waterslides. Some are elaborate waterparks with multiple pools, lagoons, bridges, wave machines and huge waterchutes. Many will have separate pools for diving, swimming and a toddler pool which will be shallow and gently shelving. Waterside sites may even offer river/lake swimming.
The larger campsites will often have lifeguards in high season so if this is important to you, check when high season starts.
Activities for the active
There will be a wealth of sporting activities on larger campsites. These may include windsurfing, riding, tennis, golf, cycling, archery, fishing and more. Even smaller campsites have a range of activities like bike hire, pony rides, mini golf or canoeing.
Some campsites make a specialisation of certain activities so do some research if you have a specific activity in mind. There are campsites specialising in outdoor adventure with zip wires, quad bike instruction and adventure training. If windsurfing is your thing, look at campsites in the Landes in the south west of France where the huge lakes and adjacent campsites offer great conditions as well as tuition.
The Ardèche region has great campsites, popular with those wanting to canoe along the river through the dramatic gorges. And pretty much wherever you are in France there are always great walking and cycling routes from the campsite gates. Ask at reception for suggested routes and trails.
Some sites offer free bicycle hire so you can enjoy a family cycle trail
We all know camping was invented for children. Some campsites run free kids clubs during the summer months to help ease the burden on parents. Typically, different ages bands are catered for with appropriate activities: perhaps face painting or treasure hunts for younger ones, arts and sporty games for the older ones. Some campsites even help the children put on performances or talent nights, or arrange family-friendly professional magic shows, music evenings or performances by local singers.
Marketing chains and groups
There is a range of camping chains and marketing groups. They might be a disparate range of campsites marketed under a common banner, or a group where campsites are consistent in their offering and presentation.
Some have particular features that are common across the group, for example Les Castels Campings features campsites set in the grounds of historic châteaux, country houses and old watermills. C’Est Si Bon is a group of like-minded French campsites, all owner-run (not run by a management team) and with a firm emphasis on a personal touch and superb food and wine. Huttopia specialises in innovative campsites, often set in woodland, with strong eco credentials. Check the respective websites and see if any of the groups match your wish list.
Huttopia Senonches, Val de Loire, France
Q & A
Q: I hear electricity is ‘tricky’ on the continent, is this the case?
A: It’s very simple but you generally need a euro socket, widely available from accessory shops. Most continental campsites are well-used to dealing with visitors with differing international standards.
Q: What amperage is generally available?
A: The norm is 6 amps, but a higher rated supply is usually available for a small supplement.
Q: Can I arrange water and drainage?
A: A dedicated water supply and waste water outlet can often be arranged for a small supplement. Some campsites offer a number of deluxe pitches with private wash facilities in a small cabin.
In short, when choosing a French campsite it’s each to their own. With 11,000 campsites to choose from France has something for everyone, it’s just a question of finding the one that’s right for you.
If you have specific concerns, perhaps relating to what pets you hope to take, or whether the campsite will accept twin axle caravans, it is always best to ask up front. Simply make contact by email to avoid unwanted surprises on arrival.