Travel: Glamping (Glamourous camping) in France

The river Ardeche, France
The river Ardeche, France
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There are those of us, among the more feminine and fluffy types, who shudder at the mere mention of the C-word.

Camping historically has been for the die-hard, back-to-nature brigade, whose idea of heaven is sleeping under the stars, a hearty cold shower in the morning, hiking during the day and sitting around a camp fire (probably getting bitten) at night.

But glamorous camping, or ‘glamping’, has arrived and, as a somewhat reluctant tent tourist, I have discovered a way to do the best of France in a cocoon of luxury, choosing sites with sumptuous spas, soothing hydrotherapy pools, hot tubs and hammocks, gourmet food and fine wines.

First stop was Keycamp’s Parc des Alicourts, near the pretty village of Pierrefitte-sur-Sauldre, about an hour south of Orleans in the heart of the Loire Valley.

You want decadence? This region is steeped in it, from majestic chateaux to its stunning vineyards, haute cuisine and bijoux villages.

We had opted for a mobile home, but forget draughty caravans, loos you have to empty yourself and gaslights. Instead, we found decking and patio furniture for open-air barbecues, snuggly duvets, a fully fitted bathroom, beach towels and linen.

A tempting menu from the Senso Balneo spa, which includes a hydrotherapy centre complete with Turkish bath, hot tubs and beauty treatments, left me in no doubt that the glamping could begin.

Cycling is big among male glampers particularly, but to be with the in-crowd you must have the right gear. A good bike rack, streamlined helmets, padded Lycra shorts and shoes that clip on to the pedals are all a la mode.

While my husband donned his go-faster stripes and took the children on a 30km round trip of the local villages on the forgivingly flat roads, I enjoyed a facial and massage, soothing the aches of the car journey.

Meanwhile, sporty glampers teed off on the park’s own golf course and driving range, while others took a canoe out on to the serene, quiet lake in the grounds of the site.

Of course, to be a true glamper you need to visit some glam locations. We started with Chambord, the largest chateau in the Loire, set in 13,000 acres of woodland, outscaling the Palace of Versailles.

It’s rumoured that Leonardo da Vinci helped with the design of Chateau de Chambord, built under the orders of renaissance King Francois I to demonstrate his wealth and power in the 16th century. Indeed, the maze of chimneys, turrets and windows that form the rooftop has often been compared with the skyline of a town.

He never saw its completion as he died in 1547, but his son Henry II continued the building, which was finally completed when Louis XIV came to the throne in 1643.

We hired a pedal buggy to tour the grounds and admire the chateau from many angles, while others chose to take a boat ride around the moat for a better view.

Returning to base, we bought local produce including rillettes de porc (similar to pate), Port Salut and Saint Paulin cheeses, and crusty baguettes. Fish lovers shouldn’t miss the local speciality, Filet de Sandre (pikeperch), usually served in the classic Beurre Blanc sauce.

We also made the most of the delicious wines of the regions. A bottle of Saumur, which can run to double figures at home, cost little more than three Euros in the local French supermarket, while the nearby wine-producing region of Sancerre, home of some of my favourite white wines, was also worth a visit.

Next glamping port of call was 300 miles south east in the dramatic, mountainous scenery of the Ardeche, below the French Alps and two hours south-west of Lyon, where canoeing, canyoning and mountain biking are a must for action-seekers.

It’s a region where the high granite mountains of the Massif Central meet the fertile plains of the Rhone Valley. Stunning scenery intermingles with picture postcard medieval villages, locals play boules at sunset and discerning diners sample foie gras and the many fine wines of the Cotes du Rhone.

We were staying at the top notch Les Ranchisses campsite near the pretty medieval town of Largentiere, which boasts an imposing castle, Latin church and interesting old town with its cobbled streets and smattering of trinket shops. The campsite, however, was complete with spa and other glamping essentials.

While the kids splashed about in the warm, family-friendly pools, I took myself off to the adult-only spa pool with its submerged sunbeds and water jets before making the most of the bubbling jacuzzi, pore-cleansing hammam (steam room) and sauna, as well as a relaxing massage from the local therapist.

For me, the highlight of the region is the gorges of the Ardeche, where we canoed eight kilometres down the river to the majestic Pont D’Arc, a 66-metre high natural rock arch through which the river Ardeche carves its path between 300-metre high cliffs on a spectacular route, punctuated by rapids.

To cool off, we took a therapeutic swim in the river, which offers some of the best bathing I’ve experienced, in crystal clear waters teeming with fish.

The children made the most of clambering up the steep rocks that line the river and then jumping off them. Later, we found a pretty haven in the small town of Balazuc, where we were easily able to reach the river via a pebbly beach on one side, and swim across to flat rocks on the other.

Back at the campsite, we made the most of our luxurious mobile home complete with dishwasher, microwave, iPod docking station and gas barbecue. In the evening we got cosy on the generous sofa, settling to watch the latest movie on the supplied DVD player.

Vineyards in the region produce a variety of grapes including chardonnay, syrah, sauvignon blanc and merlot, while local produce ranges from goat’s cheese to creme de chataigne, a chestnut jam that you spread on bread, white cheese or ice cream.

The Ardeche is a spot for keen road cyclists to explore the unspoilt villages high in the pine forests, while companies also offer mountain biking trips along the tops of the gorges.

As the end of the holiday loomed, I poured myself another glass of fine wine, stepped on to the patio decking and watched the sun set, reflecting that I might just have another massage before the journey home...

n Hannah Stephenson was a guest of Keycamp, which offers seven nights’ self-catering at Parc des Alicourts in the Loire Valley from £516 (from May 30) and Les Ranchisses from £476, including return Dover-Calais ferry crossings. Or you can fly from Edinburgh to Paris or Tours at extra cost. For reservations call 0844-406 0319 or visit