TRAVEL / Small but they know their oignons: A France unchanged since the Fifties, a Greek island untouched by tourism - Jill Crawshaw reports on the hidden treasures that independent firms unearth

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THE VILLAGE base for our short break seemed to have shut for the season, while the 'simple inn' where we were to sample a lunch of local specialities was so simple we drove past it twice. But eventually Ambonnay - in the heart of the Champagne district of France - did reveal the Auberge St Vincent, its bar dark and plebeian, a hissing coffee machine in one corner and a gently rumbling boxer dog in the other. The shelves were lined with brandies and bottles of pastis of dubious quality, the walls plastered with faded but dire warnings about ivresse publique. The dining room was genuine 1950s, not repro, and one felt the staff structure hadn't changed much either; Monsieur Claude Pelletier does the cooking, Madame does the serving.

I'd like to be able to claim that I had discovered Ambonnay and the Auberge St Vincent myself; but I had been put on their track by one of the small specialist holiday firms - in this case Inntravel - which so often know about the tavernas, pensions, inns, hotels, gites, even villages, that most travellers would like to find and keep to themselves. These specialists, realising they have little clout with the High Street travel agents who must sell in quantity to survive, formed themselves into The Association of Independent Tour Operators (Aito). It has 125 members, selling 1.2m holidays a year.

Most of these companies are run by people with specialist knowledge of a country, area or activity. For example, Richard Hearn, who owns and runs Inntravel with his wife, Linda, started as a courier for another company when he was 17 and has been working in France for 30 years. It was he who recommended the Auberge St Vincent, where Monsieur Pelletier has received many awards for researching local recipes. The restaurant offers six menus, including the local Champenoise.

Our midday banquet began with vigneron salade with grapes, continuing with boudin de lapin in mustard sauce, a tarte aux Maroilles (a local cheese), a palette braisee au ratafia (chicken cooked in brandy and grape juice), champagne sorbet, and the house version of the famous Andouillette de Troyes - a tripe sausage credited with saving a city from besieging royalists, who stuffed themselves on this local delicacy and, not surprisingly, were unable to carry on marauding.

Two local wines, Ambonnay and Bouzy, which the people of the region like to keep for their own consumption, helped down this feast. Our short break also included a visit to a champagne cave in the same village - not one of the great cellars or houses of Reims or Epernay, but a typical small family concern owned by the fifth generation of the Rodez family. They produce just 20,000 bottles from their four and a half hectares, sold mainly to regular customers.

The detritus of Champagne bottling, the casks and tanks, barrels and bottles, littered the ivy-clad courtyard where Monsieur Rodez explained the rituals of remuage (turning) and degorgement (removing the sediment), inviting us to sample various vintages by drinking from the bottoms of upturned bottles. Most of his family were preparing a special order for a wedding the following week, the labels bearing the names of the bride and groom, whose pedigree, courtship and prospects were gradually revealed to us. Later we saw the homes of the happy couple, the church where they were to marry, and even tracked down the rest of their history in the churchyard. For a couple of delightful days we had the experience, however illusory, of getting under the skin of a working French village. Had we been able to stay for the wedding, we would have been welcome. It was all very different from the more structured and expensive type of wine tour, where visitors shuffle along the cellar production line to the shop and the order forms at the exit.

Inntravel's programme concentrates mainly on weekend breaks to small hotels in France, costing between pounds 70 and pounds 179 each half-board, including the ferry crossing for car and passengers. The price of a two-night weekend in Ambonnay varies from pounds 99 to pounds 130 per person. The company also offers activity holidays of the gentler kind, such as cookery, wine tasting and cross-country skiing; on cycling and walking breaks, holidaymakers' luggage is transported from town to town for them.

So how do you get to know about companies such as Inntravel? The best way is through Aito's own Directory Of Real Holidays, which covers 162 countries from Alaska to Zanzibar, and activities as diverse as whale-watching, mountain biking in the Peruvian rainforest, visiting maharajas' homes and travelling by elephant in Thailand, by horse-drawn carriages through Bavaria or by hot-air balloon over Kenya. But despite such leanings towards the exotic, by far the greatest number of companies specialise in countries closer to home - such as Greece, Spain and particularly France.

VFB (Vacances Franco-Britanniques) is jointly run by Francoise Bruce-Mitford and her husband, Mike. Francoise is French, and Mike admits this is a formidable weapon when dealing with French hotel owners. 'The British are too kind and polite,' he says. 'They never feel they can shout as the French do, to put things right.' As well as hotels and gites in France, VFB offers holidays in Corsica, the French Caribbean and - new for 1993 - the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Reunion and Mayotte in the Comores. The Bruce-Mitfords, who have won a clutch of holiday awards, set off for France 23 years ago in their 2CV, aiming to supplement Mike's income from the film industry by finding properties to let.

Though the British loved the idea of the simple life, not all of them appreciated the French version of it. So VFB set out to make sure the gite owners provided all the mod cons that made the simple life tolerable. Today the rules are strict and the inventory long and detailed - cooking pans must be in pristine condition; there are no flush-and-leap French loos; and cleaning equipment has to include a balai eponge, better known as a squeegy mop. 'At first the French thought the British were wimps,' says Mike. 'Why couldn't we just wrap an old rag round the broom, like they do?'

Most of the details about VFB's high standards are mentioned in the brochure. But the real attractions are the hillsides and hamlets of rural France, from the coasts of Brittany to the foothills of the Pyrenees. In the Dordogne I visited an old watermill where the holidaymakers could swim in the millpond and a stream gurgled down to the River Dordogne at the bottom of the garden. The beamed living-room housed some of the old mill workings which the owner couldn't bear to destroy.

Another VFB gite was part of a 14th-century fortress, where guests sipped their pastis in the shade of a cherry tree growing out of the metre-thick walls. They balanced their assiettes de charcuterie on stone cannon balls, possibly lobbed by our ancestors in the Hundred Years War. A typical version of the VFB Simple Life would cost between pounds 150 and pounds 300 each for two weeks, including the ferry fares.

Another Aito company we have tried is The Travel Club, based in Upminster. Its history goes back to 1936, when Harry Chandler and a friend went cycling on a tandem in Switzerland and visited a hotel with the aim of offering holidays there. That same hotel is still in their brochure today. In 1962, Harry's wife, Rene, the financial genius of the partnership, 'discovered' the Algarve in Portugal. The company has offered holidays there ever since.

Like VFB, The Travel Club - which sells only direct, not through travel agents - is a regular recipient of holiday awards. One reason for this is the company's unconditional 'no surcharge' guarantee, which ensures that on all its holidays - whether to Crete, Portugal, Cyprus, Minorca, Majorca, Switzerland, Italy or Austria - clients pay the precise brochure price. Not a penny more, not a penny less. The average cost of a two-week holiday at Caravela in the Algarve (where the villas are situated three miles inland and each has its own swimming pool) is between pounds 296 and pounds 468.

Like many Aito companies, The Travel Club is still run by the founder, Rene, now helped by son Paul. They are proud of their company's brochure, which looks like the one before - and the one before that. Resorts are chosen with extreme care, but may be dropped if they don't live up to expectations. The two destinations the Chandlers offer in Majorca, for example, are Cala San Vicente and Puerto Pollensa. The latter has developed gradually in the past 20 years, from a fishing port to an elegant resort - and The Travel Club has been there for 40 years. Holidays in Pollensa feature pleasant countryside villas; the prestigious antiques-filled Hotel Illa d'Or and apartments; and the tiny Hotel Miramar on the promenade, run by the family who started it 60 years ago. They used to row out to collect British families flying to Imperial India on seaplanes.

I learnt about the value of Greek specialist holiday firms the hard way, when travelling independently with my two young sons to the small island of Simi. Even a career in travel writing had not unravelled for me the eccentricities of the Greek ferry system, or prepared me for the other logistical problems that we encountered. After that trip, I began to recognise the considerable advantages of inclusive holidays with planned itineraries, even to the most remote islands.

Two Greek specialists on Aito's list provide a heady mix. Laskarina Holidays offers breaks to 13 islands, including Simi; the company claims that four of them - Tilos, Astipalaia, Nisiros, and Halki - are unique to it. As a sample price, a mansion sleeping 6-10 people in Halki would cost pounds 270- pounds 370 per person for a fortnight, including flights and ferry fares. The second company, Sunvil Travel, is owned and run by Noel Josephides, a Cypriot who has been chairman of Aito for the past three years. He looks for holiday spots which are 'the discerning Briton's conception of Greece' - beyond the pina colada culture which has taken over the more accessible resorts.

Small is beautiful is the Josephides creed. 'It's a finely balanced cycle; Skiathos, for instance, has changed totally from the island we pioneered 15 years ago,' he says. 'We've recently introduced Lemnos, and with direct flights, perhaps that will change too.' Sunvil also arranges fly-drive holidays to 'traditional settlements' - renovated old houses in tiny villages, former monasteries, farmhouses and mansions in central and northern Greece. But the company's most offbeat destination is the tiny bay of Loutro on Crete, the stuff Greek holiday dreams are made on. It can only be reached on foot or by boat, and consists of a fishing community of 100 souls, the remnants of a castle, a beach taverna and nothing much else. Two weeks in the tiny Porto Loutro Hotel costs between pounds 39l and pounds 465. Sunvil also runs a much smaller programme of fly-drive holidays to hidden Portugal, rural Hungary, the Azores and - most recently - Namibia.

Another Aito member is the city specialist Time Off, whose meticulous attention to detail is quaintly revealed in the bright green pouches holidaymakers receive before they embark on their trips to Paris or Amsterdam, Bruges or Budapest. Inside is a treasure trove of advice, vouchers, tickets and maps - marked by hand to show the position of the hotel, say, or the nearest underground station. It was while riffling through these that we discovered a free voucher for a glass of Beaujolais and a snack at Rubis, then a workmen's caff, at the wrong end of St Honore. This was long before the cafe began to appear in fashionable guidebooks.

Time Off's perfectionist, French-speaking owner, Roland Castro, does to some extent expect his clients to stand on their own two feet. He has no reps or couriers and assumes that his customers have the nous to get themselves from the station or airport to the hotels; these he chooses on the basis of character and convenience. It was whilst travelling with Time Off that we discovered the rue de la Huchette - just across from Notre Dame and perhaps the only street or alley to have had a book written about it.

Next time we went to Paris, the hotel and the street were off Roland Castro's programme. The street had apparently become too noisy and the hotel 'too lazy'. Off with their heads. So this time we stayed on the Left Bank, at a hotel in the rue du Bac which had been a private house during Louis XIV's reign. It was thick with carpets, fake Louis XV repro furniture and, in our bedroom, a prime example of the unbelievably hideous wallpaper that is such an endearing feature of so many small French hotels.

Next door and around us were some little antique shops and booksellers, a goat's cheese shop and a game butcher's which displayed the heads of wild boar like trophies on the pavement. On other visits to the city we have experienced a five-storey garret in the Marais, the art deco Villa Haillot near the Champs-Elysees and, this summer (for about pounds 45 a night for two) the two-star Hotel Monge in the street of the same name.

There are hundreds of other similar Parisian hotels, but here Madame took the time to discuss in great detail the numerous restaurants of the rue de la Contrescarpe, mapped out the stalls for the best rillettes, artichokes and funghi at the rue Mouffetard's Sunday street market, and advised us about the madrigals to be performed that summer morning at the Church of St Etienne. For the sake of such moments of real holiday magic, I hope Madame and her kind survive.

Inntravel 0439 71111; VFB Ltd (Vacances Franco-Britanniques) 0242 526338; The Travel Club of Upminster 0708 225000; Laskarina Holidays 0629 822203; Sunvil Travel 081-568 4499; Time Off 071-235 8070.

The Directory Of Real Holidays 1993, to be published in early January, lists names, addresses and details of the firms mentioned in this article. It can be obtained free of charge from Aito, 133a St Margaret's Road, Twickenham, Middlesex TW1 1RG (081-744 9280)

(Photographs omitted)