A fun holiday with kids. No, really

Provence is great for families, find Iain Millar and Anna Picard, but it helps if you take the babysitters
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The Independent Travel

The chance to take a last-minute luxury villa holiday near Avignon was too good to resist. But it came at a time when our be-childrened friends already had their holidays mapped out. So, how could we make the most of a four-bedroomed house with pool while keeping a three-year-old entertained and getting some time to ourselves? Sedation and restraining harnesses being less than modish we went for the next best option - we'd take the babysitters with us.

The chance to take a last-minute luxury villa holiday near Avignon was too good to resist. But it came at a time when our be-childrened friends already had their holidays mapped out. So, how could we make the most of a four-bedroomed house with pool while keeping a three-year-old entertained and getting some time to ourselves? Sedation and restraining harnesses being less than modish we went for the next best option - we'd take the babysitters with us.

Our two favourite single chums wouldn't be able to resist a week in rural Provence, surely? And they knew Cameron very well. They'd never spent seven days in the permanent company of the small human dynamo who passes himself off as our son, but they didn't seem to see it as hard work. So who were we to tell them?

Admittedly, the holiday was pitched on the promise that Susannah and Simon were, at least once or twice, free to wander off in search of Gallic flirtations. In practice this proved difficult in the tiny village of Suzette in the foothills of Mont Ventoux. One bar with a great line in crème de cassis and salade aux lardons does not a metropolis make, but at least the landscape around us was idyllic.

The view from Maison Ventoux was of a bell-tower, vineyards, more vineyards and, a little further in the distance, the misty summit of Mont Ventoux itself. Chiaroscuro weather swept across the sky but rarely stopped to cloud this sunny sanctuary or disturb our diligent survey of the local industry: at home and at the bar.

Viticulture dominates Vacluse, with the touristic caveaux of Beaumes de Venises a short drive away and plenty of less prententious cellars within a 10-minute stroll. The owner of our villa - heavily pregnant, exclusively Francophone, and dressed in a Pagnolesque uniform of white petticoat and blonde curls - greeted us bearing olives, freshly ironed bed-linen and several bottles of the local wine. As she quickly informed us, we were too high to be plagued by mosquitoes. Paradise, no? Of course. Except for wasps the size of sparrows - killed with increasingly wine-fuelled confidence by the excellent swat-team of Jonathan Franzen, Alice Sebold and Carol Shields. And the scorpion in our bedroom.

Appropriately enough, Paul Bowles was the assassin this time, sending the offending arachnid clattering on to the cobbles below the window. Two hours later, after moving everything in the room to make sure that the beastie had travelled solo, we crept back into bed, folding the sheets up around our necks like nervous wedding night virgins. Cameron carried around the picture of it that his daddy had drawn for the rest of the week, and to this day is occasionally heard to mutter to himself: "If you see one of these, run away."

You might expect some tension between two childfree adults, two permanently exhausted parents and a pint-sized potentate of polymorphous perversity. But the French make the good life easier for those with children. A day in Avignon - taking turns at culture, couture and child-minding - was blissful. Cam clocked up six revolutions on the giant carousel in Place de l'Horloge and two trips on the agreeably kitsch tourist train - which took in Avignon's extensive range of historic buildings (and McDonald's).

After the activities we ate in the 17th-century walled garden of a five-star restaurant. The waiters at La Mirande were unfazed by our request for beignets de poulet (aka chicken nuggets) as a side dish to their sublime menu degustation. But every brasserie and bar we visited in Provence was happy to rustle up pizza, poulet or goujons thus dispelling the myth that French children cut their gastronomic teeth on gesiers and goats cheese.

Not that we ate out much. We were endowed with a well-equipped kitchen, a choice of two al fresco dining areas, a dishwasher and more hypermarchés on our doorstep than you could shake a baguette at just a short drive away. So moving gently from the sun loungers to a table heaving with locally produced cheeses, saucissons, rillettes, light reds, insouciant whites and the richest, reddest tomatoes we had ever seen was far more appealing.

With Cadogan's Take the Kids: South of France as our bible, we investigated the family oriented tourist sights: the reliable delights of a train museum, the slightly more suspect Haribo Candy Museum at Uzes and, less predictably, an alligator farm ("I won't step on the cracks ever again, Mummy").

We dutifully ticked off the Pont du Gard with its excellent child-friendly visitors' centre, but Maison Ventoux was calling us back.

For the adults there was poolside reading to be done. For the boy, there was Simon.

No toddler holiday should be taken without a Simon. Half man, half bath-toy, he would emerge from the alcove behind the sofa with a blood-curdling cry of "Yoo-hoo!" - ready to be pinched, punched and tumbled towards the pool for an hour of water torture. (He has a busy professional life, and cancelling 15 subsequent post-holiday invitations to Sunday lunch is perfectly understandable.)

Revenge, such as it was, was achieved by grabbing said son's feet, sniffing them theatrically and shrieking "cheesy feet". Which is why Cam still finds the words "chaumes" and "brie" hysterically funny.

So is it possible to take a holiday that flies in the face of conventional wisdom for parents of pre-schoolers? A holiday free of camping, squabbles, sleepovers, and other people's children?

Yes it is. Make the most of the three or four years before your children start to find adults ineffably dull. Take friends who can remind you of the people you were before parenthood.

And have conversations on subjects other than MMR, potty training or dyspraxia, groan at your friends' choice of CDs, admire your child's (albeit naïve) command of French expletives, and enjoy the grown-up pleasures of a family plus holiday while you can. It could be your last opportunity for a very, very long time.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Travellers who live in south-east England, and who can travel on Saturdays from 10 July to 11 September, can take Eurostar (08705 186 186, www.eurostar.com) from London Waterloo or Ashford to Avignon for a fare of £129 return; four- to 12-year-olds get a £4 discount. You can also reach Avignon via Paris or Lille.

Avignon is the closest airport to Vaucluse, linked by Air France (0845 0845 111, www.airfrance.com) from Paris Orly - unfortunately, most flights from Britain serve Paris Charles de Gaulle. It could be easier to fly to Nîimes from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com); or to Marseilles from Gatwick on British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com) or easyJet (0871 750 0100, www.easyjet.com); or via Paris Charles de Gaulle on Air France.

STAYING THERE

The writers stayed at Maison Ventoux, in Suzette, courtesy of Voyages Ilena (020-7924 4440, www.voyagesilena.co.uk). Prices per week start from £945 in low season to £1,950 in high season.

Alternatively, just North of Le Barroux on road D13, the campsite, "Aire Naturelle La Saousse" (00 33 4 90 65 10 26), is tucked away in an unspoilt part of the woods. The nightly charge is €10-13 (£7-£9) for two adults and car.

The Hotel-Restaurant les Geraniums, Place de la Croix, Barroux (00 33 4 90 62 41 08) is a beautifully renovated building with rooms enjoying sweeping views of the plains. Double rooms cost €45-50 (£32-£35). Breakfast is an extra €8 (£5.50). Traditional Provençal food is served on the terrace.

THINGS TO DO

At Chateauneuf du Pape's Musée des Outils de Vignerons (Museum of Wine Producers' Tools) (00 33 4 90 83 70 07, www.brotte.com) you can find out details of wine producers in the region, and ask the sort of dumb questions you might be otherwise embarrassed to ask on a vineyard visit.

The Lubéron National Park provides plenty of remote trails to explore on foot. There are guided walks and hiking maps available from most local tourist offices.

The Saint-Michel Observatory (00 33 4 92 76 69 69) commands a fine view of the night sky. Admission is €8 (£5.50) for adults and €7 (£4.80) for children.

RESOURCES

Take the Kids: South of France by Rosie Whitehouse is published by Cadogan, (£12.99). See also www.visitprovence.com and www.provenceguide.com.

FOOD AND DRINK

Charlotte Martin

Provence is renowned for its excellent fresh produce and its markets. The region is also famous for its local specialities such as bouillabaisse, ratatouille and salade niçoise. It's worth remembering that Sunday night isn't the time to eat out as many restaurants are closed (probably due to their patrons being engaged in their own endless Sunday lunch).

AVIGNON

The writers ate at the five-star La Mirande, 4 Place de la Mirande (00 33 4 90 85 93 93; www.la-mirande.fr).

A cheaper option in Avignon is La Fourchette, 17 rue Racine (00 33 4 90 85 20 93), which serves authentic Provençal food in an elegant setting. Try the marinated sardines, and the meringue with hazelnuts. The wines served in carafes are particularly good and reasonably priced. Closed Saturday, Sunday and school holidays.

UZES

Terroirs, Place aux Herbes (00 33 4 66 03 41 90), is situated on the prettiest square in the town. This food and wine shop sells local olive oil, tapenade, herbs and honey, and extends to a fairly priced restaurant serving high-class southern cooking, using quality produce. Menus start at €15 (£11). Closed Sunday.

St REMY de PROVENCE

La Maison Jaune, 15 rue Carnot (00 33 4 90 92 56 14), is set in a pretty 16th-century house, serving imaginative regional dishes. House specialities include lamb with olive paste, and roast pigeon in Baux wine. Menus start at €30 (£22). Closed Monday and Tuesday lunchtime.

NYONS

Le Resto des Arts, rue des Déportés (00 33 4 75 26 31 49) is in the heart of old Nyons and is very popular, so it's a great place to eat, relax and soak up the local atmosphere. It's also a favourite meeting place for artists and wine-makers, and the owners of the restaurant are wine-producers themselves. Specialities include red mullet with foie gras, and slivers of duck with apricot honey. Menus start at €18 (£12). Closed Sunday and public holidays.

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