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Traveller's Guide: Camping in France

The traditional holiday under canvas has come a long way – now you can sleep in a treehouse, a vintage caravan or even at the zoo. Sarah Barrell pegs down the options

Happy campers are those considering France this year. According to the French tourist office (uk.rendez vousenfrance.com), there are now more than 9,000 one- to four-star campsites spread across the country, plus a blossoming number of luxury pitches. And if you don't want to carry your own canvas, many of these sites provide fully equipped tents, caravans and cabins, not to mention a burgeoning number of very smart treehouses.

The accommodation on offer is ever more inventive: from a pop-up surf camp near Bordeaux (0800 6123 516; feralsurftours.com), to a naturist beach retreat in Corsica (00 33 4 95 38 80 30; bagheera.fr/en) plus floating cabins (echologia.fr) and bubble treehouses (00 33 2 43 69 95 63; domainedesvaulx.fr) found in the increasingly popular Mayenne region, a short hop from the ferry port at Caen.

Early booking is recommended, especially for breaks during the school summer holidays and to secure places on sites with easy beach access, swimming pools and activities for children. "We hear that the north and west coast of France is selling well, but there still seems to be lots of availability in the south," says Daniel Johnson, from campsite comparison website, franceforfamilies.com. "This is different to recent years. But families who want to head to the Mediterranean coast for the school holidays should still book now before it sells out."

To ensure a good choice of dates and destinations, it is worth considering areas outside the southern summer holiday hubs. "The Alps are often overlooked, but there are some stunning sites to be found there and plenty of outdoor activities to fill a holiday," says Jonathan Knight, founder of Cool Camping (020 7820 9333; coolcamping.co.uk). He suggests choosing a site with pre-pitched tents. "Without the need to bring a car-full of your own camping gear, you could just pick up a cheap flight or take the train."

Pre-pitched tents with luxury trimmings – plush beds, loos and a close attention to design – are popping up across France, a destination that had previously lagged behind the luxury camping boom seen in the UK and Spain.

However, "bookings are significantly up on last year," says Rebecca Whewell, from Sawday's Canopy & Stars (0117 204 7830; canopyandstars.co.uk). "It's important to book early, especially for family places. People assume peak season weather is the best, but the mildest, sunniest days often fall in May, June and September. Our most popular bookings are treehouses – France is the place to go for these; there are many more established than in the UK – and also for traditional roulottes: much bigger than a gypsy bowtop caravan, but with the same quirky, bohemian style."

If you want something really wild, how about camping out at the zoo? Three new safari-tent-style Lemur Lodges recently opened at La Flèche Zoo (00 33 2 43 48 19 14; safari-lodge.fr), in the valley of the Loir, a tributary of the more familiar Loire. Each has oversized windows for observing the nocturnal habits of these much-loved Madagascan primates, plus an outdoor shower and pergola to complete the back-to-nature experience. A week in June costs £125 per adult, £60 per child (aged three-12); under-threes go free. The price includes two-day zoo passes for all and half board with dinner delivered to your lodge.

The Michelin Camping Guide (travel.michelin.co.uk) and Guide Officiel Camping Caravaning (available from campingfrance.com) have more details on sites across France.

Camp chic

These days, the perfect pitch means more than flat ground and a great view. Glisten Camping (0844 344 0196; glistencamping.com), at Col d'Ibardin in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques, has six new geodesic domes furnished with hanging sleep pods for children, beanbags, king-sized beds and an artfully arranged al fresco kitchen with plancha grills. There's also a kid's club, swimming pools and sports for teens. A week in August costs £750 (sleeps four adults, two children).

Canvas Holidays (0845 268 0827; canvasholidays.co.uk) has expanded its "luxury extras" programme. New summer additions include safari tents and buggy building (teams race and create beach buggies from rope, wooden poles and barrels). Other activities at the 12 participating French sites include Water Walkerz (aqua body zorbing), orienteering and teddy bear picnics. A week's stay in a Safari Tent Deluxe (sleeps six), at Camping la Sirène, near the coast and the French-Spanish border, costs £1,288, arriving 19 July.

Travelling with tots

If you don't have to travel during the school holidays, it's easy to save. Book a break between 1-19 June and Eurocamp (0844 406 0402; eurocamp.co.uk) is offering a week's holiday for £405 per party (up to eight/six adults), including accommodation in a three-bedroom mobile home and return Dover-Calais ferry crossings. Participating toddler-friendly sites include Domaine des Ormes in Brittany, where pitches are available for those with their own tents, plus treehouses and mobile home rental. Set just inland from St Malo, the site has a pool and lake to swim in, plus a kid's club, babysitting services and all-terrain buggies which you can hire.

Stay within dashing distance of Paris, at La Croix du Vieux Pont (0844 847 1356; hoseasons.co.uk), a five-star campsite perfectly set up for under-fives with accommodation that includes fully equipped mobile homes, lodges and tents. Facilities include children's pools, playgrounds, soft play areas and a kid's club; a frequent camp bus service makes the hour's journey to Disneyland Paris. A week in June costs £441 for a family of four staying in a mobile home, with shower and loo.

Fancy farm stays

Book a stay on a farm near the beach in Normandy. As part of the Featherdown Farm (featherdown.co.uk) portfolio, the family-run Ferme de la Folivraie offers the usual Featherdown comforts: decked, canvas tents (sleeping six) with kitchens, comfy beds and flushing loos, plus farm activities for childern, the beaches of Port-en-Bessin are a mile away and the Marais du Bessin National Park is on your doorstep. A week's stay in June costs between €649 and €759 per tent.

Another Normandy farm favourite, Château de la Grande Noë, is an organic farm estate where you can camp high up in Douglas redwoods in medieval tent-style treehouses complete with drawbridges, rope ladders and winch systems to hoist up farm-made picnic baskets. Walk a Shetland pony, pet horses and goats in the paddocks, and explore La Perche – the surrounding region of protected woodland. A week in August costs €1,015, including breakfast, in a treehouse for five (chateaudelagrandenoe.com).

Time to branch out: treehouses at Château de la Grande Noë

Sand, sea and safari

Stay safari-style in Brittany. Bot-Conan, in the Baie de la Forêt, has six "Archipel" safari lodges set on wooden decks, and each comes with its own outdoor kitchen. There are also "atoll" tents with sundecks and barbecues and two grass-roofed bathhouses. Beach access is along a wooded coastal path down to a "secret" bay. Canopy & Stars has a week's stay in June for £587, in a safari tent that sleeps five.

Swim in view of the Pyrenees at Camping des Albères, near Perpignan. Perfect for families, the site has a two swimming pools, a café, shop and activities; the beaches of Argelès-sur-Mer are four miles away. Pitchup (pitchup.com) offers a week in June for £164, for stays in a "nature safari tent" (sleeping up to five), with accommodation split into a double room, a triple room and a fully equipped kitchen, plus a decked terrace area.

Remote retreats

Sleep high in the Haute-Savoie in south-east France. Camping Les Dômes de Miage is set at 3,000ft up the Rhône-Alpes with pitches offering views of Mont Blanc. There are no swimming pools, static caravans or animation programmes but plenty of mountain bike trails, forest hikes and a lovingly-restored wooden mazot (traditional Savoyard chalets). A pitch for two people costs €25 a night (in own tent) in August, with Cool Camping.

Beat a retreat to the foothills of the Pyrenees, to bed down in a vintage trailer. Pioneers of the European vintage trailer park trend, Belrepayre (00 33 5 61 68 11 99; airstreameurope.com) is arguably one of the most splendidly isolated spots to stay in an Airstream. Ten gleaming aluminium trailers from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s (sleeping two to six) are each furnished in period style, plus there's an on-site spa, hot tub and bar/café. A trailer for two costs €630 per week in August.

On a budget

France's municipal campsites offer the best budget pitches. Found in most towns and larger villages, these usually have loos, hot showers and a basic shop. You need to book only in touristy (largely coastal) regions. These make great pit-stops for road trippers or those who don't want to commit to one destination. A night at the Mérindole site in Port de Bouc, close to Marseille, costs from €1.95 per tent and €3 per camper with cars charged at €2.05 (camping- municipal.org).

For a bargain action-packed camping trip, try Family Adventure Holidays (01273 827333; family adventureholidays.com). Stay in a mobile home on a campsite set vineyards and the foothills of the Cévennes. Take a two-day whitewater canoe descent of the Ardèche gorge, with an overnight riverside bivouac, or try kayaking, climbing and abseiling in the limestone cliffs, and tackling a high-ropes course among the pine forests of Villefort. These holidays are suitable for children aged eight and above. A week in August costs £438pp, including accommodation, activities and some meals.