A SUCCESSFUL self-catering holiday depends to a large extent on choosing the right specialist travel company. The quality of French self-catering properties varies enormously: the description 'gite' can cover everything from a substantial well-appointed country house with its own swimming pool to a lean-to shed barely adequate for pigs.

The trick in locating the best property is to identify the company with the most discerning taste in houses - and that which is the most honest at describing its houses. There are people who might not mind staying in a traditional French pigsty, as long as they know that this is exactly what they will be getting.

The operator with the best record for discernment of choice and honesty in description is VFB Holidays (0242 526338) of Cheltenham, regularly named best operator in the Holiday Which? biennial survey. The company has a good stock of traditional country houses and a small number of villa- type properties (many with pools). Prices are generally reasonable: for example, two weeks in a converted chapel attached to an 18th-century chateau, with a shared pool, in the Loire, sleeping six people, costs from pounds 92 to pounds 275 per person.

By mid-May VFB would normally be filling in odd holes in its availability, but with bookings to France taking a dip this year the company has plenty of properties still on offer - even during the peak school- holiday season.

Brittany Ferries (0752 221321) has one of the biggest selection of properties throughout France with more than 1,300 gites, some with swimming pools. The company has played a leading role over the past 10 years in promoting self-catering holidays to France - its brochure is the one you can be sure of finding in most high-street travel agencies.

Prices are, on the whole, competitive: two weeks at a gite with a courtyard and lawn in the Loire Valley, sleeping four, costs from pounds 156 to pounds 270 per person in a party of four adults, including return ferry crossing with car.

The biggest supplier of self-catering accommodation in France is Gites de France (071-408 1343). It markets in the UK more than 2,500 properties. These are all genuine gites: privately owned properties, modernised with the help of French government grants and supervised by the non profit-making Federation Nationale des Gites de France. Prices range from pounds 275 to pounds 1,365 for two weeks, which includes accommodation, return ferry crossing for two adults and a car and Europ Assistance vehicle service. (To book a gite holiday, you need to be a member: this costs pounds 3 per year.)

The problem with Gites de France is ensuring quality control over its vast range of properties (altogether more than 30,000). I have stayed in some good Gites de France properties; but I have also stayed in some real stinkers.

For high-quality homes with prices to match, International Chapters (071-722 9560) is the place to look (this was the company that provided the Riviera retreat where the Duchess of York was revealingly photographed last summer).

The company has mansions, chalets and villas in the Alps and on the Riviera. On the Cote d'Azur, for example, it has a Saracen chateau in 15,000 acres with its own swimming pool and tennis court, which costs from pounds 6,720 to pounds 11,900 for two weeks.

Portsmouth-based Les Proprietaires de l'Ouest (0705 755715) chooses its properties with as much care as International Chapters, but its houses are more modestly sized and less expensive. Two weeks in a gite sleeping four to six adults costs from pounds 125 to pounds 433 per person.

For traditional country properties, many with their own pools, La France des Villages (0449 737664) is a good bet. Two weeks at a farmhouse in Bas Quercy, sleeping six, costs from pounds 275 to pounds 775, including a short sea ferry crossing for two adults and a car.

Another good source of attractive houses is Bowhill Holidays (0489 878567). Its brochure features 300 farmhouses and villas all over France. Two weeks in a cottage in the Loire, for example, costs from pounds 97 per person.

Meon Villa Holidays (0730 268411) has a good range of different sorts of properties including more than 200 gites, apartments, farmhouses and luxury villas with private pools. Most of the properties are in rural areas.

Also worth looking at is the Vacances en Campagne (07987 433) programme, which features country houses, some with pools, in most regions of France, including Corsica. Prices are pounds 299 to pounds 2,234 per week, including ferry crossing for two adults and a car.

Other self-catering specialists:

AA Motoring Holidays (0256 493878)

Air France Holidays (081-742 3377)

Allez France Holidays (0903 742345)

Aquitaine Holidays (0892 516101)

Beach Villas (0223 311113)

Blakes International Travel (0603 784141)

Bonnes Vacances (081-948 3467)

Borderline (0963 250117)

Bridgewater Travel (061 707 8547)

Brittany Direct Holidays (081-641 6060)

Clearwater Holidays (0926 450002)

Continental Villas (071-497 0444)

Corsican Places (0424 774366)

Cresta Holidays (061 926 9999)

Crystal Holidays (081-390 3335)

Destination France (081-689 9935)

Dominique's Villas (071-738 8772)

Drive France (081-395 8888)

Four Seasons (0532 564373)

French Life Holidays (0532 390077)

French Villas (081-651 1231)

Gites Plus (0392 70873)

Holiday Charente (081-813 5638)

Hoseasons Holidays (0502 500555)

Hoverspeed Holidays (081-424 2929)

Interhome (081-891 1294)

Kingsland Holidays (0752 251688)

Lagrange UK (071-371 6111)

Maison Vacances (081-540 9680)

Martin Sturge (0225 310822)

Miss France Holidays (081-452 5901)

Palmer & Parker (0494 815411)

Pieds-a-Terre (0622 688165)

Rural France Direct (0452 812294)

Sally Holidays (0732 780440)

Simply Corsica (081-747 3580)

Something Special Travel (0992 505500)

Stena Sealink Travel (0233 647033)

Sunselect Villas (061 655 3055)

Sunvista Holidays (0985 217373)

Voyages Ilena (071-924 4440)