We are interested in renting a gite in France, but I've heard that the Gite de France organisation has closed after much criticism. Can you still book gites in Britain?
Jill Crawshaw replies: The gites organisation was originally developed by the French government, who gave financial and marketing help to private rural homeowners wanting to let their properties for holiday rental. They are inspected by the non-profit making Federation Nationale des Gites.
There are now about 60,000 privately owned self-catering homes available throughout France, promising the simple life Gallic style, offering rural bliss at relatively cheap rates. But it's fair to say that after about 40 years of popularity, particularly with middle-class Brits, the gite movement had lost some of its lustre; facilities in some cases were rather too basic - we preferred proper loos to the flush-and-leap variety! And Anglo-Saxon luxuries such as teapots, kettles, bedside lights, comfortable chairs and more than just the basic sets of cutlery were frequently not available.
At the end of last year the largest suppliers of gites in Britain, based in London's Piccadilly, closed down and Brittany Ferries (0990 360 360) took over their marketing operation. They claim to have weeded out the poor properties, keeping just 1,200 on their books. Not surprisingly, with the strength of the pound against the franc, they are reporting booming sales again.
Prices start at pounds 196 per party for a week's holiday for five people, including the ferry crossing, though the cost is likely to double or even treble in the peak July and August periods. There's a wide range of properties from country cottages, converted farm houses, mills, even apartments in a luxury chateau.
I have tried out various gite schemes with varied success - without being chauvinistic, we have found those offered by British companies of a higher standard than by taking pot luck. At least if something went wrong, we knew who to complain to.
Some time ago I attended an "inspection session" with VFB Cottage Holidays (01242 240 340), and I can testify that with over 400 properties throughout France from simple gites to luxury villas with pools, the firm pays the highest attention to detail. They have a number of special offers at the moment, but generally prices begin at around pounds 456 for two weeks in the Auvergne for a family of four, including ferry or the Shuttle, and insurance.
Another organisation, Vacances en Campagne (0990 143 681 for brochures) have a fine collection of self-catering cottages, country houses, farmhouses and chateaux in some of the most beautiful regions of France, while Vintage Travel (01954 261431) specialises in Tarn et Garonne - a region of small, unchanged villages and ancient market towns, medieval and spa towns and views of the Pyrenees. Weekly rentals range from pounds 335 in low season to pounds 915 in peak season for a restored barn sleeping six.
Normandie Vacances (01922 20278), as its name suggests, goes only to Normandy, offering 120 gites across the region from Dieppe westwards to Mont-St Michel. Prices for two people begin at pounds 289 for a week's accommodation and ferry crossing for car/passengers, and insurance.
I also suggest you call 0181-607 9080, the Association of Independent Tour Operators and ask for the AITO Directory of Real Holidays; it is packed with holiday ideas, and includes many companies that offer gite holidays to France.
Jill Crawshaw is a travel expert, broadcaster and writer.
WHAT DO I DO ABOUT MISLEADING BROCHURES?
What can be done if a travel brochure's description of a hotel and its situation proves to be misleading?
Our holiday brochure says of the Continental Hotel in Lugano: "... being set in beautiful gardens, your hotel offers superb views over Lugano".
In fact the hotel is situated next to Lugano's main station, immediately overlooking a very busy main railway line and a busy main road. It also overlooks a busy level crossing which is the only way out of the hotel into the town.
The point is that access to the hotel is dangerous, while all rooms are noisy due to the heavy rail traffic. Not an ideal situation for the elderly who are the main customers for this type of holiday.
Ian Skuse replies: Holidaymakers have a number of remedies if a brochure is inaccurate or misleading.
Regulation 4 of the Package Travel Regulations 1992 states that no holiday organiser shall supply descriptive matter including brochures to a customer concerning the holiday which contains misleading information. The penalty is that the holiday company is liable to compensate the customer for any loss which he suffers. In addition to this remedy, the holidaymaker has his usual remedies for breach of contract and for misrepresentation, if he can say that he was encouraged to enter the contract because of the incorrect words which he read.
Brochures are also regulated by the Trade Descriptions Act 1968. Section 14 regulates the making of a false statement concerning services, accommodation or facilities set out in the holiday brochure. This is enforced by local trading stan-dards officers who have the power to prosecute holiday companies where a false statement has been made in the brochure and when the company cannot show that it has a system to prevent mistakes. Most holiday companies are careful about brochure accuracy and the text of the brochure is usually scrutinised and checked locally and signed off by the hotelier. All changes to brochure descriptions during the shelf life of a brochure will also usually be passed on. This is often achieved at the point of sale when changes to brochure descriptions are often displayed on the travel agents' computer screen and passed on to the customer before booking.
Many brochures describe the location of hotels and other facilities on the resort map. This will often concern the proximity of hotels to the centre of the resort town and places such as railway tracks, stations and airports.
If your holiday hotel is described as quiet and peaceful but in fact is located next to noisy railway tracks, then you are likely to have a claim if the noise disrupted your sleep and your holiday.
Ian Skuse is the senior litigation partner with Piper Smith & Basham, which has specialised in the travel industry for more than 20 years (tel: 0171-828 8685).
ARE QAT OR COCA LEAVES DANGEROUS?
Is chewing natural substances such as betel nut, qat or coca leaves at all dangerous for the health? I know a lot of people who have tried things like this on their travels and they never seem to come to much harm.
Dr Goodyer replies: The plants described are all used by various indigenous populations for their stimulant effects on the central nervous system. The resulting "euphoriant effect" can be very pleasant and have some positive advantages in terms of reduced fatigue, as has been claimed for coca leaves. However, like any drug they have the potential to cause unwanted side-effects and positive dangers which should make the traveller wary of using them. In any case it would be wise for anyone with heart problems or high blood pressure to avoid these substances.
Qat (or khat) chewing is very common in the Middle East and parts of Africa, where it is widely used socially by Muslims in place of alcohol. The stimulant effect does not seem to be produced in everyone who uses it, and the initial effects for new users can be quite unpleasant, in the form of dizziness and stomach pains. In chronic use it can cause dependence, with some subjects feeling lethargic and depressed if unable to obtain the leaves.
Coca leaves have been used for thousands of years by the Indians of South America. They are not thought to cause addiction in the same way as cocaine. Betel is chewed in the lands bordering the Indian Ocean, and apart from turning teeth black has also been linked to an increased risk of oesophageal cancer.
My own feeling is that these "psycho-stimulant" plants are best not tried by casual travellers, particularly as the initial experience and taste are often not too pleasant, the analogy being trying a cigarette for the first time.
Dr Larry Goodyer is superintendent of the Nomad Pharmacy (3-4 Turnpike Lane, London N8, tel: 0181-889 7014) which specialises in catering for travellers' medical needs.
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