Travel: Suburban campers on a site for sore eyes : French five-star camping was perfect for the children, but sometimes a little too neighbourly for grown-ups, says Jim White

For a seaside resort, St Jean de Monts on the Atlantic west coast of France is oddly short of hotels. Along the front, filled with families failing to control the four-, six- and 14-seater pedal jalopies they have hired by the hour, there are none at all. There is no demand for hotels in St Jean de Monts: every visitor there spends the summer under canvas.

By the end of July, St Jean is awash with a polyglot of outdoor folk. Dutch, French, Belgians and, every fifth car, British, they sit in a month-long traffic jam out of the hypermarket on the edge of town and along the coast road, where the campsites are.

But what campsites. The road out of St Jean looked like Blackpool's Golden Mile, lined by sites stuffed with amusements, facilities and conveniences: a hundred ways to help campers forget they are camping. The first thing we were given on arrival at ours, for instance, was the door key to our tent. That was not how we remembered it. Camping in France back in our childhood involved squatter lavatories, a communal tap and, invariably, a pitch adjacent to where the mosquitoes bred.

Despite the privations, we remembered tent holidays as the best of our childhood. That was why we were back, that was why we had driven through baking French countryside at a steady five scolds per hour, to provide our children with the same memories. Well, not quite the same. For example, I was prepared to deny our offspring the exquisite pleasure of watching their father in a sweat and fury losing a battle with guy ropes. Thus we had rented a fully stocked tent, erected and ready on a five-star site. We reckoned the advantages (less luggage, no guy-rope grief) out-weighed the disadvantages (cost not much less than a hotel, inability to change campsite, lots of Brits).

It is five-star canvas indeed that requires door keys. As we followed the rep of the tent-hire company to our billet, we were staggered by the leap into luxury that camping had taken since our last venture. Past the swimming-pool with towering water-slide, past the central restaurant, past the bar and the computer games room we went; past the shops, past the tennis courts, past the mini-golf course.

The campsite had the geography of an executive housing estate: cul-de-sacs led off the main artery, every pitch had an area of defensible space marked out by a privet hedge and sheltered by pine trees. Down each close a vigorous one-upmanship of kit was under way. Fancy gas barbecues, flotillas of inflatable beach craft, whole showrooms of plastic garden furniture sat prominently outside tents: the French, in particular, seemed incapable of attempting canvas life without bringing along the kitchen sink.

Had we managed to squeeze our kitchen sink in among the heaps of luggage precariously piled on our roof rack, it would have proved redundant. The tent we had rented turned out to have more rooms and gadgets than our house. Once the fight with the padlocked zip was completed we discovered three bedrooms, a dining area and a kitchen jammed with appliances: fridge, cooker, gas lighting, a cork-screw - importantly.

Also, in less than five minutes, we discovered the neighbours.

'Cooo-eee, you off for a shower?' the woman called from the tent opposite as I made my way to wash the journey right out of my hair. 'Well, I wouldn't go to the shower block down there. I'd go to the one round the back. I think you'll find it superior.'

I did as I was instructed and in the shower block, a man introduced himself. 'I'm the man from the tent next door,' he shouted over the power spray of hot water. 'I saw you arriving. So, what route did you take down here?'

We had, apparently, rented a tent in the midst of a recording of The Harry Enfield Television Show. When I returned to our place the woman opposite was already ensconced on our all-inclusive-in-the-price picnic furniture, filling my wife in on her gynaecological history: 'Of course, after the hysterectomy I just didn't enjoy it any more.'

As we unpacked, the couple - from 'a little place just south of Banbury off the A4260' - invited us over for a welcoming glass of wine. We declined, too tired by the drive to be sociable, we said. Instead we went to sleep serenaded by conversation wafting gently around the campsite ('I think you'll find if you take the left fork at Le Mans you can save several minutes off your journey time') and reminding each other it was for the children.

And the children loved it. Within about 10 minutes of waking up the first morning, they had done what their parents had refused to do and accepted an invitation from the children in the tent opposite (we did not get another).

'Well, at least the children seem to be getting on,' said the woman with the below-waist history, pointedly. 'And it's for the children really.'

Indeed, children dominated the life of the camp. The whole pattern of time was structured to their requirements. In the morning ours went to Tiger Club: two hours of supervised playing, which allowed their parents to disappear into the market in St Jean and stock up on supplies. There was a bewildering array of food (the olive stall alone carried more varieties than Heinz). Purchasing was conducted in the standard holiday mix of French and English (the stall-holders spoke softly and quickly in French, the shoppers spoke loudly and slowly in English).

Once the food had been consumed, in the afternoon there would be excursions to amuse the children. To the beach, perhaps, where their father would construct elaborate sand cities with which the children would quickly grow bored. Or to the Island of Noirmoutier, driving over a mile-long causeway and stopping half-way across to collect mussels and cockles for that evening's supper.

In the evening, we would head to St Jean, hire a pedal jalopy and eat ice-cream, or drive to Les Sables d'Olonne, the snooty resort up the coast where the restaurants lining the quay welcomed the English and their credit cards. And like everyone else in the camp, parents and children alike, we would all go to bed at the same time. By 11.30pm, as if by some pre-planned arrangement, the entire camp of some 500 tents and caravans would be asleep.

But on our last day there, because this is what our children wanted to do most of all, we stayed in the camp with the family opposite who, by skilful planning, we had managed to avoid for almost the entire fortnight. As the children played, I wandered round the place and discovered most of the camp appeared to be spending their holiday as if surgically attached to their tent. Down the cul- de-sacs men were washing their cars, tent-proud tent-wives were brushing and sponging, children were stabbing away at the keys of their Game Boys. There was a whole world in this camp we had missed: suburban life transferred wholesale under canvas.

At six the next morning, I loaded the car for the return as quietly as possible, so as not to wake the neighbours. Not quietly enough, though, to keep our departure secret from the Harry Enfields over the way.

'So you're off then,' the man said, emerging from his tent. 'Oh deary me. It appears your driver's side front is a tad on the soft side.'

He was right. I had a puncture. Teeth clamped in fury, I started to unload the boot to liberate the spare. 'Love to help, but I've done my back in,' he said, taking up a supervisory position on one of our garden chairs as I struggled with a wheel nut. 'Permission granted to swear,' he said as the bottom fell out of a box of food while I was loading stuff back on.

But it was what he said as I squeezed the last bag untidily into the boot that made me think the mosquitoes of my youth were small irritants compared to those of a luxury executive campsite: 'So, what route exactly are you taking on the drive home?'

FACTFILE

Haven Europe (0705 466111) offers camping packages at two sites in St Jean de Monts, 60km (40 miles) south-west of Nantes. At Les Genets, seven nights in a family tent costs pounds 341-pounds 487 in August; prices are for two adults, children under 14 free, and include a midweek Channel crossing. In September (to 10 September) the lowest price is pounds 176. At nearby Le Bois Dormant, prices are pounds 176-pounds 502 per week. Haven offers a week in Montpellier for pounds 129 in September, four-night breaks from pounds 95, and three weeks for the price of two from 26 August.

(Photographs omitted)

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