⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ Camping In France
We tried our first camping 'cinq étoiles.' Confession: This was all my fault.
Perhaps it was the Johnny Hallyday imitator. Or perhaps it was the child beauty pageant. All I knew was that mid-way through our first stay at one of France’s 5-star campgrounds, I would never be allowed to live this down.
I’ll admit this right from the start: It was my idea to give this a try.
We are not a 5-star kind of family in most circumstances, but especially when it comes to camping. Backpacking into a secluded spot is ideal. That became trickier after having kids, so we shifted to car camping. This is still pretty spectacular in California, a state blessed with stunning state and national parks.
But one of the unexpected challenges of moving to France was learning how to camp here. We had shipped our embarrassingly rich supply of REI camping gear to Toulouse in 2014. So we weren’t lacking the gear.
Instead, we couldn’t figure out how to camp and where. It’s one of the endless things that you don’t realize you’ll have to re-learn when moving to another country. French regional and national parks generally don’t allow camping, and they certainly don’t have the kind of campgrounds we found in Yosemite National Park. As for backpacking, or camping sauvage, it seemed to involve a tangled thicket of rules that had to be navigated in order to obtain permission to pitch a tent in some random place. Basically, a metaphor for life in France. Each attempt ended in discouragement.
So for the first several years, our camping gear just sat in a closet.
Eventually, we learned that most campgrounds were private. The trick then was to understand the rating system in order to select one that aligns with our needs. Still, even this proved complicated. We booked one weekend trip at a campground in the Pyrénées for our daughter’s birthday. The pictures looked wonderful, the 2-star rating suggested it would be no-frills.
But when we arrived, we discovered the “campground” was basically someone’s backyard in a small village. Fortunately, there weren’t many other campers. But we spent the weekend staring at the sides of other homes while toasting our s’mores on our camping stove.
After years of inertia alternating with camping misfires, we began planning our first trip to Brittany. We decided that it would be a camping trip, and so dug into the guide books and websites, determined to finally pull this off.
And so we did. We planned 2 weeks. Britanny is vast, and 14 days is enough to see only a sliver. After consulting friends, we selected two spots.
The first was Presqu’Île de Crozon in the Finistère Departement. This peninsula is in the Southwest corner of Brittany and gave us our first taste of this region’s natural beauty.
We stayed at a small family campground called Les Pieds Dans L’eau which has sadly closed since we visited. Les Pieds was basic, with a small campground store, showers and bathrooms, and a choice of pitches just a few hundred feet off the water. One feature it lacked was other French campers. We were mainly surrounded by Dutch and German families.
One thing it took some time to learn is that the French are not big on camping, at least not this basic kind. There is a joke here that if you go camping for a couple of weeks in the summer, you will come home speaking Dutch. The French, it seems, prefer their comforts when they go camping.
Over the course of various trips, I began to understand this as we would pass enormous campgrounds that resembled amusement parks. Restaurant areas. Spas. Waterslides. This was 5-star camping, camping cinq-étoile.
Here’s the thing: I also like my comforts. So when thinking about the Brittany trip, I conjured up some rationalizations to justify booking a few nights at a fancy campground. We should experience camping like French do. The kids will really love it and don’t they deserve a treat? It will add some variety to the trip.
The largest campground company in France is called Yelloh! Village. So I reserved us four nights at Le Ranolien along the northern coast of Brittany on a small peninsula called la Côte de Granit Rose (The Pink Granite Coast). (Since we visited, it appears this campground was sold to another company. Perhaps we bring with a camping curse that dooms such places.)
So after leaving behind our idyllic family campground, we made the two-hour drive north to meet our fate.
What Have I Done?
Upon pulling through the gate, I could feel my wife’s gaze tightening. We passed a shack with a list of sign-up activities: surfing lessons, kayaking lessons, guided hikes. After checking, I drove to our nearby camping spot, which was a decent-sized pitch but surrounded mostly by camping cars and RVs.
Apparently, we were among the foolish few who would dare use a tent. The majority of “campers” had actually rented cabins of some sort which were actually trailers placed on foundations with air conditioning. Like the happy people in this video:
The sounds of kids screaming and splashing in the large pool at the center of the campground floated over us as we pitched the tents. We noticed that we were right under a large streetlight, and prayed it would not stay on all night.
After getting set up, we went to explore. Walking past the volleyball and basketball courts, we arrived at the pool with its enormous waterslide. Just to the side was an indoor heated pool. Around the corner, a spa, a library, 2 restaurants, and a movie theater. Pampering a-plenty.
For the kids, there was a disco-arcade place where they could stand in a room ear-piercing music and play video games. In other words, a place to escape the parents.
Also, we found a lot of French people at Le Ranolien. This was apparently their idea of camping and we have made our peace with that.
There were many things we did appreciate about the campground. Life is not so bad when you can go in a heated pool and then wander next door to the bar for a gin & tonic. At one point, we gave the kids money to go see a movie while the adults went to the spa. Unfortunately, the jacuzzi was basically the temperature of chilly bathwater, and so we added to our long list of disappointing French thermal bath experiences.
On the other hand, the frenetic pace of the campground made it hard to relax. And the evening entertainment options left us, well, feeling like the strangers in a strange land that we are. On one night, a Johnny Hallyday impersonator packed the bar. We never got the whole French Elvis thing, so a pale imitator was hardly an attraction for us. But the booming sounds echoed around the campground, and when we walked past the bar that night it was a cauldron of dancing sweaty bodies who were singing along to every tune.
More stupefying was the child beauty pageant. Having grown up in the land of JonBenét Ramsey, I have few stones to cast here. Except to note that this is the 21st century and France does have a rather strange fetish for beauty pageants at all levels, with local ones often making the front page of our local Toulouse newspaper.
There didn’t really seem to a proper venue for raising our objections or debating the gender issues or even just the overall ickiness. We did duck in briefly to witness the event, which confirmed our sense of its wrongness. Clearly, we were in a minority, overwhelmed by the majority who found it all so very adorable.
Côte de Granit Rose
What saved this back half of the trip was the Côte de Granit Rose. We spent a day in the nearby town of Perros Guirec, where our son took surf lessons and we played on the beach and ate ice cream. On another day, we drove to the far side of the peninsula to the town of Saint-Guirec for an Irish music festival, a chance to hear one of our favorite types of music under torrential rain to set just the right ambiance.
But the real highlight could be found by walking straight out of the campground to a fairly gentle path that hugs the coast. The region gets its name from the unusual pink or rose-colored sand and granite rocks that decorate the shore. This path took us around the peninsula to Saint-Guirec and every step felt like a treat.
Sharp in some places, weathered and rounded in others, the rocks and sand created an almost glowing effect. As we wound around the coast, we passed a lighthouse perched far out on an outcropping keeping a watchful eye on the English Channel. Our walk ended on the west side of this little peninsula at Plage Saint-Guirec. Gazing across the little inlet, sat Costaérès Island, home to the Costaérès Château. Being made out of the local stone, it looked like a giant sandcastle sitting just out of reach.
Back at the campground, we got some takeout from one of the restaurants and then retreated to our pitch surrounded by tall hedges and our strategically placed car and tent to block the view of our neighbors. After dinner, we cranked up the camping stove to make s’mores and huddled together around the tiny flames to smell the melting chocolate and marshmallow and to ward off the chilly Brittany evening.
If we closed our eyes, it almost felt like camping.