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Europe: Family Camping across Europe is Easy with Canvas Holidays

Mention Europe and travelling with kids in the same sentence and people look at you as if you've lost your marbles. Who in their right mind would even think about taking little people (who probably won't remember a thing) to foreign countries? And isn't winning the lottery a prerequisite to making it all happen?

The answer is no, not if you follow the example of British families who head to Europe with "Canvas Holidays," a British tenting organization. It's even better if you have little ones and can travel outside of school holidays. Accommodation on the grounds of a 16th-century French chateau or by a lake in Italy known for windsurfing can cost as little as $3.19 per night for a family of six. Even mid season won't break the bank. Up to June 30th and after August 30, kids and teens up to 17 sleep free. To take our crew in June for instance to the Montpezat campground in Provence to kayak through the Gorges would cost $40 per night. Far less than any suite of rooms nearby and a lot more fun!

Canvas Holidays began 30 years ago, when Jim and Margaret Cuthbert found it gruelling to cart car and three kids plus all the camping gear across the Channel to campsites in Europe. Why not devise a system where you bring child, sleeping bag and pillow and have everything else waiting for you when you arrive? It was a brilliant idea. Today, their large blue-and-orange tents, equipped with two bedrooms with beds for five, electric lights, a kitchen with stove and coffee maker, hammocks, a barbecue, and even a bathroom with toilet and shower if you pay extra, serve as holiday homes for hundreds of families.

Call it a cottage with canvas walls that roll up on sunny days. If you're travelling with baby, you can pop him into a waiting crib, high chair or bath the minute you arrive. Teens can sleep independently in a pup tent next door. After untying sleeping bags and puffing up pillows, all that's left to do is to pour drinks with the fresh drinking water chilling in the fridge. On-site supermarkets and take-away meals help with the cooking. At one campsite, Madame carried dinner under silver domes across the lawn to serve us in our tent. Total cost for a meal of roast chicken and pommes frites: $15.

When our kids were three, five, and seven, we spent two wonderful weeks in Brittany and Normandy in four different campsites. We picked this area because it was close to Paris, we thought we'd like the food and setting (Breton crepes and Normand cider, lots of beaches and sea air) and because there was lots to see nearby in case kids wanted a break from the campsites. Fat chance! Our biggest problem was luring them away from the campgrounds. Like families who have bought five-day Disney passes only to have the offspring demanding to stay at the hotel pool, our kids pleaded to stay in camp to climb trees for crabapples, swim in the large heated pools, fish in the lakes, and ride the gentle ponies. (We finally insisted on leaving to see the Normandy landing beaches, visit castles and fish markets, and ride bicycles through the fields of prehistoric stone structures left by the Celts.)

Best of all, our youngest who was unsettled by the differences between France and home (toilets with pull chains and apple juice with bubbles), loved the tents. As each tent was exactly the same, she didn't mind switching campsites. Upon arriving, she would run to the familiar bedsite, fling out her sleeping bag and throw her stuffed doggy on top. Home!

Enthusiastic children's couriers arranged birthday parties (complete with Blind Man's Bluff), suggested tinfoil daggers for treasure hunts, and led hikes. Although babysitting was available for a fee, and weekly pyjama parties are now held one evening a week so that parents can have a leisurely dinner, we found that children were always welcomed in the on-site restaurants and bars where dances were held European style: dad dancing with baby, mum with young son, child with child.

The company regularly checks campsites, adding new ones that appeal or dropping any that don't measure up. Indeed, the one campsite we found wanting is no longer available. This summer, 13 new sites offer watersports, mountain hikes and tours of local vineyards; three weeks in the low season come for the price of two. It's true that high season can get expensive (from July 7 to August 18, rates peak at $110 per night for a family of six), and a car is a necessity. Some camps charge an additional supplement of up to $10 per adult. But remembering the outdoor breakfasts of chocolate croissants by our tent and the evenings spent dancing the night away to French disco music, it was Europe at its most affordable best.
For this year's catalogue, write Canvas Holidays Ltd., Bull Plain, Hertford, Hertfordshire, Britain, SG 14 1DY. Tel: 011-44-1992-553-535.





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