|La Bergerie. Small, friendly, level pitches, great location and very clean.|
Do you ever dream of owning your own campsite? What would you do with it? After our trip this summer I have been having fantasies about owning and running a campsite (before you say it isn’t easy, I don’t think for a minute it would be). This has resulted in a game we call “fantasy campsite”. It’s a very simple game whereby we go through and list all the places we have stayed and add their best qualities to our list of wants and needs from a truly brilliant place to pitch up. It changes all the time and can sometimes depend upon the place we have been staying, whether good or bad.
Sometimes “fantasy campsite” sounds like whinging. But it isn’t. It’s about casting an eye over what we’ve seen, taking the best ideas, cutting out the worst elements and putting them all together to remake a campsite that’s just perfect. From that we can then work out where, of all the many places we’ve stayed over the years, is the one place we’d hanker after most. The thing is that, unlike other kinds of accommodation, we take our beds with us in the van so the bedroom never changes. It’s the surroundings that make all the difference.
First, the most basic of basics.
Cleanliness. If there are toilets and showers, they must be clean. I don’t care about anything else really. I don’t even mind not having toilets if I am equipped with a porta potti but if they are present, they must be clean. One of our favourite campsites in Spain was Camping Playa de Espana near Gijon. It was good because of its location but very basic. However basic it was, the toilets were immaculate. I think that it’s important to supply toilet paper too, especially if it’s a luxury camp site. And if I am paying upwards of E40 for a night I wouldn’t expect to have to pay for a shower with a token, yet some sites do this. Camping du Letty, a pricey site in Benodet (Brittany)has a token policy “to stop people who aren’t staying from using the showers.” Whatever.
After that it’s all down to personal choices about what makes a good camping experience.
Location. This is vital, particularly when it comes to camping with my family. Obviously we all want to be near the good stuff and away from the bad stuff but, for me, the ability to get up really early and get on my bike or walk to check the surf is important. I like to surf early without disturbing the family so I can have the rest of the day with them, so staying within proximity of the beach is an important consideration. Getting everyone up, packing up the van and driving to the beach to surf would never happen. The Campsite at Newgale in Pembrokeshire is perfect for this, as is Ayr in St Ives and Gwithian Farm near Hayle. On our trip the Aires De Camping Car at Biscarosse, Contis and Moliets were perfect, whilst camp sites at Tapia De Casariego, Playa de Espana and Cote d'Argent at Hourtin enabled me to check the sea in just a few minutes. Camping Entre Plages at Lafitenia in France has pitches where you can check the surf at the point in just a few paces. Wild camping spots at San Vicente de Barquera and Play Penaronda also offered swift “shall I or shan’t I?” surf check opportunities too.
Of course, we didn’t always spend time at the coast and often headed into the hills to do other things besides surfing (imagine!). Location is just as important, and a view from the pitch made it. Whilst we didn’t like the all night disco noise at Camping Pyrenevasion at Lux St Saveur in the Pyrenees, the views were great. However, top prize (for most things) went to La Bergerie at Gavarnie. I wrote about it in this blog, whilst the pitch at Camping LaViorna in Potes gave us spectacular views of the valley below.
The pitch. Oh I could bang on about this forever as all pitches are different. But I’ll try to keep it short: space is everything and natural is better than organised. There, that just about sums it up. Even on flat, open campsites I love to have the feeling that people aren’t on top of each other, even if there aren’t any physical barriers such as hedges between pitches. My personal space is precious. I don’t want anyone hearing my conversations and I certainly don’t want to hear other people’s domestics. The other thing about a pitch is that it must be as close to level as possible so I don’t have to get the chocks out. No brainer that one I’d say.
One of the best campsites for pitches is Wavecrest in Caherdaniel(Ireland). Each pitch is terraced and some are separated by natural obstacles such as rocks or outcrops. Some are right on the water and one is on its own island! They are also big enough to park the van, pitch up an awning and still have lots of space for table and chairs. Even when it’s full you can still feel as if you have private space. It feels natural too, something else that matters to me. One of those we visited this summer, the Cool Camping recommended site at Dune Du Pylat, crams them in so much that you feel as if everyone is watching your every move. The site was great for the views but not so great for the population density. A victim of its own success perhaps? The municipal camp site at Primelin in Brittany – best value at E13 for the night – had high hedges of rosemary and lavender that made the spacious pitches feel really private.
Atmosphere. Some places give you a vibe that wants you to stay on, whether it’s a friendly face at reception, helpful staff or other campers who are open and friendly. I guess that’s all down to customer service. The site at Playa de Espana was great in the people made us feel welcome even if we didn’t speak their language. I guess this is because they were small enough to have time for us or cared about their business and ran reception themselves. On others, particularly the bigger sites, the mood was sometimes corporate and officious and I got the feeling that the people running things were just doing their summer McJobs and therefore didn’t care that much.
Plastic versus canvas? For me, campsites need to have a little soul and that means a higher percentage of canvas than statics or caravans. In some sites in Europe the sites were crammed full of back to back caravans with awnings, their occupants settled in for the long haul. It’s not for me.
Facilities. This is where things get contentious, because I like a field to camp in but I also like a good pool to cool off in when it gets hot. I also like the fact that my kids can amuse themselves in a play park for hours on end or that I can get a drink in a campsite bar. Even so, if you’re going to have it, it has to be good. There is nothing more depressing than a rubbish play park, a murky pool or a crappy camp site bar. Likewise an overpriced campsite shop with nothing but fizzy drinks and biscuits. And as for video games? Defeats the object of camping if you ask me.
The most basic of sites we found on this summer's tour of France and Spain, nothing more than a field at St Vicente De Barqueiro, had absolutely nothing but was close enough to town to be able to cycle in to get great food. Likewise the aires in France. Better to have nothing than half hearted awfulness. A field in Cornwall near the beach and with a really good pub next door? Every time. Find it at Gwithian Farm if you must know.
Extras. I have said it before but I think the price should be the price. The creeping feeling of being fleeced doesn’t make for a good holiday, so I love campsites where showers are all in the price, loo paper is provided and you can chill your freezer blocks for nothing. It’s goodwill versus finding another way of parting the camper from more of their money and it goes a long way.
Internet and wifi. This is becoming more and more important. For me, it was good to be able to keep in contact with my business and home whilst away. There were times when I had to work. It’s the way of the world, however you feel about it, and it annoyed me when I had to pay two or three Euros for a couple of hours in some sites when others were free. And how come Brittany Ferries charge E5 for an hour on their ships when on Irish Ferries it is free? It’s all down to making more money rather than making your customers feel good.
Fires. There are entire websites devoted to campsites where you can light fires so it’s obviously important to many. For some it can make or break a camping trip, but I would say it’s more important in the UK than abroad, where the warmth of a fire at night means so much more. When you have warm weather a decent sunset can be more than enough fire to stoke the soul. Having said that, given the choice, it’d be a fire every time. The comfort we get from staring into the embers is something that will stir each and every one of us.
So there you have it. My fantasy campsite. My van. A camper van friendly and spacious field near the sea with clean toilets and a fire. Possibly internet. Probably a cosy and friendly bar that serves really good home cooked food and a great latte. Lots of canvas. And some really good friends. And the feeling that, for a night or two, we can feel like we are surviving in the wilds. It’s not too much to ask is it?
The best of our trip...
- Best of the best: La Bergerie at Gavarnie in the Pyrenees. Clean, basic, great value. Brilliant location right under the Cirque de Gavarnie. Amazing walking nearby, even for the nippers.
- Most expensive: Hourtin Plage. Great corporate site with perfect location near to the beach and town with good pool and nice kids play park. For us it was E62 per night yet we had to pay for internet, freezer and bring our own loo roll.
- Friendliest: Free overnight stop at the France Passion Site at L’Auberge in Cauterets. Lovely views and really friendly welcome. Great local food too at the Auberge.
- Cheapest: San Vicente De Barquiero. A field by the beach. E5 for the night. No tents or caravans, just camper vans and a lovely beach with great surf.
- Kids’ favourite: Aire de Camping Car at Moliets. Right in town and therefore next to ice cream shops and the beach. No showers. E12 per night.
- Mum’s favourite: Aire de Camping Car at Biscarosse. E7 per night. Close enough to town to cycle, great restaurants, brilliant fishmongers and a self cleaning loo.
- Best lucky find: Playa de Espana, Spain. Simple site next to a great surfing beach with a nice bar, friendly people and just under E30 for the night.
- Best free spot: Tapia de Casariego. Free aire de camping car just above the beach in this lovely port and seaside town. No loos. Good tapas in town. Also amazing free camping at Penaronda nearby.
- Best for foraging: The Camping Indigo site at Isle deNoirmoutier. The site is right next to the beach where, on low spring tides, the whole town turns out to forage for delicious cockles.
- Best for views: We loved the views from our pitch at Camping La Viorna in Potes high in the Picos de Europa in Northern Spain.