I never thought the best swimming pool in the world would have frogs in it. Other surprises in its clear water include toads and newt tadpoles – stand still long enough and they tickle. This 20m “natural pool” – one of the first in France – is at Le Camp, a luxury campsite in the Aveyron valley, in the Midi-Pyrénées region.
Drawing up outside, we didn’t at first see holiday perfection. We saw a gaggle of English children, gawping through wire fencing. Our hearts sank. But a friendly greeting from the owners, Sally and Stephen O’Hare, and a cup of tea helped us to unwind. Sally showed us to the Big Yurt, one of the six tents and yurts in the campsite.
It was, indeed, big, at 25ft across, with a king-sized bed (complete with bedside tables and solar lamps), and cosy camp beds for our two children. The slogan at Le Camp is “comfortably natural” – and it is – but it is a lot of money (about £1,400 to £1,600 a week for a family of four in peak season) to share showers and lavatories (albeit lovely ones) and to cook in a communal kitchen.
Yet it works. Against expectation, the atmosphere at Le Camp made us relax and embrace the unknown, and a week here turned out to be as perfect a family holiday as any of us could imagine. Our five-year-old son joined a noisy, free-range posse of boys. Our nine-year-old daughter rocked in a hammock, reading Harry Potter. And the adults relaxed properly. We sat in the shade by the pool and watched the children and the dragonflies. I managed to read a huge, serious book – a first for me on any holiday since we had the children.
It helped that the weather here is very good, with beating sun offset by cool evenings and spectacular storms. But Le Camp’s success is really down to the charm – and hard work – of its owners. In 2007, confronted with the pressures of combining career and parenthood, the O’Hares gave up London jobs (he worked for Google, she was a headhunter) and bought a rundown campsite in an area of southern France they’d seen once on a cycling holiday.
The couple had a very clear vision for their new business. As Sally says: “We wanted to create a holiday experience where parents could actually be with their children in a relaxed and comfortable environment – not just shoving them into a kids’ club or childcare. And we don’t think there are that many ‘green’ places to stay that are actually very luxurious, so we tried to offer both.” They transformed the site themselves, installing the natural pool – the cleanliness of the water dependent on plants and gravel filters in a second pool close by. They built the kitchen, bathrooms and a thick-walled “snug” where guests can read or play games.
If you want to go off-site, there’s plenty to do nearby: the local village, St Antonin-Noble-Val, is a canoeing centre, and my daughter and I had a wonderful afternoon paddling over rapids and then through the spectacular cliff-edged valley.
The downsides? Other people’s family lives are on display, as is their – and your own – parenting. There’s also exotic wildlife inside the tent: noisy crickets, giant spiders and lizards. But the only things that really got us down were the insect bites.
A couple of times a week, there’s a campfire. The O’Hares provide wine, cheer and local knowledge. As our holiday ended, we all sat round the fire and watched the night sky – it was an exceptional night, with a meteor shower, and we watched the lights flash across the sky.
We are going back to Le Camp this year. This time, though, we will be taking some extra-strong insect repellent.
Le Camp is near St Antonin-Noble-Val, an hour north-east of Toulouse, and costs from £135/€155 per tent per night; each child costs £20/€25 per night extra. Breakfast is included. Use Rodez (Ryanair) or Toulouse airport. Tel: +33 6 11 94 33 68; www.lecamp.co.uk