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France’s camps offer family-friendly flexibility

  • This July 22, 2014 photo shows a field of sunflowers in the Poitou-Charentes region of France near the village of Saint-Just-Luzac. Any day trip from the nearby Sequoia Parc campground means passing field upon field of the flowers, which reach 10 feet (3 meters) in height and face steadily east, not follow the sun as is commonly believed. The Sequoia Parc  campground is one of many in France, where camping is a popular summer family pastime.  (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 22, 2014 photo shows a field of sunflowers in the Poitou-Charentes region of France near the village of Saint-Just-Luzac. Any day trip from the nearby Sequoia Parc campground means passing field upon field of the flowers, which reach 10 feet (3 meters) in height and face steadily east, not follow the sun as is commonly believed. The Sequoia Parc campground is one of many in France, where camping is a popular summer family pastime. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 14, 2014 photo shows boats at low tide as the sun sets on the Ile de Re resort of La Flotte, in France, on Bastille Day. Ile de Re is a mid-Atlantic Coast island that’s home to a five-star campground. Camping is a popular summer family pastime in France that ranges from roughing it in a scruffy tent to exclusive options with all the comforts of home.  (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 14, 2014 photo shows boats at low tide as the sun sets on the Ile de Re resort of La Flotte, in France, on Bastille Day. Ile de Re is a mid-Atlantic Coast island that’s home to a five-star campground. Camping is a popular summer family pastime in France that ranges from roughing it in a scruffy tent to exclusive options with all the comforts of home. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 11, 2014 photo shows 16-year-old David Pogatchnik and 4-year-old Harry Noble, left, playing rugby in front of a row of palm frond-roofed cottages at the Domaine des Ormes campsite in Brittany, France. The camp’s approximately 20 so-called "woodland lodges" are one of the most luxurious options offered at any French camp. The 12-sided pine cottages feature lofts for the children’s beds, a full kitchen with dishwasher and microwave, bathroom with power shower, a choice of barbecues, and a deck for dining. Other accommodation at the camp includes safari tents, mobile homes and treehouses. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 11, 2014 photo shows 16-year-old David Pogatchnik and 4-year-old Harry Noble, left, playing rugby in front of a row of palm frond-roofed cottages at the Domaine des Ormes campsite in Brittany, France. The camp’s approximately 20 so-called "woodland lodges" are one of the most luxurious options offered at any French camp. The 12-sided pine cottages feature lofts for the children’s beds, a full kitchen with dishwasher and microwave, bathroom with power shower, a choice of barbecues, and a deck for dining. Other accommodation at the camp includes safari tents, mobile homes and treehouses. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 18, 2014 photo shows seafood on sale at the Bois Plage en Re market on the Ile de Re, France. The village hosts the island’s only daily market and is an ideal spot for campers at a nearby campground to stock up on specialities for the barbecue, including steaks of tuna being cut fresh by a fishmonger in the foreground. Crustaceans and mollusks are the island’s specialty, served on ``fruit of the sea’’ platters. Camping is a popular summer pastime in France.  (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 18, 2014 photo shows seafood on sale at the Bois Plage en Re market on the Ile de Re, France. The village hosts the island’s only daily market and is an ideal spot for campers at a nearby campground to stock up on specialities for the barbecue, including steaks of tuna being cut fresh by a fishmonger in the foreground. Crustaceans and mollusks are the island’s specialty, served on ``fruit of the sea’’ platters. Camping is a popular summer pastime in France. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 19, 2014 photo shows English representatives of a Scotland-based Canvas camping company posing outside two Canvas Maxi Tents at the Interlude campsite on the Ile de Re, France. Travelers who book camping accommodation through one of Europe’s many camping specialist firms enjoy personal care on arrival from reps who offer advice and spare parts. They generally live full time at the camps from May to September. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 19, 2014 photo shows English representatives of a Scotland-based Canvas camping company posing outside two Canvas Maxi Tents at the Interlude campsite on the Ile de Re, France. Travelers who book camping accommodation through one of Europe’s many camping specialist firms enjoy personal care on arrival from reps who offer advice and spare parts. They generally live full time at the camps from May to September. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 23, 2014 photo shows David Pogatchnik, 16, preparing to bowl a cricket ball during outside a row of Canvas Safari Tents at Sequoia Parc camp in Saint-Just-Luzac, France. Making friends quickly among neighboring families always means makeshift games between the tents as parents cook the dinner and uncork the bottles. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 23, 2014 photo shows David Pogatchnik, 16, preparing to bowl a cricket ball during outside a row of Canvas Safari Tents at Sequoia Parc camp in Saint-Just-Luzac, France. Making friends quickly among neighboring families always means makeshift games between the tents as parents cook the dinner and uncork the bottles. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 18, 2014 photo shows wild hollyhocks springing up from the pavement of a narrow lane in Le Bois Plage, Ile de Re, France, in this photo taken July 18, 2014. Flowers are ubiquitous on the island, which for decades has been a favorite place for Parisians to have a second summertime home. The island is also home to a five-star campground. Camping is a popular summer family pastime in France. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 18, 2014 photo shows wild hollyhocks springing up from the pavement of a narrow lane in Le Bois Plage, Ile de Re, France, in this photo taken July 18, 2014. Flowers are ubiquitous on the island, which for decades has been a favorite place for Parisians to have a second summertime home. The island is also home to a five-star campground. Camping is a popular summer family pastime in France. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 22, 2014 photo shows Harry Noble, 4, holding a baby goat in a special pen at La Palmyre Zoo in Led Mathes, France. The zoo, a 45-minute drive southwest of the Sequoia Parc camp,  in the Poitou-Charente region of southwest France,  is the best possible day trip from the campground for a young family. The zoo permits visitors to feed many of the animals, including giraffes, zebras and ostriches, and sells bags of popcorn at the entrance. The surprise highlight: when the children are permitted to climb a small ladder into one pen holding scores of cuddly, forgiving goats. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 22, 2014 photo shows Harry Noble, 4, holding a baby goat in a special pen at La Palmyre Zoo in Led Mathes, France. The zoo, a 45-minute drive southwest of the Sequoia Parc camp, in the Poitou-Charente region of southwest France, is the best possible day trip from the campground for a young family. The zoo permits visitors to feed many of the animals, including giraffes, zebras and ostriches, and sells bags of popcorn at the entrance. The surprise highlight: when the children are permitted to climb a small ladder into one pen holding scores of cuddly, forgiving goats. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 20, 2014 photo shows camels as they promenade for guests at the Sequoia Park campsite in Saint-Just-Luzac, France. The one-ring Star Circus performs every week at the camp as it tours southwest France, erecting its big top on farm fields and beachfronts. More than 150 family-run circuses dot the map of rural France each summer and make the biggest camps a focal point for entertaining. Camping is a popular family summer pastime in France. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 20, 2014 photo shows camels as they promenade for guests at the Sequoia Park campsite in Saint-Just-Luzac, France. The one-ring Star Circus performs every week at the camp as it tours southwest France, erecting its big top on farm fields and beachfronts. More than 150 family-run circuses dot the map of rural France each summer and make the biggest camps a focal point for entertaining. Camping is a popular family summer pastime in France. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • FILE - This 2012 file photo released by National Geographic shows filmmaker James Cameron emerging from the Deepsea Challenger after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, during the filming of Cameron's "Deepsea Challenge 3D," a 3-D film releasing on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.”(AP Photo/National Geographic, Mark Thiessen, File)

    FILE - This 2012 file photo released by National Geographic shows filmmaker James Cameron emerging from the Deepsea Challenger after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, during the filming of Cameron's "Deepsea Challenge 3D," a 3-D film releasing on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.”(AP Photo/National Geographic, Mark Thiessen, File)

  • FILE - This March 27, 2012 file photo shows filmmaker James Cameron poses in London. On Friday Aug. 8, 2014, Cameron is releasing in theaters, “Deepsea Challenge 3D,”  a 3-D film for National Geographic that chronicles his 2012 dive into another alien world, “the last great frontier,” as he calls the ocean. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.” Currently he is finishing the scripts and design work for three planned “Avatar” sequels. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, File)

    FILE - This March 27, 2012 file photo shows filmmaker James Cameron poses in London. On Friday Aug. 8, 2014, Cameron is releasing in theaters, “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” a 3-D film for National Geographic that chronicles his 2012 dive into another alien world, “the last great frontier,” as he calls the ocean. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.” Currently he is finishing the scripts and design work for three planned “Avatar” sequels. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, File)

  • FILE - This March 27, 2012 file photo shows filmmaker James Cameron poses in London. On Friday Aug. 8, 2014, Cameron is releasing in theaters, “Deepsea Challenge 3D,”  a 3-D film for National Geographic that chronicles his 2012 dive into another alien world, “the last great frontier,” as he calls the ocean. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.” Currently he is finishing the scripts and design work for three planned “Avatar” sequels. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, File)

    FILE - This March 27, 2012 file photo shows filmmaker James Cameron poses in London. On Friday Aug. 8, 2014, Cameron is releasing in theaters, “Deepsea Challenge 3D,” a 3-D film for National Geographic that chronicles his 2012 dive into another alien world, “the last great frontier,” as he calls the ocean. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.” Currently he is finishing the scripts and design work for three planned “Avatar” sequels. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, File)

  • This July 11, 2014 photo shows 16-year-old David Pogatchnik and 4-year-old Harry Noble, left, playing rugby in front of a row of palm frond-roofed cottages at the Domaine des Ormes campsite in Brittany, France. The camp’s approximately 20 so-called "woodland lodges" are one of the most luxurious options offered at any French camp. The 12-sided pine cottages feature lofts for the children’s beds, a full kitchen with dishwasher and microwave, bathroom with power shower, a choice of barbecues, and a deck for dining. Other accommodation at the camp includes safari tents, mobile homes and treehouses. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

    This July 11, 2014 photo shows 16-year-old David Pogatchnik and 4-year-old Harry Noble, left, playing rugby in front of a row of palm frond-roofed cottages at the Domaine des Ormes campsite in Brittany, France. The camp’s approximately 20 so-called "woodland lodges" are one of the most luxurious options offered at any French camp. The 12-sided pine cottages feature lofts for the children’s beds, a full kitchen with dishwasher and microwave, bathroom with power shower, a choice of barbecues, and a deck for dining. Other accommodation at the camp includes safari tents, mobile homes and treehouses. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

  • This July 22, 2014 photo shows a field of sunflowers in the Poitou-Charentes region of France near the village of Saint-Just-Luzac. Any day trip from the nearby Sequoia Parc campground means passing field upon field of the flowers, which reach 10 feet (3 meters) in height and face steadily east, not follow the sun as is commonly believed. The Sequoia Parc  campground is one of many in France, where camping is a popular summer family pastime.  (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 14, 2014 photo shows boats at low tide as the sun sets on the Ile de Re resort of La Flotte, in France, on Bastille Day. Ile de Re is a mid-Atlantic Coast island that’s home to a five-star campground. Camping is a popular summer family pastime in France that ranges from roughing it in a scruffy tent to exclusive options with all the comforts of home.  (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 11, 2014 photo shows 16-year-old David Pogatchnik and 4-year-old Harry Noble, left, playing rugby in front of a row of palm frond-roofed cottages at the Domaine des Ormes campsite in Brittany, France. The camp’s approximately 20 so-called "woodland lodges" are one of the most luxurious options offered at any French camp. The 12-sided pine cottages feature lofts for the children’s beds, a full kitchen with dishwasher and microwave, bathroom with power shower, a choice of barbecues, and a deck for dining. Other accommodation at the camp includes safari tents, mobile homes and treehouses. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 18, 2014 photo shows seafood on sale at the Bois Plage en Re market on the Ile de Re, France. The village hosts the island’s only daily market and is an ideal spot for campers at a nearby campground to stock up on specialities for the barbecue, including steaks of tuna being cut fresh by a fishmonger in the foreground. Crustaceans and mollusks are the island’s specialty, served on ``fruit of the sea’’ platters. Camping is a popular summer pastime in France.  (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 19, 2014 photo shows English representatives of a Scotland-based Canvas camping company posing outside two Canvas Maxi Tents at the Interlude campsite on the Ile de Re, France. Travelers who book camping accommodation through one of Europe’s many camping specialist firms enjoy personal care on arrival from reps who offer advice and spare parts. They generally live full time at the camps from May to September. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 23, 2014 photo shows David Pogatchnik, 16, preparing to bowl a cricket ball during outside a row of Canvas Safari Tents at Sequoia Parc camp in Saint-Just-Luzac, France. Making friends quickly among neighboring families always means makeshift games between the tents as parents cook the dinner and uncork the bottles. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 18, 2014 photo shows wild hollyhocks springing up from the pavement of a narrow lane in Le Bois Plage, Ile de Re, France, in this photo taken July 18, 2014. Flowers are ubiquitous on the island, which for decades has been a favorite place for Parisians to have a second summertime home. The island is also home to a five-star campground. Camping is a popular summer family pastime in France. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 22, 2014 photo shows Harry Noble, 4, holding a baby goat in a special pen at La Palmyre Zoo in Led Mathes, France. The zoo, a 45-minute drive southwest of the Sequoia Parc camp,  in the Poitou-Charente region of southwest France,  is the best possible day trip from the campground for a young family. The zoo permits visitors to feed many of the animals, including giraffes, zebras and ostriches, and sells bags of popcorn at the entrance. The surprise highlight: when the children are permitted to climb a small ladder into one pen holding scores of cuddly, forgiving goats. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • This July 20, 2014 photo shows camels as they promenade for guests at the Sequoia Park campsite in Saint-Just-Luzac, France. The one-ring Star Circus performs every week at the camp as it tours southwest France, erecting its big top on farm fields and beachfronts. More than 150 family-run circuses dot the map of rural France each summer and make the biggest camps a focal point for entertaining. Camping is a popular family summer pastime in France. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)
  • FILE - This 2012 file photo released by National Geographic shows filmmaker James Cameron emerging from the Deepsea Challenger after his successful solo dive to the Mariana Trench, during the filming of Cameron's "Deepsea Challenge 3D," a 3-D film releasing on Friday, Aug. 8, 2014. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.”(AP Photo/National Geographic, Mark Thiessen, File)
  • FILE - This March 27, 2012 file photo shows filmmaker James Cameron poses in London. On Friday Aug. 8, 2014, Cameron is releasing in theaters, “Deepsea Challenge 3D,”  a 3-D film for National Geographic that chronicles his 2012 dive into another alien world, “the last great frontier,” as he calls the ocean. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.” Currently he is finishing the scripts and design work for three planned “Avatar” sequels. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, File)
  • FILE - This March 27, 2012 file photo shows filmmaker James Cameron poses in London. On Friday Aug. 8, 2014, Cameron is releasing in theaters, “Deepsea Challenge 3D,”  a 3-D film for National Geographic that chronicles his 2012 dive into another alien world, “the last great frontier,” as he calls the ocean. It has been five years since Cameron’s last feature film, “Avatar.” Currently he is finishing the scripts and design work for three planned “Avatar” sequels. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan, File)
  • This July 11, 2014 photo shows 16-year-old David Pogatchnik and 4-year-old Harry Noble, left, playing rugby in front of a row of palm frond-roofed cottages at the Domaine des Ormes campsite in Brittany, France. The camp’s approximately 20 so-called "woodland lodges" are one of the most luxurious options offered at any French camp. The 12-sided pine cottages feature lofts for the children’s beds, a full kitchen with dishwasher and microwave, bathroom with power shower, a choice of barbecues, and a deck for dining. Other accommodation at the camp includes safari tents, mobile homes and treehouses. (AP Photo/Shawn Pogatchnik)

One son’s conquering a waterslide. The other’s at the soccer pitch leading French, British and Dutch teammates to victory. Mom’s getting a massage. Dad’s poolside chatting with his new European neighbors and plotting a barbeque.

You might not recognize this as a typical holiday in France. But this is how French families celebrate summers at 10,000 campsites nationwide, half of Europe’s total. It’s rural France at its most flexible and relaxed. Options range from frugal to fabulous. Pack a tent, fly into any French airport, rent a car and head out.

Don’t like roughing it? Neither do most Europeans, who bring their designer dogs and satellite dishes, and choose hard-roofed accommodation from mobile homes to fairy-tale cottages. The most exclusive options are booked months in advance.

I’ve gone the scruffy, improvised tent-in-suitcase route three times, sampling sites from Normandy to the Pyrenees. This summer I took my partner and sons, ages 4 and 16, to three five-star camps.

DOMAINE DES ORMES, Brittany, northwest France

How flashy is this mega-camp? The resident owner takes helicopter day trips from his medieval chateau.

Des Ormes (The Elms) has an 18-hole golf course, a hotel with spa, an equestrian center, three restaurants, a pub, three pools (two outdoor with a wave pool and slides, one indoor with steamy jungle plants), playgrounds, a turf field for sports, lakes with fishing and paddle boats, and a treetop adventure course featuring log bridges and zip lines.

You’d need a week to do it all, never mind nearby attractions like the Mont Saint-Michel monastery, a walled pirate city of Saint-Malo and D-Day sites.

Activities for young and old run several times daily. On our last night, hundreds gathered at the poolside amphitheater for a camp-produced film featuring time-traveling knights. The heroes found themselves in modern-day Les Ormes defending their “castle,” the owner’s residence – and appeared live at the pool, with dozens of extras, to duel the villain. Amid eyebrow-singeing blasts of fire, the bad guy got chest-kicked into the water.

Fireworks ran 15 minutes. The boy on my shoulders loved it. Everyone else was impressed it happened at all.

SUNELIA INTERLUDE, Ile de Re (Ile de Re), mid-Atlantic Coast

A four-hour drive south, the Ile de Re feels exclusive, starting with a $21.50 bridge toll.

Re is best seen by bicycle. The island, 20 miles long and 3 miles wide, is flat as a pancake with one of Europe’s most extensive bicycling networks. Paved paths run through salt beds and vineyards. Haggle at rental bike shops in one of the 10 villages, not at the campsite, to save money. Bikes can include child seats or canopied two-wheeled chariots for infants and pets.

We camped beside the beach on Re’s sandy south coast. Nature here is schizophrenic: At high tide, the sand’s been swallowed up; six hours later, you can walk a quarter-mile into the Atlantic, in bath-like calm, before your feet leave the muddy sand. Hundreds of parked bicycles – and zero cars – mark the beach entrances, flanked by surf schools and catamaran clubs.

But the Interlude campsite, run by the Sunelia chain, proved a letdown despite its five stars. Its indoor complex of water-jet pools was overrun by children and had only one toilet. Its playground and sports facilities were cramped, some pathways were crumbling – my younger boy got bloody knees falling in a pothole – and its too-formal restaurant had short hours and extortionate prices. We stuck to ice cream and pizzas from the overpriced convenience store.

Fortunately, three nearby villages of whitewashed homes with pastel shutters – Le Bois Plage, with a daily market and old-school amusement rides, fortress-enclosed Saint Martin de Re and yacht-filled port of La Flotte – offered buckets of atmosphere, seaside dining and competitive superstores.

Wildlife around our tent included feral kittens, rock-hopping lizards and a praying mantis. We fed spiders to the ruthless, muscle-armed mantis and took it home as a prized family pet.

SEQUOIA PARC, Poitou-Charente, southwest France

An hour’s drive south past La Rochelle and Rochefort lies the oyster capital of France and, inland, one of the finest family campsites, Sequoia Parc, on the grounds of a grand chateau.

A four-pool complex offers water slides for every age, even toddlers; a lazy river; and sundeck with nonalcoholic bar.

At the camp’s mini-zoo, my younger son loved visiting goats, chickens, geese, a sheep, a badger and an alpaca. There are pony rides and weekly visits from a traveling circus featuring acrobats, jugglers, camels and stunt cats, including one who escaped under the bleachers.

Nighttime entertainment beside a barnyard-converted pub and restaurant included a laughably unfunny mime and a live Shrek show that mesmerized my 4-year-old. His big brother bonded with other boys playing basketball, tennis and soccer, then hit the pools with his gaggle of Euro-lads.

My partner indulged in massages, $80 an hour, while I enjoyed simple things: an herb garden for cooking, starling nests inside tropically gardened shower blocks, and chatting with neighbors over candlelit Bordeaux or Cognac.

One warning: Sequoia Parc is flanked by marshland. If mosquitoes find you delicious, you’re doomed.

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