Like minded families unite
I grew up in a family of six scousers where privacy was an alien concept and the idea of sharing “special time” with my hard working parents was as rare as a Tranmere Rovers’ hat trick. Now that I have my own offspring consisting of that dreaded term ‘an only child” I am finding that much to my surprise small can be beautiful. It is only when faced with the challenge of family holidays that the parent/child 2:1 ratio becomes a problem. Playing tag in the hotel’s infinity pool with a distracted dad may be a novelty on the first day but its not going to sustain a week’s holiday. What my ten old son wants from his holiday are a few mates to share adventures with, lots of water based activities and the spontaneous fun found in big family dynamics.
Come to think of it that’s what I’m looking for too so I was excited to discover a company called Family Adventure Holidays who offer family breaks featuring a range of outdoor activities centred around a three-day kayak excursion down the Ardeche Gorge in central southern France. My enthusiasm grew as I read that the trips are limited to a maximum of six families per week and described as,”personal “challenging” and that they offered the opportunity “to meet like minded adventurous families” Dismissing any worries about the adverb ‘too’ (too personal? too challenging? too adventurous?) I signed up with my single child for an activity week around the Grand Canyon of Europe.
“Head for the white“ bellowed my smiling son, Ben as we paddled towards our third set of rapids in succession. We were a few kilometres away from the famous Pont d’Arc, on the first day of the trip and he had adapted to life on the river like a water rat. He had learnt that he could get roller coaster thrills from our two man kayak if he belted top speed for the fastest flowing water and then left his Dad to do the steering while he held his paddle aloof like a football scarf. I jabbed mine into the water like a spade trying my best to dodge the boulders and whirlpools. Luckily it was late summer and the water levels were low so when we finally did capsize (right paddle, wrong stroke) at the Madeline rapids halfway down the gorge, it was a surprisingly painless experience.
Thankfully things have leapt forward in kayak design since I last paddled and nowadays the standard model for amateurs on a river like the Ardeche is the Dag sit-on-top kayak. Made from moulded plastic and shaped like giant bananas the Dags are practically unsinkable and because you never actually get inside them there is no worry of being trapped underneath them. For someone like myself who believed that an ‘eskimo roll’ is something you should eat rather than master it was comforting to know that abandoning ship from a Dag was as easy as falling off a plastic log.
After the first dunking Ben spent as much time splashing around in water as on the kayak, always with his buoyancy aid on and always under the watchful eye of our experienced river guides, Matthew, Elliot, Mike and Hayley. Family Adventure Holidays are big on safety and I soon learnt that their emphasis on foreseeing potential problems meant that I could relax - even in the counter intuitive moments as I watched my wee boy swept away by the latest strong current he had hitched a ride on.
The Beauty of the River
There was logic to Ben’s aquatic behaviour. The river with its cool water and shady outcrops was the best place to be in the heavy heat of the French summer. Throughout the course of our the 34km trip from Vallon Pont d'Arc to Sauze we all had a happy Huckleberry time of it, exploring riverside caves and jumping off limestone rocks and cliffs at the slightest excuse. We slept out in the woods and told terrible jokes around the communal campfire while munching on merguez. - Yes, we bivouacked under the stars, at a place called Gournier. Although it was less SAS survival and more Butlins BBQ with plenty of home comforts like toilets and showers as it turns out that what the French call bivouacs are what we call campsites. We watched trout arch and frogs plop in and out of the water, paddled past mud-covered nudists, and spotted shapes of mythical beasts in the dramatic karst landscape - Cathedral Rock is highly recommended for dragons by the way. Best of all we kayaked through the whole gorge of chestnut-crowned limestone cliffs without ever encountering a single motorised vessel or vehicle. And it was a delight to discover that kayaks and electronic gadgets don’t mix well. Without the distraction of computers, mobile phones or Nintendos we were all free to experience the joy of the here and now in the linear playground of the Ardeche River.
Mission accomplished we spent the last two days after the river trip around the nearby Chassezac Gorge rock climbing, caving and clambering along a zip wire course as extensive as the Eiffel Tower. All the activities were just far enough out of the children’s comfort zones to make them challenging and rewarding. Actually, the caving activity was way beyond my comfort zone and I had to pretend to be too large to fit down the tiny tunnels while my son discovered the joys of pitch-blackness in a confined space.
It is also worth mentioning that Family Adventure Holidays are a flexible bunch and much to my son’s delight he was able to sign up for an extra day with his new hero Elliot and enjoy the freedom of paddling his own canoe. Mum and Dad came along too, trailing behind in a double kayak doing their impersonation of an aquatic “pushmepullme”
Les Tournayes the small campsite favoured by Family Adventure Holidays ticked all the boxes in providing a convenient playing space and swimming pool for the children to unwind after the activities. The mobile homes were adequate but in summer temperatures of 40c + one wonders why the owners haven’t discovered the joys of air conditioning. Apparently other campsites rent out portable AC units on a daily basis. Heat accumulated in our chalets in the daytime so by night we felt like a floppy cheese sandwiches curling up in a sweaty plastic box. Camping with your head sticking out of the tent seemed like a luxury upgrade in comparison. There was talk of a menu of different types of accommodation on offer for the following season. If this comes about Les Carmel hotel a charming and cool ex19th convent in nearby Les Vans would be my first choice
Five days of activities And 7 nights’ self-catering accommodation in self-catering chalet that sleeps a family of five with all activities,
www.familyadventureholidays.com 01273 803030
Eurotunnel or ferry to Calais then a 640km drive to the Ardeche
Train Eurostar to Avignon, Momtelimar or Nimes
Flights Ryanair or Easyjet, to Nimes or Marseille respectively.
Transfers and car hire can be arranged through Family Adventure Holidays