My first experience of camping in Europe was in a Seventies VW camper van. I saved up with three fellow college friends to acquire the van for £2,000 and we set off after our A-levels to discover the world.
The camping was incidental. It was all about the adventure. We discovered we lacked the musical talent to make any money busking in Amsterdam. We explored Berlin a few months after the wall had fallen. We bribed our way into Yugoslavia with 10 packs of duty-free Rothmans to get to Greece the quick way. (A stupid move, as it turned out; we were lucky to be escorted from the militarised zone at gunpoint.) Our clutch cable snapped in Italy and we patched it up with a wire coat hanger, which got us all the way home.
I learned so much on that trip. But one of the big things I learned was that European campsites were a bit rubbish. Our “pitch” was often nothing more than a parking space, the sunlight blocked out by other motorhomes barely a metre either side of us. There was no green space to be seen. Where was the nature?
It’s unfair to say that all campsites were like that, but overall the sense was that camping was a functional endeavour – a place to sleep rather than a leisure pursuit to be enjoyed for its own sake.
As a parent, I have returned to camping in Europe in recent years, particularly in France. And I’m pleased to report that things have changed. Driven by consumer demand for “pure camping”, there are now plenty of independent sites that offer a simpler camping experience, where space, tranquillity, and access to nature are paramount. The fastest-growing campsite operator in France is a small family-owned business that puts pure camping, and glamping, at its heart.
The raison d’être of the 30-plus Huttopia campsites is, quite simply, nature, or as they like to put it, “discovery and disconnection”. Notable more for what is not there than what is, these places – defiantly free of water parks and karaoke – keep it simple, and all the better for it.
Huttopia has also introduced a refined version of its campsites – the “Villages” concept – occupying four of its locations in France, each set in a special forested or lakeside setting. We recently stayed at Huttopia Villages in Senonches, a little more than an hour from Versailles.
It’s ironic that the USPs here – nature and head space – are things that should be freely available out in the big wild world. But the truth is, it’s harder than it should be to get disconnected, so by packaging it all up in such an easy format, these guys have hit a rich vein with overstressed escape-seekers like me.
Just the very mention of the “woodland spa” instantly unwinds me. A hot tub, sauna and steam room are three great inventions in their own right, but together, in a forest setting, by a lake, with no children permitted – that’s just off-the-scale chilling.
The kids are well catered for too: no movie nights or arcade games for them; they will be taught to climb trees, make dream-catchers with their finds from the forest, or crack the clues in an escape-room style outdoor treasure hunt. All these activities are included, so there’s no excuse not to put the gadgets away.
The on-site restaurant keeps it simple with family-friendly comfort food and there’s a tranquil lakeside terrace for a relaxing evening drink. It’s also the perfect place to contemplate which fresh pastries to order for the morning delivery.
There is actual camping here – individual, spacious camping pitches are hidden among the trees – but it’s fair to say there is more of a focus on the various comfortable glamping options, all of which have generous wooden terraces for cooking, eating and relaxing outdoors. The cabins even come with fully equipped kitchens, bathrooms with hot showers and heating. But no TV or Wi-Fi, of course.
Therein lies the delicate balance that makes Huttopia Villages so popular. We want to get away from emails, updates and screen time; we want to get out among the trees and trails – but on our own terms. Preferably with a cafetière of coffee on hand and an imminent delivery of croissants.
Jonathan Knight is the founder of the Cool Camping guidebook series