Sitting behind the wheel while in the “passenger” seat should have been unsettling enough, but it was dark with lashing rain, and the controls for the lights and windscreen wipers were still something to a mystery despite ten minutes of familiarisation in the airport car park.
Then, any fragile confidence over the general direction of travel was shattered by the intended destination being signposted in two opposite directions. Throw in rush-hour traffic and a series of bewildering junctions to negotiate, and it was perhaps no surprise that the vehicle ended up in a field, mercifully upright.
Disembarking at Zeebrugge some years later after a splendid crossing from Hull with P&O, that old anxiety would not be controlled, despite having enjoyed an excellent night’s rest in a spacious cabin followed by a hearty breakfast, on what had seemed more of a floating hotel than a ferry. Don’t even think about driving to Dover from Scotland, when you have the option of Hull instead.
But what could go wrong? Satnav in place, road map as back-up, glorious Sunday morning sunshine, time on our side, and plenty of petrol to get to the first filling station.
Except the satnav failed. And the map of France, our destination, didn’t show the part of Belgium we would have to negotiate first of all. Still, we would buy a new one when we filled up at the service station. Had it been open. Ach, at least we could use the automated petrol pumps, and follow our noses until we saw a relevant road sign. Pity then, about the sign that had been stuck on every pump, written in Dutch, of which the only recognisable word was “kaput”.
Some 30 miles later, blind panic was replaced by wild elation as a service station came into view just as the petrol gauge needle was drawn magnetically into the “you bloody idiot” section. The kids were sent to the nearby sandpit to celebrate. Which turned out to be a designated dog fouling area. It’s fair to say we could have been better prepared for this adventure.
Our eventual arrival at rural Berny Riviere, north-east of Paris, came as something of a relief. It was a surprise to find that the holiday parc is used by up to eight different operators, of which our host Eurocamp is only one. Most of the accommodation is in mobile homes, which are actually fixed, each of them branded with the name of the holiday operator. Our home was pitched lakeside, in what was an idyllic location when the sun was shining. A slight concern was the single source of heating in the shape of a gas fire immediately adjacent to the front door. But with daytime temperatures in the high teens, we didn’t consider this to be a problem.
Such faith was sadly misplaced. In the evening there was a significant drop in temperature, and the night became a test of endurance. To be blunt, it was bitterly cold, and we were plagued by condensation. After three nights of what was to be a week-long stay, we could take no more of the misery, and if we could not be offered suitable alternative accommodation, we were heading home early. Mercifully, Eurocamp staff were able to offer us a move to a different home with underfloor heating. We couldn’t see the lake from our new location, but who cared? Nor could we see our own breath in the morning any longer, and that was all that mattered. Just why we hadn’t been allocated a properly heated home in the first place was a mystery.
The resort itself is family-orientated, with a range of facilities and activities to keep children happy: kids clubs, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, crazy golf, trampolines, karting track, pedalo boats, kayaks, table tennis and an activity centre offering the likes of archery, climbing and a zip wire to children over the age of seven. For adults or the whole family, there is Macau Beach bar and restaurant, the Summer Restaurant, and a further bar; a fast food takeaway, cafe, bike hire, hair salon and a site shop. There is enough here to entertain the kids without being nagged every two minutes to take them to Disneyland Paris. Or at least there would have been enough, if the bulk of the facilities had not been closed during our stay. Other than the pool, there was little to do for children under the age of seven. With the two restaurants and cafe also closed, there wasn’t much for the adults to do either.
It would have been better to have been made aware of this in advance of our visit. And it didn’t amuse our fellow campers – mainly Scots and Dutch – that several of the facilities reopened the following week, coinciding with the English school holidays.
It is not difficult to imagine that the experience is vastly different in the summer months, and that Berny Riviere is a fantastic holiday destination, but for those who had gazed at the brochure or website in excited anticipation of a visit in the autumn, the reality might have been a sense of disappointment.
A Plan B was required, and it came in the shape of looking to what else the area had to offer. A trip to a nearby chateau, complete with crumbling fortifications and a marauding herd of wild goats, fired the kids’ imagination as they set about each other with carved medieval swords. The military cemeteries are also a startling sight, and an education for both young and old.
Then a drive into the centre of Paris provided all the thrills of a white-knuckle ride in a fun park, without the assurance of a safety certificate or a happy ending. Remarkably, we survived. Paris is magnifique, but you don’t need me to tell you that.
With confidence now soaring, it was decided to attempt a visit to Disneyland Paris. Say what you like about the concept – and I had done, repeatedly – but once the expense had been put to one side, it was hard to deny that the experience was genuinely thrilling for the children, and a perfect end to the holiday.
Will we return to Eurocamp? We might indeed; certainly, the kids would love to. But we had learned a lot that we had not expected, and we would have to be confident about our accommodation. And next time, we would be better prepared for the journey there.
Especially at the petrol station “playpark”.
A seven-night break from 1 May staying at Eurocamp’s La Croix du Vieux Pont parc in a two-bedroom Sunlight mobile home with decking costs from £301 for the whole family, accommodation only. For further information on Eurocamp, tel: 0844 406 0552 or visit www.eurocamp.co.uk
Long-stay fares from Hull to Zeebrugge start from £122 each way for a car and four passengers with an inside cabin on the overnight P&O Ferries service. For more information, or to book, tel: 08716 646464 or visit www.poferries.com