I wasn't sure what to expect from our family holiday parc in Languedoc - its wordy name, Yelloh! Village Le Sérignan Plage, didn't give many clues. A French Butlins in the sun, perhaps? But my expectations certainly didn't involve anything as licentiously Gallic as a naturist spa straight after breakfast.
To me, being both British and extremely clumsy, this felt anything but naturel. True to form, things went all Benny Hill the moment I walked into the large outdoor pool area, with its manicured cypresses, faux Roman pillars, hydro-massage fountains and perfectly nonchalant, perfectly tanned, perfectly naked French couples.
I walked around fully dressed for 10 minutes looking for a (non-existent) locker to put my clothes in as bemused naturists looked at me as if, well, as if I wasn't wearing any. Finally derobed I went looking for the showers … and somehow walked straight out of the back door of the spa and into the campsite, to horrified looks from my fully dressed fellow campers. Luckily, I managed a hasty, if undignified, retreat before most of the kids had looked up from their Rice Krispies.
But complete loss of dignity was almost worth it for half an hour in the blissfully quiet swimming pool, the only one on the site that wasn't an obstacle course of rubber rings, waterslides and squealing toddlers.
This was day two of our week's stay at Le Sérignan Plage, but the seventh day of our 16-day French holiday. Most families heading for the family parcs that line the Med either fly there or floor it down the entire length of France. (This southward dash becomes a charge after Paris, as half the capital packs the car and hits the autoroute.)
Rather than bomb through it in two days, and miss out on all that beautiful scenery between Calais and the Med, we spent five days driving to the campsite, and another five coming back, stopping off to pitch the tent where and when we liked. It was two holidays in one: a week of frolicking by the pool for our two boys, George, three, and Archie, 11, plus a road trip taking in bits of "proper" France for mum and dad.
Instead of spending 12 hours a day on the autoroute, we pottered along plane tree-lined main roads. Rather than refuelling in motorway services, we stopped in village cafes, or had an impromptu barbecue on the banks of the Dordogne. We cooled off by paddling in streams and rivers, and pulled over by a cornfield to get completely soaked by the sprinklers and collapse in hysterics.
For the first two nights we hadn't booked anywhere to stay; we'd simply stop in a small town and ask for the nearest campsite. There are over 2,000 campings municipaux (camping-municipal.org) in France. Most towns or villages have one on their outskirts, impeccably maintained by local councils, with spotless washing facilities and hot showers, manicured hedges dividing the plots, swimming pools and, this being France, decent restaurants. And the sites are so plentiful that away from the tourist hotspots there's no need to book.
There's no equivalent of this civilised, egalitarian institution in Britain, but had council campsites ever existed, I'm pretty sure they'd have gone the same way as school playing fields long ago and would now be lying dead under Barratt homes.
We spent our first night at Camping de Châlons-en-Champagne , the second a few hours south at the municipal site just outside Mâcon , where our children made friends with Dutch and French kids, and the site was so lovely we stayed an extra night. The Dutch family were spending a leisurely three weeks driving between campsites in central France, with no fixed plan. It sounded idyllic.
The first tourist honeypot of our adventure was the Ardèche region. We'd booked two nights at Le Moulin Indigo Campsite in Saint-Martin-d'Ardèche, one of dozens of campsites along the most famous stretch of the river, in a spectacular limestone gorge flanked by 300m cliffs. We spent an afternoon admiring the medieval alleyways of Aiguèze, officially one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France. The river below is dotted with pebble beaches and rock shelves, where we bathed and picnicked. Upriver was a traffic jam of brightly coloured plastic kayaks crewed by teenagers of all nationalities.
I joined them for a two-hour jaunt along its most popular stretch, around the Vallon-Pont-d'Arc, the 30m-high natural arch across the gorge. In summer this stretch is pretty much rammed with kayaks, but still it felt unspoilt, with not a motorised vehicle in earshot, and no buildings, not even a cafe, in sight. Wherever I go in France I'm always struck by how good they are at keeping rampant commercialism away from their most treasured sites.
On day six we arrived at Sérignan Plage. After five days in the car and under canvas, the beds and four walls of our mobile home felt like a mini palace.
Holiday parcs are perennially unfashionable, but long before camping became Cool or morphed into glamping, these continental, primarily French institutions were taking the pain out of sleeping under canvas, with prepitched tents, semi-furnished with campbeds, kitchens and dining tables. In recent years many sites, ours included, have taken camping out of the equation altogether, replacing tents with fully furnished mobile homes that look like postwar prefabs, with a generous living space/kitchen, three small bedrooms and an outside deck.
And of course, it was nothing like Butlins. For starters, the snob in me hadn't expected it to feel so French. It had its own boucherie, charcuterie, poissonnier and a fantastic pâtisserie, where we sent the kids each morning to buy hot croissants and baguettes. Old boys whiled away their days playing pétanque, indifferent to all the family fun and activities on offer. And I didn't see anyone drunk all week.
We'd chosen Sérignan because it is by a sandy beach, but we had trouble getting the kids further than the pool complex. Though we hardly left the site all week, after seeing so much country on the drive here, we didn't feel bad about missing local attractions and doing absolutely nothing.
A breakneck dash back to the Channel at the end of a holiday can be even more stressful than the southbound leg, but again we took our time. In fact, the first day of our return drive was the most spectacular of the trip - so stunning that the kids even stopped watching the iPad for a time.
After leaving Sérignan we stopped briefly at the 17th-century Canal du Midi, not far from the campsite, and pinched a few grapes from the adjacent vineyards, then headed for Les Grands Causses in the Massif Central, where the narrow valleys and granite gorges are peppered with small villages clinging to the slopes.
It's an awesome climb, with giant craggy rocks overhanging the road that leads to the Millau viaduct, the marvel of modern engineering that stretches for 2½km over the Tarn valley. (Be sure to pull off at the small motorway services immediately north of the viaduct to admire the view back across the valley.)
Leaving the motorway after Millau we got rather lost and spent a couple of hours driving on back roads through rolling fields and countryside straight out of Jean de Florette. Back on the main road, the D920 through the Gorges du Lot, the scenery was no less spectacular, the winding road hugging the river on one side and dwarfed by mountains on the other.
At Estaing, another impossibly picturesque medieval village, hundreds of people, as well as a couple of horses, were swimming in the Lot, so we pulled over and jumped in too.
Our destination at the end of that long hot day was the Château du Gibanel campsite , at the confluence of the Dordogne and Doustre in Argentat. We were all a bit fractious by the time we got there, but our first view of the site, on a broad sleepy sweep of river in the grounds of a beautiful chateau, lifted our spirits.
"It feels like we've driven round the world in a day," said the missus, which was about right. I'd say it was one of my favourite drives ever.
We pitched the tent under trees right on the river bank while the kids waded in to feed the ducks, and stayed put for a couple more idyllic days of swimming and kayaking. Then it was time for the last push. For our final stop, we'd booked two nights at La Baumoderie, a beautiful refurbished farmhouse in the Loire valley, the only slice of luxury on the trip.
Its rustic elegance was a little lost on our now-dishevelled gang, but not the crisp white sheets and huge comfy beds. And we squeezed in one last activity before heading for Calais - an easy bike ride along the Loire, passing several of the region's famous chateaux. Then, after doing so much in two weeks that we felt we'd seen half of France, it was time for home.
"How was the holiday?" friends asked afterwards. "Great," I said. "Both of them."