Huttopia campsites, France

huttopia07-0341They say that the three most stressful events in your life are moving house, getting divorced and loss of a loved one. But they forgot one thing. Going camping. Sometimes it feels like it’s up there with the big three.  I might as well be moving house with all the stuff I need to take. This alone is enough to put our marriage in the balance, never mind the potential to throttle one of my loved ones in the process. It takes me about two days to recover after finally getting the tent up.


But last year, we did it, loved it, and survived to tell the tale. All thanks to the genius behind Huttopia, an innovative eco-friendly campsite in Rambouillet, in the Yvelines region of northern France. We had already stayed in a wooden lodge at their Versailles site on a visit to Paris, where our neighbouring cream canvas tents made camping look almost romantic again.


Huttopia has worked out how to do camping sans stress, providing everything from bedding to bottle openers. Packing, what packing? Clothes, books, games and a few sandwiches for the journey. That was it. We even had room for kids’ bikes in the boot. So no bike carrier nonsense to up the stress levels at 6am on the morning of departure either. The ferry crossing was smooth, and the autoroutes traditionally traffic-free as we were staying north, rather than joining the rabble heading south on the Route du Soleil. 


But this was just the calm before the storm. The rain started about five kilometres outside Paris, and didn’t stop for five days. We arrived at a mud-filled campsite, our craved cream canvas still looking remarkably cream, however, in that way that probably only the French can do. It had been raining for days apparently, to the point where some people had packed up and gone home. Or joined the Route du Soleil.


Impossible though it may seem, the tent’s interior put smiles back on our faces very quickly. Because this is camping, Jean, but not as you know it. Despite the noise of humungous droplets of rain falling off the pine trees onto our canvas, providing a symphonia of drumming noises, everything was dry as a bone. Rain and camping were not a novelty to us, but dryness was.  huttopia07-011


These tents are huge, and joy of joys for my six feet plus husband, he could stand up. This sounds trite, but for those who have spent two weeks crouching under canvas, this changes everything. There are two bed sections, side by side, each concealed behind a thick dark green canvas curtain. You can remove the divide between sections if you are comfier having one big family sleeping area, but our boys were ecstatic to have their own room.. And mattresses. Proper mattresses, made of firm foam. Not air, not army, not yoga. The real thing, squidgy, warm and lifted off the ground on a raised wooden platform. Just to add to the five star-ness of it all, there are crisp laundered white sheets, pillowcases (on pillows, not a bundle of clothes under my neck), and beautiful big thick fleecy blankets to make our cocoons exquisitely cosy.


There are many little coups of brilliance in these exquisitely designed tents, which are called ‘Canadiennes’, because they are modelled on a Canadian design. The ‘bedrooms’ have solar powered lights which, despite the weather, provided plenty of light for reading and a nightlight for little ones. An expresso maker, the ones you twist and burn your hands on, as opposed to a machine (this is camping after all), a proper wooden dining table (one inside and out, so you don’t need to keep moving it), a fridge, a metal trunk to store all your clothes in, and  sweeping brushes for the dried mud.  Everything but the kitchen sink, of course. Unlike many campsites, washing your dishes, or yourselves,  is an extremely enjoyable ritual at Huttopia, with stylish wooden wash lodges,  ceramic (not grotty stainless steel) sinks, and proper showers, all decorated in  tasteful forest green shades, straight out of a Farrow and Ball catalogue.  


The rain did stop of course, just in time for us to have read all our books, and finish a few mammoth sessions of Monopoly. All tucked up on sofas in the cosy games room of the site’s wooden chalet, with wood-burning pizza oven constantly on the go, and kids bonding around the ‘babyfoot’, parents around the beer.


The Huttopia sites are carefully thought out. This one sits on the banks of a lake, which we cycled around daily, as it is only a few kilometres so fine for little legs (and the kids found it easy too). It is surrounded by the RambouilletForest, a vast expanse of oak and pine, with an excellent layout of cycling and hiking trails. Within huttopia07-061minutes’ walk of our tent, we had access to 200 000 hectares of forest with its richly biodiverse flora and fauna. Of the latter, deer and wild boar are most common, although they stayed well clear of all the happy little campers. A twenty minute easy cycle through woodland takes you to the town of Rambouillet. It is idyllically French, with plenty of boucheries and boulangeries to stock up on daily supplies. Spend a morning strolling round the chateau, lunch at the creperie, and then sip a glass of wine at the town square bar, watching the kids go round on the antique carousel, and you have to blink to remind yourself you aren’t in an arthouse movie.


Huttopia is the beautiful baby of one couple, Philippe and Celine Bossanne, whose ever-growing family has spread to five different sites in different corners of France.  They make every effort to respect their natural heritage, and have excellent eco-friendly practices in place. One of the most impressive is the natural swimming pool, which is filtered by sand and reedbeds. Not a hint of chemicals, and no stingy eyes at the end of the day.huttopia07-139 Getting past French bureaucracy to build this was a battle for the Bossannes, but they fought for what they believed in, and have now managed to change the law, making it easier for others to build eco-pools in future. Consequently, only this site and their new one in Senonches, have these pools to date. Another refreshing feature is that their sites are car-free, so the children were never off their bikes.


They invite their guests to follow the green path too, but not though lecturing and endless notices to recycle this or switch off that. The shop is full of local produce, and there are daily activities which take you out into the landscape. We signed up for the twilight nature trek through the forest. This was led by the manager of the nearby Espace Rambouillet, an enclosed section of the forest set up to educate and conserver this precious resource. He put us into two teams and, hoping that we had enough French between us, we headed off on a treasure hunt, finding clues concealed under leaves or in tree trunk hollows and filling in nature quiz questions as we went. We ended up walking for hours, making new friends en route and the kids racing the whole way round to see if they could be the winning team back to base. I couldn’t imagine that much enthusiasm if I had suggested a three hour walk in the woods to study nature, somehow.  


Funnily enough, our teammates on this nature trek have since become close friends and we are all going back to Huttopia again together this summer. Just to add to the Enid Blyton-ness of it all, we are not even taking the car this time.  Ferry, then train to Paris, a forty minute train ride to Rambouillet, and a stroll through the woods to our favourite pitch by the lake. We will hire bikes when we are there, and chill out for two whole weeks. Rain or shine, we are hooked on Huttopia, and camping converts for life.


Staying at Huttopia

Stay at Huttopia’s Rambouillet site in the Yvelines region, or at one of their other sites at Senonches, Font-Romeu, Rille or Versailles. At Rambouillet, you can take your own tent ( from €17.40 per night), rent a ready-to go ‘Canadienne’ tent (from €55 per night) or go for the more solid options of a wooden ‘Cabane’ (from €120 per night), or a wooden ‘Roulotte’ or caravan (from €85 per night). To book, see, and for the Rambouillet site tel: 00 33 1 30 41 07 34. For other sites, see website for details.

Go there

Overnight ferry from Rosslare to Le Havre, see, from €79 one way for car and two passengers. Drive 200kms from Le Havre to Rambouillet or if you want to leave the car at home, catch a train from Le Havre to Paris (2.5 hours), change stations and then another 30 minutes to Rambouillet. Book this through Irish Rail’s European Reservations Tel:  01 703 1885 or email Or fly to Paris and take a train.

Where to eat and go if you’re in Rambouillet

Le Pradaud bar has a terrace overlooking Rambouillet’s town square and chateau. Unglamorous, so perfect for muddy camper, and right beside the town carousel.

Le Savoyard, 46, rue d’Angiviller, Tél. 01 34 83 35 77 brings a little bit of the Alpine tradition to the Yvelines region, with excellent fondue, raclette and superb regional wines to accompany the ideal outdoorsy meal, after a day of hiking and biking.

Visit L’Espace Rambouillet, a great family day out in this vast expanse of Rambouillet’s forest park, where you can see wild deer and boar, and dramatic falconry displays (From experience, hide your sandwiches during this).  See the forest at its finest from its ‘Odyssee Verte’ suspended walkway through the trees. See Just a ten minute cycle from the campsite.

(This article was first published in The Irish Times, 18 April 2009)

Paris vert, je t’aime

paris-velib-bikesI know that Paris for Valentines is a cliché, but it is so easy to fall in love there. As an ethical traveler, I am also in love with Paris. Living in London I am spoilt, as I can take a train to get there, with no better start to a trip to Paris than on the Eurostar. Quick glass of bubbly at the champagne bar in the magnificent Kings Cross St. Pancras International station, and three hours later you can do the same thing in the centre of Paris . If you haven’t done it yet, it’s worth a trip to London just to experience it.


For eco-friendly accommodation, stay in a wooden lodge surrounded by forest in Versailles, only twenty minutes by train from central Paris . It’s run by my favourite eco-campsite Huttopia (, and for €105 per night, you can watch the sun come up in the morning from your wooden decking, and zap in on the train to watch the Eiffel Tower light up in the evening. Then back to the warmth of the lodge’s wood-burning stove.


If you prefer hotels to ‘huts’ then one hotel chain to check out is Accor. It won a French Responsible Tourism Award in 2008 for its sustainability practices. Its beacon hotel is the Novotel Gare de Montparnasse, the first Parisien hotel to be given the High Quality Environment label, ensuring better insulation, energy-efficient lighting, good waste management, low water and energy consumption, and ecological materials such as carpets, wood and paints ( For a less pricey (and less central) option, the Accor Group’s Ibis Hotel in Porte de Clichy has installed solar panels to take the edge of its energy consumption.


For green travel, Paris je t’aime. Hire bikes at Huttopia to explore Versailles and the surrounding forests, or make the most of the city’s exemplary new cycling venture, Velib. This enables you to hire one of  200 000 bikes dispersed over 1450 terminals just using your credit card, with the first half hour free of charge ( The ‘Paris Respire’ ( Paris breathes) scheme has closed some of the city’s main arteries to motorised traffic on Sundays and public holidays, such as sections of the left and right bank along the Seine. This is people watching heaven by the way, with an eclectic mix of Parisiens showing us how to saunter in style.  For more details on these and other cycle routes see


Non-cyclists can cuddle up in the back of a Cyclobulle, an electric chauffeur–driven tricycle company based in Rue de Cléry in the 2nd arondissment. Travel from one central location to another, or pay €19 for a thirty minute guided tour ( Ask them to drop you at one of the city’s organic farmers’ markets (‘bio’ in French), such as Boulevard Raspail on a Sunday morning, or Boulevard Batignolles on Saturdays. The Saturday morning market in Saint Honore in the 1st arondissement is small but very central and does usually have a few organic stalls.


Taste the real thing ready made at one of several good restaurants specializing in local and organic produce. You can shop and  snack at Biotifull Place, on the first floor of the Printemps store on Boulevard Haussmann or, if you are heading for Notre Dame check out Le Grenier de Notre-Dame. Le Potager du Marais is good if you are exploring the area’s famous boutiques or, in the Oberkampf district, Alter Mundi’s Fairtrade and organic deli and café is the foodie bit of its ethical shopping chain ( Bioboa is a good veggie-healthy watering hole after walking the streets of the Opera district. For details of these and more (and markets) see It all just gets your juices flowing, really. But that’s Paris for you.


(First published in The Irish Times, 7 February 2009)




All the magic of Paris without Mickey Mouse

copy-of-000_2145Don’t get mad, get even. That’s what I decided to do when my seven year old son came home from a friend’s house telling me that he had learned some French.  The Francophile in me beamed from ear to ear.  “Disneyland Pareeeees!” he announced proudly. This was not the time for a lecture on cultural globalisation.  It was time to show him one of the facts of life.  Paris is not made of glittering castles or run by big-eared mice. (I resist the urge to digress at this point).   But beating Disney isn’t easy – unless, like me, you have a child who loves his bike more than Bambi.  “How about coming to Paris with me for a couple of days, I asked?”  He beamed.  “But No Disney”, I added.  He frowned.  “How about we go on our bikes?” I proposed hesitantly.   He screamed.


You do have to pay an extra £20 per bike on Eurostar, but a promise is a promise.  (Borrow a Brompton and you take it for free, however).  Next is finding suitable accommodation for the would-be yellow shirts.  The school boys’ guidebook says that the only place to stay in Pareeeees this year is Davy Crockett’s ranch in, you guessed it, Disneyland. Huttopia, which sounds ironically like a Disney cartoon, is the perfect antidote.  We had already spent a summer holiday at their woodland haven in The Loire and now we were ready to sample their wooden chalets in a forest in Versailles. 


What a wonderful feeling to board a train in South London, cycle along the Thames from London Bridge to the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo and arrive at Gare du Nord in time for lunch. We resist the temptation to pop into Monsieur MacDonalds and keep going on the RER to Versailles.  This turns out to be the right decision, because when we get out at Porchfontaine, a small suburb of Versailles, there was the perfect Boulangerie and Charcuterie greeting us with open doors. The first French lesson of the day is to buy a baguette, jambon and bottle of rouge and little Louis braves his first “merci, Madame”  A few hours ago we were on a suburban London train, now we are cycling into a forest in Versailles, with baguette in pannier. Eat your heart out, Walt.


The wooden chalet is perfect, neatly nestled into the forest environment, and is better equipped inside than our own home.  I warm my out of condition cycling muscles by the wood burning stove and wait for the expresso maker to bubble on the gas one. Louis makes himself at home in his little mezzanine den with a cabanehuttopiaversaillessecret stock of those delicious French crisps while I set up our picnic on the decked terrace. This is a real campsite with ‘proper’ campers and tents, but I suffer no guilt here for taking the easy way out.  Cycling to Paris is one thing, but taking a tent and all the gear was out of the question.

Revived and rejoicing in this secret hideout, we jump back on our bikes in search of Louis’ namesake’s Chateau (and ice cream).  We didn’t get very far, though.  The campsite’s swimming pool was blue, shimmering and empty, with enough steam rising into the cooling September air to reassure me that it was heated.  I reminded myself that a swimming pool would always have taken precedence over a Chateau when I was seven and, after all, I had denied him Disneyland.  We dive in and amuse ourselves endlessly diving for the acorns which were starting to fall from the trees around the pool.

Dressed and back in the saddle, we are distracted by an intense game of boules between two ten year old French boys.  They ask Louis to join in, and shyly he agrees.  French lesson number two complete. Boules turns to table football, then to table tennis under the trees and as they run to the climbing frames I realise there is nothing to do but open that bottle of red.  I overhear, “Je m’appelle Louis” and raise a glass to the best French lesson in the world.


The Chateau is put on the long finger, but the day was not going to end singing songs around a campfire either. We sample the home-made delights of the campsite pizzeria, get back on the bikes determined to end the day in style. Dab hands at putting the bikes on and off the RER at this stage, we take a twenty minute journey following the Seine into the city centre.  Emerging from the station Champs de Mars at dusk, Louis is dumbstruck as we turn the corner and there it is, poised elegantly right over our heads.  The glorious Eiffel Tower must have held his silent smiling gaze for minutes. We lock the bikes, join the queue and decide to take the lift to the second floor.  Seeing any cityscape from a height, and at night, is always exciting.  But when the Eiffel Tower suddenly explodes into a cascade of white flashing lights, it is heart-stopping. Looking into the eyes of a loved one and seeing the reflections of this generous Parisian spectacle reminds me why this city seduces young and old. It was, I admit, a bit of a Disney moment.


And so to the confessional – we never made it to the Chateau de Versailles.  Cycling in the nearby forest, playing table tennis and boules became the dictating themes of this trip. On our last afternoon we took the bikes into Paris, and decided to explore by saddle. Bravo for a city that welcomes cyclists and closes several of its main arteries to traffic on Sundays.  This traffic-free initiative is aptly called “Paris respire” or “Paris breathes”.  We breathed in all the sites along the Seine, starting by the Louvre at the Quai de Tuileries, and continued down the Right Bank as far as, and imagine the excitement, Ile St. Louis for crepes.  The bells of Notre Dame invited us to Evensong, where we briefly did our Sunday bit, before hitting the Left Bank.  The art of free running or ‘parcours’ upstages the more traditional art in the Open Air Sculpture Park on Quai St. Bernard. We had our own private exhibition of athletic showmanship in this exquisite park before cycling the last few metres to Gare d’Austerlitz to take the RER back to the burbs of Versailles. Back at the cabin, wrapped up in blankets and drinking hot chocolate under the stars, Louis smiled and said, “Disneyland could never beat this, Mum”.  I knew I had got even.


As for the Chateau, it is, allegedly, round the corner.  Luckily, the Easter holidays are too and Cabane number three has our name on it.


 Catherine travelled with Eurostar Tel: 00 44 1 39 51 23 61 or  Return journeys from £59 for an adult and £50 for a child, plus £20 for bikes.  To join the 500 cyclists who take over the streets of Paris for a night cycle on a regular basis, see


 A wooden cabane at Huttopia Versailles costs from €99 to €159 per night. Huttopia re-opens 30 March after the winter break.  See for details.  Bike hire at Huttopia also available. For more information on cycle routes in Paris see

(This article was first published in The Observer, 4 March 2007)