Last summer, we took off for the Alps, where I went fully into France-mode, and super slowed down. The days felt longer, everything we ate, smelled, or saw was sweeter, and my entire rhythm beat to a different drum.
It all happened at a special type of French resort — that cost just €500 per adult for the week, room and board included — and there is an entire network of similar properties all across France, from the Alps to the Mediterranean and everywhere in between.
Meet a Colonie de Vacances
The French place a high priority on the right of everyone to experience vacation. (So high, that the government subsidizes trips for families who can’t afford them.)
To support people getting away, there are multiple networks of Colonie de Vacances — “vacation colonies “ — where food, lodging, and activities are all arranged at costs that don’t break the bank.
There’s no other way to describe it, except that it looks like this:
Last summer we went on what was my son’s first trip to France, and it was a magical week for everyone. I was testing out our travel clothes (including our Gramercy blazer, chinos, and versions of our new Bluffworks travel shirt - the design has deviated a lot since these photos) and I had the chance to put it through it’s paces, mountain biking and hiking in the Alps and then returning for dinner — without feeling out of place among the always-chic French.
I like to describe a colonie de vacances as halfway between a YMCA camp and a Club Med.
This is how it works:
Lodging: Basic, but comfortable, in small but thoughtful dorm-like rooms. Ours had two bedrooms, and two bathrooms, to accommodate a family. The rooms are small, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a hotel with the same facilities (ie: multiple bedrooms and bathrooms).
Food: Three meals a day, all included. French buffet style, with lots of options, and all delicious. And there was wine on tap at every meal — but of course.
Activities: At our resort, the list was long: hiking, mountain biking, ziplining, arts and crafts, archery, kids’ bouncy house, swimming, music, movies, parties at night, etc. And they are serious about the activities. For example, for hiking and mountain biking, there is a board that lists the week’s trips, ranging from green (easy, few hours) to red (intense, all day typically above treeline). Better still, all gear is included; for the extreme hikes, for example, they provide poles and hiking boots suitable for snow travel.
Kids and Parents: The experience is designed to enable families to choose to be together or apart. There is a well attended, full-on, daily kids camp that lets them meet friends and participate in fun group activities. Alternately, kids of the right age can join hikes, biking, etc. at the right level of intensity with parents.
The Barrier to Entry
There’s just one catch: You have to speak French.
We were the only foreigners there. This means no English, no Belgians, no Germans. Not even Italians, although we were only 25 miles from Italy. 100% French families, and us.
This was fine for my family, because my wife and son both speak French, and I can get by. But unlike a big city, you’re not going to find that everyone speaks English, nor are there English signs or instructions to accommodate you.
So while this might be a barrier for some, it could also be an incredible opportunity! Travel with a Francophone friend, brush up on your high school French before you go, and get ready for the best immersion opportunity there is.
Here’s the fun stuff. I’ve written about the cultural differences I experienced in France and other places before, and getting total immersion in a resort for locals was a great way to experience things like:
No Coffee After Breakfast - The French are known for doing things a certain way, because once you’ve figured out the best way to do something, it makes sense to stick with it. For example, coffee is served at breakfast, but at lunchtime or later, if you want coffee, it is to be taken after the meal in the bar. That is the appropriate social way to do it. And don’t expect to find a Starbucks on the corner. Wine, however, is always available on tap — red, white, and rose.
No Paparazzi - Above is a photograph of the peak across from the resort. This is the view from the dining hall, and as I watched the light dance and the clouds changed, I quietly took a photo or two with my phone. But over the course of an entire week, I never saw a single other person take a photo. I’m not kidding. Not of the view. Not of their family huddled together. Not of anything. Not a single selfie-stick in view. I don’t have an explanation for this. Maybe they were really just living in the moment?
Small Talk Is Different- It’s typical of French conversational style that they do not touch on the occupation of someone they’ve just met. After spending such a long week with the same families, we eventually got there, sharing what we did for work. But the French partly believe that this is a matter of class and good manners. It’s like asking, “How much money do you have?” So the conversation covers other topics: recreation, politics, food, life, etc. Amazing!
No Rushing - It was wonderful. Just what I needed, and am dying to get back there as soon as possible. Everything slows down and feels so much better. But keep in mind, this has implications - like the stores in the village are closed at lunch. So exactly when you were going to shop between activities, you have to find another time. You can’t have them both, as I wrote.
Loose Logistics - Everything from booking your room to using local transportation will be different than you’re used to. It will be less cut and dry (the shuttle to your train may not leave at the posted time), but have a more personal touch (the driver lives here and knows exactly when your train departs). It’s all part of the experience.
And possibly one of the best parts —
Freedom Comes With Responsibility - The French have a different attitude about responsibility. Imagine this — a self guided zipline. Not just for adults… for a 7-year old. Collect your gear, get trained, and then go be careful. Later that summer, we were in Montana and we did a zipline that advertised itself as “100% thrills, zero skills.” We prefer the French way that expands our world.
How Was It?
It was amazing.
Rather than just being a vacation, I was in a completely different state of mind. I felt better, I experienced more. It was like what life should be!
Here’s how you find one:
- http://www.capfrance-vacances.com/ — the whole network
- http://www.karellis.com/en/ — the resort we visited