I was woken up early by my youngest son demanding his milk. Nothing unusual there – that normally happens around 6am. But this morning was a little different. I had to rouse myself from my cosy sleeping bag, pull on my fleece and venture out into the morning mist to turn on the gas at the back of the campervan. Then, with the kids’ milk and our coffee sorted, I opened up the awning, allowing sunlight to stream in, and settled myself in a comfy canvas chair. As I looked across the campsite, to the stunning mountains rising up against the blue sky, their glistening white tops still shrouded in cloud, I felt that nowhere else could I have such a blissful start to the day.
Camping for the entire summer had initially seemed a crazy prospect with two small boys in tow. But it turned out to be the perfect solution to our dilemma of having to visit two European destinations in one trip. When we weighed up the cost of car hire, flights and accommodation, hiring a campervan for the duration compared pretty favourably and gave us all the freedom we needed.
After a bit of online research, I found www.campervantastic.com. I emailed my enquiry and very shortly afterwards had a phone call with Kate. From that conversation, I felt we’d made the right choice to do the trip in a modern, VW T4 California campervan.
We were a bit nervous as we landed at Heathrow with our luggage, plus kids and their teddies. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘What if it all goes pear-shaped?’ Then I spotted a tall, out-doorsy type of guy, heading towards us. Steve from Campervantastic gave us a thorough introduction to our campervan (kindly parked in the airport car park for us) and showed us how everything worked. The boys were immediately fascinated. As they were strapped into their car seats (included in the hire fee, so we didn’t have to lug them on the plane too) they, as well as I, knew we were in for a great adventure.
It took us three days to get into the swing of things, mind you, and there were a few heated discussions along the lines of; ‘Whose stupid idea was this anyway?’, ‘We must be mad!’ or ‘That’s it, we’re going home right now!’ This last refrain occurred the night we arrived in the Hautes-Voges, near Gerdamer in France, when it was pouring with rain and the van’s temperature gauge read 11 degrees. We wore almost every item of clothing we’d brought with us and still felt cold.
Luckily the weather improved and with it our mood. The boys were delighted being outdoors all the time. Swiss campsites vary considerably in size and style. They have a reputation for packing campers in during summer, but we were fortunate and the sites we chose never felt crowded. We didn’t pre-book, preferring to either ask at the nearest tourist information office or look at our guidebook to see which ones appealed. And the bonus of having your house on your back is that you’re able to stop pretty much anywhere and make meals as and when required.
The Swiss villages of Laax-Flims are well known as excellent ski resorts, but in summer there’s a gentler side to life there. Cows with tinkling bells around their necks graze the pastures, farmers gather in the hay in readiness for the long winter ahead, some still using traditional methods. Switzerland is definitely best seen by car or campervan when travelling with kids.
The campsites we chose were each very different. Some were well organised, while others had a more laid back with a ‘hippy’ feel. Some catered particularly well for small children. One, near Lugano, had step stools and potties in the wash rooms, a sand pit, wooden fort and tree swings as well as a wonderful small restaurant for mums and dads to sample home-cooked organic food while the kids played nearby in a safe, toddler-friendly play area. Another had a whole wash/shower area dedicated to the smaller kids, with colourful decor and basins they could reach themselves.
Our top tip is to travel light and buy what you need, when you need it. Switzerland is expensive, so whenever you’re near a border, nip over and stock up with food supplies and fuel (although the VW ‘van is pretty economical to drive). We did this throughout our trip, popping over into France, Italy and Germany – which all added to the sense of adventure.
The vans are well-kitted out inside, so it is a bring as little as possible with you, because you’ll always accumulate stuff as you travel. We kept packing to a minimum and allowed the kids one soft toy each to accompany them on the trip (naturally they chose the largest of their collection). I saved up all the little playthings from kids’ meals and gathered few other long forgotten items from the bottom of the toy box to take with us, plus a few thin, lightweight story books (including Heidi of course) and that was it.
And so, there we were, enjoying coffee in the crisp Swiss mountain air at a lovely secluded spot on a campsite, near Trun, backing onto a forest of huge pine trees. While I prepared breakfast for us all, the boys ambled around outside, thrilled with the beautifully crafted wooden children’s play area with a tree den, an Indian tee-pee, a huge pirate ship, swings, a see-saw and sand pit for the toddlers.
It was bliss; here today, gone tomorrow, the trappings of urban domesticity (and the dusty chaos of Dubai) far behind us. I believe it was the famous Mr Toad of Toad Hall who extolled the virtues of life on the open road in a gypsy caravan – just before he discovered the delights of the motor car. But I’ll bet he would have loved our VW campervan with its speedy combustion engine, comfort and freedom. We certainly did.
Rent a 4-berth Volkswagen California van from campervantastic.com for around Dhs5,400 per week in July and August (peak months). The rate includes pick-up in the UK, insurance, sat nav, unlimited mileage, kitchen equipment, sleeping bags and pillows (there’s a fancier option which includes duvets and satin sheets!) as well as a host of other stuff you’re going to need but probably hadn’t thought of (washing lines, child seats, games and books). www.campervantastic.com
Switzerland offers a huge amount to do if your family love the outdoors. Hiking trails abound, amid stunning scenery. There are many low-level walks along the side of babbling streams, suitable for younger children to enjoy. If hiking’s not your thing, however, there are trains and cable cars. The Glacier Express is well known, and there are many local train services, all with clean, neat trains, running on time. Check out
www.myswitzerland.com for all sorts of useful information.