PERHAPS in hindsight taking part in the Monmouth Raft Race in aid of Newport-based charity St David’s Hospice Care the day before setting off on our two car road trip down from Monmouthshire to the south of France, was inadvisable.

The raft race is always a lot of fun but quite tiring with all the last minute constructing, scrutineering and launching and the searing heat and sun - it’s always sunny - and then enjoying the finish and refreshments.

This year, as others, was no exception.

Our team - my three sons Dan, Matt and Ollie along with Kirstin, Rich and James - aboard the six-barrelled Yacht’s Your Story managed to stay afloat and finish.

After disassembling the raft, packing it into the van, ferrying crew and parts to various places, returning the van and doing the holiday packing, we were all thoroughly pooped.

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A couple of hours sleep and it was off across the Severn Bridge to Dover to catch the midday ferry.

With minutes to spare our mini convoy - me and Jo in the Mazda MX-5, and the family Citroen Berlingo crewed by Ollie and Ruby - we were in the priority boarding queue and then ensconced in the exclusive comfort of the Premium Lounge.

More used to longer crossings to France or Spain, this short hop to Calais aboard the well-equipped and comfortable DFDS ferry, is extremely efficient and over in just an hour and a bit - but not before we’d enjoyed the delights of the Premium Lounge, had a dash through Duty Free, some excellent food, complimentary Prosecco, and first-rate hospitality.

The trip to just north of the Mediterranean sea port of Marseilles where we were heading was some 900 miles including detours. So a typical Barnes family holiday thrash then!

The plan was to make Dijon for an overnight break, then head to our base at Les Princes D'Orange in the sleepy medieval Alpine village of Orpierre where we would be staying for the best part of two weeks the next day.

The roads in France are superb. The pristine tolled motorways are like driving on air. True, the costs do mount up, especially when you’re paying twice, but if you’re looking for direct and fast trip from A to B then there is just no contest. Zipping along like we were in Top Gear, sunglasses on, wind in what’s left of my hair - it’s a blast. Ollie, who’d found cruise control - something we’d never done in five years of ownership - tracked our every move.

We stopped in a cheap and cheerful hotel at Laon, near Dijon, after feasting at the nearby Buffalo Grill (I know, I know but it’s a family tradition!) and early(ish) the next day barrelled on towards our destination.

Acres of flat, featureless fields soon gave way to more rugged mountainous Alpine scenery. By now totally fed up with the monotony of the perfect French motorways, we struck out on an alternative route which was a great deal more interesting and challenging.

Ollie mastered a rite of passage by over taking in a right-hand drive car on the left-hand drive road a double wagon, articulated lorry on a narrow mountain pass.

It was pitch black, the cicadas were rattling away like crazy in the trees and tempers were just ever so slightly frazzled after some last minute wrong turns, when we eventually pulled into Orpierre. Our keys, papers and lovely welcome note were at reception, we collapsed into our eco cabin.

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Orpierre. Picture: David Barnes

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Orpierre. Picture: David Barnes

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Orpierre. Picture: David Barnes

Mon Dieu! The view from the cabin the next morning was incroyable. Looking straight out from our wooded retreat across the valley was a soaring Alp cliff face. Wow! And if I’m not very mistaken those colourful ants are climbers on the rock face!

Les Princes d’Orange is an eco centre; one of Les Castels group which sites its parks as unobtrusively as possible in the local environment. The eco cabins, created with environmentally-friendly components and designed to be as green and energy efficient as possible, are placed in among the trees and although most have cars, guests are encouraged to be as ‘green’ as possible. Now if that all sounds all too new age, quinoa-eating, sandal-wearing, Guardian-reading - let me assure it really isn’t.

Sure, there were quite a few people practicing yoga, everyone looking so healthy and the shop was stocked with yummy natural goodies but I certainly didn’t feel out of place as I sauntered around in my linen granddad shirt and open-toed sandals.

A wooded stroll down a quite steep but health reinforcing path from the cabin to the shop, we found it packed with local produce including bread, local goat’s cheese, wine and everything else you could need for a healthy stay. The walk back up to the cabin was very good for the heart.

When we arrived all pale and wide eyed and UK-ish, our host looked ever so slightly perplexed and a bit concerned spotting my obvious lack of rippling biceps and general unhealthy demeanour saying: “This is a camp for climbers” pointing out various places of interest all of which seemed to include some kind of strenuous activity such as rock climbing, swimming in lakes and gorge walking.

No worries, I said in my best French, our sons are climbers and I'm every bit as keen on walking as the next bloke, or at least I think that’s what I said.

Orpierre, in the heart of the Baronnies Provençales region, is so green, healthy and alive - it’s just gorgeous. The valleys are bursting with orchards, fruit stalls erupt from the side of the road groaning under multi-coloured trays of seasonal produce. Peaches, red and white, those flattened ones that look as though they have been sat on, the shiny ones and all sorts of apples and yummy grapes. Goat's cheese is a particular local speciality - it’s stunning and so many varieties. The regional wine is just heaven.

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Orpierre. Picture: David Barnes

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Orpierre. Picture: David Barnes

We walked a lot, trekked up to the foothills to watch the boys climb and enjoyed the absolute delight of bathing in Alpine rivers - a pleasure enjoyed by many locals and visitors who converged on this part of France from across Europe.

The Alpine roads leading to spectacular scenery, mountain villages and even parascending launch pads, were a singular spectacle as was the wildlife which bursts forth from the countryside.

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Climbing at Orpierre, France. Picture: David Barnes

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The view from the cabin at Orpierre France. Picture: David Barnes

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Gorges de la Méouge, near Orpierre, France, is one of the highlights of the area. Picture: David Barnes

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Gorges de la Méouge, near Orpierre, France, is one of the highlights of the area. Picture: David Barnes

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The view from the top of a mountain near Orpierre. Picture: David Barnes

And, after our days out we relaxed by the pool at the site and enjoyed the splendid bar and delicious food, at the on-site restaurant.

A trip to Marseilles was a must, firstly because it has a wonderfully preserved historic port oozing with maritime history and culture married to contemporary art and architecture and secondly because Matt was jetting in to be with us for a few days. The airport was about an hour and a half from where we were staying, so if you want to fly and hire a car rather than drive, it is very convenient.

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The harbour at Marseilles. Picture: David Barnes

The nearby town of Sisteron was an unexpected treasure (once we’d managed to get parked on market day), the citadel quite magnificent.

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Rock formations at Sisteron, France. Picture: David Barnes

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The market at Sisteron, France. Picture: David Barnes

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The market at Sisteron, France. Picture: David Barnes

Avignon was also on the to do list if only to be Sur le Pont D’Avignon. Oh how we sang and danced on the bridge and we weren’t the only ones - blinkin' Ros Bifs!

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The bridge at Avignon. Picture: David Barnes

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On the bridge at Avignon. Picture: David Barnes

Fact box:

DFDS is the only ferry operator with two routes to France from Dover, with up to 54 sailings every day.

Dover to Calais crossings start from £49 each way for a car and up to nine passengers

Dover to Dunkirk from £45 each way for a car and up to nine passengers

For more information and current special offers visit www.dfds.co.uk

Les Princes d’Orange prices start from:

Camping pitch: Classic pitch with electricity 10 A : 25 € per night for two/175 € for one week (seven nights) for two.

Accommodation: Mobile home Loisir two bedrooms – four persons: 47 € per night for four persons/329 € for one week (seven nights)