Teacher and dad Rob Shepherd explains how a chilled-out week at Pagel changed his views on family holidays from hard work to happy ever after…..
How many times have we all – parents, that is – trudged back into our homes at the end of a family holiday and slumped wearily onto the sofa declaring that now we need a proper holiday? Much as we try not to admit it, family holidays – especially the sort where high octane children run rings round us in their need for constant amusement, entertainment and steam-letting-off – can be very hard work.
This was the vacation expectation we brought with us to Pagel: along with a lively five year-old and us two accompanying parents looking to snatch ‘me’ moments where we could but acknowledging they’d mostly be after bedtime, when we’d be too tired to appreciate them.
Then the Pagel magic started to happen.
“Look at THE BEARS!” exclaimed our daughter, wide-eyed with awe at the sight of a trio of absolutely enormous soft toys ensconced on the sofa. As we entered Goldilocks Cottage, who else would be there but life-size Mummy, Daddy and Baby Bear? She raced in, threw herself at the mountains of softness and then dashed around the cottage in excitement, travel tiredness forgotten, discovering new treats at every turn: her bedroom the perfect, timeless child’s room, appropriately furnished and thoughtfully filled with books and toys just right for her age … and outside, past the carved wooden Three Bears guarding the cottage, a whole world of childish delights. A huge pirate ship, trampolines (plural), a fairy tale house climbing frame, swings, rope swing, sandpit, tepee and rocket play houses …new joys just kept appearing. And, for the toddlers, a shaded playbarn offering play shop, kitchen and other pint-sized furniture, plus a fleet of ride-in cars.
And the pool. Spotlessly clean and warmer than most outdoor pools, with a large sundeck, plenty of loungers and umbrellas and a chest full of pool toys.
We were starting to learn that Pagel is simply not like other gite holidays. It’s billed as that, of course – self-catering with two or three bedrooms, depending on your choice of cottage – but forget preconceptions of musty houses furnished with the bare minimum to get by. Goldilocks Cottage, and its neighbours across the wide cartwheel-ready lawn, are Comfortable. Kitchens are properly equipped and ready for real grown-up cooking … though you don’t have to: alongside the excellent welcome basket, there’s the option of a fresh meal on the table, ready for your arrival, a daily bread (and croissant!) delivery and the honesty bar offers more than just a few grocery essentials on site. It includes a freezer full of all-important ice creams and lollies but also delicious hand-prepared dishes to pop straight in the oven (to be honest, at least one of our neighbours dined on these almost every night!) Goldilocks also boasted a big farmhouse table, proper, deep, comfy sofas and a huge terrace with two tables and wonderful gothic-ish, hand-carved Mummy, Daddy and Baby dining chairs, plus so many thoughtful little touches.
Then there’s the service. In a hotel it would be called a concierge service. Fiona, who runs nearby sister complex Mas Sarrat, or manager Sarah, were on-site most days, providing much more than a go-to person for concerns. Their wealth of local knowledge was invaluable, their French fluency super useful for booking trips or restaurants and no request was too small or inconvenient.
Fiona also masterminded the barbecue, a brilliant idea and open to all guests a couple of days into the week, where we got to know our neighbours over excellent grills and decanters of wine or soft drinks while the children eyed each other up for all of thirty seconds before becoming bestest friends for the week.
The children. Nearly forgot they were there. (The magic doing its bit.)
On three days during the week, the Pagel kids club brought the dozen or so children together for arts and craft, adventures across the extensive grounds and optional shared tea. Again, forget preconceptions of squeaky voiced activity leaders barely older than the children they’re minding and armed only with vast reserves of energy. Cathy was an experienced expat school teacher full of creative ideas and the knowledge of how to make a child’s day memorable.
And mummy and daddy bear sat back and relaxed.
With so much to keep everyone occupied within Pagel’s boundaries, it’s easy to ignore the world outside. But the hamlet nestles in the beautiful green midi-Pyrenees, a region that makes it worth the effort. Daily local markets are packed with stalls overflowing with fruit and veg and offer great people-watching (and croissant-eating) opportunities from the cafes that surround the market squares. The major town of Cahors, half an hour’s drive away, has ancient medieval charm, not least in the turreted Cénevières Castle that hangs from a cliff 50 metres above the River Lot and the fairytale (and World Heritage site) Valentré Bridge.
Back to enchantment. One of the Pagel highlights, perhaps unexpectedly, was the Chef for a Night service. We tried this, not sure what to expect (especially as vegetarians), and couldn’t have made a better decision, as three courses of truly gourmet food, all freshly cooked on site, plus cheese, was brought to us at our cottage table. It came piping hot, course by course, with the empties cleared away and nothing for us to do but enjoy haute cuisine with local wine on our veranda while our daughter slumbered peacefully inside. No babysitter, no designated driver, no hassle. It wasn’t just our daughter who’d fallen under the Pagel spell.
A family holiday is only ever as relaxing as its most demanding family member. Pagel is a magical place for children and that magic rubs off on the parents, who are also extremely well catered for. For once, mummy, daddy and baby bear all felt they had had a proper holiday. What more of a happy-ever-after could you ask for?