We'd booked 10 days at a mobile home holiday park in South Brittany in France on the advice of a (now ex) friend. "Everything's laid on – great restaurant, great bar, and best of all, kids' clubs, so the children can run themselves ragged while you have time to yourselves," he'd said.
His enthusiasm was so infectious we couldn't wait to get there, so at 4am one drizzly morning we dragged our three children from their slumber, loaded the car up and set off on what we were told would be an eight hour door-to-door journey, including the Euro Tunnel crossing.
And that's where the fun began...
I've been driving for eight solid hours, eating up kilometre after kilometre of French motorway like a baquette fromage, when I turn to my map-reading wife and say the words which are usually uttered by bored child passengers: "Are we nearly there yet?"
She shakes her head and informs me we've still got about another third of the journey to go. I ask her to break open a box of matches to give me something to prop open my drooping eyelids.
We finally arrive at the site (I won't say the name because I don't want to give it any publicity – positive or negative) after leaving home 12 hours earlier. So far the holiday has cost us £1,600 plus £100's worth of petrol.
"This had better be worth it," I mutter.
An indifferent rep from our holiday company shows us to our home for the next week and a half – a mobile home so small the entire thing could have fitted into the living room of our flat.
But we were here now. Better make the most of it. Besides, the kids are starving. We take them to the much-heralded on-site restaurant to be greeted by a surly French girl.
"Ah'm afraid ze restaurant eez fully booked," she says.
"But there's a dozen empty tables," I reply. "Yes, but they are booked. The people have already left."
I can't quite grasp the logic of a table staying booked once whoever sat there had eaten and left, but I am too tired to argue. Instead, we buy three pizzas from the adjoining snack bar – spending the equivalent of £50 in the process.
After a fitful night's sleep on cold clammy sheets on a lumpy mattress, we unpack the car, get our swimming gear and head to the main attraction: the water park, ie, a couple of swimming pools and water slides.
It looks great, but all the deck-beds have been claimed so we sit on the hard concrete and try to get comfortable enough to read our books while the kids go bananas in the pools.
They have a great time and we head back to our caravan for tea. Unfortunately, the smoke detector in our palace is a touch too sensitive and goes off even when the kettle begins to boil, let alone when I fry burgers.
I try to dismantle the shrieking device but it seems welded in so I give up and we all traipse off to the bar instead, where I drop another £50 on croque monsieurs.
"We'll head out of camp tomorrow," I tell my wife. "We're being ripped off here."
"Has anyone seen my keys? I left them on the counter top?" No one has.
"They must be here somewhere? They can't have gone missing. Not in this teeny tiny space."
My wife looks at me suspiciously: "Are you sure you didn't have them in your pocket when we were out yesterday?"
"Absolutely sure," I reply, offended. But I'm not totally convinced.
I still feel exhausted after the drive and the bad night's sleep and that, plus the distractions of three hungry, pestering kids, I could have easily been distracted.
The honest answer is that I have absolutely no idea where they are.
I go back to the pool, to the bar, to the restaurant where we didn't even get to sit down on our first night, to the reception area at the entrance to the site.
They all shrug their shoulders, tell me nothing has been handed in, wish me luck finding them. Finally, I tell our reps that I've got a serious problem.
They tell me all I can do is to call my insurance company to see what they suggest. I call the company. They say they can't help.
BY now I'm panicking. Not only is there a chance that we will never be able to get home from this Godforsaken place, but that we will be trapped on-site until we finally do find a solution.
In the meantime, my wife has moved from a position of 'I'm sure they'll turn up' to 'Where can I find a good divorce lawyer?'
A brainwave finally crashes onto my shores: our neighbour has our flat keys. If she could find our spare car key and have it couriered over to us, then we'd at least have a means of escape. Call made and spare key found, we determine to enjoy our holiday until the courier arrived.
It's Saturday. A great opportunity for us to drop our three off at the much-marketed kids' clubs so their mother and I can escape the confines of our barracks and walk the couple of miles to the nearest market town.
Except the kids' clubs aren't running on a Saturday.
And then it starts to rain.
We seek shelter in the camp's games rooms only to discover you have to buy your own table tennis bats and balls to play and – guess what – the site grocery store has just shut up shop for the afternoon.
Still there's the air hockey and table football to keep us entertained. Nope. Neither are working. So it's back to the cramped, clammy, mobile home where – thank God – we have brought the children's portable DVD player and iPod Touch to keep them amused.
The sunnshine's back so we head to the pool and have a great time careering down the waterslides, reading our books and soaking up the rays. It's been a blissful day and the children go to bed sunkissed and shattered.
But at three in the morning, the sound of 'Bleeugghh!' followed by 'Mum, Mum, Mummeeeeeee' pierces the paper-thin walls.
The 10-year-old – sleeping on the top bunk – has brought up her snack shop pizza, not only all over the sheets, pillow and floor of their bedroom – but all over her two sleeping brothers, too!
The mess takes a good hour to mop up with the sodden bedsheets. We transfer the children to our bed and their mother and I try to get some shut-eye, shivering, on the caravan floor.
The spare keys arrive by courier. Relief at last. Now we can go and explore the local villages and beaches. As I go to open the car door, I notice it's already unlocked. Bemusement then turns into realisation that I must never have locked it in the first place.
I root frantically around the floor of the car and then inside the boot and – voila! – like a magician, I produce the missing car keys!
Still, no point suffering recriminations right now. We pack up our buckets and spades and at last, spend the day on a beach.
Caravan-bound again. The youngest two have severely runny tummies – and their faces have erupted in spotty rashes - so we have to stay as close to the toilet as possible.
Thank God for those gadgets again.
As children are wont to do, they have all flushed whatever bug they'd caught (probably from the site pools) out of their systems and are begging to go on the other main attraction of the site: the 'adrenaline' zip-wire.
This things runs the length of the camp, between tree branches 30 feet up. The youngest can't go, but the two eldest can – as long as they are accompanied by an adult.
That would be me, then.
I line up with a dozen other competitive dads, strap myself into the safety harness, then climb a ladder to the start of the experience. It involves teetering across a variety of rope bridges, rope ladders, trapeze and other obstacles – and it's all a bit too much for my 48-year-old Bambi-like legs.
At one point, I find myself frozen with fear and feel like I can go no further – until my seven-year-old son coaxes me along with the encouraging words: "Come on, Dad, you can do it!"
Except I can't: I lose my footing between a four-inch wide beam and another, and then topple off – saved only by my safety harness. My son can barely bring himself to look at me as one of the instructors produces a stepladder to ease me to safety.
"Let's get through our last day without any accidents or incidents," I say to my wife. "It's nearly over now. Let's try to enjoy ourselves."
We set off in our car and head to the local market to buy souvenirs, then go to the beach. It's a great day. The weather has behaved itself and, at last, we feel like we've got something out of the holiday.
We return at 5.30pm and start to pack our suitcases ready for the early start home tomorrow morning. We go through the cupboards together when it occurs to me my wallet – containing £250 in emergency Sterling plus my debit and credit cards – isn't where it should be.
"Has anyone seen my wallet?" I shout.
We scour the caravan and find it on the banquette beneath the open back window.
"What's it doing there?" I say. Then I check inside. My bank cards are there – but all the cash has gone.
Mystified, I look at my wife: "Have we been burgled?"
She does a quick scan of the living/kitchen area and sees that our son's birthday present – his iPod Touch – is also missing. I race down to our camp reps' office and report a burglary.
They shrug: "You need to go to the local police station?" I go ballistic, spouting a torrent of threats and pleas.
"We've paid nearly two grand for this holiday – to your company. I expect you to look after us," I demand.
Eventually, the club manager arrives. "I need you to sort this out," I say. "But none of us speak French," he replies.
"Then find someone who does. Someone needs to come to the police station with me."
Eventually, a semi-French-speaking colleague is summoned and the three of us head to the police station a couple of miles away.
"Parlez vous anglais?" I inquire. "Non," he answers.
The French speaker steps in and explains what has happened. The cop shrugs, then tells us I have to report the theft...in England.
"Ask him why?" I tell the interpreter.
But the officer just shrugs again with an 'Eet's not ma problem' look on his face.
I insist on making a report at the reps' office then head back to my family.
"Let's all have an early night," I say. "The sooner we sleep, the sooner we get out of this place first thing in the morning."
The only blessing is that in his or her haste, the thief took neither our passports or bank cards. A very small merci!
And we're on the road by 7am. The more miles we put between us and the camp site, the more relieved I feel. The nightmare is over. We're homeward-bound. Two hours in, the kids are sound asleep in the back and I'm starting to feel a smile spread across my face.
And then...'Bleuugghh!'..the youngest chucks up his breakfast all over the back of the car, showering his brother and sister and the back of my head with vomit.
We clean everyone up as best we can, and then I drive for another 10 hours with my head stuck out of the window to escape the stench of spew.
A grim end to a grim holiday, but at least it WAS the end.
As I said at the beginning: NEVER. EVER. EVER. AGAIN.
Can you top this for a holiday from hell? Share your stories below...
Oh no, here we go again...
- Queuing with the whole family at the post office
- Taking the kids for a haircut
- Staying with grumpy relatives who disapprove of children
- A trip to the dentist
- Being stuck in a three-hour traffic jam on the motorway
- Shopping for school shoes
- Taking the car to the garage for its annual MOT
- Your cousin's wedding
- Packing to go on holiday
- A family bout of gastro-enteritis
- Having a birthday party at home
- Going for a walk
- Staying with relatives who disapprove of children
- Going on a long train journey
- Visiting family friends whose kids are much older/younger