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Elegance en France

Phil Revell on a trip with an unusual base camp

Lots of school groups visit a French chateau as part of their sojourn across the Channel, but now there's an opportunity to go one better and stay in one.

Le Chateau de Grande Romaine has had a varied history. Once the residence of the archbishop of Paris, it was the 19th century hideaway for a rich Parisien's mistress, and more recently a three star hotel.

Two years ago it was bought by school travel company PGL. The chateau now offers what has to be the highest standard of school tour accommodation on the market.

"The kids were really impressed when they arrived," said Renee Joyce, party leader for a group from Burnt Mill school in Harlow, Essex. Children's rooms have en suite facilities and a very high standard of fittings. "I was amazed when I saw the children all had hair-driers in their room."

Grande Romaine is three-and-half hours from Calais and half an hour from the centre of Paris. PGL's new centre can cope with 300 children at any one time in two modern blocks.

The chateau itself is used for all the group activities, with a ground floor dining room and a teachers' lounge for those essential moments when staff need to escape. There's a swimming pool, and the 70 acres offer some adventurous activities for groups who choose to make the most of the site.

Groups plan their own itinerary with the help of the PGL team. The Burnt Mill group decided to spend one day in Paris, one day split between a local town and the chateau, and the final day at Disneyland. According to Simon Barter, PGL's manager at the chateau, that's a fairly typical menu.

"The usual trip is over five days, giving three full days at the centre," he says. "To sell the trip, schools are often doing a Disney day or a Parc Asterix day, together with a full day in Paris. Some groups opt for two days in Paris. They might visit a particular museum like the Musee d'Orsay and some local things in that area, with a second day travelling the whole city to see the sites."

It's early days. Summer 2001 was the chateau's first full season and Simon expects groups to become more sophisticated about their choices. The party leader's information pack offers 300 destinations within easy reach of the chateau. It will take time before all the possible permutations have been sampled.

Renee Joyce had no difficulty marketing the trip to her year 8s at Burnt Mill. "When we advertised it, 48 children put their names down within two days.I've never sold a trip that quickly before." She's pragmatic about Disneyland. "They were very keen to go to Disneyland, even though it's not a really French experience. If I did it again I might give the group more time in Paris. They really liked it and we didn't have time for everything."

Future groups might also be advised to consider delaying their journey, whether to Paris or to Disneyland, until the Paris rush-hour has subsided. If groups opted for some on-site activities in the morning, they could stay in Paris into the early evening and see the city at night.

"Bateaux Mouches (a boat trip on the Seine) in the dark would have been nice," says Renee Joyce. "I would have liked the group to see the illuminations."

Other possible excursions include trips to Fontainebleau or Versailles and a visit to a chocolatier. This includes an English video on the history of chocolate-making, a demonstration of the process and a tasting session - a real winner with school groups.

PGL provide groups with a French-speaking tour leader. The Harlow group had Antonio, a Spanish student spending a few years out before deciding on a permanent career. Antonio accompanied the group into Paris and for their trip to a local town. His job is to help teachers make the most of the educational opportunities, and smooth over any language difficulties that may occur. PGL staff also run evening activities, ranging from quiz sessions and mini-olympics to the inevitable disco.

Contact PGL School Tours. Tel: 01989 764342 Web: Burnt Mill pupils paid pound;220, of which pound;195 was the PGL cost and the rest admission fees to places like Disneyland. PGL will arrange bookings to the attractions, with free use of their coach and driver.

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