Down’s syndrome didn’t stop my sister from travelling – she’s inspired me to volunteer

Last summer, after taking two supported trips in the UK, Grace finally went on her first holiday abroad without a family member. After a week in Galicia, she landed back at Stansted, her face barely able to contain a grin as she introduced me to her new friends and shared private jokes they’d concocted over the week. Peals of laughter echoed around the arrivals hall.

Having seen her joy, I wanted to get involved. My sister travelled with Go Beyond Holidays, a company with more than a decade of experience organising group and solo trips for people with autism, learning disabilities and other hidden disabilities. They have a two-to-one guest-to-staff ratio and often have a volunteer along, so I got in touch. After some interviews and paperwork, last October I headed off as part of a team on a trip to Vénascle, just east of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie in Provence. We’d be visiting the area’s towns, including the Roman city of Aix-en-Provence, kayaking in the Gorges du Verdon and exploring the pine forests and rolling lavender fields that dominate the landscape.

Our group was made up of ten guests aged between 21 and 50 with a range of additional needs — including autism, Down’s syndrome, epilepsy and blindness — and six members of staff, including volunteers. While the team could not have been more welcoming, I was nervous. At the airport where we all met for the first time, one guest announced that she didn’t want to come on holiday with me because she didn’t know who I was, and clung nervously to her father’s arm. But by the time we reached security she was nattering to me about her family and at the end of the week she presented me with a bracelet, a gift bought in a market during our trip.

On that first day, two hours after we left Marseilles airport, the sun was setting over the lavender high in the hills of the Parc Naturel Régional du Verdon as our minibuses pulled up to Gîte de Vénascle, a renovated traditional old stone sheepfold. A fire was crackling and at a long wooden table, places were set for the first of many meals cooked by our French hosts, Camille Scipion and her partner, Nicolas Dueñas. Chicory salad with lardons and locally produced honey was followed by a rich beef stew, then tarte tatin.

“This is the best food I’ve ever eaten,” said Sophie, 32, wiping her plate enthusiastically with home-baked baguette. Scipion’s family portraits hung proudly on every wall and an old piano kept the group entertained well into the evening as cartoons played on a small TV.

Hospitality and a sense of community are in the bones of this place. “My great-grandfather spent his whole life in this area,” Scipion said. “There was a school among the buildings on the Vénascle estate, and several bread ovens. The residents would meet once a month to make bread together. Vénascle was almost completely self-sufficient, thanks to crops and the nearby water source.”

When Ian Callen, who co-founded Go Beyond Holidays, decided to rent a house for the summer to host adults with additional needs, he realised that Provence would be perfect. There was the laid-back culture, the almost guaranteed sunshine, and acres of forests and mountains offering a range of outdoor activities.

Some guests had private rooms while others shared bunk rooms and bathrooms. It was cosy, but the whole point was that this felt like going away with a big new family and everyone happily piled in together.

“I fell in love with the Vénascle area not long after my family moved to Provence in 2007,” Callen said. “The gîte was on my radar ever since. I love its remoteness, wilderness and rugged beauty. We really like to involve the landlords of the properties where we stay too. They often become our friends and join our wider family.”

A 20-minute drive away from the gîte, the village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, within the Unesco Géoparc de Haute-Provence, is officially one of the most beautiful in France. As we strolled into the market one morning, stall owners were delighted to recognise Callen and the co-founder of the company, Neil Manser, bringing another group to the area. “Welcome back!” they said as cheese was bought, ice creams were devoured and photos were whatsapped home.

In Le Belvédère bar, overlooking the Ravin de Notre Dame river south of the centre, the owner, Jean-Jacques Langlois, still had pictures displayed on the walls of the bar that were painted by a Go Beyond group at Vénascle several years before.

To the east in Rougon, a 45-minute drive along winding roads that cling to the sides of the Verdon Gorge, there was another warm welcome for us at the Crêperie Le Mur d’Abeilles. Griffon vultures soared over the canyon, the largest in Europe. The bird expert Frédéric Bouvet, who had worked with the company on a previous wildlife holiday, set up a telescope and told us all how shepherds would leave animals that had died in a cage high up in the limestone gorge for the vultures to feed on. Everyone was captivated.


Read more:  The Times