Camping Charente-Maritime: It was the small things that made the difference
Charente- maritime, France
After it was all over, one image stayed with me. We were sitting on a low wall looking out to sea as our two children, aged four and two ran around aimlessly on the beach, chasing each other before seeing how far they could get away with running until one of us had to run after them. Then they would do it again.
There is no obvious reason why that memory should have stuck with me as long as it did. It wasn't even the best thing we did that day on our holiday in France . . . but sometimes it's just the simple things. And on this holiday, it was the simple things that made it great.
Such frenzy had built up with the kids in the days leading up to our departure that when they caught first sight of the ship in Ringaskiddy they were overcome with excitement. At their age, this is the stuff dreams are made of. Their vague memories of the last sea trip were of bunk beds and play rooms, and the older one reminded us every five miles on the trip to Cork that she was taking the top bunk.
The first time we travelled to France we stayed in a gite in Brittany, not venturing too far, but each time we have gone back we have strayed further south so that on this occasion as we drove out of the picturesque port town of Roscoff, we were heading for a small town in the Charente-Maritime, almost 600km away, called La Palmyre.
Brittany Ferries arrive nice and early in Roscoff so there is nothing particularly daunting about the subsequent drive – much of which is on motorway – as after a good night's sleep and breakfast before you disembark you will arrive in La Palmyre in early afternoon, and that's allowing for a couple of pitstops along the way.
Our home for the next two weeks in La Palmyre was in a beautiful campsite set near woodland, La Pinede, which we booked through KelAir Campotel, an Irish company based in Ballinsaloe, experts in camping holidays in France, Italy and Spain. Our three-bed mobile home with a large deck was in a quiet part of the campsite which with small kids was a real bonus.
If good accommodation is crucial to this type of holiday, then the pool facilities are a close second and they did not disappoint. We had literally picked La Pinede by showing the kids pictures of different campsites and the photograph of the aqua park here was the one they both jumped for. And they were right. One pool is partially covered and is complemented by slides and water chutes, and there is a second pool in the centre of the site.
Although La Palmyre itself is a relatively small town, it has all the facilities you need. The coastline in this part of France is blessed with golden beaches stretching for miles and the thousands of acres of forest, planted in the 19th Century to stop the spread inland of sand, now serve as one of the area's strongest selling points to visitors as they are criss-crossed with cycling and hiking trails. Indeed, a lot of people use bicycles to get around all through their holiday. We hired bikes for one day and set off from La Pinede to explore beaches and the nearby town of Saint-Palais-sur-Mer, and it was one of the most enjoyable days we had.
La Palmyre is also home to the most popular privately owned zoo in France, with over 800,000 visitors a year. It's certainly the most family-friendly zoo we have ever been to. From the moment you walk through the entrance gate into the sprawling 40-acre site, everything is set up for children of all ages to interact with the animals. From feeding popcorn to the giraffes right at the start of the tour to the spectacular and entertaining show with the sea lions, this place is an absolute treasure.
Our brochure told us to allow four hours but in the end we actually spent a whole afternoon in the zoo, picnic and all, and pretty much covered every inch of it. Around every corner there was another thrill for the children, who maintained their wonder and enthusiasm through the afternoon.
Just 50km from La Pinede is the town of Cognac, famous all over the world for its brandy. To Victor Hugo, cognac was the "liquor of the god", to this town it has been its lifeblood for several hundred years. Almost all the leading brands of cognac have a visible presence in the town, including Hennessy, Martell and Remy Martin, and they all have visitor centres where you can learn about the process of producing the drink and then round off by sampling the goods. Although a brandy, there are very strict protocols distillers must adhere to to be granted the cognac name, which is reserved for a type of grape grown in this region of France. The approach to the town – from the west at any rate – gives the game away with its fields of vines stretching into the distance, while the town itself, which is built on an elbow of the Charente river, is a maze of mixed-style streets. As you drive, you are almost instinctively sucked towards the river, down to the wonderfully named Quai Maurice Hennessy on the banks of the Charente and into the heart of the cognac producers and their warehouses stocked full of aging barrels of the local brandy. Apparently, the discoloured state of these warehouses is caused by the evaporation of the alcohol.
While the trip to Cognac is very much an adult indulgence, a short trip away is an old world of a different kind. The Chateau des Enigmes is a little off the beaten track but we enjoyed it immensely. The chateau is set on over 20 acres and the whole estate has been converted into a mystery game which takes about three hours to complete. The children (and adults!) explore the castle and its grounds solving riddles and completing challenges – over 20 in all. Once they have been completed, each correct answer takes you closer to solving the chateau's final mystery. This is good fun. For a family, an ideal day out is to spend a morning at the Chateau, located in Pons, before heading on to Cognac, just 15 miles away, for a tour of one of the visitor centres.
When you are in this part of France, a visit to La Rochelle is an absolute must. When you first sweep into La Rochelle's old port – which is guarded by two imposing 600-year-old towers – you are filled with a sense of wonder and excitement. And it doesn't disappoint. La Rochelle was founded in the 10th Century and for hundreds of years was a hugely important city in French life. It has been a significant port town since the 12th Century. Its history is rich and colourful, and turbulent too. The infamous Cardinal Richelieu, for instance, held the city under siege for over a year until it surrendered to royal troops, an episode in French history made famous by Alexandre Dumas in The Three Musketeers.
The old city off the harbour has been well preserved so you can stroll through the Gothic gateway Porte de la Grosse Horloge into the narrow streets. The old city walls are also accessible and are a popular destination for tourists and locals as evening falls. It is France, so it goes without saying that the shopping options in the traditional boutiques along these old streets is first rate, punctuated of course with coffee and local pastries. For something more substantial, the seafood in La Rochelle is excellent, topped by fresh mussels (moules) and oysters (huitres).
Needless to say, food plays a central part in any holiday to France. We mixed it up between barbequeing on our deck in La Pinede and eating out. The kids generally played it safe, but for us the seafood was a big attraction, particularly when we were eating at home. On those days, the morning ritual was to pop into town for fresh bread and fresh fish from the local mongers.
This was our third camping holiday in four years, and as we learn more about how to make the most of them, they just keep getting better. Ferry and campsite is definitely our family preference at this stage. There's no hassle, you see, it's as simple as that. Good luck to Michael O'Leary and his new lovey-dovey approach to customer service – thanks, but no thanks. Once we board the ferry in Cork, the holiday really begins for us.
Six months later the kids are still talking about France, or the place with the pool, as our daughter calls it. Every now and again the questions start up: When are we going back? When are we going back? When are we going back? It's a good question.
A family of four can travel on Brittany Ferries (www.brittanyferries.ie, tel: 021 4277801) with their car in a four-berth cabin from €66 per person each way, a total of €528. You can save 15% on the sailing fare on this year's holiday if you book by February 3. Brittany Ferries continues to offer the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France, taking just 14 hours. Brittany Ferries operate weekly sailings from Cork to Roscoff on the Pont-Aven, a luxuriously modern ship. The new sailing season commences on Saturday, March 15 and will run until November 1.
KelAir Campotel (www.campotel.com) is an Irish company offering camping holidays in France, Spain and Italy. In France, KelAir Campotel have mobile homes in 15 campsites. There is accommodation available to suit all needs; we stayed in a wonderful three-bed (one en suite), with a kitchen and dining area, and a large deck with a barbeque. Accommodation and campsites are extremely clean and well presented. KelAir Campotel have their own staff on site to help with any issues and to offer very sound advice on where to go and what to do.
La Rochelle was once one of the most important and wealthiest cities in France because its location made it an ideal trading post and the old city and harbour remain well preserved. But it has a very modern attraction which is most popular among tourists: the city's aquarium, located on the edge of the marina. The dark fascination with sharks lures many people towards the shark tank, which spans three levels and is home to over 20 different species. If you are anywhere near La Rochelle, it's worth making the effort to get here.
There are over 100 beaches in this part of France – stretching for hundreds of kilometres. A great mix of family-friendly beaches with those which are ideal for surfing and wind-surfing. Even in high season, there is so much choice that overcrowding is not a problem. You won't go far wrong with the 30km stretch around La Palmyre, backed by the La Coubre pine forest, but easily accessible. The closer to town the better the facilities, but it's worth hiking out to Pointe de la Coubre for its sheer beauty.
In France, the past is everywhere, so lap it up. Richard the Lionheart had very strong associations with this area, as did the Knights Templar. But it is the old towns and cities of the region, with their mix of architecture and influences, which appeal most. The Romans, the French and the English have all had their roles in shaping them. There's an amphitheatre dating from 40AD in Saintes which now stages concerts in August, the 17th Century Hotel de Ville in La Rochelle and the market town of Saint Jean d'Angely to name just three.