Friday 30 September 2016

Brittany: La grande Bretagne

On the ferry to France

Tony Gavin

Published 08/02/2016 | 02:30

Hit me Brittany: Dol-de-Bretagne oozes atmosphere with its outdoor restaurants and timber-framed houses. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Hit me Brittany: Dol-de-Bretagne oozes atmosphere with its outdoor restaurants and timber-framed houses. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Domaine des Ormes offers many activities. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Bonhomie: Domaine des Ormes camp-site is a good starting point for exploring Brittany, and has a substantial water park. Photo: Tony Gavin
Views: Tony Gavin at Mont Saint-Michel.
Roscoff wine warehouse
Domaine des Ormes Golf clubhouse. Photo: Tony Gavin.
Mont Saint Michel. Photo: Tony Gavin.

Beaches, culture, gorgeous beaches and winding country roads greet Tony Gavin and his family on a holiday in France.

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Many years ago when I was a child growing up in London, I remember catching the old mailboat with my mother across the Irish Sea to visit my grandparents in Donegal and Clare. The journey was long, the sea was rough and the conditions were Spartan as we shared the boat with all the old postbags stuffed with letters and parcels from emigrants abroad, destined for Ireland.

By contrast, last June I headed off with the family to Northern Brittany. We sailed to Roscoff from Ringaskiddy on the Brittany Ferries ship Pont-Aven which was more like a modern cruise liner than the old mailboat I remember.

As we sailed out of Ringaskiddy, I watched the harbour disappear into the distance and reflected that this was probably the last view of land that passengers of the Titanic and Lusitania ever saw. As the sun went down from the viewing deck we returned into the ship, past the swimming pool and majestic staircases into the open auditorium on Deck Seven.

It was already beginning to buzz with life. Early in the evening the crew provide floor shows for the kids and later on a few crooners for the adults. My boys Sean and Rory are 17 and 14 respectively so they settled down to watching the Champions League final on one of the many large screens on the boat.

The boat has many restaurants and a duty free shop. Initially we were shocked by the size of our cabin and the boys wondered how we were all going to fit until one of them discovered that bunks descended Tardis-like from the ceiling and everyone was berthed comfortable for the night.

Bonhomie: Domaine des Ormes camp-site is a good starting point for exploring Brittany, and has a substantial water park. Photo: Tony Gavin
Bonhomie: Domaine des Ormes camp-site is a good starting point for exploring Brittany, and has a substantial water park. Photo: Tony Gavin

We were woken by a gentle alarm call at 5am inviting passengers to one of the many restaurants for breakfast.

We disembarked, relaxed, into a balmy 16 degree morning at Roscoff. After a few minutes of re-adjusting to driving on the right side of the road and going around the roundabouts the wrong way, we headed towards our destination of Domaine des Ormes which is close to Dol-de-Bretagne in Northern Brittany.

On the way we took a diversion, unintentionally, through Morlaix with its impressive viaduct. We even noticed The Greystones Irish bar among the many shops and restaurants. Morlaix was once one of the largest ports on the English channel and this is reflected by many fine buildings.

It is a beautiful town, well worth a visit as it is only a small excursion off the main route. After about a two-hour drive through the countryside we arrived at our summer vacation destination.

Domaine des Ormes is a large holiday camp laid out around a beautiful chateau with a first-class golf course and hotel. As well as the many camping facilities there are chalets and even hobbit-like cabins and tree houses.

It has several swimming pools and a water leisure area with slides. It also has many other activities such as zip gliding, horse riding, archery, water skiing, tennis courts and kids' camps to keep everybody happy.

Views: Tony Gavin at Mont Saint-Michel.
Views: Tony Gavin at Mont Saint-Michel.

There are several nature walks of varying distances and jogging trails around the 250 hectares of unspoilt nature. The walk to the nearby village of Saint-Leonard provides a worthwhile excursion.

There are also a few bars with nightly entertainment and restaurants which we sampled during the week, one with traditional French cuisine and the other a pizza and pasta bistro. There is a fully stocked supermarket on site, handy if you want to stay in and eat at home.

Some evenings, keeping with the camping theme, we had our own barbecue. This were always an option as our chalet was supplied with two barbecues and the decking had a table and chairs for outside dining.

There was plenty to do at the camp-site. We enjoyed a few rounds of golf on a challenging 18-hole parkland golf course. The course is situated on mature parkland with majestic 300-year-old trees, beautiful flowerbeds and delightful lakes.

Even if you don't play all that well, you will still enjoy the superb setting. Narrow fairways, clever bunkering and frequent water hazards place a premium on accuracy rather than power. At 6,344 yards off the championship tees, the course isn't particularly long but there's certainly no shortage of subtlety.

On another day Rory and myself headed off into the countryside on two black-framed Dutch bikes which we hired from Aike at Holland Bikes on the camp-site. Aike was of course himself a Dutchman and a former musician to boot. He was extremely helpful and set us up with bikes, helmets and locks at €10 per half day.

We set off on our adventure into the countryside and discovered that the French roads were rolling but unbelievably smooth. We cycled to the coast into a strong headwind, stopping briefly for a bottle of Evian and pain au chocolat at Le Vivier-sur-Mer.

Then we headed homewards with a tailwind pushing us along, touching 30kph on our trip back to Dol-de-Bretagne.

We stopped in the town where I had a coffee and Rory had a Nutella crepe. As we sat enjoying the atmosphere on the town's main street with its outdoor restaurants and chocolate box-like timber-framed houses, I noticed that on the wall of the town hall was a sign announcing its liberation from German occupation on August 4, 1944 by General Patton and the United States forces.

It was quite easy to imagine the scene then of all the locals gathering on the street to wave and cheer to their liberators.

Dol-de-Bretagne also has one of the most impressive cathedrals in the area. Dedicated to Saint Samson, it was formerly the seat of the Archbishop of Dol. The building is notable for its eclectic mix of styles and idiosyncrasies, such as the incomplete north tower on the main west-facing entrance.

The tower was begun in 1520 but never finished due to a lack of funds.

A local myth has it that the top was knocked off by the devil, who threw the nearby Dol Menhir at the building, which was buried in the ground in consequence.

Domaine des Ormes provides a good starting point for touring the rest of North Brittany and must-be-seen destinations such as Mont Saint-Michel and Saint-Malo to the north and Rennes to the south.

For those of you who have not already visited it, the citadel island of Mont Saint-Michel is a must-see. Rising out of reclaimed marshes, Mont Saint-Michel has streets with shops and hotels and is crowned by an 11th century Romanesque Abbey.

This can be reached through steep narrow alleyways and staircases. From the top the views are magnificent as are the cloistered walks and gardens. It has a number of restaurants and you would need at least half a day to see it properly.

Saint-Malo is a fortified city built by traders who were the richest in the region due to their activities as corsairs and pirates.

Although 80 per cent of the city was destroyed during the Second World War, it has been faithfully restored in granite and the elegance and uniqueness of the town is well worth discovering.

We stopped for lunch at a lovely restaurant tucked into a side street, where the seafood tagliatelle with fresh mussels, scallops and prawns and grated Gruyere cheese was only to die for.

A family holiday in Domaine des Ormes has much to offer everyone of all ages. It has many options for campers and those who prefer more luxurious lodgings.

Our accommodation, which we booked through Eurocamp, in one of their three-bedroomed chalets was spacious and bright. The camp provides a safe environment to allow kids and teens to wander around, make friends and enjoy the many activities.

We all thoroughly enjoyed our stay and our trips around the beautiful French countryside and I am looking forward to returning to discover more of the beautiful towns and villages of Brittany in the near future.

Getting there

Brittany Ferries operates weekly sailings from Cork to Roscoff and offers the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France. The 2016 season of sailings begins on April 2. Overnight sailings from Cork on the luxurious Pont-Aven are available every Saturday until the November 5 and give you an early arrival in Roscoff on Sunday morning. The Pont-Aven offers guests a choice of comfortable cabins and the 14-hour cruise allows plenty of time to enjoy the on-board experience, including French-influenced restaurants, two cinemas, a swimming pool, spa treatments and bar areas with panoramic sea views. The return sailing leaves Roscoff on Friday evenings, arriving in Cork the following morning. Brittany Ferries is equipped to carry both cars and foot passengers. Visit Brittany Ferries' website, brittanyferries.ie or call 021 427 7801.

A 7-night stay with Eurocamp in Domaine des Ormes, Dol-de-Bretagne in early June based on a 3-bedroom Avant mobile with decking costs €655. Alternatively, stay for 7 nights in the 3-bedroom Avant mobile with decking in early July when prices start at €1,037 Extras such as flights, ferry, car hire and airport transfers are all available at an extra supplement. Visit Eurocamp's website, www.eurocamp.ie or call them on 021 425 2300.

Three Must-Do's

Mont Saint-Michel

If you haven't been to the citadel island of Mont Saint-Michel this is a great opportunity to visit. Only half and hour by car from Domaine des Ormes, Mont Saint-Michel can be seen in the distance long before you arrive at one of the many car parks situated about a kilometre from its entrance. Shuttle busses run constantly to the citadel along a newly constructed causeway. There is an admission price of €9 but it's well worth it.

Roscoff's wine warehouses

Don't forget to leave time on your return journey to Roscoff to visit one of the many wine warehouses at the port. Here you can choose from a vast selection of French wines including the local Muscadet. For between €5 and €10 you can buy wines costing three to four times that amount in Ireland. They also have a good selection of local ciders and Lambig, an eau de vie liqueur produced from the distillation of cider.

 A round of golf

The course is situated in the centre of the camp beside the magnificent Chateau des Ormes. It is an 18-hole parkland course with tree-lined fairways and tightly bunkered greens. It has a luxurious clubhouse which serves food and refreshments, ideal for your post-round wind down. Cost per round is €66. There are special deals on green fees for camp-site residents at two rounds for €100. Juniors, under 18, are half-price.

NB: All prices subject to availability.

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