The Vendee: Wet and wild French adventure
Published 14/11/2016 | 02:30
Talk about pressure: I'm wearing a wetsuit, rash vest and helmet (never a particularly glamorous look) and about to take my turn surfing very powerful artificial waves in an indoor pool in front of a sizeable audience of French locals who are already laughing at our efforts. My two compadres, who gamely went first, have both been unceremoniously flung backwards down the pool within seconds of touching the water.
Ashen-faced, they're spluttering and looking shaken. In the event, driven more by defiance and belligerence than skill in the face of the Gallic gigglers, I acquit myself with a semblance of dignity. So much so that my scoffing audience applaud, and I bow.
A group of are us are in the Glassy House, the only place of its kind in France, where for €38 an hour you can hire all the necessary equipment and on simulated surf waves, learn this stimulating sport. It's part of a trip showing the many activities available in the Vendee, a department of the Pays de la Loire directly below Brittany on France's west coast.
Our September sojourn kicked off in the Puy du Fou, a fascinating historical theme park. With two million visitors annually, it's second only to Disneyland in popularity with the French. It is a curiously compelling place, that tells the story of France through a series of tableaux vivants.
We start with the Bal des Oiseaux - an extraordinary show in which all manner of birds - vultures, condors, bald-headed eagles, doves, kites and owls - wheel around an open-air auditorium while actors in attire of yore sing while managing our feathered friends. It's a bit like Game of Thrones by way of Hitchcock's The Birds though without the violence or menace. That said ornithophobes are strictly advised not to apply.
Next up, a show ostensibly about The Three Musketeers adds Cyrano de Bergerac and The Hunchback of Notre Dame to the mix but with impressive stallions, gushing water, rousing music and sexy dancing gypsies. It's all very entertaining.
Everything is themed here, even our accommodation. So I sleep like a princess in a tent resembling something out of Ivanhoe - I half expect Robert Taylor to dash in and carry me off into the sunset. And while the structures themselves look like they've been lifted off the set of a Cecil B. DeMille epic, inside all is modern comfort from the sumptuous four-poster to the wide screen TV.
After a satisfying buffet served by medieval wenches it's down to the lake for the evening extravaganza - a strange but oddly captivating mix of colourful figures who, draped with neon bulbs, glide across the water to the strains of Swan Lake, Carmen's La Habanera and the Blue Danube while fountains rhythmically spray to the beat and lights fizzle and sparkle.
Yet more water in the elegant seaside town of Les Sables d'Olonne awaits the next day. We're signed up for what our hosts call "longe coting". Literally translated this means "along the coast" - just think aqua-aerobics for the middle-aged at sea and, most surprisingly, it is tremendous fun. Essentially it involves donning (yet another) wetsuit and walking in the sea, keeping the ocean at hip level. It may sound easy but our handsome instructor made our group of about 30 or so move at a cracking pace and then walk backwards and finally we had to play tag, all the while watching out for waves.
When I tell you one of our party was terrified of water and she absolutely adored it, you'll appreciate how much sport we had. For added fitness you can add weighted gloves to really maximise the workout. Someone enterprising should import it to this island. You feel fantastic afterwards, though I could have murdered a hot chocolate laced with brandy. But, hey, we were in La Belle France so it was white wine with the local bourgeoisie while we all chatted charmingly about how they do it twice a week. Seriously though, it's worth the detour if you're ever in these parts.
A watersport of a very challenging nature is even more famous in this region, and tired after our longe cote, we take a promenade along the nearby pontoon where the Vendee Globe yacht race village is being built. Known as the "Everest of the Seas", this is a non-stop solo, unassisted round-the-world race that goes around South Africa's Cape of Good Hope, Western Australia's Cape Leeuwin and Chile's Cape Horn.
There's an Irish entrant for this quadrennial feat which embarked last Sunday. Our own Enda O'Coineen is manning the Kilcullen Voyager and as he wrote in this newspaper recently, facing "43,000km of trials, suffering and loneliness - sport at its most extreme". Bonne chance, monsieur!
Saturday is spent in St Gilles Croix de Vie, an exceptionally pretty listed seaside resort which has all that one asks of such a place - ambrosial eateries, a superb market and a charmingly laidback ambience.
Given that we're in gastronomy's premier country, a novella could be devoted to the endlessly superb repasts we enjoy, but out of many memorable dishes, the ones that live on are white tuna simply served with mogettes de Vendee (white beans), light-as-air ile flottantes, (meringue floating on creme anglaise) a sublime mandarin pannacotta and foie gras by the new time, naturellement.
The French are superb at catering for families and we visit two parks. O'Gliss, which opened this summer, is one of the largest water parks in Europe and features the requisite white water rapids, slides and pools in an immaculately landscaped setting. It's been designed by the team from the nearby Indian Forest, a fantastic adventure playground with everything from water zip-wires to miniature racing cars, pedal carts, tree-climbing and play areas for younger children.
After all the activity, we slumber peacefully at the nearby Le Paradis, a verdant campsite with dinky trailers set among the trees. It's an appropriate place to conclude our trip and my discovery of yet another paradise in my second favourite country.
Puy Du Fou: History comes alive
Vendee Tourism www.vendee-tourism.co.uk
Pays de la Loire Agency www.paysdelaloire.co.uk
Tourism Office of Les Sables d'Olonne www.visitlessablesdolonne.co.uk
Tourism Office of Saint Gilles Croix de Vie uk.payssaintgilles-tourisme.fr
Ceitya Hotel, Saint Gilles Croix de Vie www.hotel-leceitya.com
The Puy du Fou www.puydufou.com
Le Camp du Drap d'Or Hotel, Puy du Fou www.puydufou.com/en/node/8
Campsite Le Paradis, Talmont Saint Hilaire
Surf Park The Glassy House
'Longe coting' (Institut Sports Ocean)
Sunday Indo Living