Basking in Brittany: Taking the ferry for the most nostalgic of holidays
A family in France
Nicola Anderson's family had never considered a camping holiday. Then they travelled with Brittany Ferries to France.
Our car rolls out of the French port of Roscoff at dawn, and we drive sleepily into the countryside for a couple of kilometres.
"I like it here," I whisper. "Me too," comes a sudden announcement from the back seat as everyone wakes up. Ravenous.
We've gone old-school with this holiday, giddily and recklessly loading up the car in a way that would make budget airlines blanch in horror. But we draw the line before it gets to breaking point. We do want a few empty corners to squeeze in some wine on the way home, after all.
Travelling by ferry to France is a new type of experience for us, having never even considered the classic campsite holiday. Even the drive down to Ringaskiddy in Cork is an adventure for three children under 10 - who still sigh with nostalgia over the penny sweets in Dick's newsagents in Charleville along the way.
On board the Pont Aven - Brittany Ferries' flagship - they shriek with delight at the bunks in our cabins and declare they're going to bed straight away. Ah yes, the ideal holiday has already begun.
After many family conferences mulling over facilities, we've booked Eurocamp's Grand Metairie campsite in Carnac, near the Gulf of Morbihan in southern Brittany. It pipped others because they had an option to stay a night in a tree house - more on that later.
On arriving, we're intrigued to spy sprawling fields of mysterious Neolithic standing stones, like an ancient set of dominos, with vast numbers of tourists strolling amongst them. Theories abound as to why the stones were placed there - experts say they served "ceremonial purposes", were "for worship" or perhaps "territorial markers". To modern eyes, however, it looks more like a vast graveyard. By night, some of the fields are imaginatively backlit, giving the mysterious vista an even more eerie and entrancing look.
Our campsite is vast, but we quickly find our groove.
Our two-bed mobile home is basic, but the better for it (far less cleaning involved). And it's fun to watch the other holidaymakers fire up the barbeques. I'd like the fortitude of the French papa who sits stoically under tarpaulin at his camper van for hours silently and alone... but we are made of more hyperactive stuff, and so we throw ourselves into exploring our surroundings.
We have a snack in the Robinson Crusoe-esque tree house, but opt not to spend the night on the grounds that there is no electricity and somebody is bound to have to go to the loo in the middle of the night...
It doesn't take long to fall into an easy, breezy morning routine of breakfast and a dip in the pool before getting into the car to soak up the magical world of the famous Breton beaches - a different one every day, each more entrancing than the last.
Carnac beach is a more sociable affair than the string of windswept golden beaches further along the peninsula towards Quiberon. We shop in the local market for the perfect picnic - a punnet of ripe cherries, an oozing camembert, a crunchy French baguette, charcuterie, a bottle of ice-cold homemade lemonade. Nothing has ever tasted better.
Sandy, a little sunburned and very content, we feel like diving into a big pot of mussels and so we roll into the Ty Gwelig restaurant in Carnac (8 Rue Colary) for moules au cidre, mopped up with more excellent French bread. Our six-year-old is immediately hooked and pretty much refuses to eat anything else for the rest of her trip.
Another day finds us in the beach town of Quiberon, enjoying grilled sardines before stopping off at a spectacular sandy beach with thundering surf. At almost 10pm, the kids are still testing out their new fishing nets and building sandcastles. "Look at that sky over there," says my nine-year-old son, pointing at the glowing embers as dusk finally falls.
In homage to our ferry vessel, we make a point of seeing the lovely village of Pont Aven - where Paul Gauguin painted - and the children are tickled pink by the local ritual of hands being washed in the river after using the public loos. We are also dazzled by the chic beauty of the medieval harbour of Auray - where we savour ice-cream that somehow manages to be simultaneously both gourmet and bubblegum in flavour.
Brittany offers up that most nostalgic of experiences - the simple, languid family holiday, done well, amid picturesque scenery - and more crepes than a starry-eyed child could ever dream of (eventually a ban on Nutella had to be imposed). As for the weather - we agree that it's like the best of idyllic Irish summers, with our week broken by one day of heavy rain.
En route back to Roscoff, there was time for just one more quintessential holiday experience - a trip to the Wine Beer Supermarket to fill those empty corners in the car. It's hilarious - 90pc of our fellow customers are also Irish, beaming from ear to ear as they fill up their shopping trolleys with excellent wines at magnificently story-book prices.
Some people take the ferry to Roscoff for the wine alone. But then, where's the fun in that when you're missing out on those incredible beaches, the moules… and that bubblegum ice-cream?
Nicola travelled with Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.ie), which operates weekly sailings between Cork and Roscoff with the fastest direct ferry crossing (14 hours) from Ireland to France. The 2016 season runs from April 2 to November 5, with return fares for a family of four plus car from €528, subject to availability.
What to pack
Everything! Having no baggage limits is one of the joys of a ferry holiday. Don't be tempted to bring freezer food, however. French supermarkets are an adventure in themselves, and boulangeries are full of ecstasy-inducing brioches, baguettes and pastries.
Where to stay
The Pont Aven's on-board experiences include French-influenced restaurants, two cinemas, a swimming pool, spa treatments and bar areas with panoramic sea views. Seven nights at the Grand Metairie campsite in July starts from €974 in a two-bed Esprit mobile home.
Brittany is famous for floral villages like Rochefort-en-Terre, a dead-ringer for Belle's hometown in Beauty and the Beast. Picturesque timber houses line the cobblestones, and they're crammed with salted caramel shops, artisan biscuit-makers and wafting creperies. Bring an appetite.
Fruits de Mer
Brittany is renowned for producing seafood as good as our own. The oysters of Cancale and Bélon, the mussels of the Bay of Mont-St-Michel and the Vilaine estuary, all have the highest reputation. Saint-Quay-Portrieux, Loguivy-de-la-Mer and Erquy are all known for their scallops, too.
A last hurrah!
Make time for one last holiday experience before you leave Brittany... squirrelling away some vino for the dark days of winter. Hit the Beer and Wine Supermarket (winebeersupermarket.com) - stay sensible, don't go for the bargain basement stuff and ask staff for advice. You won't go wrong.
NB: All prices subject to availability.