France by Ferry: Champion camping for children in Brittany
John Greene takes his young family on holiday to France... a journey that starts with a luxury ferry from Cork.
There's more than one way to choose a holiday destination. A decision like that is an important one for a family of four, especially when two of the four are aged five and six.
So, charged with making such a big decision we did the only thing that would guarantee success: show the kids photographs of five campsites in France and ask them to pick the one they liked best. I, secretly, had set my sights on one that I had heard a lot about in Brittany and tried, subtly, to prod the rest in that direction. The fact that it was about three hours closer to the ferry terminal at Roscoff had nothing to do with it. (Honest.)
They were having none of it, though. I knew once they saw the photograph of the pool at Le Clarys Plage on the outskirts of the coastal town of Saint-Jean-de-Monts that I was in trouble.
Are you sure, I asked them one last time. They were. I never stood a chance against pirate ships, dragons and slides. And so for the second time since we first began our family French adventures, we were heading back to the town in the Vendee, a favoured holiday destination for Irish and UK travellers.
For some, the near 400km drive is a turn-off but the reality is that the road network is so good and the amount of roadside stops so plentiful - and well-equipped - that with a little bit of planning you can take the harm out of it. Anyway, we have grown to love travelling on the ferry from Cork. Once you park below deck and head to your cabin to get settled the holiday has begun - for everybody.
The Pont-Aven is the flagship cruiser operated by Brittany Ferries and has everything you need and at 14 hours it is a relatively short trip to the port of Roscoff. This time the kids were old enough to enjoy one of the films in the on-board cinema and, as kids do, they also quickly made friends with others in the play area and restaurants. Our son met another family on the trip over and it turned out they were staying in the same campsite so the two families became friends over the course of the two weeks.
We booked our accommodation through Eurocamp, who have an excellent array of mobile homes on this and other campsites across France. We opted for a spacious two- bedroom model, with a large living area and also a large decking with barbecue and we loved it. The children took to calling it 'home'. It certainly became a home from home over the two weeks. We were lucky too, being only a short walk from the swimming pool, which was as good in real life as it looked in the photographs. We were also close to the playground, another big plus.
Because of their age, this was also the first year that the children got full value from the holiday. They were old enough to take part in the kids' club, where they met more friends, and they were old enough to let loose outside around the cabin too. For them, every day was fun-filled from morning until they collapsed into bed at night.
The facilities in Le Clarys Plage are good and the major plus is that there is a Super U - a huge supermarket with all you could ever need, including a supply of fresh fish and meat - adjoining the campsite, as well as a number of restaurants and stalls. Beyond those is the beach, which stretches for miles in both directions.
Le Clarys Plage is a few minutes by car from Saint-Jean-de-Monts although there is also a cycle track all the way into town which is safe. The town has shops and restaurants aplenty, markets and a number of well-known attractions, top of which is the aquarium on the promenade.
The thing about making the most of a holiday like this is getting the balance right. You don't want to spend too much time on the campsite, doing the same thing every day; nor do you want to spend all your time in the car driving from place to place trying to fit too much in because the facilities are so good and everything you need to enjoy the day is right there on your doorstep. That's the thing about these holidays: there is never any shortage of things to do, but you don't have to overdo it either. It is, after all, a holiday!
It's not quite a golden rule, but we like to have a few day trips planned in advance and then - depending on the weather - drop them in as required. On such days, arming yourself with a small picnic is advised.
Puy du Fou (see highlights panel below) was on our itinerary from the moment we decided we were going back to the Vendee and the family we met on the ferry came with us too which made it a great day out for all the kids. If you decide to go there, book your tickets in advance, or buy them in the tourist information office in Saint-Jean-de-Monts as you will save money and you won't have to queue for tickets when you arrive at the park, which can be extremely busy in high season. (It is France's fourth most visited tourist attraction, bringing in two million visitors a year.)
Our new friends went to Puy du Fou based on our recommendation; and we went to a play park on their say-so. That's the way life works on a campsite, information is constantly being shared around and you will always find someone who has discovered something worth visiting off the beaten track.
That, for instance, is how we ended up in the Historial de la Vendee one afternoon. Located in Les Lucs-sur-Boulogne, less than an hour's drive from the campsite, this is basically a walk through history, enhanced with interactive displays. It is also home to the Children's Museum and, while we were there, there was a fascinating exhibition detailing the history of television which had us all entranced.
It is also how we came upon the small fishing town of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie on this trip. It's to the south of the campsite and well worth a visit. The town is split by a river, the Vie, with restaurants and amusements stretching along the south bank and shops and cafes on the north bank. Like most French towns it has a carousel which is a magnet for children, those beautifully ornate and old-fashioned two-tier types which carry such an air of mystery about them. It's also home to a pretty amazing wine market.
It goes without saying that the food and drink will not be a disappointment. With such easy access to fresh food we found that we were just as happy to use our barbecue and eat at the mobile home, altough naturally it is a nice treat to dine out too.
Ultimately, with children, it tends to be the simple things which create the most memories. And our decision, on a whim, to stop at a pony trekking farm as we were driving by it, proved to be just that. We led the kids out on a trek through nearby woods for an hour or so and they had such a blast, talking about it for weeks afterwards. They had no fear - I wish I could say the same!
There was once a time when I thought I would never take to a holiday on a campsite. Admittedly, this was before we had children but even then I still feared they would be sterile and claustrophobic. I couldn't have been more wrong. I find it difficult now to imagine booking any other kind of holiday for the foreseeable future. It is a wonderland for children, a world where there is excitement and mystery around every corner.
We are already looking forward to this year's adventure.
Brittany Ferries (brittanyferries.ie) operates weekly sailings from Cork to Roscoff and offers the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France.
The 2016 season runs from April 2 until November 5, with the Pont- Aven offering 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.
A 14-night stay in le Clarys Plage from June 1, based on a two-bedroom Esprit mobile home with decking is €978. Alternatively stay 14 nights in early July and the price is €1748. Travel, car hire or transfers can all be booked as an extra supplement. Visit eurocamp.ie.
Puy du Fou
The theme parks of theme parks as far as we are concerned. Our second visit to Puy du Fou, about two hours drive from Saint-Jean-de-Monts, was even more spectacular and rewarding than the first a few years ago. Yes, it's a long tiring day but worth it. Get there early - 9.30 or so - and plan your day as best you can to take in the best of the shows. The Vikings and the Gladiators remain our favourites.
On your return journey, it's always good to allow plenty of time to get to the ferry port. It's not just common sense, though, it's also about taking the time to explore the small picturesque town of Roscoff. In the hours leading up to a sailing there is a great atmosphere in the town. The restaurants and bars come alive; there is street music, and performers, while a walk along the pier is a must.
The Vendee is known for its beautiful sandy beaches. It is also known for its pine forests. And the two have been combined to provide hundreds of kilometres of walking and cycling tracks, all clearly marked and perfectly safe for families to enjoy. For us, hiring bikes - which is not expensive - has become part of the holiday, something we look forward to every time we go back there. The beach in Saint-Jean-de-Monts is particularly striking.
Sunday Indo Living