Tuesday 27 September 2016

Vendee: A place of myth and magic

Published 26/03/2012 | 06:00

The Grand Parc du Puy du Fou
The Grand Parc du Puy du Fou

THERE was a time when holidays meant airports. I have never liked airports, and I have never liked flying, yet every year, when it came to going on holiday, it never occurred to me to do anything but fly.

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That's all changed now.

The catalyst was having two small children. Whatever stress I felt about airports before was multiplied. And so a whole new world has opened up to me -- a world of stress-free travelling where the journey becomes part of the holiday itself and not just a means to an end. So, for the past two years, we have taken the ferry to France, and loved every minute of it.

The first year we were not overly adventurous, opting to stay in Brittany in a gite when we got off the ferry. Last year, however, we went the extra mile -- well many extra miles south actually, but it was well worth it for our first campsite experience in Siblu's La Bois Dormant in the town of Saint Jean de Monts.

The Siblu camp is a great base. There are actually two side by side in Saint Jean de Monts, part of a network of 14 high-quality sites in France. The basics are just right: facilities are good and clean and the mobile homes are first rate. Ours had three bedrooms, one en suite, a kitchen, a spacious living room and private decking. Plus we were only a short walk from the pool and snack bar.

Saint Jean de Monts is south of the great Loire River, in the Vendee, about 400km from the ferry terminal at Roscoff. Staring out into the Atlantic, it is renowned not just for its majestic eight- kilometre stretch of beach but also for its wide appeal to holiday-makers.

This is true of the Vendee in general, and of Saint Jean de Monts in particular. In the past decade there has been a deliberate drive to promote the region's wide range of attractions for very specific types of holidays. The marketing campaign has proved enormously successful.

The three which stand out for me are the traditional family holiday, the activity-based holiday and, the most unusual and innovative of the lot, the eco holidays.

The Vendee's resorts are packed with family activities, games and visitor attractions.

A must-see is the causeway at the Ile de Noirmoutier. At low tide you can reach the island by driving, walking or cycling across the Passage du Gois, a 4.5km-long old stone roadway that lies hidden beneath the sea for at least 18 hours every day. It is a remarkable sight to stand on the mainland and watch cars and cyclists seemingly disappear into the ocean. It's not a journey for the faint-hearted, although the faint-hearted aren't discriminated against. There is a bridge to the island a few miles further along the coast.

The main tourist attraction on the island is the ancient chateau in the town of Noirmoutier, but I was most struck by the amount of potatoes grown on the island, and by the harvesting of sea salt from the marshes by hand.

The island also has a reputation for classic boats. Every August its Bois de la Chaise regatta draws around 150 wooden racing yachts to the Baie de Bourgneuf.

A couple of hours by car from Saint Jean de Monts lies the wonderland that is the Grand Parc du Puy du Fou, an extraordinary history-themed adventure park which has as its centrepiece a full-size replica of the Coliseum, complete with a re-enactment of ancient Roman games.

Puy du Fou is a wondrous place of myth and magic which brings you on a journey through time. Nestled in the heart of an ancient forest, this is a unique place to enjoy a memorable day, or even a few days if you wish. As you wander through the forest, you encounter puppet shows, villages and farms meticulously recreated, walled and secret gardens, and magic shows, but these, in truth, are just the hors d'oeuvre. Puy du Fou's real splendour is its daily series of shows which showcase mind-blowing special effects and pageantry on a grand scale. Last year, the Roman games in the Coliseum -- featuring a chariot race and gladiators -- was the major new show at the park, joining with established spectaculars such as the stunning bird-of-prey display, the Viking raid on a village, the Three Musketeers and a medieval lance fight. This summer, another new attraction, based on the fables of Jean de La Fontaine, will make its debut.

For those in search of an activity-based holiday, the Vendee is surely a paradise. Almost every village in the Vendee has its own walking and cycling routes which take advantage of picturesque locations. These routes are designed to cater for the casual user, and also for more serious types who can follow considerably longer trails.

Then you have the sea, a permanent playground for surfers, particularly between the nearby towns of St Gilles Croix de Vie and La Tranche sur Mer. The expanses of flat sand-based terrain common to the area, which can often stretch to several kilometres, are perfect for sand-yachting and speed sailing at low tide.

Many in the Vendee's tourism business are serious about using sustainable forms of energy. One example of this is the four-star hotel on a golf course which filters its waste water through a reed bed from which it is recycled for watering the course.

On a slightly related theme, we found ourselves one afternoon out in the salt marshes at the Daviaud farm and ecomuseum, a charming place which offers a glimpse into the lives of those who lived and worked in the Vendee's marshlands in the 19th and 20th Centuries. It was here I gave the prize to the most interesting fact of the holiday: 80 per cent of the salt sold in London in the 15th Century came from this spot.

When our time in the Vendee came to an end, we still had the ferry trip home to look forward to. Although, as the old line goes, how wonderful holidays would be if there wasn't the day after.

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