independent

Sunday 20 April 2014

Sailing away to a French fancy

FRANCE

SPARKLING: Biarritz is the jewel in the crown of the French south coast

In our family, it's still known as the Floating Prison. It was a cut price ferry that we sailed on once from ... well, best not say. Imagine if Alcatraz Island slipped its moorings and drifted slowly, oh so slowly, across the sea. It was like that. Only less luxurious. So hearing of a new budget ferry service from Rosslare to France filled us with trepidation. Would history repeat itself?

How wrong we were. The Celtic Horizon, operated by Celtic Ferries between Rosslare and Cherbourg, is the newest ship on the French route, and it's an absolute delight. There were lots of places to eat and drink; a cinema; warm, comfortable cabins, some of them six berth. Clearly the only difference now between budget ferries and more expensive options is price -- and who in their right mind willingly pays more for the same service?

We were even treated to a trip to the bridge, where the first mate explained what all those little dots on the radar meant. Boats ... everywhere. Look to sea and you wouldn't see them, they're so small, but they're there. The sea is, in its own way, as crowded as Grafton Street on Christmas Eve.

Sailing is the ideal way to travel, if, like me, you're terrified of flying. Only a few hours from Dublin, you drive on board, then forget about everything. Just wander around, get something to eat, a drink or two, then sleep until morning, when you wake up for breakfast with Normandy already in sight. (Best hash browns ever, my youngest assures me.)

Once you disembark, the next part of the holiday begins. There's no better feeling.

The destination this year was a place we'd never visited before, right down by the Spanish border in the Pyrenees Atlantique department. It took a while to get there, I'm not going to lie, but I never understood the eagerness of some travellers to get where they're going so quickly they hardly notice the rest of the country they're in. France is a big place. There's a lot of it to see. Why rush? We took our time and arrived in darkness to find a bottle of wine waiting in the mobile home where we'd be staying.

We were guests of Keycamp, one of Europe's top providers of camping and caravan holidays, and the campsite in question was Le Ruisseau. It's in a scenic area, on a wooded hillside close to the sea. Quiet, private, with lots of French families around, which is always a good sign, it had plenty of facilities without that feeling of hectic activity which often intrudes on the ambience of other campsites. The swimming pool complex was discreetly situated on the edge of the camp. The Keycamp staff were helpful but unobtrusive. The whole place was very family-centred.

That's the thing about family holidays. They're always a compromise. Parents and older teens want to sightsee. Younger ones want to, you know, do stuff. Campsites offer the best of both worlds. Le Ruisseau had lots of things for younger children to do besides the pool, including crazy golf, large play areas, even a small farm. The horses and rabbits went down a treat. (We didn't eat them, I hasten to add, we just enjoyed having them around).

The nearby beaches were fantastic too. Seemingly endless stretches of sand, with huge Atlantic breakers rolling in. This whole area is surfer territory. I'm no surfer, but I loved the wide open, wild, crashy feel of it.

Best of all, there's a free bus service operating from the front gate of the campsite to some of the local towns and beaches, which meant that getting around couldn't have been easier. The local towns are charming and compact and reassuringly old, which is important if for you, like me, eye-pleasing architecture is as important as beautiful scenery. There's a definite Basque feel to the area which means it almost doesn't feel like France at all.

Bayonne in particular was a delightful town, though my daughter did lose her hat when it blew off as we took pictures by the river, so if anyone finds it do let us know.

We took refuge in a wonderful Gothic pile looming over the narrow maze of streets by the name of the Cathedral Saint-Marie. I realise not everyone likes spending their days poking around inside old churches, but it's sort of a tradition with us, not least for the brief respite it offers from the blistering heat.

I wouldn't have the weather any other way -- summer holidays are for heat; these Irish bones need an annual warming to protect them against the winter to come -- but it's good to know there's a bolthole now and again when it gets overwhelming. The cathedral in Bayonne was astonishingly impressive, with the most tranquil cloister.

There was also a wonderful sea-hugging drive known as the Route de la Corniche which goes all the way from St Jean De Luz to Irun, just across the border in Spain -- or the Basque Autonomous Community, if we must be politically correct.

That's another perfect thing about this area. It's so close to the border that it's like getting two holidays in one. A trip to the beautiful Spanish city of San Sebastian only took an hour by car. One day wasn't nearly enough to see it all.

Jewel in the crown of this coast, of course, has to be Biarritz, which is only five miles from the campsite. Long a favoured destination of British and Spanish royalty, the whole town feels like a James Bond location.

The sea-front is dominated by huge hotels and casinos, while the steep quaint lanes behind are a shopper's paradise. If I lived in the town, I think I'd walk every day to the end of La Rocher du Basta, which stretches out elegantly into the waves, just for the magnificent views back towards the town.

In fact, when I grow up, I'm going to come back here and stay in a suite in one of the expensive hotels, and spend my days shopping in designer stores and my nights at the roulette table. I can dream, can't I?

GETTING THERE

Celtic Link Ferries is a 100 per cent Irish-owned ferry company between Ireland and France. Its newest ship sails from Rosslare to Cherbourg. Tel: 053 9162688 or 087 9042775. www.celticlinkferries.com

Stay seven nights in Biarritz Le Ruisseau with Eurocamp. Prices from May 30 start at €522 or from June 30 at €780. Prices are based on two-bedroom Esprit mobile home with decking. Air-conditioning is available at an extra supplement.

Biarritz Le Ruisseau is an ideal hotspot for a city break with regular flights from Ireland. Flights and car hire can be booked through Eurocamp at an additional cost. www.eurocamp.com or alternatively call in Cork on 021 4252300.

Irish Independent

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