Family fun in France: From Normandy to Villages Nature Paris
Trips to Les Villages Nature Paris and a Siblu mobile home park in Normandy prove the perfect twin-centre break
It says a lot about a place when it's so good you don't feel the urge to leave it - despite the fact that it's on the doorstep of the most visited city in the world.
The city, of course, is Paris, the City of Lights, which despite being ablaze for all the wrong reasons during recent protests by the gilets jaunes, remains a beacon for tourists.
Some 30km to the east is Les Villages Nature Paris. This holiday village is a sylvan retreat, located on the doorstep of Disneyland Paris. It is part of the Center Parcs family - but is not run by the same company as the UK Center Parcs (which is opening a new, much-anticipated resort, Longford Forest, in Ireland later this year). It's the same idea though, and I was familiar with some aspects of it, having visited previously (and thoroughly enjoyed) Center Parcs at Whinfell Forest in Cumbria, England.
The French version has subtle differences. It blends superbly into the wooded surrounds - but there is also a touch of luxury. The central village area of the park has a well-stocked supermarket and several restaurants offering informal and formal eating options. There is also a gift store and upmarket swim shop.
Our accommodation was a two-bedroom ground-floor flat with air conditioning - which was much needed, as we were there during the summer heatwave. The apartment was well-equipped with a TV, dishwasher etc. The covered decking area to the rear was perfect for evening meals. One of the attractions of this type of holiday is that you can cook your own food - but eating out is always an option and there are deliveries on-site as well, with menus in the accommodation.
A definite plus are the children's play areas which blend into the forests. They are probably the best 'play parks' I have visited. The giant slides, rope bridges and zip lines provide endless entertainment for little ones.
The giant Aqualagon water park is also superb for swimmers and non-swimmers alike. The variety of slides and swimming areas - indoor and outdoor - is very impressive. My favourite part of the park, however, was the BelleVie farm and garden area were you can go for a pony ride, feed the various animals or explore the vegetable patch. There is also a superb giant indoor play area (Lait's Play) and a nice café (and restaurant) beside it, so you can have a coffee while the children are otherwise occupied.
For those who like active holidays for their children, this is an ideal location - you can hire a bike or go on the adventure trail. But what particularly impressed me is that it provides not just 'physical' activities but 'creative' activities with a variety of workshops catering for both French speakers and English speakers. My five-year-old son, for example, loved learning how to make a baguette - and we all enjoyed eating it with our dinner later that day.
Also, for those who want to venture off-site, Disneyland Paris is nearby and there are transfers available. If you're driving, it's just a short distance and there is ample (paid) parking at Disneyland. But, be advised, it's best to go early or late and have a good idea of what attractions you want to visit inside as the queues can be enormous in summertime.
For the second part of our holiday, we changed tack and stayed in a mobile home park run by French company Siblu in Normandy. We have holidayed with Siblu previously at other locations and have always been impressed with their professionalism. They get the basics right - nice, clean, well-equipped mobile homes. Good, family-friendly sites cater largely for domestic holiday-makers but also for British and Irish families. You feel like you're on a French site - maybe a negative for some Irish, but a positive for us.
Our park this time was Domaine de Litteau, 25 minutes' drive from Bayeux, in the middle of the Norman countryside. It was the perfect tonic after a hectic few days. It is also a great base for visiting the sites in Normandy. We took in some great locations. Bayeux was a wonder and we were lucky enough to arrive there in the middle of a medieval festival. I was awe-stuck by the Bayeux Tapestry, and so impressed I bought a book about it in the museum bookshop to add to my basic knowledge from school history lessons.
Sometimes, however, the little things impress just as well. Or places you find that are off the beaten track. Château de Colombières, for example, where we arrived on a lazy summer's midweek day. The family still lives in the castle and it's a bit quirky. We had the gardens to ourselves for a picnic. We were also lucky to arrive during a Playmobil exhibition.
Downsides? One thing I wouldn't do again in France is hire a car from Charles de Gaulle airport. What a nightmare. It said on the booking that it was from Terminal 1 - but didn't mention that it was, in fact, at another terminal but connected by shuttle. Maybe OK for some - but not if you have children and car seats and can't actually get on to the shuttle with your luggage due to the barriers!
But that was just one hiccup, and overall the holiday was a perfect blend of self-catering accommodation in two brilliant - if contrasting - locations.
If your kids are below school age, try to travel outside of peak holiday periods - savings at Disneyland, Les Villages Nature Paris and Domaine de Litteau parks can be substantial...
Edward and family flew with Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) from Dublin to Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport.
How to do it: Paris
A four-night, self-catered stay in a two-bedroom Clan Comfort cottage in Villages Nature starts from around €949 in high season.
See villagesnatureparis.co.uk for more.
How to do it: Normandy
A seven-night holiday at Siblu's Domaine de Litteau costs from €882 for up to six sharing a two-bedroom holiday home in July.
Call 01 526-8658 or see siblu.ie.
Read more:What happens when Disneyland meets Center Parcs? Welcome to Villages Nature Paris...