Brittany: We'll carry on camping!
Holidays in France
Cormac Bourke takes his family to France for a camping holiday to remember... in a good way!
I remembered it well. The last time I'd been camping was to deepest, darkest Kerry. It was sometime in the early 1980s. Due to some motoring difficulty on the way to our destination, it was a night-time arrival. And it rained and rained and rained.
That is at least as I remember it - and even if my recollection of the facts is a little loose or perhaps, eh, dramatised, I certainly spent what seemed like a lot of time pitching a trailer tent in a dark wet field in the south west as a small child.
So taking the ferry to France to bring my own four small children camping was a bit of a journey back to the future.
We would, of course, be heavily outnumbered. When our twin girls arrived in 2013, we suddenly had four children aged four and under. So we hadn't braved any sort of proper trip abroad together en famille and we had never been camping as a family. Only my wife had been on a ferry before.
About two weeks before we were due to set out, it all suddenly seemed very daunting. What's the only thing more difficult than minding your four small(ish) children at home? Minding your four small(ish) children anywhere else.
There would be uncharted terrain - or furniture - they could crash into or trip over. There would be far fewer toys. And there would be no TV.
What could possibly go wrong?
It was therefore slightly surreal to find myself driving (on the wrong side of the road) through quaint French hamlets after we rolled off the ferry in Roscoff early on a sleepy Sunday morning.
The ferry had been the adventure before the adventure. Arriving from Dublin, we rounded a bend in Ringaskiddy in Cork and suddenly our vessel came into view. Cue huge excitement in the back of the car.
The cabin accommodation was as good as a hotel. There was a play area where the children could let off a bit of steam after the drive. And there were a whole range of restaurants.
Despite the strange surroundings and general sense of giddiness, the children even slept for a couple of hours during the overnight crossing. In truth, the ferry had been very exciting and largely uneventful.
Now we were sweeping south through Brittany, with my wife navigating, as the day brightened and our little holiday became a reality.
About two-and a half hours later we had arrived at the La Grande Metairie, a five-star camping resort just outside the town of Carnac.
The name was strangely familiar. That is of course because Carnac is quite famous for its fields of Megalithic standing stones. There are more than 3,000 stones, some of which are more than 6,500 years old. It's not unlike, I suppose, staying at a luxury campsite right beside Newgrange.
The resort is more than family friendly and managed to contain and entertain our fierce little crew very well.
This is, of course, about as far away from sodden canvas in rain-swept Kerry as you can get (though the weather in July was mixed and it was often overcast).
This is luxury camping; this is life in a mobile home.
With hot water and electricity.
And, very occasionally, wi-fi.
We had a well-equipped three-bedroom mobile home with separate bathroom and toilet. It had everything you would need - proper oven, fridge freezer, microwave and all the usual kitchen utensils.
The decking was a particular hit, with an ingenious child gate which allowed our twins to charge up and down with their dolls' buggies without fear they might run out in front of a neighbour's car.
It is a beautiful setting: wooden mobile homes in rows with trees dotted around, awnings stretching out over decking and bbqs smoking in the evening.
Unsurprisingly, the resort facilities are perfect for families with small children.
There's a reasonable, if small, shop on site, a playground, a kids club, crazy golf, a terrific zip-line for older children, pony rides and farm animals.
Though the weather wasn't great, the biggest draw was the amazing pool with water slides and rapids. There is also a smaller replica indoor pool for the cloudier days, but the biggest win was the outdoor infant pool with its own little slide, cordoned off from the main pool with sufficiently strong netting that it could withstand vigorous testing by the twin toddlers and their brothers.
The four could play there safely under supervision by a parent sitting on the edge of a sun lounger (the edge, I hasten to repeat - no parent managed to get as far as actually reclining while the children were in the water).
It was, I felt, a portent of summer holidays to come and as such I very much like where the summer holidays of the future are going - I feel there may even be some book reading and, maybe, even a cold beer on a sunny day.
The resort has a loyal following. One family I spoke to had been coming back for years. They first came when their children were the same age as ours and had loved the pool and playground. Now they are playing on the zip-line and staying up late playing in the games room.
Our routine was simple. Get up. Eat. Go to the pool. Eat. Entertain the smallies. Eat. Bedtime. Relax. Repeat.
Life becomes about what you are going to have for dinner and whether you should open another bottle of the ridiculously cheap local red.
The onsite staff were enthusiastic and helpful when any problems arose but in reality, you could go from one end of your stay to another without needing to seek them out.
We could have stayed within the campsite all week but we figured we really should go outside the gate - and the trip to the local supermarket didn't count.
(That is not to understate the remarkable - and probably somewhat undeserved - sense of elation when you achieve even the simplest task, like when you manage to find the local Lidl and negotiate a tense French supermarket car park.) So we undertook a couple of evening forays.
Our first trip was to Trinite-sur-Mer, a beautiful seaside village that reminded me of Dun Laoghaire or Howth. This was a wealthy place, with bright shiny yachts bobbing up and down in the marina.
A ride on the single carousel and stroll around the seafront was capped off with huge ice-cream cones all around. It was magic.
Our second little adventure was an evening drive to Saint-Goustan, a harbour village which makes up part of what is now known as the town of Auray.
We were lucky and stumbled into a festival of some sort, with tourists watching the locals in full historical costumes re-enact some sort of battle from what appeared to be several hundred years ago amid the restored medieval houses.
As we ventured further along the quayside we spotted a simple grey stone plaque on the wall of a house, marking an important arrival in the village harbour.
It was at that quay in Saint-Goustan, five months to the day after the American declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, that Benjamin Franklin, the most distinguished American of his time, arrived on French soil, becoming the first American diplomat. He had come to ask for French support in what would become the War of Independence.
That support took two years.
Saint-Goustan also brought a classic family holiday moment. It had been a great evening. No-one was complaining. No-one was crying. You feel like you are in a movie. It's so perfect you want to take a picture to capture the moment. So you huddle your children in beside you and try and get them all to smile or at least look at the camera. The perfect family moment. And then you realise you just took a picture in front of a public toilet. So you move three metres down the road and try again.
On other occasions, family holidays with small children are just about whether or not you can pass the simple tests that other people take for granted.
For example, can you sit outside a cafe and have your lunch - which you have ordered in a foreign language more in hope than in expectation - with four children aged six and under? The answer is yes. Just about.
You may not get what you thought you ordered, however, and you may discover that the orange smoothies the children are having are actually freshly made and cost €8 each.
Our lunchtime meal was a prelude to our visit to the surprisingly compact aquarium at Vannes, 45 minutes drive from Carnac.
Our journey was born out of a desire to go on a day trip of any sort rather than of any particular interest in marine life or in the aquarium per se.
The aquarium was mobbed on the day we chose to visit, so one lap around the various fish exhibits was enough - though it is home to a Nile crocodile liberated from the Paris sewers back in the 1980s and a wonderful pair of 30-year-old green turtles.
And the children were delighted to get to see a clown fish and a blue tang - or Nemo and Dory as they are know in the Disney world.
The last night of the holiday came way too quickly. Next time we will definitely stay longer. Next time we wouldn't pack quite so much stuff. Next time there may be reading by the pool. But there will definitely be a next time.
I was so glad we took the plunge and went. That glorious day in the middle of the holiday where we spent all day in the pool, ate our body weight in fresh French baguettes and kept the kids up late to go and ride on carousels and eat strawberry ice cream on a cobbled street bridge in Trinite-sur-Mer will stay with me forever.
And more importantly it will stay with them too. Even if we never did actually visit any of the 3,000 standing stones.
The Pont-Aven ferry continues to offer a fast direct crossing from Ireland to France, taking 14 hours and operating to a weekend schedule.
The state-of-the-art ship’s facilities include pool and bar areas with sea views, two cinemas, shopping malls, luxurious spa treatments and a wide range of restaurants as well as complimentary wi-fi in all public areas of the ship.
The full range of 2017 holidays is now available at brittanyferries.ie/holidays. Bookings can be made either online at brittanyferries.ie or by calling 021 427 7801.
Sunday Independent readers can avail of a 15pc saving if booking before 07/02/17 — based on four people travelling on return sailings from Cork to Roscoff between 25/05/17 and 09/06/17 (two nights on board) in a standard car, sharing a four-berth inside cabin with a 12-night stay at property reference YYL010 Camping Les Brunelles 5* site. This offer is subject to availability.
TAKE THREE: Top attractions
Sweet and savoury...
Everywhere you go there are creperies, and a crepe/pancake is not the worst snack you could give your kids, particularly if you go for a galette which is made of buckwheat. This is the flour they were made with when they first appeared back in the 12th century. They are more likely to be made with white flour nowadays and, of course, every sugar laden filling is on offer, including chocolate, and various jams.
While our kids loved the pool and couldn’t be dragged away, older children will probably want to explore the beaches — and some of France’s best are in Carnac. There are no fewer than five, with something for everyone whether you like a long sandy strand or a quiet little cove. Facilities are excellent, with windsurfing and other watersports on offer. Striped beach huts add an old-world charm.
Links with the past
In some ways, Carnac is an unusual site for a holiday resort — it is, after all, a mystical place with more than 3,000 megalithic standing stones arranged in mysterious patterns — some in straight lines, some in circles, many dating back 5,000 years. Was it a place of worship? A burial ground? An astronomical observatory? Very little is known about the stones but the legends abound.
Read more:Basking in Brittany: Taking the ferry for the most nostalgic of holidays
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