Making a splash on a family trip to Brittany
On market day in Pont-Aven there are decisions to be made. Grilled calamari and lemonade from the lady at the stall near the entrance? A box of delicious-smelling fried potato from the van opposite? Or what about the pastries?
That pile of apple cakes, looking moist and golden and frankly irresistible, just can't be ignored. So, we wander up and down, and up and down, and up and down, trying to make a decision, until one of the children helpfully points out that, hey, we're on holiday, we should just get them all. So we do.
Definitely the right choice.
We take our picnic to the park by the river and enjoy it at the water's edge, watching the fish darting between the boulders below. Perfect.
It's day three of our trip to Brittany and we have left our holiday village at Domaine de Kerlann to explore the surrounding area. This was another tough decision - the kids being reluctant to leave the swimming pools, of which they can never seem to get enough. As well as water slides, Domaine de Kerlann has a splash zone where they've been enthusiastically dodging water cannon since the morning we arrived. They'd happily stay put for the whole holiday, but the adults have itchier feet, so to keep everyone happy, we agree on a 'one day here/one day there' strategy - the idea being we spend the whole of every second day in Domaine de Kerlann so the children can enjoy the kids' clubs and pools, and the adults can read a few books and relax. Then on the alternate days, we venture out for some exploring.
Pont-Aven is the closest town to the holiday village, only 4.5km away, and it's a lovely place. Known as the village of artists, it is very much associated with the post-Impressionist painter Paul Gauguin who spent time here in the late 19th century with a group of like-minded artists. (The story of their life and work can be explored at the town's Musee des Beaux-Arts de Pont-Aven.) It takes its artistic reputation to heart and the pretty streets are full of interesting little shops selling original art, clothing, jewellery and furniture. Its setting on the river is what makes it really special and there are lovely flower-filled walkways that meander alongside the water and back and forth among the buildings and old water mills.
Boat trips are available in summer along the river and out into the estuary. Or, if you're feeling more energetic, there's a path along the riverbank (the GR34 path) that travels the 14km to the sea.
Later that afternoon, near the mouth of the river, we come across the small, sheltered beach at Port Manec'h where a row of traditional bathing huts provide some old-school charm. It's a very pretty spot, lush and green with an air of secluded grandeur. We are lucky to get a table on the terrace at La Chataigneraie (16 Rue de la Plage), a bistro on the hill overlooking the beach, where we can catch glimpses of some of the grand stone houses between the trees as we enjoy delicious coffee and ice cream.
Then it's back to the real world, as we hit the supermarket for some supplies before heading back to our holiday village.
We have been on a few similar French holidays over the years so the children know what to expect and, in a way, that's a big part of the joy of it. There's an excitement that comes with knowing how everything works - they can make plans - and the anticipation builds as they look forward to the independence this brings.
It starts with the ferry crossing, which is always a highlight. Before we even board Brittany Ferries' flagship cruise ferry in Ringaskiddy (aptly named the Pont-Aven) they have plotted the best route to our cabin on the passengers' map. Once we're out of the car, they are straight to business: first to the cabin to drop off bags and choose a bed (always a row over the top bunks!), then to check out what's on offer later in the on-board cinemas and live entertainment area. "Excellent! A magician!" After that, the priority is finding the best spot to enjoy the view as we sail past Cobh and Spike Island and out of Cork towards Roscoff. Then there's some wandering around the shops and play areas, before deciding which restaurant to choose for dinner.
The crossing couldn't be smoother and we wake early the next morning relaxed and ready for the short drive from Roscoff to Domaine de Kerlann. At just a little over an hour-and-a-half, this is a really convenient and stress-free trip.
Domaine de Kerlann is a four-star property owned and operated by Siblu - a well-established French holiday company known for their free kids' clubs and life-guarded pools. They also have an option to hand-pick your holiday home so (when available) you can decide exactly where you want to stay in each holiday park - close to the pools and entertainment, if that's your thing, or a more secluded spot away from it all for a more relaxing break.
We're staying in a three-bed Excellence holiday home in a quiet area with a lovely terrace perfect for barbecuing.
There's a decent restaurant and takeaway, and a handy shop where the kids make several trips a day for fresh pastries and ice-cream. As well as the children's clubs, there are excellent sports facilities and playgrounds and a funky soft play yurt for very small children. Our holiday coincides with the 2018 World Cup so there's much excitement, and some friendly rivalry, among the different nationalities around the big screen in the bar area and a great atmosphere around the stage for the nightly entertainment. Happily, as well as the outdoor pools and splash zone, there's a heated indoor pool and even a small health spa for those seeking less splash and more relaxation.
It is a good spot for exploring the coast of southern Brittany. The beaches in this area are long and quiet. One of the nearest, at Raguenez, less than 7km away, is known locally as Tahiti for its turquoise water and white sand. Here, you can walk along the water's edge or - as we did one memorable afternoon - opt for higher ground among the dunes where the pathway is bordered on the other side by fields of golden grain that make it really picturesque. It seems like these beaches go on forever, and there are way-marked trails for those willing to find out, but after a decent trek and a basic-but-perfect picnic of baguettes and cheese, we turn around and head back - along the sand this time, splashing in the surf and enjoying a glorious sunset.
On another afternoon we drive to Concarneau - famous for its 14th century ville close, or walled town. It is an imposing presence in the middle of the harbour and is connected to the mainland by a bridge. Once across, you can follow the cobbled streets past some beautiful, historic, timber-gabled buildings and up onto the ramparts for breathtaking views. Concarneau also has "the best sweet shops in the world", according to my six-year-old, who has to be dragged from one particularly sugary one after parting with all of his holiday pocket money.
Another worthwhile trip is to the tiny chocolate-box village of Lacronan, with its cobbled streets and quaint medieval stone buildings. It's often used as a film location and it's easy to see why. Visitors' cars are not allowed on the streets and it's like going back in time. My eight-year-old daughter - a big Harry Potter fan - is delighted to come across a shop selling real quills and ink, in all sorts of shapes, sizes and colours. "It's like visiting Diagon Alley," she sighs happily.
The town has lots of unique shops and craft workshops like this, from glass-blowers to weavers to printmakers. There are also some wonderful traditional creperies. We eat a fantastic lunch in the sunny garden at Les 3 Fees (3 Rue des Charrettes) and afterwards walk it off with a wander around the country paths that surround the village. Back in the main square we can't leave without a look inside Eglise de St Ronan, the imposing church named for the Irish pilgrim saint who came to the area in the 6th century to teach Christianity and who also lends his name to the village itself (The place of Ronan).
A little reminder of Ireland before heading home after another very successful holiday in France.
Take two: top attractions
The pool area at Domaine de Kerlann was definitely a high-point for the kids. There's plenty of variety, indoor and outdoor pools, slides and the splash zone - and all areas are monitored by life guards.
On the high seas
The excitement of sleeping on board a ship never gets old. The outdoor decks on Brittany Ferries' Pont-Aven have illustrated info on spotting whales and dolphins which add to the fun, even if we didn't see any. Maybe next year!
Brittany Ferries' Pont-Aven offers the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France and operates to a convenient weekend schedule. Passengers can enjoy an authentic French on-board experience and award-winning service and cuisine. Facilities include a pool, bar areas, cinemas, shopping malls, luxurious spa treatments and a wide range of restaurants.
2019 sailings start from €132pp return, based on four sharing. Book before February 6 and enjoy a 15pc saving on both accommodation in France and on return sailings. Book online at www.brittanyferries.ie or by calling 021 427 7801.
Tara stayed at Domaine de Kerlann Siblu holiday village in southern Brittany, where a seven-night break from June 15, 2019 starts from €398 (saving €99 in Siblu's early booking sale) based on up to eight people sharing a top-of-the-range Excellence three-bed holiday home. To book, visit www.siblu.ie or call 01 526 8658.
This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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