Simple pleasures: Exploring Western Loire and Southern Brittany in France
Tara McGinn takes the ferry from Cork to Roscoff for a holiday of simple pleasures in France
If you really want to feel like a child again, it's the simple things that will do it.
In the centre of Nantes, in the battlements of the historic Château des ducs de Bretagne, there is a slide. The Paysage Glisse is made of steel and is just like a playground slide, but it's much bigger - suspended above a moat, it wraps around the outer wall of the 19th-Century castle for 50 metres, and it's great fun.
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Whizzing down the first time brought me right back to childhood: the feel of sun-warmed metal under palms as you perch at the top, the horrendous squeak as you push off. Of course I had to have another few goes...
Simple pleasures are often the most rewarding. And 'keep it simple' turned out to be the unofficial theme of our summer holiday to France's Western Loire/Southern Brittany region.
We have taken the ferry to France each summer for five years now. There's usually a brief moment where we consider somewhere else, but it has become a bit of a family tradition - it's simple, and there's a lot to be said for knowing what you're getting yourself into, especially when young children are involved. French campsites are all pretty similar so there's the ease and familiarity that comes with knowing the set-up. But we've never been to the same location twice, so there's always something new to explore.
Brittany Ferries' Pont-Aven sails from Cork, which is a good spot for the holiday to start. Casting off at Ringaskiddy there's plenty to see from the deck: the Naval Service headquarters at Haulbowline, the pretty town of Cobh, Spike Island, then out past Roches Point and into the vastness of the Celtic Sea where, if you're as lucky as we were, dolphins chase alongside.
The crossing to Roscoff takes around 14 hours, most of it overnight. (You can track the ship's progress live from the comfort of your bed on the cabin TV.) Boarding late afternoon, there's entertainment for adults and kids, good food, and even a swimming pool if you can't wait to get the poolside fun started.
The ferry docks in Roscoff early in the morning so you can make the most of your first day; this is useful if you have a long drive ahead. Lots of passengers travel on far, far south, chasing the hotter weather, but sticking with our plan to keep things simple we headed to Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, a seaside town a reasonable three-hour drive away.
Satnav might not be on your list of essentials, but having driven in France both with it and without, it takes a lot of the tension out of getting used to driving on the other side of the road.
We reached the town of Saint-Nazaire late on a sunny Sunday morning and stopped for food. Sunday really is a day of rest in this part of France. Town and village centres are spookily deserted, but by the coast there is some life. On the promenade we ate outdoors at La Baleine Deshydratee (10 Place du Commando) where it was a bit early to try one of their craft beers, but not for the house specialty: breizhflam. In this part of France, crepes and galettes (buckwheat pancakes) are on every menu; breizhflam, it turns out, is a sort of hybrid of a pizza and galette: thin, crispy, savoury and delicious.
From Saint-Nazaire it's just a matter of crossing the mouth of the Loire to reach our campsite. Driving over the 3,356m cable-stayed bridge linking both banks has the feel of a gentle rollercoaster - rising and sweeping and a tiny bit terrifying, with spectacular views if you can bear to look.
Saint-Brevin-les-Pins is a uniquely pretty resort for those who love the sea; long sandy beaches are accessed through dune forests of pine, oak and maple trees, planted in the 19th Century to combat coastal erosion. It's a dramatic landscape, peppered with magnificently grand stone villas, and it gives a real sense of escape.
We spent several afternoons on the beaches here, swimming and relaxing and picnicking under the trees. They are so vast that it never feels too busy, even on sunny summer weekends when the locals come out in force.
For contrast, La Baule, further north, is much livelier and a very different beach experience. High-end shops, restaurants and luxury hotels face the promenade that runs for several kilometres along the semicircular sweep of sand. We visited one morning as the tide was out and watched as family after well-heeled family took to the sand with shiny buckets to collect cockles.
In Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, we stayed at Sunelia Le Fief, a five-star holiday village on a quiet road not far from the beach.
There's a really nice pool area with all sorts of water slides (both indoor and outdoor), a splash zone, lazy river, and lots of room poolside for lounging. There are well-staffed kids' clubs for all ages and - bonus points from the adults - a proper spa, offering massages and luxury beauty treatments, a fitness room, relaxation pool and sauna.
We've been to all sorts of campsites over the years, but this was our first experience of Sunêlia, a group with about 30 high-quality sites across France, Italy and Spain.
The focus is on service and that did ring true. There are a lot of staff and the place is carefully looked after. We stayed in a three-bed Sunelia Confort Corail self-catering chalet in a leafy spot about a three-minute walk from the ice-cream counter - the kids spent a lot of time running back and forth and using up their holiday pocket money.
An unexpected plus was the quality of some of the evening shows. Over the years we've endured some pretty terrible 'entertainment' for the sake of the kids. But here, it was quite compelling: mini productions of musicals Peter Pan, The Snow Queen and Mary Poppins, and modern dance performances that were very polished. The entertainment area was quickly packed every night.
There's a real sense of an appreciation for arts and culture in this part of France - often very simply done, and with little fanfare, there are little surprises around every corner.
On the beach in Saint-Brevin we stumbled across Le Serpent d'Ocean, a massive artwork installed in 2012 by the Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping, the skeleton of a giant snake appearing and disappearing with every tide.
On the streets in the centre of Saint-Nazaire the children climbed on enormous play sculptures; imaginative and ambitious, it's hard to see any council in Ireland installing something on this scale - think of the insurance costs.
Nearby Pornic, a pretty little medieval town, has artists' shops and artisan food producers in abundance. And back in Nantes, scene of my castle-wall sliding, there is so much art it's hard to know where to start. Helpfully, those in charge seem to recognise the dilemma, and have created Le Voyage a Nantes. Part of the annual summer arts festival, it is a green line painted on the ground that guides visitors through the city streets past all of the most important historic sites, and temporary and permanent artworks, so you don't miss anything. Another simple idea, and one that brings great pleasure.
Nantes invested in art when the shipbuilding industry declined in the late 1980s, and it's a wonderful example of reinvention and innovation. Following the green line our kids were delighted to discover unexpected treats all over the city - emerging from a dark little laneway into a square filled with hundreds of big white plaster busts was a hilarious highlight.
And of course the famous Great Elephant at Les Machines de L'ile is on the route. The 12-metre tall mechanical beast is made from 45 tons of wood and steel and sprays water at passers-by as it walks slowly around an old shipyard. You can ride on the elephant's back but it's just as fun to walk alongside and dodge the water spray.
Les Machines de L'ile is a steampunk workshop inspired by the works of Nantes native Jules Verne and the inventor and artist Leonardo da Vinci. As well as the elephant, there is the Marine Worlds Carousel, with 35 ocean creatures over three levels, and the machine gallery, where exhibits give the backstory of the creations and a sneak peek at works in progress. There's nothing simple about these intricate creations but being among all of the cogs and wheels and wood harks back to a simpler time; it's a magical place that will poke your inner child to life again.
If you are coming to this region, everyone mentions Puy du Fou as a must-visit destination. The second most popular theme-park in France, behind only Disneyland, the focus here is on history and culture. There are no rides; instead over 3,000 actors recreate scenes from history in 26 half-hour shows. With dramatic special effects and animals, themes include the Romans, vikings and Knights of the Round Table. Apparently it is spectacular - but we didn't get to see for ourselves. A twisted ankle meant we had to put off our planned visit, but it does give us an excuse to go back.
That's another French escape sorted then. Simple.
Take Two: Top attractions
The Sea Serpent
Installed on the beach at Saint-Brevin-les-Pins in 2012, Le Serpent d'Ocean is the skeleton of a huge snake that reveals itself every time the tide goes out. Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping is its creator.
A good pool area can really make a holiday for kids. Sunelia Le Fief has indoor and outdoor pools, lots of slides and a play zone with waterfalls, water jets and more.
* Brittany Ferries Pont-Aven offers the fastest direct ferry crossing from Ireland to France, taking just 14 hours and operating to a convenient weekend schedule.
* Passengers can enjoy an authentic French on-board experience, unmatched cruise-style standards and award-winning service and cuisine. Facilities include pool and bar areas with panoramic sea views, two cinemas, shopping malls, spa treatments and a range of restaurants, as well as complimentary wi-fi in all public areas.
* 2020 sailings start from €137pp return, based on four sharing.
* Book before February 11 and save up to 20pc off Brittany Ferries holidays. For more information or bookings, visit brittanyferries.ie or call 021 427 7801.
NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
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