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Coast with the most; STEVE JONES IN THE SUN-KISSED VENDEE.

THEY appeared like images from a half-forgotten past, once familiar names which had gradually faded with the passage of time. Each one served as a jolt to the memory, prompting evocative flashbacks from more than 30 years ago.

And all the while a seemingly endless stream of questions flooded into my mind: what, if anything, would I recognise? How much had changed? Would I still feel the same way about somewhere I'd last seen as a 13-year-old?

Perhaps more to the point, should I have been there at all? How many people have returned somewhere after a lengthy absence only to find time hadn't stood still, with memories irretrievably spoilt as a result?

In the event I needn't have worried. Thirty-one years on almost to the week and it was if I'd never been away.

Welcome to the Vendee, lying to the south of Brittany.

Thanks to a series of microclimates, the Vendee coast is bathed in more 2,200 hours of sunshine every year, making it one of the sunniest regions in France. There's a glorious 250km stretch of coast containing some of the best sandy beaches to be found.

Take your pick from water adventure parks, dinghy sailing, surfing, be it of the kite, wind or conventional variety, catamaran and cruiser racing or sand-yachting.

I gave the latter a go along the marvellously wide golden beach at Notre-Dame-de-Monts. After one false start which saw me heading towards the ocean's edge at an alarming rate of knots, I quickly acquired sufficient skill to negotiate my way around an improvised course in good order.

Away from the beaches, the coastline is criss-crossed with a network of bicycle and rambling trails - 550km for cyclists alone - while for the less energetic there are thalassotherapy (sea water therapy) centres at St Jean de Monts and Les Sables d'Olonne.

Throw in countless tennis courts, five yachting harbours and as many golf courses.

And in the unlikely event the coast fails to provide adequate attractions, try heading inland. For the Vendee, where the local authorities are very conscious of the need to conserve and protect the natural environment, offers a rich and varied landscape, much of which forms the core of the region's ecological heritage.

The area is covered with an enchanting mix of marshes - many of which are used to produce salt - ponds, rivers, woodland and parks.

Vendee also boasts any number of architectural treasures, many of which can be found in places like Foussais-Payre, Nieul-sur-l'Autise. with its 11th-Century abbey, Vouvant, Faymoreau and Mallievre, known locally as Petites Cites de Caractere or small typical towns.

However, if your schedule isn't as flexible or leisurely as you'd like but you still want to get a flavour of the Vendee's very distinctive past, then take a trip back through time by visiting the Grand Pare of the Puy du Fou.

An extraordinary true to life depiction of 2,000 years of history, the park consists of a series of villages and venues which have been lovingly created with a view to telling a very French story in a typically stylish manner.

And if you can possibly manage it, try and catch the Cinescenie, a gigantic pageant which encompasses the best and worst of times in the Vendee down the centuries. Pre-bookine tickets is essential.

WHERE TO STAY

Villa Gallo-Romaine

Les Epesess (00 33 2 51 64 11 11, www.puddufou.com)

Domaine de Brandois

La Mothe-Achard (00 33 2 51 06 24 24, www.domainedebrandois.com)

Maison de Marine

Noirmoutier en L'lle (00 33 2 28 10 27 21, www.lamaisondemarine.com)

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Steve flew on Aer Arann's (www.aerarann.com) weekly flights from Cardiff to Nantes, fares from pounds 49 one way, including taxes. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) also offers flights from East Midlands to Nantes. You can reach St Jean-De-Monts and Les Sables De L'Onne by train from Nantes. Shuttle buses are available from Nantes airport tot he city centre

See www.vendee-tourisme.com for general destination information

CAPTION(S):

The main square at St Jean de Monts and (inset) beach huts on part of the Vendee's 250km of coastline
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Date:Sep 22, 2007
Words:687
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