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Perfect layground.

Byline: Hannah Stephenson

IF YOU want miles of sandy beach, untouched coastline, plus plenty of sunshine on a family break, but don't want to spend a fortune on holiday, look no further than the Vendee.

It's the second sunniest region in France, less glamorous than the Cote D'Azur, which is a bonus when you have toddlers who are wasted on expensive restaurants and bars, and you won't break the bank if you want to go out for a family meal.

With young children, we had opted to catch the overnight ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo rather than take a standard trip to Calais because it cuts out around three hours' driving time to the Vendee on the west coast - and it was a perfect arrangement.

After dumping all our stuff in the cabin, we made our way to the main deck, where our children let off steam in the soft play area while we had a drink.

The advantage of travelling by ferry rather than flying with children is that, firstly, they can move about. Brittany Ferries is extremely well equipped with children's play areas, entertainers and a variety of restaurants to eat in. It truly is an adventure for young children.

Secondly, you have a car to put all the necessities in which, as anyone with young children knows, are many. Especially when you are camping.

We had chosen a camping break - well, mobile home anyway - because of the flexibility it allows and because you are likely to meet like-minded families on this type of holiday. Camping avoids the snobs and the slobs.

But if you are camping, choose carefully. The Vendee is campsite city - there is literally a campsite around every corner - because of the fabulous beaches. We viewed a number of sites just out of interest and found that some of them were tightly packed, where both tents and mobile homes were on small pitches and had little privacy, let alone a space to park the car. The campsites are given stars so go for a 4-star if you can afford it and you should be okay.

The Vendee in western France is situated below Brittany and above Royan and Gascony, but the feel of it and the terrain reminded me very much of the south of France.

Fields of red poppies growing at the side of the road sit alongside drier scrubland, scorched by the heat of the summer sun. Houses with pretty terracotta tiled roofs make up the small villages dotted along the coastline before you hit the bigger towns including Les Sables d'Olonne, whose salt-beaten hotels front the beach.

On the country roads you can buy fresh garlic, onions and other local produce.

There are also quite a few wine sellers in the region. We pulled up at a stall selling Bordeaux for pounds 2 to pounds 3 a bottle - and it was good. The vendor didn't speak English but you were invited to try the wine before buying it, so there was no problem.

The area is home to many fishing ports both on the coast and on the nearby islands of Yeu and Noirmoutier, while south of the region's capital, La Roche-sur-Yon, is the Marais Poitevin Regional Park, otherwise known as Venice Vert (Green Venice), an area of marshes with a network of canals surrounded by woods. You will also see many watermills and windmills on your travels.

If you have a good base, you can do a different stretch of beach every day in the Vendee - the sand is soft and when the tide is out the many rock pools fill with tiny crabs, fish, limpets and other aquatic creatures which will keep the children amused for hours. All they need is a bucket and a small fishing net which will cost a few Euros from the local seaside shop.

We stayed on a campsite set in a pine forest in Longeville-sur-Mer in Southern Vendee - and in the hot summer months, the shade of the trees is a real boon.

Longeville has a lovely beach along untouched coastline - don't expect ice-cream huts, beach umbrellas, toilets or sandwich bars. It is totally uncommercial.

And it is nigh on impossible to get buggies down there, so we ventured a little further afield to get the mod cons we needed without going to a big commercial centre.

A few minutes drive up the coast is Jard-Sur-Mer, a delightful, small seaside town with parking and toilets right next to the large, clean beach, while in town you will find small trinket and pottery shops, a good boulangerie and a patisserie, smattering of restaurants and a pretty harbour. Quaint retirement homes look over the long beach of fine sand. But there are many little seaside towns throughout the Vendee. Drive south from Longeville and you reach La Tranche-sur-Mer, a town well-known for windsurfing, frequently hosting European championships in late August, a wonderful annual show of tulips each April and a spectacular floral park open in spring and summer. It has seven beaches, including the longest south-facing beach in France.

Of course, as with any family holiday, you are always required to do your fair share of children's attractions. We visited the Parc d'Attractions at Brem-Sur-Mer, which was great for half a day, with trampolines, ball ponds, a go-kart track for children and other entertainment.

For older children there's Le Puy du Fou, a 100-acre theme park which has recreated a medieval city, a Roman amphitheatre and a fort, where various battles are reconstructed, while a ruined Renaissance chateau forms an ideal setting for various spectacular shows during the summer.

But if you want some real culture, don't miss a visit to the city of La Rochelle, taking a walk along the harbour and into the pedestrianised streets whose wonderful shops feature every thing from designer wear to speciality olive oils. Patisseries and restaurants abound along the chic harbour. Away from the hubbub, there is an area of parkland which features European deer, many different species of bird, goats, peacocks and black swans.

And when you've had enough, you can just pack up everything in the car, buy some fresh fish at one of the many fishing villages on the way back to the campsite, along with a bottle of Bordeaux - and venture back to your pine-shaded haven.

facts

Hannah Stephenson and family travelled to the Vendee with Brittany Ferries and Keycamp Holidays. Prices for an overnight Portsmouth to St Malo crossing, a four berth cabin with shower and toilet for a family of four travelling on a 10-day saver with car starts at pounds 457. Crossing time is 8hrs 45 minutes. For details contact Brittany Holidays on 08705 360 360 or www.brittanyferries.com A 12-night Keycamp Holiday at Camping Les Dunes, Longeville-Sur-Mer, starts at pounds 433 per family inclusive of tent accommodation (pounds 609 in a mobile home) and return Dover-Calais ferry crossings. Further information is available on 0870 7000 750 or www.keycamp.co.uk

FAMILY AFFAIR: the

Vendee has much to offer the family from sandy beaches and quaint villages to campsites such as Keycamp Holiday's Camping Les Dunes
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Post (Liverpool, England)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:Feb 8, 2003
Words:1187
Previous Article:late deals.
Next Article:Weir and wonderful; Sarah Ebner meets a comedienne whose most famous character has similarities with herself.


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