Having spent countless hours in cars in France over the last 10 years, with my three sons as babies (the easy bit!) and then toddlers and school-agers, I find it hard to narrow down a favourite trip. The world’s most popular tourist destination is ideal for family driving holidays, packed with inexpensive places to stop over and child-friendly restaurants, all navigated by blissfully traffic-light roads.
Normandy, the Loire, the South of France and Aquitaine are all contenders, but Brittany draws us back again and again. It excels particularly as a destination with younger kids because you can all sleep on the overnight ferry to St-Malo from Portsmouth, arriving refreshed and ready to spill out onto the glorious beaches of the ‘Emerald Coast’.
We tend to go in late May or early June, when it’s uncrowded but warm enough for swimming. We’re always tempted to just stay put in St-Malo — the boys love its swashbuckling pirate history, strollable ramparts and fort accessible at low tide, aquarium, and beaches. But we drag ourselves away, first to the rockpools of nearby St Lunaire’s expansive Longchamp beach with its tantalising views of distant lighthouses and its miraculous shack serving everything from local mussels to Nutella paninis.
Where the Côte d’Emeraude is mild and inoffensive, the Côte de Granit Rose, a short hop west, is jagged and windswept, with rocks twisted into strange shapes by the elements — play spot the witch, spot the pancake, and so on. But Brittany is not all about beaches: on our last trip we made time for gritty Brest, on the west coast, with its defunct dockyards bedecked by gangster-themed graffiti and its world-class Oceanarium.
Heading south, we found more weird rocks in the ‘enchanted’ forest of Huelgoat. Some are associated with King Arthur — Brittany shares Arthurian legends with southwest England with which it was once originally joined. My boys loved the Roche Tremblante, a huge rock which despite weighing 100 tonnes, can be moved by a child if they touch the right spot. By moonlight we sneaked back to see if we could spot korrigans (Breton fairies) preening themselves, as folklore has it, in the Mare aux Fées.
There are yet more rocks to be inspected about two hours south of Huelgoat, at Carnac. Though the boys didn’t immediately get the appeal of a bunch of Neolithic standing stones in a field, once I’d explained they might have formed a lunar observatory, helping the ancients observe the movement of stars, they were hooked. The child-friendly visitor centre helped too, with its copies of Astérix (another Breton character) and colouring books.
They were rewarded with more beaches — in Quiberon at the tip of the peninsula, and beside the inland Morbihan sea. Both were great for boat trips to islands, our favourite being the Ile aux Moines, one of hundreds of islets spattering the Morbihan sea, where we hired bikes and spent a lazy afternoon hunting for crabs and starfish.
Our last stop, on the way back to the ferry, was hip regional capital Rennes, for its glorious Parc du Thabor, numerous carousels (handily sited by cafe terraces) and ultra-modern Museum of Brittany with its adjoining science centre and planetarium — a cultural excursion rewarded by crêpes and, at least for my husband and me, lashings of Breton cider.
On the road: Four favourite French routes
1. Normandy with school-age kids or teens
Normandy’s landscape may seem less spectacular than that of Brittany, but exploring this region gives you a greater choice of short, relatively inexpensive ferry crossings (Dover-Dunkirk/Calais, Newhaven-Dieppe, Portsmouth-Le Havre/Caen/Cherbourg or Poole-Cherbourg). And eliminates the need for a lengthy drive once you arrive in France.
Some of the child-friendly highlights of the region — aside from apple-based desserts and drinks, and famous cheeses — are the vast, flat beaches and classic seaside hotels of the Norman Riviera, especially chichi Deauville and more down-to-earth Cabourg. From here we recommend making a loop, heading first for Caen with its outstanding museum, the Mémorial de Caen — excellent for older kids but also offering a free crèche for kids up to 10. A short drive from Caen there’s more war-torn history in the form of the Bayeux Tapestry, a kind of old-fashioned comic strip bringing history to vivid life.
Following the trail of William the Conqueror across Medieval Normandy, head back east for two hours to reach Les Andelys, south of Rouen. You’ll find the dramatic ruins of Richard the Lionheart’s one-time stronghold, Château Gaillard — the fortress, strategically positioned on a clifftop, overlooks the winding Seine below.
From Les Andelys it’s just an hour to Forges-les-Eaux, a designated Station Verte (green resort) by virtue of its eco-credentials. The most obvious of which is its location at the start of the 24 miles Avenue Verte cycling, walking and horse-riding trail to the seaside at Dieppe. Bike hire is widely available in the pleasant little town, which also carries the Famille Plus label for its child-friendliness. If you don’t want to tackle the Avenue, check out the Bois de L’Epinay, a forested nature reserve with lakeside discovery trails — alternatively, you may want to go horse-riding, visit a farm or play giant outdoor chess.
2. Aquitaine with teens
If you’re prepared to take the long view then enjoy a relaxed 24- or 32-hour Brittany Ferries sailing from Portsmouth to Bilbao in Spain. From here it’s an easy 90-minute drive to the border with France, then up the Côte Basque and the Côte d’Argent with their awesome Atlantic beaches. You’ll pay more for the ferry but save on tolls, overnight stops and fuel costs, as well as driving time. Kids can be kept busy on board trying to spot dolphins and even whales, but there’s plenty else to occupy young minds and bodies, including a heated outdoor pool, a cinema and a play area.
First big stop past the border, Biarritz is a classic seaside resort that’s developed into a European surfing mecca since the mid-fifties. Many major competitions have been hosted here, together with associated events such as the Rip Curl Music Festival. Although a summer hotspot, Biarritz’s unusually mild winter climate makes it a prime spot for sea-swimming and even sunbathing throughout most of the year. If you need added entertainment, there’s a good aquarium, as well as the Planete Musee du Chocolat (Biarritz is famed for its chocolate).
From here, you can head up into the Landes where the wild beaches are backed, and saved from over-development, by dense pine forests. Dubbed the Côte d’Argent for its glittering silvery sands, this coast is dotted with tiny resorts with surfboard hire and surf schools, many of them hosting competitions in summer. Capbreton, Hossegor, Mimizan and Biscarrosse are the main names, with Hossegor host to the Quiksilver Pro France event on the ASP World Surfing Tour each September.
Before returning to the ferry, make for Arcachon, just north of Biscarrosse, to run up and down Europe’s largest sand dune — more than 340-ft high and nearly two miles long.
3. The Loire with school-age kids
The wine-rich Loire region is surprisingly well suited to children. For kids aged seven and up, many of the Loire Valley’s famous chateaux, gardens and other sites host a busy program of activities and events.
On the other hand, there’s a scarcity of tempting accommodation options for kids, so motorhoming is the ideal way of getting around. There are plenty of aires de service (dedicated motorhome sites) where you can spend the night (some free, others costing about €5 (£4.11) a night) as well as connect to an electrical hook-up and get fresh water. Avis Car-away has hire bases at Angers, Tours and Chartres, or you may find it more convenient to pick a motorhome up from their Paris base.
An ideal starting point is UNESCO-listed Amboise. At the head of the Loire Valley, it’s home to a royal castle where Charles VIII, François I and the children of Catherine de Medicis and King Henri II were brought up — the kids’ booklet and audio-guide from the tourist office bring their stories to life. The castle is said to be linked by an underground tunnel to the nearby Clos Lucé, which allowed the latter’s one-time inhabitant, Leonardo da Vinci, to discreetly visit his sponsor, François I. The Clos Lucé’s lovely grounds are studded with child-friendly, interactive reconstructions of some of Leonardo’s inventions.
A short drive west along the Loire, the Château et Jardins de Villandry also has a kids’ trail and audio-guide — taking younger visitors around six themed gardens including a maze. A short hop across the river, the medieval, moated Château de Langeais offers up another kids’ trail and a woodland walk dotted with play areas — one of them home to a treehouse. At nearby Gizeux, still in use as a family home, many of the visits and activities are geared for children, some even involving dressing up. Head on to Angers, via troglodyte caves (some still inhabited), mushroom museums and other small-scale attractions to finish your tour before a day at Terra Botanica, a unique new plant-inspired theme park. www.entrezdanslacourdesgrands.com
4. South of France multi-generational holiday
Better (and faster) than driving is to take the Eurostar to Paris and link to any one of a number of cities in the South of France. Fast TGVs serve Marseille, Aix en Provence, Arles and several other destinations. If you’ve come via the UK in your own car, you can put it on the AutoTrain in Paris and meet it down south if you don’t want to pilot yourself the whole way, although this is expensive — you’re probably best off hiring one there.
A great itinerary with kids of different ages is to begin in vibrant Marseille — a sort of Paris-on-Sea with a North African twist. Highlights here are the souk-like market of Noailles, the daily fish market at the Vieux Port (old port), and boat trips to see the calanques, jagged fjords lining the coastline. This is a proper living city, not a resort town, but the beaches are fine for swimming.
Marseille couldn’t contrast more dramatically with the Camargue, about 90 minutes west. Western Europe’s largest river delta, this regional park and nature reserve offers up bewitching, unearthly landscapes inhabited by indigenous white horses, pink flamingos, black bulls and wild boar. Older kids can make like gardians (French cowboys) — some of the hotels in converted mas (farmhouses) have their own stables — while tots can enjoy the uncrowded beaches. The area is also great for seaside campsites, and is another popular spot with motorhomers.
If you’re artistically inclined, Arles, the gateway city to the Camargue, has remained relatively untouristy, despite the fact Van Gogh produced more than 300 paintings and drawings here — his works now grace museums and collections elsewhere. But take the kids on a stroll around the streets and along the river, try matching up Van Gogh’s pictures with their original locations, and admire the city’s UNESCO-listed Roman and Romanesque monuments. Among them is an amphitheatre, dating back to 90 BC, that hosts various plays and events throughout the summer. www.raileurope.co.uk
Expect to pay from £60 each way to take your car on the Eurotunnel for a trip of more than five days; or from £75 each way to take a motorhome.
Cross the Channel to Calais, Dover, Dunkirk, Dieppe and Le Havre (the quickest and cheapest options), as well as Caen, Cherbourg, St-Malo and Roscoff. Paying more for a longer ferry to get closer to your destination will leave you more refreshed and will save money on tolls and overnight stops. Prices for a Portsmouth-St Malo ferry start at £517 for two-weeks for four in one car; £557 in a motorhome, with a four-berth cabin on the outward (overnight) trip. www.brittany-ferries.co.uk
If you don’t bring your own motorhome, Avis Car-away offers hire from various bases in Paris and around the country. Expect to pay about €1,000-1,700 (£826-£1,404) for a week’s hire of a four-berth motorhome depending on time of year. www.aviscaraway.com
Get the Eurostar to Paris or Lille, then onward trains to destinations all over France. Expect to pay from £69 for a single Eurostar to Paris and then from £99 for a single TGV to Marseilles. www.eurostar.com www.raileurope.co.uk
Car hire is found at airports and big train stations across France, so consider flying and hiring on arrival. From 1 July, motorists are required to carry a French breathalyser kit (£2 from Channel ports) on top of the required warning triangle, fluorescent vest and GB plate. Note: Sat navs that detect police speed cameras are illegal too!
Use routes nationales (trunk roads) not motorways, to see more of the real France and avoid hefty tolls. With motorhomes, plan routes avoiding narrow winding roads and town centres.
If you hire a motorhome in France you’ll probably be given a map of sites where you can recharge, refill your water tanks and empty waste. For a small annual subscription Motorhoming France recommends aires (stopping places) and campsites, while Camping Qualite is a very reliable source for high-end campsites. www.motorhomingfrance.co.uk www.campingqualite.com
When to go
May to October if you want to take in some beaches. Avoid August, with holidaying crowds.
Need to know
Currency: Euros (€). £1 = €1.21.
International dial code: 00 33.
Time: GMT + 1.
How to do it
Brittany Ferries offers a six-night, self-drive tour of the region, including return crossing and B&B accommodation, from £1,345 for a car with two adults and two children. www.brittany-ferries.co.uk
For stopovers, Etap hotels offer family-friendly rooms for as little as £30 a night. Eurocamp Independent is a one-stop shop for those travelling with a car plus tent or motorhome. It can book pitches at its campsites and overnight stopovers, as well as taking care of ferry crossings and insurance. www.etaphotel.com www.eurocampindependent.co.uk
The Essential Guide for Driving in France, by Orv Strandoo. RRP: £14.95. (Essential Driving Guides in Europe)
Frommer’s France 2012. RRP: £17.99. (Frommers)
Big Road Atlas France 2011. RRP: £9.99. (AA Publishing)
Published in the Summer 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller – Family