A family break in Brittany
How do you keep everyone happy on a family break? Rachel Scott discovers the answer on a trip to beautiful Brittany
It can be tricky to please the whole family on a short break. Teenagers would rather be off exploring a lively destination with their mates while parents have wistful visions of rest and relaxation in peaceful surroundings. So where can you go for a holiday that everyone will love?
Well, the answer is quite simple: head to Saint-Malo in beautiful Brittany where you – and your teenager – will be transformed into enthusiastic big kids, bursting with joie de vivre, galettes and fruits des mers.
No, it’s not some ancient Breton magic, but the effect of a few days in this charming harbour town, famous for its swashbuckling history and dramatic city walls. Head out of the old town with its imposing granite architecture and winding cobbled lanes and you’ll discover two miles of broad sweeping sands of the Plage du Sillon where the sea meets the sky.
This blustery beach is the perfect backdrop for the adrenaline-fuelled sport of sand yachting, novel enough to intrigue anyone – in this case 15-year-old Sam and 13-year-old Isaac. They, along with husband Clive, joined a lesson led by Sylvain from the Surf School Saint-Malo.
“Did you know the record speed for sand-yachting is 203 kilometres an hour?” Sylvain enquired with a grin as he explained how to handle the three-wheeled jalopies with giant sails. That certainly grabbed their attention, and as the sun shone down brightly and clouds raced across the sky, the group, made up of all ages and abilities, took to the sand (those with young children in two-seated buggies).
After some gentle practice laps around the marked-out course, the sand-yachters gradually grew in confidence until they were wheeling and twisting around the route like professionals, manipulating their sails to catch the gusty breeze.
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They might not quite have reached a world-record pace – 25 kilometres an hour was probably the top speed for my intrepid trio – but the 90-minute session is certainly packed with action and was a real winner with everyone; they all left with huge grins on their faces.
That night as we tucked into our dinner in the airy restaurant La Table d’Henri overlooking the sea, any vestiges of reluctance had been wiped away. The youngsters took pleasure in practising their French and explaining the intricacies of sand-yachting to me, as we adults enjoyed a glass of crisp sauvignon blanc and watched the sunset.
We stayed about a mile out of the old town at Résidence Reine-Marine. It’s a complex of self-catering apartments with an indoor pool and sauna along with a small café and lounge, located in a spectacular setting overlooking the sea. Our two-bedroom apartment had an open-plan living area, kitchen and a small balcony. It’s perfect for a family, giving us space to spread out.
Lots of activities can be organised through the friendly staff at the residence; we hired four bikes which were delivered to the door the next day and we cycled off towards the old town along the wide boardwalk which follows the coast into Saint-Malo. We – and our bikes – caught the Bus de Mer over to the town of Dinard across the estuary to follow the voie verte down the coast.
The elegant resort of Dinard (which has strong links with Newquay in Cornwall) has a more rarefied atmosphere than Saint-Malo. It was made popular by socialites from America and England in the 1920s and still retains an air of glamour, with chic boutiques and small art galleries. After a wander through its little streets we headed out of town along the voie verte.
More than 1,000 kilometres of voie vertes have been cleared throughout Brittany so far, offering cyclists, horseriders and walkers the chance to avoid the traffic and discover canals, rivers and old railway tracks around the region.
We cycled through the lush green countryside for about seven traffic-free kilometres, arriving in the little village of Pleurtuit in time for lunch. We bought fougasse and macarons from a small bakery and enjoyed a picnic in the market square. After our feast, we cycled back into Dinard to catch the Bus de Mer back to Saint-Malo, but had we been feeling energetic, we could have carried on to Rennes, 107 kilometres away along a route which follows the River Rance and passes through the pretty town of Dinan.
On the right track
The next day we did visit Dinan – but by car – after another form of cycling which definitely had the novelty factor! We headed inland to the restored train station at Médréac, where we jumped onto a vélorail.
A vélorail is a combination of two fixed bikes and a flatbed rail truck, powered by cycling. The devices run along train tracks. There are 44 vélorails around France, run by enthusiasts who have restored forgotten train lines and opened up swathes of the countryside to visitors.
The boys jumped on a vélorail and pedalled off into the distance while Clive and I followed at a more dignified pace, enjoying the woodland and village views and glimpses of wild deer in the distance. The seven-kilometre-long route ends at a 15th-century Chapelle de Lannelou, a place of legend and a Monument Historique. We had a break while reading the legend of the chapel, said to have been built on the site where the Virgin Mary once offered a drink to a thirsty messenger.
The boys turned our vélorails round on the turn table and we headed back to the restored station café where we watched the miniature train set running along its track with much more ease than I had cycled along the route! The station also rents out electric bikes which can run along the tracks, for those not keen on pedal power, and there is a fascinating display about the station’s history in the old waiting room.
We stopped off in Dinan on our way back to Saint-Malo. This has to be one of the prettiest towns in Brittany (and it has some stiff competition). Approached along a spectacular viaduct over the River Rance, you climb to the old walled city to discover a higgledy-piggledy assortment of characterful houses and paved streets. The views from the ramparts along the river are spectacular, and if you have time, don’t miss the opportunity to explore the river by boat.
Then it was back to the fortified city for a trip aboard the Corsaire de Saint-Malo around the Baie de Saint-Malo. The bay is scattered with old forts, many of which were built during the reign of Louis XV by his engineer Vauban and still stand tall today. Sailing around them by boat helps visitors appreciate the formidable achievement of these impressive edifices. The trip also takes in the huge Barrage de la Rance (the world’s first tidal power station), Île de Cézembre and Île du Grand Bé, the final resting place of the 18th-century writer François-René de Chateaubriand, which it is possible to walk to at low tide. There’s a commentary to accompany this 90-minute trip that is packed with historical detail, but you might want to brush up on your French first!
Stepping back in time
Back on dry land, we explored the cobbled lanes intra-muros, buying the delicious local boiled sweets from a roadside-seller and enjoying giant gaufres with whipped cream and chocolate as we wandered. To burn off the calories, we strode briskly around the ramparts in a bracing wind from the sea. The height of these giant walls give a unique view of both the city they defend and the waters that almost surround them, and help visitors step back in time to when the city, founded in the 12th century, was at war with both nature – and the English.
We also visited the Grand Aquarium Saint-Malo during our stay, which is home to a giant circular tank. You can stand in the middle of it, while sharks, turtles and 600 fish swim round you. There’s also a Nautibus submarine ride which plunges down in the water for an unusual ride.
Our last night in Saint-Malo saw us feasting like the locals at the landmark Café de Saint-Malo in the old town, where we enjoyed the fruits de mer special menu; crab, oysters, king shrimps, cockles and various crustaceans, all served up on a bed of seaweed. Crêpes were a big hit for pudding and everything was washed down with cidre de Rance (although the boys stuck to syrup de pêche and limonade).
As we toasted our holiday, the whole family agreed that it had been a memorable trip – now that must be some sort of Breton magic, surely?
Plan your own Breton adventure
Rachel and family travelled from Portsmouth to Cherbourg with Brittany Ferries where fares start from £55 per person each way based on a family of four taking their car. Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth, Poole and Portsmouth to western France.
Tel: 0871 244 0744
Where to stay
Résidence Reine Marine
67 Avenue du Président John Kennedy
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 40 75 13
This four-star self-catering residence is part of the prestigious Les Thermes Marin de Saint-Malo group. A two-bedroom apartment which sleeps up to six people, costs from €122 a night.
The helpful staff at the residence will book activities for you, often at a reduced price. Special offers can include treatments at the Hôtel Thermes Marin, the nearby spa hotel which is part of the same group.
Where to eat
Le Table d’Henri
4 Chaussée du Sillon,
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 40 50 93
Café de Saint-Malo
4 Place Guy Lachambre,
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 56 46 75
Things to do
Surf School Saint-Malo
2 Avenue de la Hoguette
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 40 07 47
Gare de Médréac
Rue de la Gare
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 07 30 48
Saint-Malo tourist office
Tel: (Fr) 8 25 13 52 00
Brittany tourist board
1 Rue Raoul
35069 Rennes Cedex
Tel: (Fr) 2 99 28 44 30