First-time France

Brittany proves a hit with Qing Lin when she ventures to Ille-et-Vilaine on her first ever French family holiday

Brittany proves a hit with Qing Lin when she ventures to Ille-et-Vilaine on her first ever French family holidayWe have never been to France. The other side of the world – yes, but the other side of the Channel, no. So we decided to take a look at what was on offer on our doorstep – without the hassle of flying.Being first-timers we thought the campsite at Domaine des Ormes in Brittany would make a great base for our young family’s first foray into l’Hexagone. Boasting five red tents from the Michelin travel guide, the site is situated just four miles from the medieval town of Dol-de-Bretagne and, with the promise of sandy beaches right on our doorstep, it seemed the ideal place to start our French family adventure.The prospect of driving in France was a little daunting, however the 23-mile journey from the port at Saint-Malo to the campsite at Epiniac in the d�partement of Ille-et-Vilaine proved surprisingly smooth and we didn’t encounter a single hitch. When we finally arrived at Domaine des Ormes it was after 10pm but, despite the late hour, the staff were ready to greet us and show us to our cosy mobile home where a bottle of red wine was waiting for us.The next morning we awoke with excitement, eager to discover what the area had to offer. A visit to the campsite’s small but well-stocked convenience store to buy some freshly baked baguettes gave our two boys Alex (aged 11) and Lucas (six) their first opportunity to practise a “bonjour” with plenty of giggles. After breakfast we received a visit from the friendly campsite staff who introduced us to all the different activities on offer. Domaine des Ormes is a beautifully landscaped site built around an old watermill with an 18-hole golf course and riding school on-site, as well as five swimming pools. It offers a packed itinerary of family fun and if you’re on a tight budget you needn’t worry as there’s a host of free activities on hand, such as water-walking in giant balls, canoeing and BMX biking. In fact, there were so many activities available that we had difficulty deciding which to choose. It transpired that throughout the week we combined some of the on-site activities with days out – the perfect mix for a fun-filled holiday. Once or twice the boys enjoyed some of the children’s sessions while my husband and I took advantage of some well-earned couple time, watching the world go by over a glass of wine outside the bar.The campsite is only a short drive from many of Ille-et-Vilaine’s pretty villages and tourist attractions. Driving in Brittany, with its winding narrow country lanes, is such a pleasant experience. The air is fresh with the smell from the fields and you can almost taste the sea. Occasionally we passed enthusiastic cyclists enjoying the picturesque landscape from their two-wheeled mounts.

Island adventureThe most famous local attraction has to be Le Mont Saint-Michel, only about 17 miles from Domaine des Ormes. Situated approximately half a mile off the north coast, in a bay at the mouth of the River Cousenon, near Avranches, this splendid Unesco World Heritage site is truly breathtaking and a very popular tourist attraction. We enjoyed a promenade tranquille along the medieval high street, which is lined with pretty shops, restaurants and caf�s, and continued our stroll up the mont to the abbaye. With so much to see and learn about Le Mont Saint-Michel – for instance, we were surprised to discover that it has fewer than 50 inhabitants – it is easy to lose an entire day there simply enjoying the sights and soaking up the island’s medieval atmosphere.We didn’t want to tire the children out too much on our first day, so we decided to head back to Domaine des Ormes where they spent the rest of the afternoon splashing about in the pool, while we enjoyed the Breton sunshine. All we had to worry about now was what to cook on the barbecue for dinner. The sun started to set, turning the sky a beautiful shade of red, so we decided to take the children for a stroll to the nearby village of Saint-L�onard. In contrast to the campsite, with its busy buzzing atmosphere, this quaint little village, which possesses few bars and restaurants, offered a peaceful retreat. It felt as though we had entered another world as we wandered through its pretty streets, taking in the scenery and watching the children explore the ancient churchyard. After a fun-packed day the children, tired but happy, went to bed without the usual complaint. We pulled out the map and, glass of wine in hand, went about deciding where we were going to go the following day. With the campsite located a very convenient 16 miles from Saint-Suliac, a well-known seaside village with a rich maritime history, we decided that this was one place not to be missed.Day two and the sun started to break out from its cloudy shroud just as we arrived at the charming fishing village of Saint-Suliac. Located on the right bank of the Bassin de la Rance, just eight miles south of Saint-Malo, its waterfront still has a working boatyard and moored boats pepper the estuary – although we learnt that most are recreational vessels these days. We walked along the waterfront which reflected shimmering light and the children raced ahead, splashing around in the water. Locals walking their dogs greeted us with a smiling “Bonne journ�e!” The children loved the white sandy beach and enjoyed picking up pebbles and shells while we stretched out in the sun, listening to the waves and the gentle chatter of the locals.

Maritime marvelWalking back along the harbour front toward the village centre we passed pretty little cottages, shops, caf�s and restaurants cloaked in a riot of colour courtesy of hanging baskets and window sills filled with beautiful flower arrangements. The children were intrigued by the fishing nets, buoys and bells which adorned many of the granite stone exteriors – a nod to the fascinating maritime history of the place.With less than 1,000 residents, Saint-Suliac is one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, situated in a well-known area of natural beauty and home to a wealth of animals and migratory birds of different varieties. The village earned its name from a Welsh bishop, prince and scholar called Saint Tysilio-Suliau, who arrived in Brittany in the sixth century where he founded a monastery on Mont-Garrot. When he died in 640AD he was buried at the Abbey of Saint-Suliac.But there is evidence that man has inhabited this particular shore in northwest France since way before Saint Tysilio’s arrival, in the form of some 6,000 objects dating back to the Paleolithic era discovered in the area in 1951.The village is the scene of much celebration on a number of occasions throughout the year – never more so than during the first weekend in August when it hosts its annual Saint-Suliac Il Y A 100 Ans (Saint-Suliac 100 Years Ago) festival. The village is transported back through time to appear as it would have done in the early 1900s. Schoolchildren wear clothes reminiscent of the Belle �poque era and play traditional games, while the men of the village dress as early 1900s’ fishermen or farmers and the women adopt typical Breton costume with its white lace headdress, the coiffe. Even the village is dressed up, with fishing nets and sails draped across the quays and old wooden tools and sacks of wheat lined the streets. The village came alive with old-fashioned handicraft stalls and the sound of traditional Breton music. Visitors are invited to sample some of the local cider and Breton galettes – a type of pancake made with buckwheat. The weekend finishes with a long parade through the village, culminating in a fest-noz (night feast) down by the river, with music and dancing carrying on until the early hours.Also each year, on July 13 – the eve of Bastille Day – Saint-Suliac celebrates the F�te Nationale with a spectacular fireworks display and popular dance, and during the first two weeks of December its streets play host to a glittering Christmas market.

Capital oystersIt would have been all too easy to forget the plans we had made for the day; the sandy beach, gentle sea breeze and warm spring sunshine, combined with the laid-back atmosphere of Saint-Suliac, made it very tempting for us to simply spend the rest of the day there. However, as a seafood lover I had done my homework and knew that a little town called Cancale, which is famous for its fabulous oysters, was just a short drive away. It took us just ten minutes to make the journey to the oyster farming centre and seaside resort which has been dubbed the oyster capital of Brittany’. We parked at the top of the port and walked down the main path which was lined with mature trees and wild flowers. It was lunchtime and the port’s busy restaurants and caf�s filled the air with a tantalising mix of mouthwatering aromas. However, my advice would be to bypass the restaurants and caf�s and head straight for the seafront where the stallholders are selling the most fantastic freshly caught oysters from just €5 per dozen. And if you’re looking to brush up on your conversational French, this will give you the ideal opportunity to practise on the locals – free lessons and the most delicious oysters you’ll ever taste, who could ask for more? We sat on the beach and enjoyed our tasty, freshly caught oysters while the boys searched for shells and marine life in and around the rock pools. This was truly a moment in time that I will treasure forever.Our perfect day continued with a visit to Saint-Briac-sur-Mer where we walked on the pretty beach  before driving along the coastal road back to Domaine des Ormes. The view of the coastline stretching miles ahead of us, pretty little fishing boats bobbing up and down on the waves and the lonely figure of the Port de la Houle harbour lighthouse was spectacular and truly unforgettable. Those first two days in Ille-et-Vilaine set the template for what proved to be a fabulous family holiday. For the next five days we enjoyed the wealth of Breton culture, history, tradition and fabulous food right on our doorstep, finishing many of our days of exploration with the boys enjoying a spot of swimming or taking part in some of the activities at Domaine des Ormes.Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and so too did our first ever family holiday in France. We had a wonderful time, and although we were sad to leave this beautiful part of the world, we were also very excited at having discovered a new holiday destination – rich in culture and history with myriad fascinating activities on offer – without the long travel time. We can’t wait for our next trip!FRANCOFILEHOLIDAY?INFORMATIONQing and her family arranged their trip with Canvas Holidays. Arriving at Domaine des Ormes on 25 August for a seven-night stay in a Maxi Tent for 2 adults and 4 children costs �734, including ferry crossings from Dover to Calais with P&O sailings. Travelling on the same dates but staying in a two- bedroom Classic mobile home for two adults and four children, with P&O sailings costs �844.Tel: 0845 268 0857  ADDITIONAL?INFORMATIONSaint-Suliac Tourist Office5 Place du Carrouge35430 Saint-SuliacTel: (Fr) 2 99 58 41

Cancale Tourist Office48 Rue du Port 35260 CancaleTel: (Fr) 2 99 89 63

Haute-Bretagne Ille-et-Vilaine Tourist BoardTel: (Fr) 2 99 78 47 46

Brittany Tourist BoardTel: (Fr) 2 99 36 15