Vendee family fun

With golden sands and lush countryside, the Vend�e offers everything you need for the perfect beach holiday – and a lot more besides. Sylvie Wheatley and family head to the coast...

With golden sands and lush countryside, the Vend�e offers everything you need for the perfect beach holiday – and a lot more besides. Sylvie Wheatley and family head to the coast

Any trip to the Vend�e has to start with its 250-kilometre Atlantic coast and golden sands. I chose to explore the coast between Brettignolles-sur-Mer and Saint-Jean-de-Monts, via Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie away from Les Sables d’Olonne, the best-known resort in the d�partement. All three resorts have everything required for a great day by the sea, with plenty of sand, caf�s, ice creams, gaufres and fun. They are all easily accessible by car and free parking is available everywhere. Also, for those who like leisurely cycling, these resorts, with their flat, dedicated cycling lanes, are ideal.

In Brettignolles-sur-Mer, the northern part of the seafront is rocky and rugged, but La Par�e beach to the south is flat and sandy. When I arrived with my husband and two boys aged 12 and 14 in the late afternoon, the tide was coming in and the wind was strong. There were still a lot of people in the sea but many more had retreated right up to the dunes, watching the surfboarders try to stay upright. We admired their efforts for a while, swam, read, listened to the snippets of French conversation floating on the wind, and soaked up the atmosphere of the beach.

As the sun started its descent into the sea, we went to look for some dinner. Right there on the seafront we found a vente de crustac�s et coquillages, a small building that looked more like a storage unit than a shop, fitted with large tanks from which oysters, mussels, lobsters, langoustines and crabs were being purchased by eager, discerning French cooks. We were more in the mood to eat the finished product though so we headed for Le Galet (meaning the pebble’), the only restaurant right on the seafront. It proved to be a real find, in terms of friendliness, value for money and views. The seiche (cuttlefish) in creamy sauce was particularly delicious, and the children rated the cr�pes and the p�tisserie maison.

Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie is the oldest Vend�e port and the main French port for sardine production on the Atlantic coast. As such it has its share of industry, but also has old quarters which give it a special charm. It has a natural harbour thanks to the Pointe de la Garenne – a line of sand dunes at the mouth of the River Vie. We explored the main shopping streets and the promenade along the harbour, but could only reach La Grande Plage by driving or walking right around the dune, or using Le Passeur. This small shuttle boat takes pedestrians across the narrow channel that makes the harbour mouth.

With a magnificent flat expanse of soft sand, La Grande Plage is ideal for beach games and sunbathing. You can stay close to caf�s, restaurants, shops and apartment blocks, or get away from it all further down the beach. Away from the busiest area, we saw a flock of kite surfers performing neck-breaking tricks, their colourful kites looking like exotic birds in the evening sky. As the tide came in to claim our spot of sand, we headed to the row of restaurants up on the seafront promenade. They all serve the same type of dishes, moules-frites being the most popular, so don’t worry about finding the best chef. Instead, pick the best seats, order a cold pression and enjoy the view and the holiday atmosphere. From dogs rolling in the waves to kids filling bottomless moats, beach life equals universal pleasure. Saint-Gilles is also great for market life. There are five march�s a week, all year round and even evening ones held on the quayside in July and August.

Most Read

We started our day in Saint-Jean-de-Monts strolling through the market, buying saucisson, cheese and bread. We reached the eight-kilometre-long beach at low tide but walked all the way to the water’s edge to see what was being collected in baskets and buckets. People were digging into the sand with their bare hands, on the look out for small, cockle-like creatures called pignons. Other seafood lovers were standing with water up to their knees, dredging the sea bed with landing nets.

One man told us he was hoping to catch crevettes grises. “Now is the time, before the tide starts coming back in. The prawns are right there, under your feet, among the seaweed, so you have to bring up the lot, then sort through.” He showed us the contents of his net and sure enough, we saw a few prawns, more translucent than grey, glistening in the sun. “I keep going until I have enough to go with my ap�ro,” he explained. “They’re so small, you cook them whole and you eat everything, de la t�te � la queue!”

As the day progressed, it became obvious how fond of this vast golden beach French families are, and we could easily see why. People stayed in the sea until quite late. Many others took a walk up and down the jetty in glorious crepuscular light. While there were more than enough activities on offer along the Vend�e coast to occupy an energetic family, by heading inland and we discovered another world.

By the lakeOn its way to the sea, the River Jaunay flows through the beautiful Pays des Achards, becoming a lake when it reaches the commune of Saint-Julien-des-Landes. With a 13-kilometre trail around the shoreline and a range of sports and activities on hand, the lake offers a great opportunity to spend a day by quiet waters. Map in hand, we chose a walking path (sentier de randonn�e) and set off from La Baudri�re for a full tour of the lake.

The scenery is stunning, with vibrant colours and a peaceful atmosphere; hundreds of butterflies fluttered in the air and there were so few other walkers, we felt as if we owned the place. The path is clearly marked all the way, and offers lovely views of the lake – sometimes at water level sometimes from far above. The terrain is not suitable for anyone struggling on uneven surfaces, but for those who can keep on walking there is a great reward upon reaching the Site du Pr�; l’Auberge de Jaunay serves delicious galettes and cr�pes from a friendly terrace overlooking the lake.

We watched an elderly man who was trying to catch some �crevisses. He was dipping a small net into the water and lifting it out again, every now and then collecting one crayfish. We thought he was terribly patient for little reward until we saw the large bag he had already filled. “We’re only allowed to catch this American variety,” he explained. “They’re delicious. I sell quite a few to restaurants and I keep the rest for me!”

Further along was a man catching gardons (roach) just for pleasure – he had every intention of releasing them back into the water. For now he was keeping his catch in a net at the shallow edge of the lake.

In July and August it is possible to hire pedalos and canoes to explore the lake from La Baudri�re, and there is a donkey farm near the Site du Pr� for those who fancy a ride.

For a break from the water, we went for a stroll around Le Potager Extraordinaire, a collection of 1,200 varieties of rare and exotic plants in La Mothe Achard. Close to the entrance, the tall oak tree, ornate with red pumpkins, set the tone for our visit; we had come here to be surprised by and to learn about plants. The younger ones, meanwhile,  played at finding garden fairies and elves, and to ride in Cinderella’s orange carriage.

Everywhere we looked there were pretty flowers. Along the way little signs prompted us to observe, touch, smell or taste certain flowers or leaves and we followed the instructions closely, as there were a few stinging stems we wouldn’t have wanted to chew on. Most impressive of the three tunnel-shaped greenhouses was the one hosting gourds. Indeed cucurbitaceae are the main speciality here. Some are long and green, others round and yellow, some are smooth, others bumpy – and all hang from branches that look as if they should snap under the weight of such an extraordinary crop. The overall impression was one of a magical, surreal landscape of suspended shapes. Professional gardeners were also on hand for guided visits or the odd chat.

Elsewhere, Le Puy du Fou has, in its 30 years, transformed a hamlet in the ruins of a ch�teau into France’s fourth most visited theme park. The site is vast (50 hectares of woodland) and the entertainment is breathtakingly ambitious and unique. Volunteers and professionals combine their talents to re-enact certain periods of history and buildings, backgrounds, props and costumes have all been carefully designed to look absolutely authentic.

The main daytime spectacles (held within Le Grand Parc) include parades and chariot races inside a Roman coliseum, the invasion of a village by cruel Vikings, the attack of a medieval castle by les Anglais, a flamboyant swashbuckling adventure inside a remarkable theatre, and a sensational falconry display.

Once darkness has settled, the troops put on even more amazing shows. La Cin�sc�nie was, in particular, a must-see. It combines story-telling, music, lighting, special effects, dancing and acting, while making the most of the castle and the lake in terms of light reflections and fountain displays.

The show involves a wide range of animals, all perfectly trained to work with the 1,000 participants. The result is the most entertaining history lesson you have ever attended. Indeed La Cin�sc�nie is the biggest nocturnal spectacle son et lumi�re in the world and it provided the perfect ending to our holiday in the Vend�e.Flexible  funTo explore the Vend�e we chose to base ourselves near the coast but in a green setting at La Garangeoire, a four-star parc in which we hired a mobile home through Keycamp Holidays. Our mobile home was comfortable and spotless, equipped with all the necessary basics, and the decking area turned into the most popular spot for meal and siesta times.

The boys, as hoped, spent hours enjoying the pool, waterslides, trampolines, crazy golf and games room – not forgetting the ice cream shop! Parents of younger children had a chance to rest too, as the parc runs a programme of supervised activities. When full, the site can welcome 1,400 people but the layout is cleverly arranged and guests are mindful of each other’s privacy. The site is also very safe as car traffic is virtually nil, enabling the children to whizz around on bikes and scooters. The sea is only 12 kilometres away but many people choose to stay on site, spending time by the pool, on the tennis courts, in the bar, pedalling on the ponds, walking through the parc’s 500 acres of land, or fishing. Camping La Garangeoire 85150 Saint Julien-des- Landes Tel: (Fr) 2 51 46 65 39 To request a brochure or make a booking, contact Keycamp on tel: (UK) (0)844 406 0319 or visit www.keycamp.co.ukwww.camping-la-garangeoire.comFRANCOFILEHow to get thereBy ferry: Travel to Cherbourg, Saint-Malo or Caen with Brittany Ferries. The Vend�e is about four hours from Cherbourg by road.Tel: 0871 244 0744www.brittanyferries.co.ukBy rail: Travel from London St Pancras to Paris Nord and then on from Paris Montparnasse to La Roche-sur-Yon, the capital of the Vend�e d�partement. The trip takes about eight hours.EurostarTel: 0870 518 6186www.eurostar.comRail EuropeTel: 0844 848 4064

Where to eatIt is advisable to check opening hours during quieter season (mid-November to mid-February).

Restaurant Cr�perie Le Galet51 Route de la Corniche85470 Brettignolles-sur-MerTel: (Fr) 2 51 90 10 06Excellent menus at €18.90 and €23.90 per person

Sucr� Sal�24 Esplanade de la Mer85160 St-Jean-de-MontsTel: (Fr) 2 51 58 10 29The chef specialises in marrying savoury and sweet flavours, and serves extraordinary dishes such as goat’s cheese with honey and pine nut ice cream, chicken breast with roquefort ice cream, cod fillet with broccoli, raisins and capers jam, or sea bream with mango and passion fruit marmalade. The food was amazing and our meal for four people cost €130 including ap�ritif and a pichet of house red.Auberge de JaunayLe Pr� (face au lac)85220 La Chapelle-HermierTel: (Fr) 2 51 34 68 20

What to doLe Potager Extraordinaire85150 La Mothe AchardTel: (Fr) 2 51 46 67 83www.potagerextraordinaire.comOpen from May to mid-OctoberAdult: €6, Children from 5 to 17 years old: €2.50

Le Puy du Fou85590 Les EpessesTel: (Fr) 820 09 10 10Full details on www.puydufou.comOpen from mid-April to September. Food and accommodation are available on site within themed hotels and restaurants, and are cheaper if booked as part of a package.Additional informationOffice de Tourisme67 Esplanade de la Mer85162 St-Jean-de-MontsTel : (Fr) 8 26 88 78 87www.saint-jean-de-monts.com

Office de Tourisme1 Boulevard NordBP 1085470 Bretignolles-sur-MerTel: (Fr) 2 51 90 12 78

Le Lac et la Vall�e du JaunayOffice de Tourisme du Pays des Achards56 Rue Georges Cl�menceauLa Mothe AchardTel: (Fr) 2 51 05 90 49www.achards-tourisme.com

Comit� D�partemental du Tourisme de la Vend�e45 Boulevard des Etats-UnisBP 23385000 La Roche-sur-YonTel: (Fr) 2 51 47 88 20 www.vendee-tourisme.com