Our ‘exceptionalle’ Atlantic Ocean holidays in France ;-)

For our family holiday this year we went to St Jean de Monts, Vendee in France. We spent the first 3 hours of our journey on a ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg across the channel followed by some 4-hour drive across the beautiful French countryside. On the way in, to break off the long journey, we stayed in Ibis hotel overnight. It was great, comfy and clean (and a great price!) and best of all we got room with one double and three single beds which meant we we were able to stay all together!

For the holiday itself, we stayed with Siblu Holidays. Really nice, good quality mobile homes on the brilliant site with indoor (used numerous times, great idea for this time of a year) and outdoor swimming pools, multi-sport area, bar, excellent pizza restaurant, swings, bike hire (loved it!) and some children entertainment and clubs which we didn’t use, just not our style really.

The area itself (Vendee region) is absolutely stunning! The most striking were the miles of breathtaking, deserted (as it was out of season, which could not be better for us! ;-)), sandy beaches! And every beach is so very different, so very beautiful in its own unique way.

The children absolutely loved it. All we needed were buckets and spades and the sandcastles were built, shells collected (we came back with a huge bag full of them, not sure what to do with them now?!) on a daily basis! 😉 The children also loved jumping over the waves (water a bit too cold to swim but some others did), running for miles alongside the ocean, flying the kite (hasn’t flown of course, I wonder why our kites never fly?!) and generally having so much fun. I wonder what is it with the sand and water which always makes it a perfect recipe for the great holidays! ;-).

We hired bikes in the last three days and did one longer trip in the local forest and alongside the beach. It is a very bike-friendly region and most people would either bring their own bikes or hire some from numerous places nearby. We got a tandem one for my hubs and Arthur as he is not able to cycle on two wheels just yet and he loved it! I will never forget the moment when we emerged from the forest into the seaside, it was around 6pm and the beach was literally deserted. The Ocean, the beach, the view – everything looked so pristine… It was one of these moments in life when you know you have to stop and emerged yourself in it. That was what ‘living in now’ actually means, moments like that help you realise the true meaning of life.

The children got off their bikes and started rolling down the semi-steep sandy dune right into the beach and then climbing it and rolling down again. Me and hubs were taking in the views and… I was so very happy at that moment.

We tried to do one activity each day (I know rather busy but I simply love to get to know the places I visit and its locals). I also feel like it gives the children a different perspective and shows them the beauty and diversity of different cultures. All the places we visited were really interesting, very well organised and full of fun but also educational for the children as well as ourselves.

So to give you a short overview, we visited the following:

1. Vendee Miniature – which was a truly magical 1/10th scale model of a French village which took us back in time to an early age, basically pre-technology era. It had miniature carts, crafts, trades, stone houses, school (with the class and children inside), church (you could peek inside and see the mass taking place!) with the wedding procession, shops (they learnt about different trades at the time), steam locomotive which was running throughout the whole time, monster in steel, the windmill and many more. There were some 650 small figures, made very realistically which helped to bring this lovely Vendee village to life (it all took 15 years in the making). There was a music and different village sounds playing in the background and every 10 minutes or so the lights were slowly turning itself off, the birds would stop singing and the whole place would go to sleep (it was completely dark at these moments, the children loved it!!) only to be woken up a couple of minutes later by a hen’s sound and the whole place was slowly waking up to a new day! Brilliantly done, excellent quality of models, great attention to detail. Conrad said it was one of his favourite places we visited during the holidays.

2. Biotopia – another ‘excellent find’. A brilliant marriage of nature and technology – something what every educational place should strive to achieve. The aim was to learn about the dunes, its purpose, the forest and all the plants, animals and wildlife in the region. I can not think of more interesting and entertaining way of introducing the children to the nature and generating their interest to the extend Biotopia managed to do.

Upon arrival we got a tablet (one per family, you can imagine how pleased they were to discover this ;-)) and asked to basically follow 1.8km (about 1.5hrs, but very easy terrain, not a problem at all for our 5-year old Arthur) route with some 8 stops. All the stops were clearly marked on the iPad and as you arrived at the stop, the programme would automatically initiate itself. You learnt different things at different stops, were ask to take some quizzes (we had English version of the app of course), listen to some short talks from the local scientists (again with English subtitles which I was reading aloud), ask to take some photos of the native plants, children with 3D native animals ;-).

A truly brilliant way of getting the children involved! And we have learnt so much after all this walk. It would have been lovely to walk the same route just for the pure pleasure of it but I found it utterly fascinating to be able to combine the landscape and fitness part of walking with the modern technology and educational site. The walk was beautiful as it took you through the forest out into the dunes and right into the beach where we spent an hour running along the sea 😉 and back via the forest. After that I looked into the nature which surrounded us with totally different eyes. The children have also learnt a great deal and had so much fun in the process – what more would you want! Love it, truly loved it!!

3. Kulmino – we did this on the same day as we have done Biotopia experience (just in a reverse order). It is an old water tower converted into the panoramic observation platform 70 meters above the ground. You can see the marshes, sand dune, forest and islands using binoculars and the viewing tables. The view was great and it gave us a brilliant introduction to the area – we looked at the whole area from the ‘bird’s view’ only to emerge ourselves an hour later into its detailed Biotopia experience. There was also a very interactive exhibition there about the water, Giselle found it particularly interesting (while Conrad and Arthur were too busy playing with the splashing water tank ;-)).

4. Isle de Noirmoutier, Sealand Aquarium – It was great to drive to the Isle de Noirmoutier for the day. A beautiful crossing bridge and we have found a stunning (deserted of course ;-)) beach at the far end of the island where we spend first three hours playing on the beach and taking in the views. You could climb up the rocks to see the panorama of the place, another ‘little gem’ discovery! We then headed to the town and went to the Aquarium which again was great! A very interesting selection of ocean fish, tortoises and sharks! We arrived in time for the sea lions show which was really fun to watch and then were lucky enough to see the fish being fed. The food changed the whole dynamic of the underwater world – suddenly the fish were swimming frantically trying to grab rather large pieces of food, the whole place came to life in front of our eyes! The town itself is lovely, we got some ice cream and wondered around soaking in its early evening atmosphere. The old castle is especially worth seeing.

5. Zoo de Sables, Les Sables D’Olonne –  a very nice zoo, not too large just enough for some three hour visit. Located on the edge of the ocean, it has some great wild flora and plants. They praise themselves for being an eco zoo (which attracted me to it in the first place) and is actively engage in preserving the endangered species. They have lions (you could see them fairly close), monkeys jumping freely amongst visitors (Conrad almost got to stroke one ;-)), wolves, pandas, ant eaters and of course giraffes. They had so much fun feeding them – Giselle and Conrad were bravely picking up the leaves and feeding the giraffes while Arthur after a few minute risk-assessment from a safe distance concluded that perhaps he will give it a miss on this occasion ;-). He can be so beautifully cautious at times! ;-). Afterwards we went to the local beach of course, not a day would be complete without visit to the Ocean! 😉

6. La Route du Sel, Sallertaine – we went to a beautiful little town one morning and took an hour (from the hindsight should have taken two hours as the children were striving for more! ;-)) canoe trip via the Vendee Marshes. We hired two canoes and after the initial few minutes when I managed to get ours (I was together with Giselle while Hubs was with Arthur and Conrad) tangled up with the only fishing rods which were there for probably miles around (poor fisherman was not impressed at all, truly sorry!) it was brilliant! The area is stunning – middle of the countryside, very quiet and as these are marshes the water is very easy to paddle. Giselle was brilliant, got hang of it after a few minutes and so were the boys I think (although I could hear Conrad giving loud orders and picking up on Arthur for not working hard enough ;-)). If we took a couple of hours trip we would end up at the old mill where we were driving next proceeded by our sandwich, strawberries and cheese lunch is some lovely local gardens!

7. Le Moulin de Raire, Sallertaine – not a single visit to Vendee would be complete without visiting an old moulin (watermill ;-)). A very friendly trio-linguae speaking guide (it was us, French family and a German family ;-)) showed us all the ropes, stones and things we needed to know about hot to operate the mill. He took us into third floor, then climbed up the ladder and gave it a push and we could watch from the window as to how the mill’s wings 😉 are turning around. The children really liked it. You could have some pancakes downstairs but we headed 15 minutes back home for these as I just got some yummy French pancakes with some lovely maple syrup that morning.

8. Musee de Charles Milcendeau, Soullans – we went there on one late afternoon after spending a couple of lazy hours at home reading BFG of Roald Dahl on the only rainy day we had throughout the holiday. And what a great discovery, so pleased we did! It is a lovely museum of a local painter Charles Milcendeau, student of Gustave Moreau who later became famous. I love the fact that upon the entry to the museum the lady put an English some 30-minutes long story about his life, paintings and influences he had throughout his whole life. We then went around the two rooms in the gallery and looked at the paintings with a very different eyes than we would have done if not watching the introduction first! Then we went across the garden to the painter’s house and saw really impressive murals inside his bedroom which he did himself while still alive. I love art and stayed in that room listening to French commentary played in the background (got a gist of it) and could not stop admiring the immensely detailed pictures and all the commitment Milcendeau put into his work. Needless to say it was just ourselves throughout the whole time which has certainly added into the magic of the experience. So pleased it was raining that day – otherwise we would not have come!

It was such a lovely holiday. A bit of everything – ocean, water, sand and interesting, educational attractions coupled up with some sport we did in between ie swimming, tennis, basketball and table tennis. I just wish we could have stayed longer (went for 11 days inc both days of travelling) but then that’s what is so special about the holiday – they only last a short time in reality but hopefully for a very long time inside ourselves ;-). Still would loved to stay a bit longer though.. ;-).

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