Can't decide between Brittany and the Vendee? Take a motorhome touring holiday through northwest France, and you can sample the different personalities of both
There’s something about the Vendée that makes you want to load up the pannier of your vélo with a crusty baguette, a picnic rug and a bottle of the local Gros Plant and head off to explore. A somewhat romantic notion maybe? Au contraire!
Maybe it’s the couple of hundred kilometres of cycle paths that make it possible for you to ride from one end of this region of northwestern France to the other. Or, possibly, the fact that many of these paths run parallel to vast Atlantic beaches. Or the lush pine forests through which many tracks take you. In our case, it was necessity that forced us to take to two wheels. We’d had a string of futile attempts to park our motorhome in otherwise deserted beach car parks with ‘no camping car’ signs. But, boy, I’m glad that we did hire some bikes from our camp site at St Jean de Monts, despite aching legs the next day.
Our foray up to the Vendée’s northernmost tip led us from right outside our base at Camping La Forêt to the seaside village of Fromentine about eight miles away. We could have had a picnic, but I felt I’d earned the luxury of a softer seat after pulling along my youngest daughter, Sophie, on the attached child’s bike. I’m glad that we chose the terrace of our seafront restaurant for a tasty lunch of galettes (savoury pancakes). It overlooked the magnificent span of the bridge that carries most of the traffic to the pointed finger that is the Ile de Noirmoutier, just across the bay. This view was to inspire a trip the very next day.
From the road up the île it is possible to see the sea on either side and we soon discovered the alternative route back to the mainland. This is the 5.5km causeway, the Passage du Gois, which is accessible only at low tide and comes out near Beauvoir Sur Mer across the Bay of Bourgneuf. By late afternoon, a long queue of traffic intending to cross waited patiently for the silt to be cleared by a Caterpillar driver, who then took a truck across on a ‘test’ run. While those in the queue still dithered, a boy on a bicycle rode past without even slowing and continued resolutely across the bay. We peered until he was a speck in the distance, leaving the wimpish car drivers in his wake. I would have cheered if the boy could have heard me.
We’d come to the Vendée as part of a touring holiday with Eurocamp Independent, who had booked our crossings with Brittany Ferries and our pitches at three different campsites, as well as our overnight stop at the port of St Malo. All our sites had pools and playgrounds and were bordered with shrubs for some privacy.
Camping La Forêt, from which you could cross the road through the pines to the magnificent Plage du Pont d’Yeu, was pretty and peaceful. Greg, the site owner, had just completed his master’s degree in marketing so was keen to reel off the area’s attributes. “The Vendée’s microclimate ensures that 2,500 hours of sunshine a year beam down on the region’s 140km of sandy beaches. And don’t forget there are more cycle tracks through inland marshes where it is possible to spot all manner of wildlife,” he said.
Our first stop had been at Camping Bel, in the south of the Vendée at La Tranche, a few minutes’ walk from a 13km beach. The town itself was characterless, but had an excellent market on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
From the Vendée, we headed north into Brittany, where the countryside is noticeably greener, the coastline more dramatic and the villages definitely prettier. This time we were staying at Camping la Grande Metairie, a few minutes’ drive from Carnac, famous the world over for its awesome megaliths. The lines of standing stones run right beside the site gates. Sadly, we discovered that in summer you can only visit them as part of a guided tour. In winter, though, you can walk wherever you like.
The hardest part for us at la Grande Metairie was dragging Sophie away from the huge array of activities so that we could explore the Golfe du Morbihan, with its myriad islands and coves. Auray was one such gem of a discovery. A winding cobbled street led us to the stunningly pretty harbour of St Goustan. Quite a bit has been done here to preserve the 15th and 16th-century timber buildings, which house a delightful mix of restaurants, art galleries and the most tempting of confectioners. A plaque on one of the harbourfront buildings tells you that in1776, Benjamin Franklin landed here to seek France's help in America’s War of Independence.
Auray was just the beginning of a string of Breton delights. On the Quiberon peninsula, we were enthralled by the almost gymnastic capabilities of the kite-surfers just yards off the beach near Penthièvre.
We just had time to visit tranquil Saint Suliac before arriving for our last night at La Ville Huchet, in the grounds of an old manor house, 15 minutes from the ferry port of St Malo. The village, on the River Rance, was preparing for its annual fete. Local women were making corn dollies and flower decorations and I felt very envious of their lifestyle.
We had a wonderful meal below the ramparts in St Malo that evening. Even with its quaint streets thronging with people, the charm of the old walled town made it hard on me to leave France. Gazing out from the stern of the Bretagne next morning, I tried to reassure myself that France isn’t really very far away at all. Next time, though, I’ll get in some cycling practice beforehand.