Having first visited the Vendée region of France as a teen 30 years ago, Conor Power decided to return there with his own family. They weren’t disappointed.
THIRTY years after being brought on a family holiday to a campsite near Les Sables d’Olonne in France’s Vendée region, I decided to do the same with my own family, using the same ferry company and the same tour operator.
Furthermore, the average age of our three sons was 17 — the very age that I was when I first visited France.
One of the first differences was the ship.
I have memories of that voyage in 1985 of a vessel that possibly hadn’t moved on much from Brittany Ferries’ vegetable-freight-transport origins.
I remember queasiness for hours on end as we spent half the night trying to watch Live Aid on the lounge’s television until the signal gradually faded out.
Nowadays, the standard is more like a cruise ship.
They seem to have completely sorted out the rolling-and-pitching problems and you have television in your cabin with an unfailing signal.
You also have impressive shops, restaurants, spa treatment and a swimming pool.
You actually arrive in France feeling refreshed instead of sick (once you haven’t been bold and spent too much time in the bar on the way over, that is).
Olonne-sur-Mer is a little suburb of Les Sables d’Olonne and they run seamlessly into one another.
It’s campsite heaven here, with a huge array of places to choose from.
Lots of Irish families come here, drawn to the long sandy beaches and the conviviality of campsite life.
There are clubs to look after the little ones and pubs to allow Mammy and Daddy partake in a bit of social activity.
My wife and I admired the increasingly flat landscape of the Vendée as we neared our destination, while our three teenagers snoozed in the back.
Huge fields of alternating sunflowers and vines dominated the vistas we drove through, with the occasional signpost tempting you to visit “La Venise Verte” — the so-called Green Venice where you can take a boat to explore the old canal system that’s in place since the ancient days of the Vendée’s salt economy.
As we pulled up to the campsite entrance, it all looked familiar but a good deal smarter since my day.
The basic package hadn’t changed much in 30 years: it still involves essentially the same ingredients (mobile home, campsite conviviality, kids’ clubs, swimming pool, beach nearby).
The most noticeable transformation was the level of facilities at the swimming pool.
Back then, the pool itself was enough, but now you have a variety of pools — indoor and outdoor — as well as various slides installed so that it’s more like a mini water-park.
Our neighbours were from Co Galway — a very nice younger family.
We were beginning to wonder whether or not it was a good idea to bring older children to such a set-up.
There wasn’t a complete lack of campers in their age range but because we had arrived early in the season, our boys were a few years older than the average age of children here.
When you do have teenagers, the trick is to pack the programme with activities.
We took to cycling on the fast-growing network of cycle paths and our lads enjoyed an evening visit into Les Sables d’Olonne itself — a few kilometres away.
It was World Music Day (known as Fête de la Musique in France, where it all started) and every French town always makes a big effort.
Following the advice of our camp courier, we parked at La Chaume district (across the sound from the centre of Les Sables) and took the free electric boat shuttle into the heart of Les Sables.
The place was really rocking: A jazz band played us off as we boarded the little ferry, the huge promenade was packed with thousands of people strolling and dancing in the closed-off streets and there were bands playing different music every couple of hundred metres.
We went to explore some of the old canals another day.
In the little town of Sallertaine, a local company ( www.laroutedusel.com ) offers guided tours through some of the watery network, as well as telling you about the history of the area.
Our guide was a Scottish man who’d been living in the area for many years.
In hoarse Glaswegian English, he explained the history of the white gold in these parts before we all got down to drainage level and paddled energetically through some of the little canals and rivers.
We also went to visit the multi-award-winning Puy du Fou ( www.puydufou.com ) — just over an hour’s drive away inland.
This was a real highlight, pleasing children, adults and in-betweeners in equal measure.
For anyone who has been to this part of the world but who hasn’t yet visited, the only thing to say is to just go there.
The first time I’d been to France, it had barely started as a sound-and-light show telling some local history and entertaining the crowds.
Today, it’s one of the biggest attractions in the country, drawing 1.9 million people every year to a unique theme park with no queues.
As with my holiday of 30 years ago, it all went by very quickly.
On the last night, there was a pub quiz down at the camp site bar.
The entire Irish congregation seemed to be there.
In between rounds of questions and drinks, we checked with our sons to see how they’d enjoyed the holiday.
Yes, they agreed that it was good — the mixture of lazing around and fun excursions on the coast and inland.
And yes, they wouldn’t say no to coming back again next year.
That was a good enough result for me.
And, to cap it all, we even came second in the pub quiz.
How to get there
We travelled from Cork to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries ( www.brittanyferries.ie ), who sail every Saturday from April to October.
CityJet ( www.cityjet.com ) have a new direct twice-weekly summer service from Cork to La Rochelle starting on June 18 next.
Ryanair ( www.ryanair.com ) also have a twice-weekly direct service from Dublin, starting on May 29.
Where to stay:
We booked with Ballinasloe-based Kelair Campotel ( www.campotel.com ) and stayed at La Loubine camp site, Olonne-sur-mer; a 4-star site, five hour’s drive from Roscoff.
What to bring home
The local sweet strong aperitif — Pineau des Charentes. It’s nigh-on impossible to get in Ireland.
What to do
Visit some of the offshore islands — Nourmoutier is one that you can drive onto and which has a very special Mediterranean-like atmosphere.
Where to eat
If you’re camping, then you simply can’t beat the plan of driving down to either the palatial-sized Leclerc at Olonne-sur-mer (just 3km from the camp site) or the Lidl around the corner, buying some exotically-French barbecue stuff and cooking it on the gas barbecue that comes with every mobile home.
If you do want to eat out, then the restaurants along the sea-front at Les Sables d’Olonne offer a great range of food, even though many of them are a little pricey.
One of the best-value places in Les Sables is the Crêperie du Port (17 Quai Ernest de Franqueville), where you’ll get a smiley service and freshly-made pancakes at family-friendly prices.
Another option would be Mama (23 Promenade Georges Clemenceau) — a decent pizzeria on the main promenade with a view of the sea.
The La Chaume district — separated from the centre of Les Sables d’Olonne by a sea passage — has a more authentic crusty sailor kind of atmosphere and is also a good place to eat out.
Try your luck at any of them along Quai George V, with Le Fatra (21 Quai George V) probably being the pick of the crop.
For more information visit www.vendee-tourisme.com for information on the whole region.
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