Travel: Park yourself in the Charente for a family-friendly French getaway
For years, the UK's love affair with France has been conducted largely in three distinct, and very different, locations '“ Brittany, the Riviera and the Alps.
Each has its appeal, of course, but if you’re not a skier, or a movie star, you will probably gravitate to Brittany. With its delightful towns and villages, proximity to any number of Channel ports and countless leisure complexes devoted to young families, France’s most prosperous department wants for nothing as a holiday destination.
But let’s face it, you can’t keep coming back to Brittany every year. After all, France is a huge country and there’s so much to see, and so little time.
A few hours’ drive due south from Brittany, easily reached via the country’s excellent toll roads, is the Charente Maritime. Wilder, less developed, less commercialised but, if anything, more charming than its northern neighbour, the Charente is perfect for those with growing, more active families.
And if you – or your kids – have had enough of lounging by the beach and building sandcastles and feel like graduating to windsurfing, or paddle-boarding, this is the perfect place to do it.
The French, of course, have been coming here since La Belle Époque and a succession of beautiful seaside resorts strung along the hundreds of miles of spectacular coastline attest to its enduring appeal.
At La Palmyre, for instance, where we based ourselves for a week, wonderful and quirky houses built around the turn of the last century nestle among the pine trees which fringe the sand dunes.
The town itself, a little sleepy after the end of the school holidays, offers dozens of these little delights and, if you’re a well-heeled businessman from Paris, Bordeaux, or La Rochelle just 25 miles to the north, these are where you will spend the summer.
When the weather’s fine, as it invariably is, you can join them promenading through La Palmyre’s tree-lined avenues, having carefree lunches at a plethora of stylish restaurants and dividing their time between the beach, the swish marina and the racecourse.
But if your budget doesn’t stretch as far as a rented villa, a cluster of excellent holiday parks a couple of miles inland offers a more than adequate alternative – a luxury mobile home at a fraction of the price.
Les Charmettes, holiday company Siblu’s magnificent flagship development, boasts two separate pool complexes, spa and beauty centres, tennis courts, bars, restaurants and a bewildering array of other services for the whole family.
While you could easily spend your whole time at Les Charmettes, a bike, available to hire on site, is a useful accessory for exploring the locale. And once you’re mobile an immaculate network of dedicated cycle paths opens up a whole array of other attractions, all within an easy ride.
La Palmyre’s zoo is a must-see for those who enjoy seeing wild animals in this kind of environment but if you want to release your inner ape then Parc Aventure, close to the port, offers a terrific selection of zipwires and tethered treetop routes. Go even wilder with an off-road experience at Buggy Loisirs, a jetski at Oceanic or even a flight in a powered hanglider at Air Ocean.
The town also has a great selection of beaches but you have to go slightly further afield to get the real ‘sauvage’ Charente experience. The Ile d’Oleron, just half an hour’s drive to the north, is a magnet for surfers, windsurfers and bodyboarders while further south, via a short ferry journey from nearby Royan, lies an apparently endless coastline where you can pick and choose your own private stretch of sand.
If all this activity is getting you out of breath, consider the obverse of the Charente’s appeal: on your doorstep you have one of the world’s great centres of oyster culture at La Tremblade, not 10 miles away. Here, colourful ‘cabines’ sell oysters, mussels and shrimps straight off the boat and for around €9 you can sample a delicious seafood platter and wash it down with a chilled glass of white wine or local Pineau de Charente.
Fancy something stronger? The great vineyards of Bordeaux are nearby but no visit to the region is complete without a trip to Cognac, just 20 miles or so due east of La Palmyre, where great names like Martell and Remy Martin open up their vineyards and cellars for inexpensive public tours and tastings.
We found that a week is not nearly enough to appreciate everything that this region has to offer so, as we did before our own children got too old for family holidays, we’ll probably come back to the Charente Maritime again and again to get our annual France fix. Until we learn to ski, or become movie stars, of course…
- Martin and his wife stayed at Siblu’s Les Charmettes holiday village in the Charente Maritime, where seven-night holidays start from £413 starting June 2, 2018, based on up to six people sharing a two-bedroom Esprit holiday home. To find out more or to book, visit https://www.siblu.com or call 0208 610 0186.