The Vendee, the historically Royalist region between Nantes and La Rochelle, with its miles of golden beaches and exceptionally mild climate, is a popular choice for French families. But it is less well-known to Brits who often pitch up within sight of home in Brittany.
With the euro reaching near parity with the pound, camping is ever more popular with families who want to enjoy a foreign holiday on a budget. Driving is a reliable option in the wake of Icelandic volcanic disturbances and travelling a little further south can mean a more authentic experience.
Hiring the top-end accommodation available on the Vendee’s smart campsites is not cheap – a comfortable six-berth mobile home with covered deck and barbecue area in high season is about £700 per week – but families with their own tents can secure a pitch for about £30 per night and can use the facilities – pools, waterslides, basketball courts and games rooms – for nothing. Campsites also often have restaurants serving affordable – and delicious – daily specials, the ‘plat du jour’.
On the beaches, children play in the timeless – and inexpensive – way they have always done, running in and out of waves and building sandcastles. The ocean breakers also make the area popular for surfing, kite-surfing and other water sports.
The air here is the same soft, moist Atlantic breeze that rusts metal on Scotland’s western shore, though considerably warmer. But the Vendee is not prone to the same kind of heat waves as the south of France and has always been a popular choice for this reason.
Most of the campsites are a leisurely stroll from the beach and hire out bikes for those who want to explore the 1,000 kilometres of off-road cycle track.
It is cycling – but again, not as we know it. People of all ages, none of whom seem to wear helmets or lycra, can be seen trundling along gentle paths through the woodlands which line the seashore, picnic baguettes at the ready. This is a good way to explore the various sights – the Jardin du Vent, the garden of wind, is a pretty museum- cum-garden devoted to wind chimes and sculptures and also scents and smells.
The wetlands and estuaries are popular for watching seabirds. Salt is made here too, hand-harvested from sea water, and the laborious process can be seen at a working salt marsh at St Hilaire de Riez.
Horse-riding, golf and fishing are also popular, and there are several treetop trails where older children and adults whizz along wire trails many metres above the ground.
A little further inland, the campsite at Chateau le Foret has one of these, and also three well-stocked ponds for fishing and a few holes of swing golf. The campsite, in the grounds of a grand 19th-century chateau, is managed by its aristocratic owner, Comte Axel de Mauduit du Plessix, and his wife, Diane.
Here campers who want to sample something above the ordinary can rent the comte’s sumptuous treehouse through the travel firm Key Camp. He has also put in an atmosphere-controlled plastic bubble room, which is available for about £70 per night.
The site also has a children’s disco, a bar and a small restaurant with a local chef during in the summer season with a plat du jour which changes daily.
One British couple, Keith and Sue Brailsford, have been camping there every summer for 25 years, and pay a small annual sum to leave their caravan in storage.
They like the campsite so much their daughter got married there a couple of seasons ago, with more than 90 guests arriving from the UK.
Back down at the seashore, retired Scot Billy Duffy, who now lives in Scunthorpe, spends two months of each year with his wife at Le Pin Parasol campsite, a small, neat and well-managed site with a solar-heated swimming pool close to a lake. “My whole family has been here” he says. “They really look after you.”
Further down the coast is a quiet seaside campsite in the pretty coastal town of Longeville-sur-Mer, Le Petit Rocher. This is a little less busy than the better-known resorts of Les Sables d’Olonne and those who want something different can hire a replica of a gypsy caravan in a woodland glade for £540 per week.
A day-trip from La Rochelle is the French equivalent of Martha’s Vineyard, the terribly chic Ile du Re in the Atlantic where just about every French celebrity you have ever heard of, such as former PM Lionel Jospin, actor Gerard Depardieu and even, it is rumoured, Johnny Depp, seeks to get away from it all.
It appears that this is the place to be for a holiday with a real French accent.
Need to know
Driving: Take the overnight ferry from Rosyth near Edinburgh to Zeebrugge and drive south along the Atlantic coast of France, stopping for lunch or for an overnight at Le Havre. It is about an eight-hour drive.
Alternatively, for a cheaper (if less relaxing) option, drive to the south coast of England and take the ferry to Calais or one of the other Channel ports.
Flying: Fly to London Stansted and change there to La Rochelle or Nantes.
CAMPSITES IN THE VENDEE
Le Pin Parasol Chateaulong –85 520 La Chapelle Hermier Tel: 0033251346472, website firstname.lastname@example.org
Chateau La Foret: 85 150 St Julien des Landes, tel 0033 251 46 62 11, email@example.com
Camping le Petit Rocher 1250 avenue du Dr Mathevet – 85 560 Longeville sur mer Tel 0033 251 90 31 57 firstname.lastname@example.org
Websites: www.vendeetourisme. co.uk, http://www.campingqualite.com