Airports schmairports: A boat to Brittany the way to go for summer hols in France
They say travel should be as much about the journey as the destination and when they finally went by car ferry on a family holiday in Brittany, Fergal Hallahan and his family came up trumps on both counts
A FUNNY thing happens to pater hibernicus, the Irish dad, when he gets to a certain point in life: rather than put away his youthful daydreams of freedom and the open road, he channels his spirit of adventure into the annual family overland (and sea, obviously) expedition to France.
Undertaking such a trip had been an ambition of mine ever since middle age began to button up its cosy cardigan on me, oh, a year or so ago. My wife and daughter and I had enjoyed French mobile home-campsite holidays before but had flown, hiring a car at the other end; to be honest, a continental road journey in our own car, with the steering wheel ‘on the wrong side’ intimidated me.
I needn’t have worried. For starters, we chose a campsite in Brittany, one of 17 owned and operated by holiday park company Siblu throughout France. Being the easiest place in all of France to get to, Brittany might not cut it with the sort of seasoned Irish dad who brags about overnight odysseys to Dordogne or the Mediterranean coast but it suited us perfectly. For finishers, driving an Irish car on the other side of the road turned out to be totally straightforward.
Brittany’s a place we’d always wanted to visit. Jutting out into the Atlantic, and with the type of dramatic coastline that can consequently make France’s north-western-most region seem strangely familiar to visitors from this island, it also shares common cultural and linguistic ground with Ireland, with similar stress placed on its Celtic heritage. (Bretons seem to be able to cope just fine with bilingual road signs too by the way.)
Our campsite was Le Domaine de Kerlann, a handy hour-and-a-half’s drive due south of Roscoff, the Breton port to which Irish Ferries sail from Rosslare. (They also sail from both Rosslare and Dublin to Cherbourg, in Brittany’s next-door region, Normandy). Much of the drive is through the green and pleasant Armorique National Park, where we stopped off in the middle of the 18th century – or, rather, in one of those charming little Breton villages that time seems to have forgotten – for a leisurely lunch en route.
With an abundance of mature, shade-giving pine trees, Le Domaine de Kerlann is a countryside holiday park and quite a few of its mobile homes are owner-occupied. Certainly when we were there this lent a sense of there being an established community, of part-time residents tending their flowers, playing boules and enjoying le craic, that made the place feel much more homely than its 700-plus-pitches size might suggest.
It’s a few kilometres inland from the south coast of Finisterre, the department (roughly equivalent to a county) that forms the western-most tip of the historical region of Brittany, making it a short spin, by car or bicycle (we brought our own – one of the main benefits of taking a car is you can bring pretty much anything that’ll fit in or on it) from some of the finest beaches you’ll see outside of Donegal or west Cork. We spent glorious afternoons at those of Raguenez, Trevignon and Port Manech but you’re pretty much spoilt for choice.
The campsite is equidistant from the villages of Nevez and Pont Aven, the latter the prettier though more touristy, its connection with artists including Paul Gauguin, and all the coffee shops, boutiques and galleries which that brings with it, its big draw. The nearby picturesque coastal nook that is Port Manech plays host to a highly recommended seasonal restaurant with good food and lovely views called La Châtaigneraie in the summertime.
At Trevignon, a tiny settlement comprised of mainly holiday homes, a couple of friendly bars, and a wee port sheltered by a headland, there’s a choice of a half-moon sandy cove or a miles-long strand, a walk along which will bring you to Concarneau.
Though one of the biggest fishing ports in France, the latter is a good spot for a day or perhaps a half-day trip, having plenty of eateries and a medieval walled town on an island in the centre of the harbour. There's an open-air market on the quays.
Not that there isn’t plenty to keep you occupied in the holiday park itself. There are, as you’d expect, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, with water slides; kids clubs; a bar; a decent restaurant that serves, in complete honesty, fabulous pizzas; a well-stocked mini-market; crazy golf course; netball and basketball courts; running track (!); gyms; several adventure playgrounds; and… have I forgotten anything? Oh yeah, nightly entertainment that was surprisingly enjoyable family fun.
We found staff in the campsite to be universally friendly and enthusiastic. The young people who run the kids clubs and daily activities are the same ones who stage nightly interactive open-air panto-style shows, multilingual multi-taskers hired from drama schools in France and the UK for the summer holidays.
Laid-on activities and entertainment aside, the biggest hit for our daughter was the well-equipped playgrounds at Le Domaine de Kerlann – and the fact that there were three within a two-minute cycle of our mobile home.
One of the major attractions of a campsite holiday is that children can exercise a degree of independence thanks to the whole atmosphere being family oriented. Traffic is limited and speed controlled and the park layout is such that nowhere is far from anywhere else, meaning kids can be given their head a little. It’s great to be able to allow them to set off on their bike for an ice-pop or to call for a friend (made in a play park; they’re social hubs when you’re eight) in safety.
We grown-ups made good use of our bikes too, exploring the area’s quiet back roads, and we undertook a family cycle on one of Frances’s many greenways, an occasion when, Brittany having the vagaries of North Atlantic weather in common with Ireland too, we were glad we’d had space to pack wellies and rain gear as well as wetsuits and boogie boards.
ON THE WILDE SIDE
AS ANYONE who has done a ferry-to-France holiday will tell you, the boat itself isn’t just a way of getting there; it’s a highlight of the trip. Yes, there’s the drive to the port (leave time for the half-hour traffic jam that is Enniscorthy, people). But, that done, you check in, kick back on what’s basically a floating hotel full of families all on a holiday footing, nice evening meal, bed in a comfy cabin, wake up, leisurely breakfast and, hey presto, you’re there. Seriously: airports shmairports.
We sailed with Irish Ferries on the Oscar Wilde. It has lounge bars, a two-screen cinema, cafes and restaurants catering for all budgets (we went high end in the excellent Berneval Restaurant on the way out; middle-brow in the Left Bank Brasserie coming home). Entertainment includes a kids disco and a magic show which kept hoards of pre-teens happy.
The cabins (ours had a sea view) are of a high standard and have bathrooms with showers ensuite. We all slept like logs, which we put down to the ship’s motion – we had great weather both ways...
Fergal stayed at Siblu's Domaine de Kerlann holiday village in Brittany, where a seven-night stay from 23 June 2018 starts from €637, based on a family of up to six sharing an Excellence holiday home. See siblu.ie or call 00 353 1 5268 658.
He travelled with Irish Ferries from Rosslare to Roscoff. Prices to France start from €99 based on a car plus driver. This summer, Irish Ferries launch the WB Yeats, the largest and most luxurious ferry to sail on the Irish Sea, doubling the number of summer sailings to France. Visit irishferries.com or call 00 353 818 300 400