THE wind snatches the straw sun hat off the boy’s head and he gives chase as it gathers pace down the beach, whirling on its brim hundreds of yards along the pristine sands. We’re on the Atlantic coast of central-western France, and it’s what we’d call a good drying day back home. And while the winds may be high, so are the temperatures. Under cloudless blue skies, it’s seriously warm.
We’re staying with Canvas Holidays in a mobile home at their Camping Acapulco site near Saint-Jean-de-Monts and the 850-mile journey to get here from Edinburgh is well worth it.
We’d set off in the car the previous morning and after the mandatory stop for bacon rolls at Tebay services, booted it to Portsmouth to board the Saint-Malo ferry. With no family-sized cabin available, my wife and our six-year-old daughter share a two-berth on Floor 8, while our 11-year-old son (the straw hat chaser) and his nine-year-old brother and I have a four-berth on subaquatic Floor 1. Oh well, at least the girls won’t be woken by my snoring.
Next morning we hit the roads in France and very nearly a BMW at the first roundabout I attempt to negotiate, but three hours later we’re at our Select three-bedroom accommodation with decking, in a pin-drop quiet corner of the spotless site.
After an afternoon’s frolicking at the landscaped, five-pool outdoor complex with waterslides and fountains, we head to the bar for evening entertainment. This turns out to be a very French, pirate-themed shindig which seems to have lost something in translation, so we walk a few hundred yards to a local bar for a nightcap instead.
Children’s Club the following morning is according to the letter of the law rather than the spirit – only our three young ’uns turn up for the Space Adventure and Gladiators extravaganza. But that’s of no concern to me as I seize the chance to soak up some rays on the decking and watch buzzards soar high above the adjacent wheat fields while a farmer nearby rounds up Limousin cattle on his quad bike.
Barbecue fodder is acquired at cavernous hypermarket Intermarche a 15-minute drive away, and soon steak hache and magnificent meaty sausages (pork? beef? horse? who cares?) are sizzling away. Bingo in the bar at night proves popular, with the chance of winning an array of random prizes attracting locals from kilometres around. Funnily enough, they seem to get all the “lignes” and “maisons”. Hmmm.
Next day we set off to the Aquarium on the island of Noirmoutier (www.aquariumdenoirmoutier.com), 20 miles up the road, but not before a detour to the Kulmino water tower (www.kulmino.fr), the kind of earnest attraction dads on holidays are almost legally obliged to force their offspring to endure. The 220-feet tower, the visitor centre explains, was created to help irrigate the Vendée, and the viewing platform at the top affords spectacular open air views of the surrounding salt marshes, dunes and islands. Fifteen minutes later, windswept but reasonably interested, we head off. The Aquarium features the usual listless cod floating about with a few octopodes, but getting nose-to-nose with giant turtles, sea lions and sharks is well worth the entry fee (¤12 for adults, ¤10 for kids). After ambling about the pleasant town centre working up an appetite, we feast on burger and shakes at fun and funky American-style diner Le Nollywood Cafe.
Later the weather turns and we drive back in torrential rain to catch the Kids Club chocolate party – again it’s only us who provide the kids, and indeed the chocolate, but everyone seems to enjoy themselves anyway. On another occasion they play sweetie bingo – eyes down for a tummy full of Haribos – which also proves popular.
The next day we head out for crêpes and knickknacks, then replenish supplies at the handy Super U supermarket (five-litre box of own-brand chardonnay at ¤15 heartily recommended) a hundred yards from the site, but we have to be quick – staff chase us out at 7pm sharp, with the lights being turned off even as our baguettes and bangers are being scanned. Later we drive eight miles down the coast to the night market at picturesque St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie to buy souvenirs, get thoroughly fleeced by the grab-a-toy-using-withered-mechanical-hand stall, and enjoy the best ice-creams this side of Musselburgh. On the way back a deer dives out from the moonlit forests surrounding the road but despite swerving wildly across the both carriageways and mounting the pavement I miss out on the chance of free venison.
Intent on some seaside sunbathing, the endless sands ten minutes away at Saint-Jean-de-Monts beckon. While the adults broil senselessly on the beach – be warned, sea breezes mask just how hot it really is, making sunburn a real danger – the factor-fortied children play safely in the shallow water, rescuing the occasional beached flounder and sheepishly reclaiming their inflatable shark from a helpful mademoiselle who had stopped it from being blown out to sea. Merci beaucoup! At night back at a bar near the campsite, our daughter has her hair braided while I, fuelled by strong Leffe beer at ¤6 a pint, challenge the locals to a game of pool. I forget who wins.
Heading south the next day to the Grand Plage at St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, we plonk our towels down on the soft and warm sand, only to have to retreat ever closer to the sea wall as the tide comes in at a rate of knots – no wonder the wily locals snatch those spaces first. Nevertheless it’s an awesome beach, with big waves yet still safe and shallow, and perfect for novice body-boarders. Frustratingly, most of the restaurants on the promenade above don’t sell food outside lunch and dinner times, but La Novita is a welcome exception and comes up trumps with perfect pizza at reasonable prices.
For our penultimate day, we gather the last of our euros and head on a two-hour drive to Puy du Fou theme park (www.puydufou.com). Featuring medieval jousting, prehistoric battles, volcanic eruptions, arts and crafts, as well as a stunning avian display of more than 150 birds of prey, it’s quite unlike anything we’ve seen before. At ¤31 for adults and ¤22 for children, it’s not the cheapest outing, but it’s a full day of pure spectacle and one you’re unlikely to forget.
The last morning, we chill out at the pool, and all too soon it’s time to bid Vendée farewell – hoping a fair wind will blow us back there again one day.