France, Loire-Atlantique & Brittany – you won’t believe the Elephant
A week based in the Loire Atlantique on the west coast of France. 4 flights. A hire car. A tall toddler, a child so big the air hostess asked, ‘Is that an infant?” Um, yes, he’s called Goliath. A five month old baby. A husband. And a desperation for some sun after a pretty mediocre summer at home. The results were impressive – seven days of relaxed action – rural France surprised me.
We stayed in the middle of nowhere near a small town called Guemene-Penfao, a perfect base for day trips in all directions.
DAY TRIP 1 – VANNES
We drove an hour and fifteen minutes to the medieval town of Vannes in Brittany.
Its cuteness is staggering and visiting on its Wednesday market day meant there was a buzz and a chance to pick up treats for dinner. But hold back the dogs, a half hour walk along the river brought you to the aquarium and butterfly garden. This is the hottest ticket in town, I discovered, when you’re under two. The aquarium blew Mr Toddler’s tiny mind – he ran from tank to tank to tank to tank shouting WOW, WOW, WOW, WOW. I’ve never covered ground in an aquarium so fast but it’s not usually something I think about. He didn’t differentiate between the sharks, the alligator (found in the sewers of Paris apparently) and the tiny fish – they were all ‘WOW’.
I’ve never seen him get so much joy from something so simple. I could have cried.
He also took in the butterflies in the Butterfly Garden. He’d never experienced anything like it, gentle creatures fluttering by. I loved his curiosity. The combined ticket for the aquarium and butterfly garden was just under €20 per adult (infants were free), it filled a whole afternoon, and we had no problem taking our City Select double buggy around (the medieval centre of Vannes itself is a bit cobbly but I didn’t do the pushing).
DAY TRIP 2 – NANTES
If you want traditional French childhood magic then Nantes is the place where I regressed and became a believer in the impossible. An hour’s drive from our base in Guemene-Penfao is the Les Machines de L’Ile; a small island where mechanical magic lives, breathes fire and sprays water. That French image, captured in so many French films, of the wondrous mechanic creating things of beauty and energy in his workshop is brought to life here. With two children under two we didn’t queue for the many attractions (The Marine World’s Carousel, The Machine Gallery, The Building Workshop or The Prototype Branch of the Heron Tree), the kids would have lost patience but there was enough to see for free. The mechanical elephant is glorious. Once the passengers have embarked and the hydraulics are pumping the beast comes beautifully to life. Its wooden skin looked leathery, its joints moved so naturally and we followed it round in circles, we were all transfixed- until it sprayed real water from its trunk and we skidaddled.
Next to the cafe was the most intricate merry go round – tiny mechanical animals and little machines to nurture imaginations. Mr Toddler whirled round on little airplanes before being strapped onto the back of a tiny mechanical beetle. Each ride has pedals, or steering wheels or handles for the child to operate. It would have been a joy to watch as a piece of craftsmanship even without the rugrats on it.
Nantes is a green city. After the magical machines we drove a few minutes to Le Jardin des Plantes, seven acres of gardens open since 1865. I didn’t expect the amount of planting designed to entice children to engage with gardening; this sleeping bird with its little suitcase is one example.
Other displays included shrubbery with a handle nearby- turn the handle and bubbles emerge from the centre of the plants. A den of little ferns and greenery laughed back if children laughed at them – kinda eery but lovely too. And the bird head plant pots below also attracted children’s attention. Which little person doesn’t engage with plants after this?
DAY TRIP 3 – PORNICHET
Hitting the beach French style led us to Pornichet. An hour from Guemene-Penfao you hit the Atlantic. Pornichet is a massive strip of long, long, long sand which gently dips into water so perfect for Mr Toddler to dash in and out and in and out and in and out of the waves. Or dig holes. Or build castles. Or dash in and out etc. We spent a whole day there and it cost us nothing except the price of lunch. Oh, and the best frozen greek yogurt I’ve ever tasted from a little ice-cream van (that looked like a camper van) parked near the Ibis hotel – look out for it.
DAY TRIP 4 – TROPICAL PARK
Now this is a random one. About fifteen minutes from our gite, just off a dual carriageway near Redon is a tropical park. As we approached Mr Husband didn’t believe me, and I seriously doubted myself, but yip it was there. It just seemed so unlikely. I have a feeling this place is one man’s dream as it’s just so idiosyncratic. If I build it they will come (and they do). We saw tropical birds, wallabies, alpaca, Vietnamese pigs and some slightly odd mechanised dinosaurs in the prehistoric garden. The gardens themselves should be a bigger selling point, there’s Thai, Mexican, Australian Gardens and it’s so lush and profuse. The owners truly know how to nurture. Very buggy friendly too and Mr Toddler could safely run around. Unusual but what’s not to love?
DAY TRIP 4
Ten minutes from our site was an outdoor lake in the town of Plesse. It has sand, a cafe, toilets and on a sunny day it’s a grand offering.
LOCATION & ACCOMMODATION
As I mentioned we stayed in the middle of rural countryside near a small, attractive town called Guemene-Penfao.
I genuinely wish I could rave about the accommodation as it was exemplary and the most child friendly place I’ve ever heard of or experienced but the owner has sold the property so I have no idea what the future holds or what the new owner/s will be like. I still recommend the property itself and the area as a base so feel free to message me/comment if you want further detail.
Logistics – I was struggling to find flights/holidays that suited the children and their schedules so we thought we’d try something different. We flew Aberdeen – Amsterdam – Nantes. At Nantes we picked up a hire car (it’s a small airport so really straight forward). We took our double buggy on the outward leg but it wasn’t allowed airside on the return leg (go figure) so we threw Mr Baby into his sling for the transfer and Mr Toddler walked it himself. Four flights with a transfer in a major hub was far less difficult than I expected and offered us flights to places, and at times, that suited us. [There are lots of pros and cons to this so it’s almost a post in itself.]
Feeding – I fed Mr Baby in public throughout the Loire Atlantique area and nobody cared at all, which is how I like it as it really isn’t that interesting. Bon Voyage.