Cognac, holiday parks, and 1300 miles of driving…
This was the first time we’d driven to France for a family holiday. And no, the photo above is not what we drove in. We took the beauty that is D’ran the Touran (he responds to D’ran, not Darren!). D’ran was the biggest non-minivan car we could afford at the time of kid no. three’s arrival, and while he is a thoroughly unimpressive car to look at, we’ve been very impressed with his skills so far. So much so, we were keen to make the most of him with our first family driving holiday abroad during our first school summer holiday.
What began as booking a week in an Airbnb with friends and a Eurotunnel crossing, was extended to 12 days across 3 different regions of France. This worked out well as I’m still on maternity leave so not using up precious annual leave, and changing our plans early on meant there was no charge to move our return Eurotunnel tickets to a later date. Sweet.
I was so looking forward to going back to France, as were the twins who seem to know what’s in store when we get there after several trips now. For them; a pool, staying up late, and eating lots of beige food! For me and him; tiny lagers, cheap local wine, good company, and eating lots of beige food (and Milka)!
Stop 1: 7 nights – Airbnb with friends in Salignac-sur-Charente, Cognac
A successful 8am Channel crossing and 7 hours of driving later… we arrived! It was actually nowhere near as hell-ish a trip as I’d thought. We only had to stop twice, and we made them quite long stops so the boys could muck about a bit. I’d definitely recommend avoiding the full services (‘aires’ with restaurants/cafes) if you can as they were all rammed and toilets were rank. Better to stop at the picnic service areas which all have toilets, some even have playgrounds, and are generally less stressful. But obviously it requires you to have picnic supplies in your car.
Main tips for surviving such a long car ride with the kids; Amazon Fires, David Walliams audiobooks, French sweets (so many more Haribo varieties in France!), Top Trumps, tonnes of crisps, and a baguette for the baby to slowly munch his way through. What would’ve also been good was a constant supply of coffee as the roadside service stuff was gross. Martin is already on the case with buying a travel kettle if we do this again!
Our Airbnb host, Philippe, was ready and waiting for us at his house Le Clos du Perat. He and his family were so lovely, and the house was simply awesome. The owners’ eye for design was impeccable – the barn-esque house had plenty of the original grand features, but the parred-back decor gave it such a relaxed and comfortable feel. Perfect for families and groups. We were there as two families, with six kids ranging from 0-8 between us. The house had bags of room for us all, and a bedroom to spare. The three separate reception areas meant everyone could easily spread out without toys and games getting in anyone’s way. The dedicated pool and large garden did not disappoint, and in the mild temperature we were relieved to discover the pool was heated so we used it every day, and there was also a trip alarm for the kids. The kids loved their big rooms, the Netflix on the TV in the lounge which they watched from massive beanbags, and having BBQ’s in the old wine store every night. And us adults were able to unwind in the evenings with our choice of indoor and outdoor dining areas, a fully equipped kitchen, the most comfy sofa I’ve ever sat on in the lounge, and a free bottle of the local Salignac Cognac.
it was without a doubt one of the best Airbnb’s I’ve ever stayed in as a group. We all loved it.
The nearest town of Cognac was very pretty. And yes, it’s where all the real cognac comes from! Driving around the town you notice the tasting rooms for some of the big names – Martell, Rémy Martin, Hennessey. We were told by the friendly pool cleaner Darren (not to be confused with D’ran!) to check out the rooftop Indigo bar at the Martell building. We were dubious about its suitability for 6 children, but he insisted it was family friendly. So we headed there for a little cocktail hour, albeit at 4.30pm (get in, get out before the crowds arrive for ‘actual’ cocktail hour). And we managed it! The bar itself is lovely and chilled, it didn’t feel pretentious at all. Nobody seemed to mind all the children who suddenly appeared, even when the baby puked everywhere. We quickly ordered some meat and bread platters to keep them all quiet, which worked, and we managed a cheeky round of cognac & tonics, which were delicious. We savoured the pretty view for a few minutes, until the whines started about wanting to go home to the pool.
The town and the surrounding area were very quiet the whole time we were there. Apparently a lot of the locals escape to the coast (La Rochelle, Ile de Re) at this time of year to escape the heat, but the temperature for our week was perfect (average 25 degrees). It was the same in Saintes, the second nearest town in the other direction from the house (20 min drive). Even on Wednesday market day this place was quiet, but perfect for us to have a wander and a crepe. And finding free places to park was not a problem anywhere.
But alas, as much as I would’ve liked to spend the week cruising around markets and rooftop bars, we had to take the kids out now and then! So between pool parties in the back garden to a soundtrack of spotify 80’s classics (the kids were all obsessed with Jimmy Nail, ‘aint no doubt’ by the end of the week?!!), we fit in some family friendly outings. One was to Aire de Loisirs du Bain des Dames, about 30 mins drive away. This was a lovely picnic area set next to a river with a swimming area and sandy man-made beach, along with land-based entertainment in the form of a playground, zipline, football pitch and a decent food truck. And we were all massively impressed by the Adventure Park Valley Fontdouce, a Go-Ape-style zipline park. At only 10 euros per kid, we massively got our money’s-worth out of this place after them all hanging in the trees for about 5 hours. They had a huge variety of courses suitable for all ages over 3, and it was lovely to not have a time limit as it meant the more nervous kiddies could build their confidence and have a fab day.
We managed one lunch out altogether at La Scala, an Italian restaurant in Cognac. It was in a good location next to the river in Cognac, and the food was average. The rest of the time we ate at home or picnic’d during day trips. All supplies came from the local cognac supermarkets or boulangeries which were less than 8 mins by car. Nearest supermarket E’Leclerc had everything we needed at a good price (mainly lots of super cheap and tasty Bordeaux!).
And while I was a bit disappointed at not being able to find a flea market in the area, realistically I wouldn’t have been able to have a proper mooch anyway. But there were plenty of small brocante shops dotted around Cognac, Saintes and the surrounding area, so I was able to scratch that itch a couple of times. No purchases made though, I was very restrained 🙂
Stop 2: 3 nights – cabin at the Yelloh! Village Parc de Montsabert in the Loire Valley
A 3 hour drive next. I was very sorry to leave our glorious Airbnb, and knew the second accommodation would feel VERY different. I wasn’t wrong…
I really wanted to like the Yelloh! Village Parc de Montsabert, or at least the concept of it, as it ticks so many boxes for kids. And on the whole, I certainly liked more than I disliked. But over the 3 nights we stayed in our 4-person cottage, my feelings frequently fluctuated between ‘hmmm this isn’t for me’, and, ‘ooh I can totally see the appeal to do this again’!
On the plus side, the free provisions for kids were totally lapped up by the twins – trampolines, indoor bouncy castles, zip lines, bike track, large pool and waterslides – none of which ever seemed to be mobbed by all the other kids on site, which I had been worried about initially. I also really liked the forest setting, which gave the whole place a very rustic charm.
On the downside, the restaurant could not have been more crap (it was the most expensive and worst meal we had the whole holiday), there was a terrible (and loud) DJ most nights, and while our cabin was clean and practical, it was really smelly and I really resented having to clean it at the end (although this is standard practise for French holiday parks, I believe).
During the two full days we had in the area, we visited the Angers theme park Terra Botanica – apparently Europe’s first plant-based theme park! it was a great outing, and a very good looking theme park with all the biodiversity on display, however the small number of tame rides probably wouldn’t excite children over 6, so I’m glad we tried it now. And for the second day we had lunch locally to the Yelloh! village, at a fab little restaurant called L’auberge du vigneron. Finally we were having a wonderful French lunch, and the lovely staff cooked up some suitable options for the kids. Sadly we didn’t get to see the Loire valley much beyond that, but what we saw from the car looked lovely so I’d like to visit the area again.
While Parc de Montsabert was a good stopover, it was not a destination. Three nights felt right for us as part of our slow venture back north. But if you want to explore the Loire valley and spend more time in the area, I would want to stay somewhere – maybe a different holiday park – better than this.
Stop 3: 2 nights – cabin at the Yelloh! village La Grande Paris
Another 3.5 hour drive with one roadside Aire stop later, and a slightly nerve-racking journey through a massive Paris tunnel which was so low we were convinced the roof box was going to get knocked off…!
We only stayed at the Yelloh! Village Le Grand Paris for 2 nights, and I’d booked a far superior caravan. This time we had a 3 bed, sleeping up to 7, and it was much newer than the last caravan. There was plenty of space for Stanley’s cot in his own room, a well laid out communal area and kitchen, a king-size bed for us and a larger, sheltered, porch area. Very comfortable, and it could easily be a base for more than 2 nights.
We were not met with the same friendly smiles and charm that we received at Montsabert. But apart from that, it is a very nice holiday park. Not as forest-y as the last place, which is a shame, but overall it is smaller and quieter, which we liked. And the caravan was exactly what we were hoping for after the previous holiday park.
Offerings for kids at the Yelloh! village were again good with 5 bouncy castles and pools. Although the pool wasn’t particularly shallow so not good for young kids. And I couldn’t see any indoor entertainment options in the event of rain, but luckily this didn’t affect us. We avoided the restaurant after the last experience, but it did look less dubious here.
We had talked about doing a day trip to Paris as part of our final stay, but the thought of going back to city-life wasn’t very appealing after such a relaxing (or as relaxing as a holiday with 3 kids can be) time. So we opted to hang out by the park’s pools, and visit the local area for lunch and a mooch. And I’m so glad we did as the nearby town of L’Isle Adam was beautiful. We deemed it the ‘Richmond-upon-Thames of Paris’, which for non-Londoners means that this area is quite an upmarket suburb for those who can afford the 45 minute train commute to the city. It has a fantastic park for kids, as well as a man-made beach and pool next to the picturesque river. It had tonnes of restaurants, although most seemed rather pricey, so we opted for a takeaway pizza in the park which was fricking delicious!
The downside of booking a much nicer caravan was that anything left unclean on check-out was way more noticeable. So the last couple of hours of the holiday were mildly stressful, but we managed to check out by 10am and were on our way home.
The final stop off was at the Calais hypermarket, where we filled up on lunch at Steak and Shakes (the burgers there were just as good as a Shake Shack). And a nice surprise at the Eurotunnel was being able to hop on an earlier train home (we were travelling mid-week so it was off-peak. I doubt this would have happened at the weekend).
12 nights, 3 kids, 1300 miles, 72 baguettes. Done!
Would we do this type of holiday again?
Absolutely! Yes! In a heartbeat! We are 100% driving holiday converts. And France is clearly a winning option for travelling abroad from the UK with kids and a car. The variety of places to stay worked really well for us, and the length of the holiday was just right to have a good mix of leisurely pool days, as well as some family outings to surrounding attractions. Mixing the trip with friends first, and doing parts of it just the 5 of us, was a brilliant idea (if I do say so myself!) as it offered easy entertainment for the kids and the chance for weary adults to catch-up, but allowed us to do things at our own pace as well.
- Driving holidays are a great and economical way to take a longer family holiday, and see different parts of a country.
- Mixing up the holiday with different accommodation types was really exciting, and the kids loved guessing what each place was going to be like (us too!). Yes, some places will be hits, and others maybe a miss, but it gives your holiday variety and helps you figure out what is best for your family on future trips.
- Visiting three different parts of the country actually made the trip seem longer, especially when we look back at all the things we did over 12 days.
- Generally speaking, you can’t go too wrong in France when it comes to the food, and most places will always have enough beige food to suit the pickiest of little eaters!
- The French roads! They were so quiet and every journey we made couldn’t have been more easy compared with UK traffic. Yes, we spent a fair bit on tolls, but I would gladly pay for tolls in the UK if it meant all our journeys could be as easy as they were in France!
- Cheap wine.
- As much as we LOVE holidays that involve travelling around and staying in different accommodation, I did get quite sick of all the packing and repacking.
- Having to thoroughly clean TWO caravans upon check-out from the holiday parks, was not fun. And not easy with 3 kids to wrangle.
- However many times we visit France, we’re always messed up their shorter opening times. We found it wasn’t really possible to eat out in the evenings with most restaurants not opening until 7pm, so lunches out were easier for the kids.
- And while I love the slower pace of life there, I will never get used to everything shutting down on Sunday. It does mean you have to forward plan with meals, especially if you’re arriving late on a Saturday. Try to bring food with you for the first nights’ meals and first days’ breakfast, just to tie you over until you find something open.
- Even though we were fine with it, many people won’t enjoy the number of motorway tolls you have to pay.
- Coming home was painful! Minutes after arriving back in the UK we were in a traffic jam. Sigh…
Despite the pound being at an all-time low during our trip (thanks Brexiteers!), it was still a pretty economical holiday:
- 1 week at Le Clos du Perat = £2375 (split 50:50 with friends)
- Yelloh! Villages for 5 nights = £580
- Eurotunnel = £190
- Approx toll charges + petrol = £450
- Approx spending money = £1300
= around £3720 for 5 people for 12 days in August.