With its campsites and beaches, the Vendée and the surrounding area have all the ingredients for a classic family holiday. From educating the kids on the local history to visiting colourful theme parks – here’s our pick of the best family-friendly days out in the Vendée.
Lively children can work off surplus energy by pedalling their parents through the countryside on rattling flat-bed wagons (known as draisines) along 9km of disused railway line. Each wagon can take two adults and two children (three if they are little). Everyone sets off in convoy at fixed times, with strict instructions to maintain a 50m gap between each four-person vehicle. The rural route takes in level crossings and small viaducts, and gives views of the River Vie. Take cold drinks and snacks to fuel the pedallers en route.
It’s good fun, and fortunately there is now a turntable at the far end, so no longer any need to lift the 80kg wagons off the rails when it’s time to turn around for the homeward journey! In the high season’s heat – perhaps thankfully for tired legs – the route is 2km shorter.
Puy du Fou
The superb daytime and evening attractions of Puy du Fou – often voted the world’s best attraction park – will leave you with memories for ever. Here, visitors can learn about the history of the region through colourful spectacles featuring astonishing special effects, dancing horses, castles that rotate, Viking longships that emerge from underwater, audiences that revolve, jousting knights, fantastic panoramic cinemas and spectacular dance sequences.
Although on hold this year, on a number of occasions throughout the year and incredible, open-air, night-time show is held. A gobsmacking total of more than 2,400 actors and 130 horsemen, all volunteers, act out the Vendée’s history through the life of ‘Jacques Maupillier’, an archetypal Vendean, to the accompaniment of lasers, fountains, fireworks and the most sophisticated of sound and lighting techniques. Galloping horses thunder out of the castle to fall over at your feet, ballet dancers pirouette seemingly upon the very surface of the lake, and sudden bursts of light reveal hundreds of actors who have composed themselves into living tableaux in the darkness.
The picturesque castle and its lake provide the backdrop to this thrilling spectacle, the ultimate in son et lumière performances, which has been described as ‘the Oberammergau of France’.
At this delightful museum you’ll find exquisitely detailed model houses, churches, windmills and farms from 1900, painstakingly created from wood, tiles and local stone by Yves Aubron, a former cabinet-maker. There’s an introductory video, in French, before an L-shaped circuit takes you past shops, café, school, station, smoking chimneys and working steam engine, peopled by 650 characters – accompanied by the sounds of bells, birds and family festivities (a helpful English translation is available).
On your tour, you may suspect a power cut, as every 10 minutes an owl hoots and darkness falls momentarily over the scenes, to end with a cock-crow announcing a new dawn. Special raised steps allow children to get a good view – though it’s strictly ‘hands-off’, so make sure they are not tempted to touch anything. As an example of the work that has gone in to this minor masterpiece, more than 40,000 tiny replica tiles have been hand-cut to cover the roofs.
With ten beaches, over 13km of sand and dozens of campsites, it’s no surprise that La Tranche is both a popular family resort as well as a paradise for surfers and windsurfers. What the town lacks in museums and other touristic sites, it makes up for in sporting activity, and if you are not already an expert, there are surfing and windsurfing schools with friendly instructors to coax beginners or fine-tune already acquired skills.
The less sporty will find shady walks in the forest of holm oaks and fragrant pines to the west of the town, and plenty of temporary summer entertainments such as amusement parks, paintball, concerts, circus and street theatre to fill the days and evenings.
Château de St-Mesmin
This proud 14th-century fortress overlooks a tributary of the Sèvre Nantaise River at the hamlet of La Ville, just beyond St-Mesmin. Its walls and five towers seem to emerge from the very rock, while an ongoing restoration programme has revealed or refurbished its dry moat, drawbridge, chapel, spiral stairs, arrow-slit windows and rooftop sentry-way.
The chateau is a marvellous place to visit at any time, but it’s in July and August that it really springs to life. In these months, every day, costumed actors are present in the different tower rooms to demonstrate – remaining solemnly in character – medieval methods of cookery, herbalism, childcare, writing and so on (a different theme is explored each year). With an irresistible blend of passion, humour and enthusiasm (and a pretty good knowledge of English), they draw children in to try their hand at activities, and might even dress a small volunteer up in real armour. In the courtyard, children can try their hand at medieval games such as skittles, hoopla, stilts, etc.
Parc du Futuroscope
Opened in 1987 and now stretching over 50ha in the Vienne, a département to the east of the Vendée, Futuroscope’s annual visitors throng to make it one of France’s most popular attractions. ‘Theme park’ is not a description that truly describes the array of astonishing audio-visual experiences that assault your senses. Here you’ll immerse yourself in virtual reality, visiting not only 3D but 4D cinemas, state-of-the-art technology of which some is unique across the world. Plus there’s a range of more traditional experiential rides and activities, some with height, age or other restrictions.
With over 20 attractions, there is more than enough to entertain the curious for a full day or more and some visitors choose to stay overnight and enjoy an extra day. True, there’s no Mickey Mouse to greet you here, but young children will be wide-eyed at the incredible displays created for their education and entertainment. Even the names of the attractions are sure to generate excitement amongst the youngsters: ‘The Ice Age,’ The Time Machine’ and ‘The Nipper Dipper’. The evening show is also popular, a new-ish spectacular officially described as an ‘aquatic fairy tale’ and performed by the world-renowned Cirque du Soleil group.