A fam­ily cy­cling hol­i­day in the Loire Val­ley is a win­ner, writes Noreen Barr.

Herald on Sunday - - FRANCE -

Keep­ing both my chil­dren happy when it comes to hol­i­days is no easy feat. They are sep­a­rated by an eight-year age gap and have strong, con­flict­ing opin­ions on just about every­thing.

This time, how­ever, I felt sure I’d found the per­fect so­lu­tion. My son, Max, loves cy­cling and Eve has en­vi­ously pointed out other tod­dlers perched on the back of their par­ents’ bikes.

“We’re all go­ing on a cy­cling hol­i­day,” I an­nounce to two de­lighted squeals of glee.

“In France,” I add brightly, at which Max’s grin in­stantly freezes and van­ishes.

French, it turns out, is his all-time most loathed school sub­ject. He and his friends have solemnly vowed never to visit any coun­try where it is spo­ken. Too late — the trip was booked.

Soon there are more be­lated doubts, from me and hus­band Mark. Loom­ing largest is the ques­tion of just how tricky it might be to bal­ance on a bike lum­bered with a child seat and a wrig­gling tod­dler try­ing to break free.

But a few weeks later, the four of us are whizzing along a shady for­est path in St-Jean-de-Monts, a town in the Loire re­gion in western France, all ob­jec­tions for­got­ten.

Max’s legs are a spin­ning blur as he forges ahead, ran­domly de­cid­ing the route and do­ing his best to get us all ex­cit­ingly lost.

En­throned on the back of her dad’s bike, Eve is gig­gling hap­pily and urg­ing him to go “faster, faster”. Es­cape is the last thing on her mind.

Speed­ing along at this de­mented pace doesn’t even hurt too much, be­cause St-Jean-de-Monts is in the al­most-flat re­gion of the Vendee. There are no cars to fear be­cause the coastal town has 26 glo­ri­ous kilo­me­tres of safe, des­ig­nated cy­cle paths.

When we reach the es­planade, we pop our bikes into a hand­ily placed rack be­side a chil­dren’s climb­ing zone.

Over the grassy sand dunes, we catch our first glimpse of the beach, a great swathe of fine, golden sand, 8km long. To our right, a long wooden pier stretches pret­tily out into the sea.

The beach slopes gen­tly here and the At­lantic Ocean is invit­ing and shal­low-edged. Eve and Max tear off to­wards the wa­ter, scream­ing like seag­ulls.

Later, with Eve’s sea-drenched clothes and sod­den shoes stuffed in­side my bi­cy­cle bas­ket, we pedal fur­ther along the es­planade’s clearly marked cy­cle­way.

We cover many kilo­me­tres, but have no chance of reach­ing the path’s end. The­o­ret­i­cally, we could con­tinue 33km north to Noir­moutier, a long is­land with marshes and salt pans, quaint vil­lages that seem left be­hind in time and sandy beaches, now linked to the main­land by a bridge.

Or, if we were a mega-fit fam­ily, we could keep go­ing south 46km, all the way to another sea­side town, Les Sables-d’Olonne.

In­stead, we stop off at a seafront cafe and a gi­ant in­flat­able ob­sta­cle course that de­lights both chil­dren, be­fore fi­nally turn­ing for home.

That night, my leg mus­cles ping pleas­antly as Mark and I sip some well-earned red wine on the ter­race out­side our com­fort­able mo­bile home at the Si­blu hol­i­day park, Le Bois Dor­mant.

“This is a hol­i­day that might ac­tu­ally work out well,” I say.

The park, on the edge of St-Jean-de-Monts, is peace­ful and spa­cious. Max can cy­cle off alone to check out the ta­ble ten­nis and make new friends, buy snacks at the cafe or just zoom around.

The heated out­door pool gets the thumbs up too, with a scary wa­ter slide and a fun chute in the tod­dler pool.

Soon we dis­cover another favourite ac­tiv­ity. Cy­cling through the woods in another di­rec­tion,

we reach the lo­cal mar­ket in the town square.

There, we fill our bi­cy­cle bas­kets to over­flow­ing with lo­cally grown fruit and veges, olives, baguettes and cock­les from amaz­ing fish stalls.

Back in our well-equipped kitchen, I cook up the cock­les with gar­lic and a dash of white wine and serve them up in a gi­ant bowl with pasta.

France, Max is start­ing to agree, isn’t too bad af­ter all. He ap­proves even more of another lo­cal del­i­cacy — the enor­mous buck­ets of Nutella on sale at all good su­per­mar­kets.

But he still needs some ad­ven­tures to be prop­erly con­vinced. That’s when we stum­ble upon a leaflet for some­thing called “Velo Rail” that shows four car­toon char­ac­ters in a shared cy­cle-car, grin­ning as they whizz along the tracks of a for­mer rail­way line.

The start­ing point is the quiet vil­lage of Com­me­quiers, just a 25-minute car jour­ney in­land from our base.

“How hard can it be?” we de­cide.

Well, ac­tu­ally quite hard. Only two of us can cy­cle our strange metal con­trap­tion at once, while the oth­ers sit on a seat in the mid­dle.

We labour through farm and wood­land, pass­ing over rivers and streams. Grad­u­ally, it dawns on us that this ride is mainly up­hill, 10km just one way and non-es­capable be­cause there are other cars be­hind ours filled with sporty fam­i­lies trav­el­ling fast.

Once at our pic­nic des­ti­na­tion, we drink gal­lons of wa­ter be­fore fac­ing the re­turn jour­ney, which also seems to be mainly up­hill.

But Max isn’t done. A few days on, we are off to Le Grand Defi, a “for­est ad­ven­ture” in­volv­ing deathde­fy­ing as­sault cour­ses in the tree­tops.

“That was bril­liant,” the kids agree af­ter­wards, wide-eyed with hap­pi­ness.

Our hol­i­day made me re­alise just how much they have in com­mon and how lit­tle that age gap re­ally mat­ters.

In another huge turn­around, Max now says he likes France. But he still hates learn­ing the lan­guage.

Velo Rail in the Loire Val­ley. Pic­ture / Fred­erique Voisin De­mery Vendee, St Jean de Monts. Pic­ture / Getty Im­ages

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