KIDS ON WHEELS MAKE FOR A BRILLIANT TIME
A family cycling holiday in the Loire Valley is a winner, writes Noreen Barr.
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