We’ve just come back from our 5th campervan holiday to France. This was our longest yet – 10 days, 9 nights – and so we headed further south than we’ve been before, with the beaches and seafood of Ile de Re on our minds. So was the big road trip worth it? Did it beat the shorter trips to the Opal Coast, Normandy, Brittany and The Loire around Saumur? What lessons have we learned? Here are 10 thoughts on campervanning in France:
Lesson 1: Westende-Bad news
We bought ‘Yellow Peril’ in April and having missed the early bird cheap seats, managed to book on to a ferry from Dover to Dunkirk that summer. We didn’t really know what we were doing but we’d built the beds, bought a portable toilet, gas stove and an All the Aires book, so figured we’d learn how to have a campervan holiday on the job. Although we love France, we had heard the Belgium beaches were gorgeous and so we turned left off the ferry and drove alongside the coast to Westende-Bad. It turns out that Belgium does indeed have beautiful beaches but beware – we had barely strayed from the car before Kit cut his foot on glass in the dunes. When we went back to the van to find plasters, the police were bolting a lock on the van for parking in the wrong place (there were no signs) and in all the confusion Soren fell out of the van and cut his head. We then went into the town and had a dull meal that cost a packet. Lesson learned – stick with France.
Lesson 2: Opal Coast – the perfect first-timers campervan holiday
We drove back to France and spent the rest of the week on the Opal Coast, driving from Bray-Dunes along beaches and dunes to Le Touquet-Paris-Plage and Wimereux. There was plenty of lovely wandering around fishing villages, good seafood and some incredible aires – one in the field of a farm overlooking the coast, another next door to a local brewery. They cost barely 5-10 euro for a night and in almost all of them a Boulangerie van would turn up in the morning with the most delicious croissants and pain au chocolat.
As we don’t have a shower, every couple of nights we’d book into the municipal campsites. They were always clean, had a park for the kids and again, took your boulangerie order for the morning. Why on earth do we not have this in the UK??!!
It was a chilled week with short driving distances and minimal costs – definitely the cheapest of our trips. Calais would have been a better port to sail into and out of, but Dunkirk is not that much further.
Lesson 3: Take your own sandwiches and take cover
In our second year of vanning we took the Newhaven – Dieppe ferry and drove to Brittany to spend a week on the Crozon peninsula. It was a longer drive but as we left earlier in the year (end of May), we hoped the drive would help secure slightly warmer weather.
We had a good stopover in Mont St Michel, which was fun to explore for the kids. Top tip – take your own sandwiches and eat them away from the gulls….. my 8 euro cheese baguette was snapped up as soon as I put it on the wall to help the kids open theirs, plastic and all.
Lesson 4: The beaches of Brittany – perfect for wild campervan holidays
We had booked our first site – a recommendation from friends – at La Pointe in Chateaulin. It was a lovely leafy spot and a 20 minute walk into the town for beers and patisserie. They still have the award for best breakfast Pain au Raisin and I’ve tested many!
From Chateaulin we drove around the edge of the Crozon peninsula and although we stayed at a couple of lovely sites, the best nights were those where we parked up on the coast for free. Brittany’s rugged coastline means there are endless coves with winding roads leading to empty beaches. Although I don’t think you are officially supposed to stop on the road, my personal opinion is that it’s ok to stop for a night if you are not a nuisance to anyone and you move on in the morning. We found a gorgeous layby that overlooked two beaches either side of a headland – aside from one dog walker the next morning we didn’t see a soul. I had my birthday there and it was magical.
Lesson 5: Aires rock
We were, and often still are, struck at how much more accommodating the French are with campervans. They encourage you to stop on your campervan holiday and enjoy the area, rather than refusing you access because you are staying in mobile accommodation. On the way back from Brittany we stopped in a place called Dinan. There was an incredible aire, again costing a pittance, that was next to a scenic river and within an easy walk of a beautiful little town. We had the most gorgeous stroll through cobbled streets, eating some of the finest patisserie and drinking cocktails at a bar overlooking the river. If this was England then there would definitely have been a height barrier stopping us parking and we’d probably have driven right on past, missing the experience.
Lesson 5: Are you a museum type??
Our third trip was to Normandy. Although the additional hours to drive to Brittany were definitely worth it, the beaches and food in Normandy are renowned. We booked the Newhaven – Dieppe ferry for the summer holidays and as it was likely to be hot in August in Normandy, it was a good time to try it out.
Top aire tip – St Valery en Caux is a great spot to park up. It’s close enough to Dieppe to make the journey to the ferry but is far more interesting than the one in Dieppe town. It’s next to the water and a short walk to restaurants etc.
Beaches good, wine good, cheese good, patisserie good, level of war talk – not so good. Of course I agree we must remember the enormous impact of war and the tragedies that occurred all along the Normandy coastline, but it did make for a different holiday. We had based ourselves around the sites of the 5 famous landings – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. For the most part the stories of the different nations involved is both interesting and humbling, but it was hard to get past the idea that we were sunbathing on a beach and swimming in a sea in which thousands of men were killed. I also felt as if we should visit the various museums and sights as we were there, which wouldn’t normally be something we do on holiday. I can’t recall any other trip in which we went to one museum, let alone several. If the historical angle works for you, Normandy is great. For us, it was a tad too much.
Lesson 6: There’s more to France than the beach
As well as a big yellow van, we also own a big yellow kayak. We decided to head inland on our 2017 trip to France to check out life on the Loire. Saumur had come recommended, so we headed inland and camped near the city itself. This was our first experience of a proper touristy campsite – it was packed, with a million children in the pool and a massive wait at the bar for pizzas and beer. It was an amazing spot – the river and Saumur castle were a fantastic backdrop, but we were keen to head out. We preferred the municipal site at Chinon – again sitting under a big castle and next to a river, but much quieter.
We did two kayak trips in one week – one down the Vienne river from Chinon to St-Germain-sur-Vienne and another on the Loire itself. Both were beautifully scenic with easy paddling down stream and quiet banks in which to moor up and picnic. We barely saw a soul and there were dragonflies, butterflies… even a coypu (Ragondin in French), a giant rodent that was introduced from Latin America. I am not a rat fan and this was not a happy sighting for me… ugggghhhh!
Lesson 7: Normandy trumps the Loire for patisserie and cheese
It’s true – Normandy does the food bit best. Even on our recent campervan holiday to La Rochelle we did not find treats quite as good as those served up north. The oysters were plentiful but our dinners out were a bit disappointing. Unfortunately for Guy, he is such a good cook that we prefer to let him create magic in the van. On one night he turned out four different pasta dishes, including vongole. On a two-hob burner that is impressive!
Lesson 8: Peage through the nose
Everyone we spoke to in the Saumur area recommended the Vendee – the part of the Loire closest to the coast. We decided to do that on this holiday, heading to La Rochelle and Île de Ré. As with last year, we were stung by the peage to get down there. You really have to factor it into your holiday costs overall – it easily cost us 150 euros to travel on the toll roads. If you have more time then you can go off route a bit. We calculated a 2 hour time saving sticking to the tolls though and so we figured it was worthwhile.
It’s also worth factoring that if you want to keep your campervan holiday cheap, you also have to pay to go to Ile de Re across the bridge. It wasn’t enormously expensive but when you’ve been whipping out your card every couple of hours on the toll roads, it feels like another hit. It’s also a lot pricier to stay at campsites on Ile de Re because it’s a popular tourist destination. We later read in forums that Ile de Oleron is just as lovely as Ile de Re, has less people and no bridge toll. Perhaps that would have been a better bet.
Lesson 9: Bikes not scooters in Ile de Re
We almost got a bike rack installed on the van but figured it was not worth the expense (apparently an expensive tow bar is needed to make it compatible… yawn). Instead we took the kid’s scooters. If you are thinking of getting a bike rack installed for your campervan holiday, do it before you visit this part of France as everybody uses bikes to get around Ile de Re. There are plenty of great bike paths all over the island.
We decided to hire bikes – there are lots of shops with all sorts of bike configurations to suit the family. The popularity of biking is a problem though – they had run out of kids bikes by the time we reached the front of the queue in St Marie de Vincent bike shop and we had to go with two tow-along bikes that fixed to our bikes. It was great for the kids as they could be lazy, but the heavy loads were tough for us! We cycled from St Marie de Vincent to La Flotte and then on to St Martin de Vincent – both of which were lovely, like mini La Rochelles.
Lesson 10: More southerly = more touristy
Ile de Re’s popularity was a down-side for us as campsites were busy, restaurants packed out and there seemed to be queues for everything. I also didn’t think the beaches warranted the adoration they received – they were good for rockpooling but not so much for swimming.
We decided to leave the tourists behind and head to La Tranche sur Mer for a quiet few days on the beach. It was described as ‘reminiscent of Mediterranean towns’ and so I was expecting whitewash and shutters. Instead it was reminiscent of places like Paphos – absolutely rammed with people and ‘expat style’ restaurants. We chose to stay further into the forest to escape – at relaxed campsite called Las Ramiers. There was a 20 minute walk through the forest to a glorious, empty and unsupervised beach. Beautiful, but perhaps not worth the additional cost and time of getting there. Brittany had just as lovely beaches and were much easier to reach.
Have we learnt from our lessons?
Of course! If we came back for another campervan holiday we would do more of Brittany – it was cheap, full of wild camp opportunities and great food.
Well yes, we have another holiday on wheels planned for next summer. More on that another day!