Travelling chimps

Le campervan holiday in France – our top tips

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

Belgium road signs
Belgian signs

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

Oysters by the river
The cost is the best for seafood. Oysters from Île de Ré were perfect for Guido 

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

Mille Feuille Patisserie and Beer
Mille feuille fights. Patisserie is finer in Brittany and Normandy. 

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

Wild camping in Brittany is hard to beat

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

St Valery en Caux
Aires pop up everywhere – often in the best spots in town. This one in St Valery-en-Caux was close to Dieppe. Aires make a campervan holiday very cost-effective.

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??

Canons and boys
Normandy was a fairly intense history lesson for a campervan holiday

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 – UtahOmaha, 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

towing a rubber dinghy
We have a three man kayak, so Kit gets to captain his own dinghy, which we then tow!

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.

Rockpooling was great on the coast around St Marie de Re

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.

St Martin de Re
Beautiful towns are easily explored by bike on Ile de Re

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?

Campervan holiday selfie
Family travels in the van – the last summer for a while…

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!


Travelling chimps

Rye: glamping without the kids

I am a massive fan of ‘doing presents’ – hiding in the birthday present pile looking like another card in a nondescript envelope, until you open them up and unravel a delicious treat. Or you unwrap a weird present that makes no sense, until you work out that it’s a clue for something really cool. This year I had a card with a pic of some champagne on it… inside there was a plan for a night in a Shepherds Hut near Rye. Yay! I gave him an American school bus toy with Travelling Chimps on the side, which was actually a present to go down and hang out with a guy who I’d found who owns an American bus in Devon. It’s a chance to see a bus for real, imagine what it will be like to live in one and find out more about the pitfalls and pleasures of buying and travelling in one. That’s a blog for another time though – back to glamping in Rye.

Rye and Winchelsea walk

Walking map
Our route around Rye and Winchelsea

We arrived early and downloaded a 7 mile walk that would take us to Rye and Winchelsea in a loop. It was glorious sunshine as we parked up on Dumb Woman’s Lane – such a good name – and strolled along to Rye. We’ve visited the town before with the boys but fancied going back for a mooch among the antique shops, cobbled streets and pubs without them. On a sunny day it’s a lovely spot for a beer and we had to try very hard not to have a second!

The ‘Shifting Sands’ walk that we downloaded from Discovering Britain officially starts and finishes in Rye but we joined at point 17 and looped from there. It took us all around Rye (which we realised after we had already walked around it),  past Camber Castle and via a bird hide that looked out on a surprising marsh land,  and on to Winchelsea where there were apparently lovely views of the sea and the shifting sands, which was not apparent to us even though it was a perfectly clear day.

The route is full of commentary from ‘Raymond Molony a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society’ and you can actually download the audio guide or a massive booklet of written commentary. Most of his notes we ignored as it took too long to load up, but we did find some interesting stops using our own eyes! Sutton’s was a treat – a seafood and fruit shop just outside of Winchelsea that served up the loveliest cherries (for me) and cockles (for him), and we saw a great view of Dungeoness, ominously sitting on a peninsula and kick-starting a big discussion on nuclear energy.

Winchelsea didn’t have much going on but we found the one thing we were looking for – Spike Milligans Grave. Oh ok, we didn’t bother with that but we did find a pub. Again, a gorgeous beer garden and an icy beer. It was so delicious we failed to stop after one and found ourselves wandering round a ‘upcycled’ thrift barn where we bought a lamp. Useful for a walk!

Glamping in The Hut

Woodland path to the Hut
Our path to our secret hideaway

We stayed in a Shepherds Hut owned by Extraordinary Huts., following a path through woodland into our secret home for the night. From the deck of the Hut, set in the clearing of a wood on a slope,  you can see nothing but green hills and sheep. It feels very private and remote, even though you are only a short distance from the road.

The Hut was billed as luxury accommodation that has ‘everything you need’ for 4 people but i’d argue that it was probably better for two and it was more ‘glamping’ than ‘luxury accommodation’. Perhaps we’ve been spoiled by a remarkable stay in Boutique Bothies  in Scotland, where Jane, the owner, had laid on strawberries from her garden, home-made jam and bread, as well as toiletries. The Hut, in comparison, had lamps with missing batteries, burnt out candles and not a local delicacy in sight! It was still lovely though – a fine balance of nature and comfort –  and after a brief spin back to Rye to stock up on snacks, we settled in.

Inside and out

View from The Hut – not a soul in sight

Inside The Hut there is living space with a sofa and a woodburning stove, a fully equipped kitchenette with sink and a gas hob, a wet room with a good shower and a flushing loo, and an upstairs mezzanine level with a low double bed on one side and two low singles on the other. There’s a ladder up to the bed level and it’s all open; we had toyed with the idea of bringing the kids (for 5 minutes, honestly!), but I’m glad we didn’t as without a guard rail to stop you falling down from the platform as you try to go to the loo in the dark in the middle of the night, one of them would have had an injury!

Outside the Hut there is a fire pit and a hammock, with plenty of wood and firelighters. We had a lovely campfire when we got home from the pub – screeching away to Radiohead until the early hours. Hopefully our neighbours weren’t in earshot – we discovered in the morning that The Hut’s older sibling, ‘The Hide Out’, offers a glamping experience just a thicket of trees and bushes away. Oops!

Dinner at the Plough

Although we could have cooked at The Hut, we opted for The Plough pub. It was a short walk and a lovely pub, although we had to order extra chips because the portions were small . This happens regularly… I’m beginning to think it is our appetites that are at fault and not the pubs we eat in!

If you do go with the family and you van…

Incidentally, If you are looking to stay in Rye in your campervan, the River Haven Hotel charges £10 for an overnight in their car park. It’s no glamping – there’s a fair bit of rubbish and a car wash operation going on in the corner – but it felt safe enough and if you hop over the wall it takes just 5 mins to walk riverside to the pretty parts of Rye. Bargain!

Travelling chimps

There’s more to life than the school run

Wake up. Get dressed. Shout at kids to do the same. Feed kids. Shout kids out of the house. Get kids to school. Talk about kids to other mums. Get home. Clear up house because of kids. Do kid admin. Do shopping because kids eat so much. Wash clothes because kids spill so much. Collect kids from school. Talk about kids to other mums. Get home. Feed kids. Argue with kids about screen time. Feed kids again because although they are 7 and 5 they have the stomach capacity of grown men. Shout kids through the bedtime process. Collapse on sofa. Go to bed. Wake up and do it again. Briefly wonder if I am a robot. Surely there is more to life than this?


Over the last 7 years I have often wished I could get back the independence and freedom of my twenties – not the all-night partying, lack of money and ongoing pretence that I was happy being single – but the adventuring. At 40 it feels like an impossible dream to just up sticks and travel the world. Or at least that is what I’ve always told myself – ‘travelling was your twenties, forties is your family’. 

A complicated dream

A few weeks ago it suddenly struck me that it didn’t need to be like that. It’s not impossible to travel the world, it’s just complicated.  And if it’s complicated, it’s do-able. So why don’t we just do it? The kids are older now, they don’t need the routine and structure of the baby years. They more or less eat anything as long as we dangle the ‘pudding’ carrot for them and they are used to camping and campervanning. School kind of gets in the way – they might notice if the kids don’t turn up for a year – but there’s home-schooling (uggghhhh, that doesn’t appeal at all). Hmmmm…..

And so here lies the beginning of the journey and the reason I set up a blog. We won’t be going on any global adventures for at least 18 months because I’m guessing it takes a shed-load of planning, but I’m seriously going to look into how we do it and this blog is a mini-commitment to the world that we will be taking a new approach to life and doing something epic and cool with the kids in the next few years. FACT!