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

Cycling Brighton to Paris – 4 days of bum-numbing fun

This time last we were cycling to Paris on the Avenue Verte. The skies were blue the trees were green and the air was full of honeysuckle, climbing roses and, for a brief moment, a series of profanities after realising we had miscalculated the endpoint by 30 miles. Oops.

Day one:

Cycling Hove to Newhaven, 10 miles

The start of bike ride in Brighton by West Pier
Leaving the West Pier for an epic ride to Paris

I should probably start at day minus one as it sets the scene – we got rid of the kids and instead of packing and having an early night, went to the beach and drank too much wine. So predictable!

You can imagine how we felt when the alarm went off at 5.15am. Uggh. We left the house at 6am and I was tired by the time we got to the seafront… about 10 minutes away. Double ugggghhh.

We made it the 10 miles to Newhaven ferry terminal, an embarrassment of a entrance / exit point to the UK. There is nothing but rubbish, exhaust fumes and a view of the tip to keep you entertained and If you want a coffee, you have to get it before you go through customs; the disgruntled customs officer told us the only machine available to the captive travellers had been ‘broken for months‘. The cafe in the terminal arrivals / ticket office is like a throwback from the seventies – a truckers haven with pictures of lorries and postcards from drivers stuck to the wall with blue tack. It’s almost cool until you realise they haven’t moved anything on from the seventies – is that an instant coffee or (luke-warm) filter? Do you want sauce on your Bacon sarnie?

The Newhaven ferry itself is alright – we’ve caught it so many times we know the routine. Dock your bikes, leg it up to the top deck of the bar and get out on the sundeck asap. There are limited chairs and they are in hot demand.

Cycling Dieppe to Forges-Les-Eaux, 30 miles

We messed up our ferry food. It was the mini-hangover again – we ate our packed lunch at 9.30am and planned to stock up on proper calories (frites) a bit later in the 4 hour journey so that we would be ready for our first 30 mile ride. Somehow we failed. The restaurant was closed when we went to find it and France, being France on a Monday, was closed at 2.30pm when we landed in Dieppe. No restaurants or shops to snaffle any tasty treats. We had to head off for the first real leg with empty tummies.

After about 10 cyclists got muddled on the first roundabout following Avenue Verte signs, we decided to use our phones to find our cycling route through Dieppe to Arques-la-Bataille, where you come off the road and join an old railroad path past beautiful big lakes and greenery that takes you all the way through to Forges-Les-Eaux. It is well-signed, once you get to the turning, and the concrete paths are off-road, which means no traffic pollution and lovely stretches of silence. We were cycling in late May and everything was lush and fresh – new growth everywhere. Occasionally, small villages would rush by – their old platforms still visible on the railroad path. We waved at old men playing boule, spotted an albino peacock and stuck our noses into elder flowers growing along the track.

The novelty of the flat path wore off a bit by the time we reached Neufchatel-en-Bray. We had planned to stop and eat a copious amount of cheese with a cold beer, but we were running (or cycling late) for our airbnb check in and had to press on. Although flat cycling is good, there is little variation and no downhills to give your legs a brief respite. The  signs told us it was another 17km to go and literally every time we passed a new km marker I was counting the seconds to the next. It was a bit worrying – today was meant to be our easy day and we found it a real challenge.

Forges-Les-Eaux  is a small spa town, where people used to come and take the waters. It was pretty but, like DIeppe, it was asleep. All the restaurants were closed apart from one hotel restaurant – La Paix –  that served ‘typical French food’ in a fairly sterile room that was heavy on the white tablecloths and was decorated with peach wallpaper covered in calligraphic painted quotes. Typical French seems to be to avoid vegetables unless they are drowning in butter, so we ordered the prix fixe and ate something very creamy (there was a cherry tomato sized ball of crushed peas on my plate – so I got some vegetables) and had to cancel our cheeseboard for fear of heart failure.  Our French is not great but our attention was caught by quotes that seemed to be about going for a wee against the wall. Good old google translate told us that lo and behold, they were – a celebration of some relevant historical figure spraying the wall with golden piss. What an oddity!

We stayed at an Airbnb close to La Paix and the square. It had a courtyard and separate room to store our bikes and was perfectly clean and tidy. Annie, the owner, greeted us and was very accommodating. It was over 3 floors and the bedroom is right at the top, so that used up the last of my leg energy for the day.

Cycling Forges-Les-Eaux to Beavais 42 miles

We woke up refreshed and ready to go. We were using the Sustrans Avenue Verte book to plan our cycling route and had set approximately 45 miles per day.  Our route took us out of Forges and along small country roads to the hills outside of the town. This was apparently one of the harder sections of the ride but it wasn’t overly difficult. There was absolutely no food shops though, so visit the supermarket in Forges before you set off. After yesterdays hunger we went to the supermarket twice!

Our route wound its way up and down hills covered in poppies, the red stain of the flowers spreading through the green grass. The route was really well signposted and took us along roads that avoided anywhere busy. There was an abundance of creeping roses and not a supermarket in sight. Heaven.  We arrived at our designated lunch spot – Gournay en Bray – just in time for the last of the Tuesday morning market stalls to close up. We really must sort out our timing! At least we had bought bread and cheese in Forges so wouldn’t have to miss lunch again.

The afternoon ride took us back out to the hills – cycling an ascent of Auchy’s hill – and meandered to Saint-Germer-de-Fly, a pretty village with a big gothic cathedral just within the region of Picardy. At this point you have to decide whether to take the east or west route to Paris. The west, through the Vexin areas,  is slightly shorter so we took the east – we liked the sound of the beautiful villages, farms and forests of the Oise.

The route continues along the Pays de Bray until you reach the outskirts of Beavais. This was a much bigger town than anything else we had travelled to but it had a great square with a jumping water feature that our kids would have loved, perfect for cold beers after a days ride.

We stayed in another Airbnb near the centre, hosted by Delphine who kindly stored our bikes in her garage. The house was sprawling with high ceilings and full of interesting bits and bobs. We had to share a bathroom but that wasn’t a problem as it was all immaculately clean. Around the corner from her place was a cobbled street with a few bars and restaurants, all spilling out into the street. We had dinner there and drank wine, there was a great atmosphere. Full to the brim (French food is so rich!) we took a nighttime stroll around Beavais. It was  Instagram paradise with old, crooked houses, quaint shops and the most incredible Gothic cathedral – Cathedrale St Pierre. The dark arches and carved faces were so intricate and the height meant it dominated the whole area.

Cycling Beavais to Senlis, 45 miles

The first thing we realised when we got up was that we had drunk too much beer the night before. Uggghh. The second thing we realised, after we had closed the door and posted the key to the Airbnb through the letterbox, was that we had left our guidebook in the bedroom. The third thing we realised, when we logged on to check the route, was that we had grossly underestimated the distance to Paris and had an additional 30 miles ish to do. We couldn’t spread our cycling over two days because we had already booked and paid for our accommodation in Senlis, which sounded lovely, and the closer you get to Paris the harder it is to find rooms where you can keep bikes.  Ah well – we’ll worry about that tomorrow!

The route out of Beauvais took us through several small villages – it felt as if the roads were getting a bit busier now were were getting closer to Paris. There was a long section where we were just travelling alongside a fairly busy road, albeit on a bike path, and it wasn’t very interesting. We then hit another railroad path which took us away from the traffic.

We were still doing well with the Avenue Verte signs but because we had no cycling maps, we downloaded the route as a gpx file and used an app on our phone for less than £5 to track the route. It wasn’t foolproof – quite often we’d spot a sign going one way and the gpx would tell us to go another, but they more or less went the same way. It became invaluable for helping us to get back on track when the signs seemed to dry out somewhere around Clermont. There was a definite sense that the route was signed from Paris to London and not the other way round – you’d get to a junction and the only sign would be pointing back the way you had come.

Clermont was a busy town and we stopped to eat our baguette and cheese. After so many cheese failures we had picked up some in Beauvais and struck gold – after stewing in our pannier bags for the morning, this cheese was ripe enough to pour over our bread. Delish!

As we cycled on, it wasn’t just an increase in traffic. The buildings were closer together and getting grander, with less farmhouses and more Gothic cathedrals, monasteries and abbeys. The best of the route comes right at the end as you cross Halatte Forest on a series of tracks that join at centre junctions with old signs pointing off from a centre pole. It links the majestic Abbaye du Moncel to the historic city of Senlis and as you descend at full pelt on forest tracks , you get a gorgeous ‘wind in the hair’ moment.

Senlis is beautiful. Full of cobbled streets, roadside bars, quaint little shops and the standard Gothic cathedral. We stayed at a lovely, modern Airbnb, hosted by Didier. It was within easy walking distance of the main town and had a courtyard garden to safely store the bikes.  I’d have liked to wander around and enjoy the atmosphere – maybe go for breakfast or have a lazy start with a walk around town, but tomorrow was a biggy and so we indulged in just one Aperol Spritz, ate a quick Italian meal and went to bed early.


Cycling Senlis to Paris, 80 miles

Yes, you read correctly. We had planned 48 miles for the final day cycling but got it spectacularly wrong. I think we just hadn’t noted down a major chunk between Paris St Germain and Paris centre. Hubby wanted to blame me as I am a terror for getting my numbers wrong (I am a words person!) but he had also checked the book and totted up the count. Whatever it was, we had a long ride to get through and so we started early and headed to Chantilly, 20km away, for breakfast.

The ride out of Senlis took us back into the forest, which was lovely and cool. We passed the incredible Chateau de Chantilly and picked up some pastries and then headed on to have breakfast overlooking the Abbey of Royaumont. Again, the greenery was  vibrant and plants were bursting into life. It was a glorious morning and we covered a big chunk of miles with relative ease.

The route is broken into sections and it felt like an achievement reaching Asnieres sur Oise as we were another stage closer to the finish line. The route is busier, but still lovely, as you join the Oise River and cross from bank to bank via L’isle-Adam, Auvers-sur-Oise and Pointoise. We stopped at Port Cergy to eat a slightly squidged baguette and some leftover blue cheese. Port Cergy is a marina with restaurants overlooking the water. It was sunny and busy and proper torture to sit on a bench with such a sorry lunch as the glamorous of Paris drank cold beer and relaxed.

There was no time for us to drink beer. A cold can of pop and we were back in the saddle, powering on to the point in which the east and west routes of the ride join up and the next section begins – when the Oise joins the Seine. This section is famous for all the impressionist painters, including Van Gogh, who were inspired by the river scenes. It was indeed beautiful and the grand buildings on each side were impressive. I played a good mental game of which one do I want as my legs worked like pistons and we hammered through the checkpoints.

As the route closed in on Paris (and my interest in choosing houses massively diminished) it got more industrial and the poverty became apparent. There were more people, including children, begging and we cycled past a couple of shanty towns and areas full of tents.  My legs no longer felt like machines and my knees hurt. It felt like it was taking forever to get close to the centre and despite the descriptions telling us how wonderful the entry into Paris is, to us it felt crazy busy and a tad dodgy. Motorbikes roared up the bike paths, dogs wandered aimlessly and people were cooking pieces of meat on old trolleys that had been converted into barbecues.

When times get tough on a French bike ride there is one thing that will restore you – pastries. I have never deserved sugar so much in my life and patisserie power is the way forward.  Fuelled with chocolate eclairs and custard tarts we made it down to the canals and found the beautiful people once again as they swanned about on their way home from work. Oh how we longed to stop for a beer there! We felt as if we should officially finish the ride somewhere recognisable though, so headed on to the Seine. That was pretty galling as our hotel was in the other direction so we had to add on extra miles.

The panniers made it tough to cycle through the traffic but I definitely felt as if the French were more accommodating with cyclists. Even though Parisiens can’t be trusted to follow road rules – if they see a space they’ll make a dash to it – they give you a wide berth while they are careering across the road! When you get to the river though there is a good bike path and plenty of spots to stop. To STOP!!! Yes, I have never enjoyed a beer so much.

We reached our hotel about 8pm, 12 hours after starting, and after a quick dinner at the closest restaurant we could find, we went back to our room and fell asleep. We had to leave for our train to Rouen at 10am the next morning but there was no way I was going exploring with my lead-like legs! Next time.