In good times and bad, Irish visitors flock to La Palmyre. Tootlafrance joins the crowd to find out why
La Palmyre is actually part of the commune of Les Mathes – a coastal town in the Department of Charente-Maritime on a balmy stretch of the Atlantic coast. In case you weren’t sure, a “commune” in France is basically a town – but a town clearly defined on a map with its own boundaries. Communes come in all shapes and sizes: from the tiny little village to the sprawling collection of villages (like Les Mathes) to the huge city (like Paris).
But everyone who goes on holiday to Les Mathes knows the place simply as “La Palmyre”. From mid-June until the beginning of September, there is a fairly constant Irish presence. When I visited with my family last year, my sister and her family were already there and, amongst the multitude of Irish accents you hear there, we also found our neighbours. It’s that sort of place – where even in a period of official economic downturn, there are enough of your fellow countrymen around to start your own commune.
Most people choose to go by car. If you’re bringing your family, it’s always the most attractive option. Whether you’re coming via Roscoff or Cherbourg, it’s close to a six-hour drive, but one that’s quite relaxed nonetheless, with the usual stops along the way in the French roadway networks brilliant aires, where you can have lunch in a restaurant or picnic under the ever-warming skies.
As you arrive into La Palmyre, you are under no illusion other than this is a place for holidays. There isn’t anything immediately captivating or remarkable about it: it’s flat countryside with increasing quantities of sand and water and once you’re on the outskirts of the town proper you’ll see plenty of evidence of the tourism infrastructure that has built up here over the years. Quad biking, camp sites, pony trekking, paintballing centres… they flit past the eyes and cars coming against you are sporting Irish registrations.
There is something thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing about the manner in which most French resorts are built. There is a certain level of care put into the entire effort that you don’t always get in Spain or in Italy, for example. So, despite the build-up, it’s all very relaxed and low-key in atmosphere with a pleasant pine-shaded village feel and the scent of the sea.
There is a good choice of large campsite with plenty of excellent facilities in Les Mathes. We went for Bonne Anse Plage. Along with La Pinède and Atlantique Parc, it’s one of the most popular with Irish visitors.
The site is just outside the village – probably a good 20-minute walk if you were to walk it. In any case, the one essential item around here is the bicycle. The land is flat and the cycle lanes are beautifully smooth and safe. For anyone who, like me, was brought up on negotiating the terrifying streets of Dublin in the 1980s on a bike, they will appreciate just how relaxing cycling can be in these circumstances.
Bonne Anse Plage is a four-star site and is pretty much a self-contained “village”, with a rudimentary shop selling groceries and essentials at prices that aren’t outrageously inflated and with a staff that have all the appearance of being well-paid and content. We didn’t eat at the bar (although many people did) but we did have a few drinks there in the evening and watched some of the entertainment.
For smaller children, the camp look after them very well in the mornings, with a full programme of activities. The pool facilities are very good too, with a choice of pools and of slides that vary from the serene to the bordering-on-the-insane.
The afore-mentioned campsite shop is good for the basics, particularly for the essential bread in the morning or a few tipples at the mobile home in the evening. But for a more heavy-duty shop, there is a Hyper-U store about 6km from the site (Super-U Arvert), where they also sell the cheapest diesel around in their automated self-service filling station.
You can rent bikes at the parc, but we found that it was cheaper again to go into La Palmyre to rent your bikes, where there is a multiple choice of bicycle-hire providers.
Finally, it’s when you get on your bike that you really appreciate La Palmyre. From the back of the campsite (the bit facing out onto the sea), a smooth cycle lane runs all along the sand-dune, pine-forested coast and you can choose to turn right to the lighthouse (a nice place to have a picnic or go for a morning cycle) or left into La Palmyre past the marina and on to one of the star attractions here – the zoo.
The La Palmyre Zoo is worth travelling many hours for, so if it’s on your doorstep, then it’s simply unmissable. It was always designed with strong principles of animal welfare and entertainment in mind and the layout is really excellent, with a superb range of animals on display. There are shows every few hours with entertainment provided by trained sea-lions and parrots (not on the same bill!).
The poster-boys for the zoo are surely the polar bears, however. Their accommodation seems cramped enough, but if you’re fortunate enough to be there when they go for a dip in their pool, it’s an unforgettable experience to be able to put your hands up to the glass as they tumble in the water and push off the sides of the pool right beside you.
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Bonne Anse Plage and Le Zoo de La Palmyre Video