To some, it might be classed as flat and featureless, but to thousands of Irish holidaymakers every year, Vendée is pure French family holiday heaven
For so many Irish who go on holiday to France, certain French place-names have become as familiar as Irish place-names over the last 20 years or so and a very high proportion of them are in the Vendée department: St Gilles Croix de Vie, Les Sables d’Olonne, Bretignolles-sur-Mer, Saint Jean-de-Monts… Mention their names to any number of Irish people who’ve been on holiday in France, and they conjure up stories and sighs about idyllic days and nights spent on family holidays.
It’s the same for me. When I was a young teenager, I went on holiday with my parents to Les Sables d’Olonne. My memories are of hot weather, enormous sandy beaches (on which my father used to play hurling with me or my brothers, attracting inquisitive locals), neat clean promenades, ice-cream parlours, doughnut vendors trudging across the hot sand shouting “Beignets!” to the sun-bathing masses and a first impression of a France where the the flat land stretched on into the blue horizon, punctuated by expansive fields of sunflowers, quiet villages with orange tiled roofs and dry hot weather that I never tired of.
During the intervening years, I discovered a lot more of France. To many French people I spoke to, however, there was a general opinion that the flat department of Vendée was a relatively featureless part of the country, with little to offer besides the long sandy beaches.
So I returned to the department where I was first introduced to France, partly to see if those first impressions were sound and also because, at the same time, Irish people continued to talk glowingly about the Vendée resorts.We spent a week at the Siblu caravan park Le Bois Dormant in St Jean-de-Monts. The resort town is deceptively big, even though it never feels like it is and its high concentration of camp sites makes it the resort with the highest number of tourist bed-nights in the Vendée. Together with its sister park across the road Le Bois Masson, they constitute a typically high-spec world of holiday living, with superb facilities and atmosphere.
Both camp sites have really good swimming pool facilities, complete with slides so you can literally spend the entire day hanging out by the pool, where the children can have lots of water-based fun and meet other children while the adults relax on the sun loungers, sip cold drinks, chat to other English-speakers, read books and take regular dips to cool down.
We did our share of pool time for sure, meeting lots of our fellow citizens, all with smiles on their faces from the effects of the warm sun, but the beach at St Jean-de-Monts is an attraction and facility that’s not to be sniffed at. It runs 8km long, making it perfect for horse rides, long walks or simply long days at the seaside.
At the “town” end of the beach (i.e. the northern end), most of the facilities are concentrated, including kids’ camp, showers, sports rental, volley-ball pitches, etc. As you go farther south, the beach becomes quieter and includes a well-signposted naturist section. At all points, however, there is plenty of public parking right beside the wide promenade which is (quite incredibly in this day and age) free of charge. I didn’t believe it and had to double check with the owner of a nearby tabac. “Yes,” she affirmed. “Lots of people are surprised by that one.”
There are a couple of reasons why the beaches here are so suitable for younger children. The first is that the gentle progression of the sand means that it takes a long time for anyone to get out of their depth. There are no sudden drops or undulations in the sand and no rip-tides lurking underneath to cause any dangerous situations. This is, the local tourist authorities tell me, a situation that is exceptional along the Atlantic coast.One unique aspect we discovered while there is the little triangular shellfish that the locals call pignons. All you need to get some for your evening meal is to squat or kneel by the shore in the shallow water and take up fistfuls of wet sand. Each time, you should get three or four pignons, which you can then transfer to your bag or your saucepan and cook for a couple of minutes once you get back to the mobile home. You also see people getting even more industrial with it by wearing saddles bags and using a large wooden implement that’s a cross between a rake and fishing net; it rakes them up at a much faster scale if you’re planning on having a large crowd around the caravan in the evening for a feed of pignons.
The other unique thing that this part of France enjoys is the number of sunshine hours: the figures here benefit from a micro-climate so that they’re on a par with the Côte d’Azur.
We weren’t long getting into the spirit of camp-site life and struck up with our neighbours – a young couple from Dublin on holiday with their son. The mobile home we were in had plenty of room for all five of us. The kitchen set-up was good, with double oven and grill, but we mostly used the gas barbecue also provided and ate al fresco every night on the timber terrace, with a diet that consisted largely of shellfish, burgers, olives, wine and Orangina.
Down at the camp bar, meanwhile, the atmosphere was lively every night, with shows for the younger campers every evening. The children milled together playing pool and slot machines, while the adults sipped drinks and talked and laughed until tiredness or closing time brought a halt to proceedings.
The level land around here is very conducive to cycling. The Vendée has a vast network of over 1,000km of well-maintained cycle lanes and is still growing. The local tourist office has plenty of maps and brochures proposing all sorts of itineraries ranging in distance from 5km to 70km. We stuck with the 2km cycle to the beach. St Jean-de-Monts has sprawled in a thoughtful manner and the south side of the town (where we were situated has a lot of pine trees, through which cycle paths meander under dappled shade.There was a wide choice of hypermarkets very close by, including Hyper U and Intermarché. There was also a Lidl within a short drive or 10-minute cycle of the camp site. For basics, the campsite shop was more than adequate and for the market feel, the market in St Jean-de-Monts was broad-ranging and lively as you like it, with plenty of local produce.
There are offshore islands to visit too and the most accessible is Île de Noirmoutier. You can drive onto it and it’s really worth the trip because the atmosphere changes to that lovely island-life feel as soon as you get there. There are some really alluring beaches here that feel decidedly tropical and it’s amazing how foreign the atmosphere here is compared to other parts of the coast. At the time we were there, a big film production with Audrey Tautou was in full swing, or so we were told, but we didn’t catch any sight of cinematic activity. We did visit the local aquarium in Noirmoutier-en-Île. It’s a basic enough affair, but with a good collection of species for all that, including a sea-lion show if you time your visit right.
As soon as I got back home, I immediately looked up pignon in the dictionary and online to find out where to get them in Ireland. Despite hours of research, I had to come to the conclusion that these sweet little shellfish are particular to the Vendée. Not only that, but it seems that the word isn’t even officially French and I could find it in no French dictionary: it’s something that the Vendéens have all to themselves. It’s nice to know that places you assumed you knew still have so much more to offer.
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