Posted on 22 April 2010 by Dan Johnson
Charente Maritime, a coastal departement (like a county) in the region of Poitou Charente, is the sunniest part of France’s west coast (according to the French Met office). So combine the sunshine with massive sandy beaches screened by forests of pine trees, and fun seaside towns, and you have the perfect mix for a top family holiday.
Charente Maritime is the Atlantic coast region that can live up to the tag of having its own micro-climate. Thanks to a clash of weather systems from the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, it is the second sunniest region of France and normally enjoys warm (but not stiflingly hot) summers, and there isn’t much rainfall.
Charente Martime beaches
For much of the D25 coastal road from La Palmyre to Ronce-les-Bains you are faced by a forest of pines that hide the fantastic beaches beyond. But pull off at one of the many tiny tracks leading into the forest, and you’ll soon discover that trees give way to dunes, which lead onto fabulous golden beaches of the Côte Sauvage, great fun for families on their siblu holiday.
There are more than 100 beaches which can be explored during your holiday, but several are within easy reach of the seaside resort of La Palmyre. These include La Palmyre beach, La Coubre and the bay at Bonne Anse.
La Palmyre is a beautiful beach and the most exposed, so the waves are at their biggest here. If you want to join the water sports fans who favour this section, there are plenty of surf schools giving lessons and hiring equipment.
La Coubre beach, which is the most sheltered and popular with families, is also home to one of France’s most powerful lighthouses. The red and white beacon is 60m high and has a range of more than 50km. Those who have the energy can climb 300 spiralling stairs to the top, where they will be rewarded with incredible views of the coast and forest.
Bonne Anse beach is a favourite too, with clear waters and a large sweep of golden sand, plus lots of bars and restaurants nearby.
Be aware: although there is a huge amount of space on the beaches of Charente Maritime, the roads leading to them get busy in July and August. So plan your journey in advance if a parking spot close to the beach is an absolute must, an early start is often recommended.
TripAdvisor members say:
“The beaches at La Palmyre are perfect, with long golden sands, excellent waves, and the walk from the car park is not too far. Watch out for the naturist sections!” [TripAdvisor member, Bucks]
“La Palmyre beach is lovely and safe at low tide, with waves and deeper sea at other times. It’s super clean sand and there’s plenty of space for cricket — fun for all.” [TripAdvisor member, Bristol]
“The Cote Sauvage itself is worth seeing and is great for surfing and body boarding but it can get a little rough (sauvage by name, savage by nature!).” [TripAdvisor member, Portsmouth]
St Palais sur Mer is a lovely little resort with good shopping, eating and fantastic, West Country style sandy beach with rock pools down sides. [TripAdvisor message, Essex]
Attractions and Adventure
Futuroscope, near to Poitiers, is the second most popular theme park in France. It has massive Imax cinemas that show interactive films that appear above your head, below your feet and all around to give a sense of flying, racing and rushing across incredible landscapes or through the seas. You’ll meet dinosaurs, experience space and even be scooped up by giant robot hands that spin you round to a rock-and-roll rhythm. And if all that sounds too energetic, there are many more sedate activities when you need a breather.
Be aware: driving to Futuroscope from the coast will take a couple of hours, which means you a visit turns into a long day. So if you are worried about exhausted kids, then consider leaving out the popular light show at the end of the day. For all its technical brilliance, you have to pay extra, it doesn’t start until late evening, and the kids – especially younger ones – could find it tricky to follow and won’t love it as much as the rides and 3d films.
La Palmyre zoo is one of the biggest in Europe with 1,600 animals from across the world. It has a healthy conservation programme and runs breeding programmes for endangered species, but your children will be much more interested by how close they can get to many of the animals.
The zoo is quite large and open, so allow plenty of time to explore, but it’s well laid out and you’ll have see most of the enclosures several times.
There are stalls selling snacks which you can feed to the animals, getting you really near to elephants, giraffes and zebras. Your children will also love watching the polar bears swimming through their glass-walled tank, the parrot and sealion shows, the baby monkeys, and the extrovert meercats who love to play up to an audience.
Charente Maritime is bike country and there are miles of accessible routes for all abilities. Take to two wheels through the La Coubre forest, along the Cote Sauvage, to explore the islands of Île de Re, Île d’Oléron and Île d’Aix and the marshland of Marais Poitevin. Bikes can also be a great way of navigating the cities and old towns dotted throughout the countryside.
And as an alternative to two wheels, try the horse riding schools at La Pignade and Les Charmettes. There are rides that take you through forests and as far as the coast.
TripAdvisor members say
“The Zoo is La Palmyre is a must, one of the biggest in Europe! It’s the best I’ve ever been to, much better than any I’ve visited in the UK. Being able to feed the giraffes is awesome and the platform that puts you at their head height is a stroke of genius, my son loved it.” (Top tip] save Euros by buying tickets at your siblu parc reception). [TripAdvisor members in Essex, Kent, Portsmouth and Bucks]
“This is bike country. Just behind the beach at La Palmyre is a long stretch of pine forest which is great for exploring by bike. The area is very flat and there are paths all along the coast, so cycling is easy, and very safe” [TripAdvisor member, Sussex]
“Futuroscope is an amazing mixture of exciting rides, informative and interactive displays and first class facilities set in the most beautiful surroundings.” [TripAdvisor member, Plymouth] “Don’t expect a typical theme park though. This is about audio, video and simulator experiences and is much more educational. Not to miss: Dances with robots, Future is wild and Dynamic Vienne.” [TripAdvisor member, London]
Cities and towns
La Rochelle is a pretty coastal town that is dominated by its historic port. Le Vieux Port has two stately towers guarding the entrance from the sea and is the biggest yachting centre on France’s Atlantic coast. To get a good view over the city, climb the 15th century Tour de la Lanterne, where your children can spot antique graffiti left by prisoners from the 17th-19th century.
The town is small enough to explore on foot and well-equipped for keeping the whole family entertained. There are great shops, lots of restaurants, beaches and a huge aquarium with more than 10,000 animals and 20 types of shark. The tanks in the aquarium have transparent tunnels running through them, so you can see the sealife swimming around you.
The main streets have plenty of shopping and you can explore the side streets to find boutique shops. On Saturdays there is a vibrant market which brings an energetic buzz to the town.
Opinion is divided on the town of Cognac. Some people say it is only worth visiting for the drink, others think the town itself is very pretty and worth a look. If you are in the region, we can recommend the Hennessy Cognac Visit.
The ancient town of Saintes has an amphitheatre here that is nearly as big as the Coliseum in Rome and dates from around the 1st century. The Arch of Germanicus makes a striking entrance to the town, and looks like the little sister of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.
Your children to relive the ‘Famous Five’ adventures, by exploring the islands offshore from La Rochelle. The Ile de Ré and the Ile d’Oléron are linked to the mainland by bridge. The Ile d‘Oléron is great for surfing, and children will love scrambling around some of the ruined windmills or race down the sand dunes and there are excellent beaches at Vert Bois and Grande Plage.
The Marais-Poitevin, in the north of the region, is a reclaimed marshland criss-crossed by canals and rivers, and so is best explored by boat, which can include flat-bottomed barques, dinghies and canoes.
TripAdvisor members say:
“La Rochelle’s cultural and architectural heritage recalls the sea, and the quaysides of the Old Harbour are dramatic. La Rochelle was a wonderful town to stroll around and see the sights.” [TripAdvisor member, Manchester]
Food and restaurants
France is famed for its ‘gastronomy’, and Charente Maritime is famous for its Marenne-Oléron oysters.
The fantastic Central Market of Royan is open every morning for traders with a huge diversity of seasonal products. The fish market is hugely impressive, selling all sorts of catches, although crawfish is one of the stars, along with the Marenne Oyster.
Also keep an eye out for products from the land, including the mouth-watering Charente melon, Blayais asparaguses, which are white or violet and at their best between March and mid May, or even kiwi fruit — France is the second largest European producer!
La Rochelle market is another great all rounder, with avenues of fruit, veg, meats and fish. When you’ve tired of searching the stalls there are fantastic bars and restaurants on the edge — try the grey shrimps which are called “boucs” — especially tasty when they are cooked in a buttered frying pan and flambéed with cognac.
TripAdvisor members say
“La Palymre has lots of good restaurants especially down by the marina [TripAdvisor member, Southampton]. Le Golfy, right on the marina, has lovely food and friendly staff” [TripAdvisor member, Munster]
Violon sur les Sables is an extraordinary free-to-watch classical music concert that takes place over three nights at the end of July, on the beach at Royan, and features many world renowned musicians and orchestras. For the best spot on the sand set off early, take your picnic and spend the day relaxing in the sun, preparing for the evening’s stunning sound and light extravaganza.
The Cavalcade which takes place in the coastal town of La Rochelle brings two days of fanfare, parades and music to the streets every summer. The flamboyant celebration reels in the crowds with brass bands, family entertainment and a party vibe. A highlight is the night parade, where floats twinkle with hundreds of tiny fairy lights and Miss Rochelle makes an appearance. June 2010.
For a fantastic street festival mark a place in your diary for Coupe de Chauffre in Cognac. Street entertainers take over the town’s cobbled streets during the two-day event and swarms of stilt walkers, jugglers, clowns, musicians, dancers, acrobats and puppeteers, dazzle the crowds and guarantee laughs. September 2010.
Travelling to Charente Maritime
There are regular low-cost flights to the small airport at La Rochelle, which is served by the major car hire companies.
Driving to Charente Maritime from any of the north coasts ports is easy, but don’t underestimate the distance and the time it takes. Most of the trips take place on autoroutes or dual carriageways, but don’t be tempted to speed to make up time as there are police and speed cameras to catch you.
Driving from Calais, take the A16 to Rouen and the A84 down to Nantes, or the N138 to Le Mans and onto Tours before taking the A10 to Poitiers and Saintes. Remember that many of France’s main roads charge a toll (peage) which you can pay by card or cash at the booths. From Calais to Charente Maritime will cost about 45€ with a travel time approaching 8 hours.
From Cherbourg or Caen, take the A84 to Rennes and then the A83/E03 to La Rochelle. As you’re avoiding many of the main routes, tolls will be under 10€ and the journey time is around 6 hours.
All of the usual road regulations apply, and in France it is also compulsory to have a warning triangle and high visibility vest. If you don’t have these, you can face on the spot fines.
Where to stay
Les Charmettes has a giant swimming pool complex with slides and waterfalls that the kids will love. The entertainment at night is fantastic and a favourite for all.
La Pignade is a compact parc that packs lots in, including a horse riding school, a masseuse and nature trails. The heated pool has a retractable roof, which makes it popular at all times.
Bonne Anse Plage is a hub of activity, with a great pool and slides, a climbing wall, and cycle paths that snake off to the local beaches.
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