Fairy Tales and Futurist Fun in the Enchanting Loire Valley
Most children’s eyes light up when princesses or knights are mentioned, their imaginations running rampant through fairy tale stories set in faraway lands. Yet these lands aren’t actually all that distant and you don’t need a magical carriage to get there – in just a few hours by ferry or the Eurostar, you’ll be in the Pays de la Loire and the valley of the French kings.
However, the fun doesn’t stop at the castle drawbridges, since the region has a number of excellent family attractions from exhilarating theme parks to relaxing beaches, making the Pays de la Loire an ideal family holiday destination.
I remember my own excitement when I first visited the Pays de la Loire castles. Even as a “big kid” in my early twenties, I was still enchanted. With scores of castles scattered throughout the department, it’s best to be selective, especially with children, and visit no more than two per day. Fairy tale dreams can come alive at the Château d'Angers with its imposing fortifications or the elegant Château de Saumur, sitting stoically atop its pedestal reigning over the town. I also adored visiting some of the area’s lesser-known castles such as the Château de Brézé with its massive defensive tower - perfect for your young knights and princesses (and its vineyard perfect for wine-loving parents).
A fabulous complement to castle touring is the thrilling Puy du Fou theme park, in Vendée. Truly unique (and terribly fun), here you can cheer on chariot races in a Roman amphitheatre, watch soldiers storm a castle, fend off a Viking invasion or try your hand at falconry. In between the action-packed shows, peruse the medieval village where you can observe artisans at work or listen to a lively Celtic band before heading to the turn of the century town to pick up some homemade candy or stop for a ride on an old-style carrousel.
After spending all that time in the past, travel to exotic and futuristic worlds at Les Machines de l’Île. Located in the old shipyards of the city island in Nantes, this fantastical park was inspired by local hero Jules Verne’s "invented worlds" as well as the mechanical universe of Leonardo da Vinci, creating an exciting and curious place. Here you can ride the giant 12-metre mechanical elephant, dive down 20,000 leagues on the Carousel of the Sea or spark creative engineering genius in your children by peeking into the new projects being built in their workshops.
The Pays de la Loire is also known for its picturesque nature and a great place to enjoy this is at the original Echologia park in Mayenne, near Laval. Located in an old lime quarry, here you can hike along trails, aim your arrows at the archery pitch, pick up a paddle and go canoeing or feed the friendly goats. Lunch can be savoured in their organic restaurant or you can even stay the night in one of their yurts or tents for the full natural immersion.
A nice compromise between sightseeing and taking it easy can be made by
staying at one of the Pays de la Loire’s pretty seaside towns such as Piriac-sur-Mer, Noirmoutier-en-l’île or Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie. Most of these towns offer budget and family-friendly accommodation in addition to a variety of activities such as water sports, golf, fishing or cycling, plus have safe beaches with lifeguards. For a fancier stay, opt for La Baule. Set on one of the most pleasant beaches in Europe, it offers some fun for weary parents where you can relax at the thalassotherapy spa, sip a cocktail admiring the sunset or take your chances at the casino.
Whether you’re a big kid, or small, you won’t feel like you’ve lost out by choosing the Pays de la Loire for your family trip and you’ll head home with some special memories, imaginations brought to life, and bodies hopefully well rested.