Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Gallery: Travel - and why travelling with kids doesn’t have to be hard work

Tara Cain at Sticky Fingers has given us Travel as the category for this week's Gallery.  I decided that this would be a good opportunity to tell you about one of the MOST successful experiences we've had travelling with our children. Couldn't limit it to one pic though.
Our family holidays have largely fallen into two categories – travelling abroad to stay with far flung family or going somewhere that offers an all inclusive meal plan plus kids club so that my husband and I get a break from the 24/7 job of being a parent.

However, this Easter, we decided to go to a self-catering gîte in the French countryside. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t classify being in the countryside, cooking, cleaning and looking after children a holiday. It too closely resembles my everyday life.

But I really wanted to explore a bit more of France and figured that we’d probably have better weather there than at home and as long as it wasn’t hugely expensive, we could still have a ‘proper’ holiday in the summer holidays.

I have worked with child friendly holiday family specialists Tots to Travel for five years, but have yet to go on one of their holidays. But this year I decided it was high time I sampled what I'd been promoting for years (please note, I paid for this holiday, it wasn't a freebie so I'm reviewing this as a real customer).

After browsing the website, I found the perfect spot in Belle Gites, a cluster of five family friendly gîtes in Charente Maritime, where there would be other children to keep my two sons (7 and 5) entertained. And it offered home cooked meals, was near places I wanted to visit and was very affordable.

The courtyard at Belle Gites
My holiday decision was reaffirmed with the smooth booking process and excellent customer service. I wanted to stay for one night more than the allotted 7 nights, and that was efficiently arranged. Within minutes of booking, I received a call from the home owner who gave me even more information on the property, what to bring, how to get there and what we could expect the weather to be like. A great personal touch – it felt like we were going to stay with friends, rather than on an anonymous holiday complex.

We opted to go by ferry to Caen and drive the five hours to the Charente Maritime where the property was situated, rather than flying into La Rochelle which was the alternative. It was an easy journey on fast, mostly traffic free toll roads.

Small boys enjoying pain au chocolat on the ferry
On arrival, the kids thought Christmas had come early when they saw everything that was waiting for them to play with. In the courtyard there was table football, ping pong, basketball, darts, deck quoits, skittles, board games, countless bikes of all sizes and much more. But that was just the start. 
Just some of the kit available for us to use
The huge grounds also had a heated swimming pool with plenty of swimming toys, a zip wire, volley ball court, full size football pitch, mini tennis/badminton court, pirate ship sandpit, climbing frame, swings, trampoline, Little Tikes houses and ride ons, and a pet corner with chickens that the children could feed.
The lovely pool - which we swam in despite it only being April
Full size football pitch and volleyball/tennis

Kids climbing frame and trampoline

Perfect for toddlers - sandpit and playhouses
 Within minutes of arrival, our children had gone exploring, leaving us to check out our property, complete with welcome basket of essential foods and wine. We’d gone for Gîte Safran, one of five gîtes on site all clustered around the central courtyard. It had two beautifully decorated bedrooms (one double, one twin), with a bathroom between the two, and an open plan kitchen, dining room and sitting room all tastefully furnished and scrupulously clean. It was set back from the other gîtes, but had outside tables for al fresco dining on both sides – one overlooking the swimming pool and grounds, the other the courtyard – giving us privacy yet still being very sociable.

Gite Safran

Our hosts Michelle and Paul were immediately welcoming and introduced their children Sol and Safia to our boys. We also met the one other family staying in one of the other gîtes with their three boys.

Our lovely hosts
With a troop of small boys to charge around with, dens to build and intricate games of goodies vs baddies to play, we didn’t see our children for the next few days, except when their grumbling tummies brought them back for our al fresco lunches of crusty bread, creamy cheese and salty ham. This left my husband and I free to lounge next to the pool in the unseasonably warm high twenties temperatures, or take turns going for long bike rides through the undulating fields and vineyards.

A game of goodies v baddies going on in the trees

On his way to the den in the woods with treasure

We’d chosen the gîtes partly because of the location. Just a five minute bike ride to the local village for fresh bread and croissants, 10 minute drive to St Jean d’Angely, named as one of France’s 100 most beautiful villages, 10 minutes to Saintes with its ancient Roman ruins, 20 minutes from Cognac with fabulous tours of Cognac houses, 25 minutes to the beach and 45 minutes to La Rochelle with its cosmopolitan vibe.

The harbour fort at La Rochelle

La Rochelle Port
We visited all of these places and while the children enjoyed them, they would have preferred to stay at Belle Gites every single day. And it’s easy to understand why. The sleepy French village with its quiet country lanes made it safe enough for them to ride their bikes unaccompanied by an adult. They could explore the acres of woodland playing imaginative games. They had complete freedom to run wild and returned home each evening filthy, exhausted but utterly happy. As parents, we could genuinely relax, knowing they were safe and having the time of their lives.

We were incredibly lucky with the weather, with a daily average of around 25C. Had the weather been less kind, there is plenty to do indoors nearby like visiting the Atlantys Swimming Complex or The Aquarium in La Rochelle.

Hosts Michelle and Paul offer BBQ evenings, giving the guests a chance to know each other while eating delicious home cooked food. They also hold weekly football games with the local French residents, and guests are invited to take part. If you want a night out, they offer babysitting, a mini kids club in which they do arts & crafts, video nights for children complete with popcorn, and while we were there, they put on a fantastic Easter egg hunt. On our last night, they even set up a tent in the grounds for our and their children to have a camp out.

The Easter egg hunt (real and chocolate eggs were found!)

The football match with the locals

The kids got to camp out on the last night for added fun

My preconceived notions about spending my entire holiday cooking and cleaning were unfounded. Meals in France need to be nothing more than a smorgasbord of cheese, hams, breads, olives and fresh tomatoes – no cooking required. While our children are slightly older, even parents of babies and toddlers could easily have a relaxing break thanks to the layout of the gîtes, the services on offer and the extensive kit provided.

I’m a complete convert. We all returned home relaxed, refreshed, sun-kissed and in love with France.

While not all self-catering options are created equal, all those on the Tots to Travel website have been personally visited and vetted to ensure that they are safe for children, relaxing for parents and generally fabulous. Our toughest decision is where to go next with them – France, Spain, Italy or Portugal.


  • Cost of accommodation: in Easter £640 for a week. Goes up to £875 per week in summer.
  • Travel: Brittany Ferries - £371 return trip. Alternatively fly to La Rochelle (45 minutes drive from the Gites) on FlyBe, Jet2 or EasyJet
  • Tolls: Approximately €40 each way
  • Cognac tours: Try Hennessey which includes a boat trip or Remy Martin which includes a train ride
  • Saintes: visit the Roman amphitheatre with children – little boys in particular will enjoy pretending to be gladiators in the ring
  • Travel tip: we stayed overnight in Caen on our return due to an early start with the ferry. It would also be possible to leave at 2am and drive overnight, letting children sleep and get to the ferry in time. Alternatively, if driving up a day in advance, stop at the war cemeteries and D-Day landing beaches for some history.


mumsarcade said...

Your reasons for comments sounds like me. The place you went sounds ideal for your family and I love France. I like the pic of your sons on the ferry with those manic excited faces

Jenn said...

I love the idea of staying at a self-catering that, well, caters to families - I mean REALLY plans for them, not simply including a high chair and bedrail in a random cupboard!

It looks like a fabulous holiday!

nappy valley girl said...

It sounds like great fun. I love that kind of holiday - and cooking is always less of a chore when you have lovely French ingredients, isn't it?

Inside the Wendy House said...

That sounds like an ideal holiday destination for a family! I love France and dining on baguettes and cheese!

angelsandurchinsblog said...

Love Tots to Travel! And self-catering with children is so much less stressful than trying to keep them quiet in a hotel room when they wake up at some nightmare hour.

Seriously? This is it? said...

Sounds perfect. Book me in.
...but do I really need to take the kids too? (or hubby for that matter..?)