France, Loire-Atlantique & Brittany – you won't believe the Elephant

A week based in the Loire Atlantique on the west coast of France.  4 flights.  A hire car.  A tall toddler, a child so big the air hostess asked, ‘Is that an infant?” Um, yes, he’s called Goliath.  A five month old baby.  A husband.  And a desperation for some sun after a pretty mediocre summer at home.  The results were impressive – seven days of relaxed action – rural France surprised me.

We stayed in the middle of nowhere near a small town called Guemene-Penfao, a perfect base for day trips in all directions.

DAY TRIP 1 – VANNES

We drove an hour and fifteen minutes to the medieval town of Vannes in Brittany.

Super picturesque Vannes

Medieval Vannes

Its cuteness is staggering and visiting on its Wednesday market day meant there was a buzz and a chance to pick up treats for dinner.  But hold back the dogs, a half hour walk along the river brought you to the aquarium and butterfly garden.  This is the hottest ticket in town, I discovered, when you’re under two.  The aquarium blew Mr Toddler’s tiny mind – he ran from tank to tank to tank to tank shouting WOW, WOW, WOW, WOW.  I’ve never covered ground in an aquarium so fast but it’s not usually something I think about.  He didn’t differentiate between the sharks, the alligator (found in the sewers of Paris apparently) and the tiny fish – they were all ‘WOW’.

The blur of Mr Toddler as he darts about shouting WOW - Vannes aquarium

The blur of Mr Toddler as he darts about shouting WOW – Vannes aquarium

I’ve never seen him get so much joy from something so simple.  I could have cried.

Vannes Aquarium

Vannes Aquarium

He also took in the butterflies in the Butterfly Garden.  He’d never experienced anything like it, gentle creatures fluttering by.  I loved his curiosity.  The combined ticket for the aquarium and butterfly garden was just under €20 per adult (infants were free), it filled a whole afternoon, and we had no problem taking our City Select double buggy around (the medieval centre of Vannes itself is a bit cobbly but I didn’t do the pushing).

Vannes Butterfly Garden

Vannes Butterfly Garden

DAY TRIP 2 – NANTES

If you want traditional French childhood magic then Nantes is the place where I regressed and became a believer in the impossible.  An hour’s drive from our base in Guemene-Penfao is the Les Machines de L’Ile; a small island where mechanical magic lives, breathes fire and sprays water.  That French image, captured in so many French films, of the wondrous mechanic creating things of beauty and energy in his workshop is brought to life here.  With two children under two we didn’t queue for the many attractions (The Marine World’s Carousel, The Machine Gallery, The Building Workshop or The Prototype Branch of the Heron Tree), the kids would have lost patience but there was enough to see for free.  The mechanical elephant is glorious.  Once the passengers have embarked and the hydraulics are pumping the beast comes beautifully to life.  Its wooden skin looked leathery, its joints moved so naturally and we followed it round in circles, we were all transfixed- until it sprayed real water from its trunk and we skidaddled.

Mr Toddler in awe at Nante's Mechanical Elephant

Mr Toddler in awe at Nante’s Mechanical Elephant

Next to the cafe was the most intricate merry go round – tiny mechanical animals and little machines to nurture imaginations.  Mr Toddler whirled round on little airplanes before being strapped onto the back of a tiny mechanical beetle.  Each ride has pedals, or steering wheels or handles for the child to operate.  It would have been a joy to watch as a piece of craftsmanship even without the rugrats on it.

Nantes is a green city.  After the magical machines we drove a few minutes to Le Jardin des Plantes, seven acres of gardens open since 1865.  I didn’t expect the amount of planting designed to entice children to engage with gardening; this sleeping bird with its little suitcase is one example.

Park life

Park life

Other displays included shrubbery with a handle nearby- turn the handle and bubbles emerge from the centre of the plants.  A den of little ferns and greenery laughed back if children laughed at them – kinda eery but lovely too.  And the bird head plant pots below also attracted children’s attention.  Which little person doesn’t engage with plants after this?

Park Life - Le Jardin des Plantes

Park Life – Le Jardin des Plantes

DAY TRIP 3 – PORNICHET

Hitting the beach French style led us to Pornichet.  An hour from Guemene-Penfao you hit the Atlantic.  Pornichet is a massive strip of long, long, long sand which gently dips into water so perfect for Mr Toddler to dash in and out and in and out and in and out of the waves.  Or dig holes.  Or build castles.  Or dash in and out etc.  We spent a whole day there and it cost us nothing except the price of lunch.  Oh, and the best frozen greek yogurt I’ve ever tasted from a little ice-cream van (that looked like a camper van) parked near the Ibis hotel – look out for it.

Busy in Pornichet

Busy in Pornichet

DAY TRIP 4 – TROPICAL PARK

Now this is a random one.  About fifteen minutes from our gite, just off a dual carriageway near Redon is a tropical park.  As we approached Mr Husband didn’t believe me, and I seriously doubted myself, but yip it was there.  It just seemed so unlikely.  I have a feeling this place is one man’s dream as it’s just so idiosyncratic.  If I build it they will come (and they do). We saw tropical birds, wallabies, alpaca, Vietnamese pigs and some slightly odd mechanised dinosaurs in the prehistoric garden.  The gardens themselves should be a bigger selling point, there’s Thai, Mexican, Australian Gardens and it’s so lush and profuse.  The owners truly know how to nurture.  Very buggy friendly too and Mr Toddler could safely run around.  Unusual but what’s not to love?

The Dinosaur garden - including tiny breathing triceratops

The Jurassic Garden – including tiny breathing triceratops

DAY TRIP 4

Ten minutes from our site was an outdoor lake in the town of Plesse.  It has sand, a cafe, toilets and on a sunny day it’s a grand offering.

LOCATION & ACCOMMODATION

As I mentioned we stayed in the middle of rural countryside near a small, attractive town called Guemene-Penfao.

Guemene-Penfao

Guemene-Penfao

I genuinely wish I could rave about the accommodation as it was exemplary and the most child friendly place I’ve ever heard of or experienced but the owner has sold the property so I have no idea what the future holds or what the new owner/s will be like.  I still recommend the property itself and the area as a base so feel free to message me/comment if you want further detail.

Logistics – I was struggling to find flights/holidays that suited the children and their schedules so we thought we’d try something different.  We flew Aberdeen – Amsterdam – Nantes.  At Nantes we picked up a hire car (it’s a small airport so really straight forward).  We took our double buggy on the outward leg but it wasn’t allowed airside on the return leg (go figure) so we threw Mr Baby into his sling for the transfer and Mr Toddler walked it himself.  Four flights with a transfer in a major hub was far less difficult than I expected and offered us flights to places, and at times, that suited us. [There are lots of pros and cons to this so it’s almost a post in itself.]

Feeding – I fed Mr Baby in public throughout the Loire Atlantique area and nobody cared at all, which is how I like it as it really isn’t that interesting.  Bon Voyage.

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36 Comments

  1. Reply

    sacha

    August 25, 2015

    The elephant was nice but the bird was amazing.

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 25, 2015

      🙂 Do you mean the little sleeping bird with the suitcase? I was so impressed by how they reached out to children in that park.

  2. Reply

    momwithf

    August 26, 2015

    I love France, particulary Brittany. It’s such a lovely place. As I see you had a great time there.

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 26, 2015

      Yes, so many children interacted with my toddler as well as at that age language doesn’t matter. Really lovely.

  3. Reply

    mum2marathon

    August 26, 2015

    What a fabulous post, makes me wish I was there right now! Adding this as a potential for holidays next summer

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 26, 2015

      Thank you. Do you have anywhere you’d recommend? I’m always looking for next year’s holiday idea.

  4. Reply

    leslierickerby

    August 26, 2015

    Wow, this looks amazing! Vannes looks beautiful.

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 26, 2015

      We had no idea what to expect, the shops looked lovely too (if i was on a girls’ trip) but just window shopped on this occasion.

  5. Reply

    muminthecotswolds

    August 26, 2015

    Wow this looks like an amazing holiday, I love France but yet to go with the kidiwinks, maybe next year. Nantes looks like a fantastic place, and the tropical park my girls would love this. Off to pitch this region to the hubby now as think it looks like a beautiful holiday spot.

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 26, 2015

      Was pleasantly surprised by how much there was for kids to do. We stayed about an hour from Nantes so we were in a really central position for day trips to lots of different areas. Weather was also pretty reasonable for toots – not too hot but still needed the factor 50. Enjoy whatever you end up doing.

      • Reply

        muminthecotswolds

        August 26, 2015

        That such a good idea about staying central, it defiantly looks fun for the kids as well as the adults. Good to hear about the heat, I’m ashamed to say I’m worse than the kids when it comes to hot weather, just can’t cope when it’s too extreme hehe.

  6. Reply

    Hannah - Budding Smiles

    August 26, 2015

    Oh my goodness I want to go there now! I’ve been contemplating France for next year, when Toby is around 2 and your post has sold this area to me!xz

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 26, 2015

      My toddler was 21 months and it worked really well. I felt there were lots of open spaces where he could safely run around and the other children were really friendly. Also lots of play parks dotted about which was handy. Hope Toby enjoys himself 🙂

  7. Reply

    foxxie52

    August 26, 2015

    I used to work in Brittany. Gorgeous area. Lovely trip.

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 26, 2015

      Not jealous at all! What a lovely place to work.

  8. Reply

    Mummy on a Budget (@mummyonabudget)

    August 26, 2015

    Wow! Looks amazing. What a great trip you have. Love the elephant!

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 26, 2015

      Thank you!

  9. Reply

    Catherine Opel

    August 28, 2015

    Wow! That looks beautiful!

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 28, 2015

      Thank you 🙂

  10. Reply

    Julie

    August 28, 2015

    Wow, what an amazing family adventure! How inspiring. (And that mechanical elephant is unbelievable!)

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 28, 2015

      Thank you. I love it when you can find an activity that appeals as much to the adults as to the children.

  11. Reply

    sayersmom

    August 28, 2015

    What an amazing trip. My lo hates the car so we haven’t travelled as much as we like to. Hopefully we’ll be able to do more as she gets older. Any tips or tricks??

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 28, 2015

      Ok, you can still do it. Take our Irish road trip as an example. It looks quite full on but what I maybe didn’t make clear was that we only travelled during our baby’s nap times, so we’d leave around 10am or 2.30pm to move from town to town. This worked out well for checking out of hotels and leaving relative’s houses i.e. not too late or early. We ensured we only drove a few hours each time so Mr Baby didn’t oversleep but this also ensured he didn’t get bored as he was only awake for perhaps the first 30 mins of the journey.
      Mr Baby is happy travelling in the car but if he hated it we would have avoided the ferry and possibly flown direct and picked up a hire car.
      A new toy or food/snacks can be a great distraction as well (as long as they don’t get car sick).
      In car DVDs are popular but it’s better for car sickness if tots can be entertained by looking out the window (keeping an eye on the horizon etc.)
      I hope this helps – here’s the Ireland road trips so you can see how it looks kinda epic but was neatly slotted around short naps!

      https://tots2travel.wordpress.com/2015/07/10/ireland-part-one-of-the-mighty-tour/

      https://tots2travel.wordpress.com/2015/08/04/ireland-part-ii-ten-things-to-do-in-killarney-and-beyond/

      Take care.

  12. Reply

    Nikki

    August 29, 2015

    Oh wow this is so great! I’ve only been to France once when I was in high school. It was not all that great in my opinion so I never thought I’d take a trip back. But your post has inspired me to at least consider it again!

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 29, 2015

      Yes, I did a Paris trip with school so I know what you mean. But since then I’ve been to the South and the warm waters of the Med – Juan Les Pins, Antibes, Cannes etc. which feels very indulgent and very different to my everyday life but I found the Loire Atlantique strangely homely. It’s so green, like the UK, and pretty chilled out. Lots of different vibes to choose from. Hope you give it a second chance soon.

  13. Reply

    clmosher

    August 30, 2015

    Great photos.I’d love to visit France someday! You make it seem possible even with babies 🙂

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      August 30, 2015

      Yes, it was a pleasure to take the children to this part of France. I hope you make your visit!

  14. Reply

    Laura

    August 31, 2015

    What a fun day! I really want to visit France someday. Your pictures make it seem like your family had a lovely time. I love aquariums – what an excellent visual learning experience for the little ones. Thanks for sharing!

  15. Reply

    erinalice

    March 14, 2017

    What an amazing holiday. I love all the quirky little stops you managed to find! And yes, that elephant is amazing! #CityTripping

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      March 14, 2017

      I can’t believe what we managed to achieve with a two year old and a 5 month old. Probably too tired to think straight!

  16. Reply

    Tanja

    March 14, 2017

    it looks like a great trip! #citytripping

  17. Reply

    Coombe Mill

    March 14, 2017

    You do have a knack for finding the most fun looking places with kids #CityTripping

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      March 14, 2017

      That’s a huge compliment really. Thank you so much. The elephant was quite enthralling.

  18. Reply

    WanderMum

    March 15, 2017

    I really like the look of Nantes and the surrounding area. So much to do and I love the mechanical elephant! Thanks for linking #citytripping

    • Reply

      tots2travel

      March 16, 2017

      The elephant was fantastic. I liked feeling like a kid again when I saw it, my husband was trying to figure out the engineering and the children were in awe.

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