When I was growing up, travel in France always included travel from England to France. My own children have never had the opportunity to take the hovercraft or ferry on any of the busy routes across La Manche, the English Channel. It is still possible to take the ferry, if you don’t manage to get a Eurostar reservation for your car on Le Shuttle (the car train running through the Channel Tunnel). That first sight of foreign land from the boat was so exciting for me as a child. Driving off the ferry, we would shout from the back of the car to my Dad to serrer à droite! (keep to the right!). I never wanted to be in the front seat for the beginning of our journey as our ‘’lessons’’ in navigating would start right from the débarquement. Equipped with the pre-prepared itinerary of les routes pittoresques (scenic route), and with Le Guide Michelin (de camping!), one of my siblings would be charged with navigation assistance to our first stop on our camping tour - eventually we would all take a turn. This led not only to a hard-learned, but latterly appreciated, education in map reading, but also the French vocabulary that inevitably went with it. Also keep in mind, the co-pilot was sitting on the left in our right-hand drive car!
As a parent, I have taken my children on a different kind of adventure to France. We have traveled at high speed on the Eurostar from London to Paris - a 2 hour, 15 minute, hassle-free journey. Well, hassle-free if you remember to use rolling luggage, don’t agree to meet your husband in Paris because he is working in London longer than anticipated, and if you manage to avoid groups of families at the station whose children are clad in large mouse-ears. Realization comes with a sinking feeling in your stomach that they are waiting for the Disney train, which will take them gleefully to EuroDisney (Disneyland Paris). Your children look up at you with hope in their eyes….. Plan on a visit to EuroDisney or Parc Astérix, both accessible from Paris, if this is your thing and you don’t want to disappoint the little ones.
Notwithstanding the lack of large theme parks, we have had some fun trips. On our brief stops in Paris we have enjoyed Paris Plages. This is perfect for fun in the sun in the city with kids and adults alike. In the summer, the banks of the Seine are transformed into a beach resort, complete with sand, sun loungers and beach games. You can try your hand at pétanque (the French version of bocce), or run through the sprinklers to cool off, sit and enjoy an ice-cream or a Nutella-filled crêpe (my kids’ favorite) or just lie in the sun and relax. The left bank of the Seine was transformed into a riverside promenade for walkers, joggers and cyclists in 2017, le Parc Rives de Seine allows you to walk all the way on the Rive Gauche from close to Notre Dame, past the Musée D’Orsay to the Tour Eiffel. If you can, grab a couple of fresh baguettes, some delicious cheese, perhaps some fresh peaches and make your way to the Eiffel Tower, where you can enjoy your pique-nique on the Champs de Mars. Look up and marvel at the magnificent metal ‘obélisque’ and agree to skip the long lines for the elevator and take the stairs! You still have to buy tickets to climb to the second floor, but you will find the wait and the price much more palatable. It is not possible to climb past the second floor to the top - but you can take the elevator, if you have the stomach for it! Maybe treat yourselves to a Batobus back to where you started your day.
Leaving Paris behind, our trips have taken us to various regions, whether by car or by train. We have sometimes opted to take the train from Paris and pick up a rental car near our destination. Trains in France, and Europe in general, are wonderful! It also gives a different dimension of exposure for the kids - sitting on a long train ride once sparked games of Milles Bornes and other card games with French children sitting close by - my children didn’t speak French, but children have a way of understanding each other when playing together.
Wherever you are headed and whatever planning you do in advance, leave some space for the unexpected. When on a bike outing in Vendée (about 10 years ago), my boys and their cousins had their first experience in dégustation d’huîtres (oyster tasting). We had planned the day out on a bike path, with a picnic, and found ourselves on the Oyster Route which runs along the marshes at the Atlantic coast. We stopped at a small cabin hosted by an oyster farmer who was ready to teach us about oyster farming and give us a taste of his wares - the freshest oysters, washed down with a delicious glass of white wine!
Renting a house to accommodate the whole family group can sometimes be a little hit or miss; we have stayed in some wonderful, and some not quite so wonderful places! We tend to use the usual rental sites, Airbnb or Vrbo. If the properties are listed on both, it is worth comparing rates, make sure to check the taxes and cleaning fees etc. and then compare the final cost. And count the beds!! Properties can be listed on regional vacation rental sites too, so research the local tourism site. Communicating with the owner ahead of time can offer some great tips and insight into the goings on in the community. A few years ago, we stayed in a small, sleepy village in the Ariège. The owner of the house had already suggested getting us tickets for a moules frites night in the village square for our first evening. We had arrived during la fête and we were welcomed and encouraged to join in the fun! All three generations of us walked up to the village, got in line with the locals to pick up our food and sat together on long family-style tables. There was singing and toasting and much joviality, followed by dancing to live music by a local young band. Taking part in these evenings during la fête du village is a great way to try some good, reasonably priced food and keep the family entertained.
I have so many wonderful memories of traveling in France, both as a child and a parent. I don’t have an absolute favorite spot, but being in Les Pyrénées always takes my breath away. The mountains are majestic and just so massive! Vermont is beautiful, but the Green Mountains are foothills in comparison. The Ariège region, in the Central Pyrénées, is a beautiful, unspoiled area to vacation with or without kids. During our stay we enjoyed some spectacular hiking, white water rafting and kayaking - we also found river swimming holes for an icy plunge after a hot hike! If you are a cyclist you can check out a stage of the Tour de France and will understand why they are crowned King of the Mountains!
Is there a place in France that takes your breath away?
Liz grew up in England and spent many summers traveling in France with her family, which sparked a lifelong love of languages and travel. She has a degree in modern languages and international studies for which she also studied in France and Spain. Working in international sports marketing while living in Hong Kong and London meant extensive travel, particularly in Asia. A new chapter began after moving to New York and then settling in the Boston area. Liz enjoys traveling, experiencing different cultures and spending time with friends and family.See All Liz's Posts