Explore the Dordogne, a classic family holiday destination chock-full of caves bearing some of the oldest artworks created by humankind.
Venture south of the Dordogne, to the Aquitaine region's lesser-known Lot et Garonne (distinguished both from the Lot itself and from the Tarn et Garonne, which are to the east in the Midi-Pyrénées). This is a similarly rural, inland département full of low-key delights and laid-back country living free of the tourists in the Dordogne. Messing about on the water is a highlight here, particularly on the Canal Latéral à la Garonne, part of the vast Canal du Midi reaching all the way from Bordeaux to the Mediterranean. Kayaking is also very popular in the area – a good place for rental is Clairac, where you’ll also find the Abbaye des Automates, where about 250 mechanical models of monks, abbots and others portray daily life in the Middle Ages. The exhibition is combined with a display of automated gnomes, elves and so on, plus some matchstick models of great French buildings.
Just outside Agen, the départmentale capital, visit the Walibi Aquitaine themepark, with rides from everyone from rollercoaster junkies to tots. Otherwise there are plenty of pretty bastide towns and precarious villages perchés dotted on the hilltops to discover, and older kids will be enthralled by the village of Moncrabeau, which is none other than the capital of lying – in summer there’s a Lying Festival (Festival de Mensonges) during which locals sit on the Liar’s Throne by the market hall and tell tall tales, while the rest of the year the tourist office can provide information about the Liar’s Circuit (French only) around the village, containing nothing but fibs about the place…
Also in the Lot et Garonne are the Grottes de Lastournelle near Villeneuve-sur-Lot (a bastide town famous for its organic market on Wednesdays). These pre-historic caves have seven interconnecting chambers to discover, including the Pillar Room full of stalagmites and stalactites. More impressive still are the Grottes de Fontirou, which have the benefit of a picnic area, bar, mini-golf and children’s go-karting, so you can make it into a family day out. If the architecture of the Middle Ages gets your vote, there’s the splendid Château de Bonaguil near Fumel, host to lots of activities for kids during the summer months, plus a medieval festival in July.
Discover the département of the Gironde, from the cosmopolitan, culture-soaked city of Bordeaux to the dramatic Atlantic coast. Bordeaux, situated at the heart of some of the world’s finest vineyards, is synonymous with wine and wine tours, but it’s also a fine city in its own right – the sheer number of listed classical and neo-classical monuments and buildings has led to it being declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, and it’s also famed for its high-end shopping. It’s a town for wandering around, with little in the way of real sights for children (although note that the tourist office website has a useful ‘Famille Plus’ icon signalling family-friendly sites, hotels and restaurants) – if you need something more, there’s a zoo in the southern suburb of Pessac.
The Médoc region north of Bordeaux is best known for its wine châteaux, but canny parents will find this is a great area for unspoilt Atlantic beaches where you can surf, windsurf, sail and fish – this is a good place to bring kids to learn to surf, with Montalivet, Lacanau-Océan, Soulac and Carcans-Plage making good bases. It’s also a good flat area for cycling, and you can make boat-trips 7km out to sea to see France’s oldest lighthouse, Cordouan, completed in 1611, or across the neck of the estuary to the resort of Royan in Poitou-Charentes.
But the coast’s biggest draw is south-west of Bordeaux: Arcachon, or more specifically, its mighty sand dune, the 3km-long Dune du Pyla. Other than the dune, plus 7km of fine beaches and watersports, and horse-riding opportunities in the surrounding pine forests, Arcachon has a small aquarium and museum with local eels, seahorses and tortoises and some tropical fish, stuffed animals from nearby waters and forests, and displays on local oyster-culture, sailing and prehistory. Many people learn to sail in Arcachon’s placid bay with its famous houses on stilts, where you can hop onto the pretty little Ile aux Oiseaux. The town itself is a great size for families – compact yet containing all the amenities you need for a relaxing stay. The Le Moulleau district about 2km south of the centre is a favourite with chic French parents, especially from Paris, for holidays in a calm, safe environment in which kids can roam freely. To run completely riot, head for Kidparc, an ‘adventure island’ of rides and activities just east of Arcachon at Gujan-Mestras, with the emphasis on younger kids. There’s also an Aqualand here.
South of the Gironde lies the département of the Landes, a coastal region of wild sands and large swathes of forest, with few towns of any real interest. Known as the Côte d’Argent for its gorgeous silvery beaches, this is prime surfing territory, with countless little resorts with board hire and surfing schools, many of them hosting surfing competitions in the summertime. Biscarrosse, Moliets and Mimizan are popular spots with both experts and beginners. Or try Capbreton and Hossegor, each with a boardwalk, seafront cafés, restaurants and surf shops. In August and September, Hossegor – home to the Fédération Française de Surf – hosts the Rip Curl Pro, Rip Curl Mademoiselle and Pro Junior Rip Curl Series competitions.
Les Landes gives way to the département of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, the westernmost section of the mountain range divided between France, Spain and Andorra. Most of the French Pyrénées are in the Midi-Pyrénées region. It’s home to sea and mountains, so you can both swim and ski here. Otherwise, there are invigorating sporting activities aplenty in the valleys, including rafting, canyoning, horse-riding, swimming in crystalline mountain lakes, cycling, hiking and fishing – or you can just enjoy the staggering scenery. The latter is best seen, at least by those with kids, from Le Petit Train de la Rhune funicular railway, which takes you up the 995m mountain of the same name, topped by a radio tower, from which you have incredible views of the mountains and ocean. When the train coming down and the train going up cross, the drivers and conductors get out to have a little chat and shake hands… Take warm clothing, plus hardy shoes if you want to make the 2hr/2hr 30min walk down.
But the main attraction in this heavily Basque-influenced département (the coast is actually known as the Côte des Basques) is Biarritz, a one-time fishing village now so permeated by surfing culture that it has been dubbed the ‘California of Europe’, yet retaining a classic French seaside feel. Surfing schools and shops abound here, and it hosts many competitions, including the Quiksilver Pro surfing tournament for men. Some tournaments feature concerts and workshops, while in August the Rip Curl Pro Music Festival on the Plage d'Ilbaritz hosts rising international music stars and also promotes environmental awareness. August also sees Les Têtards (‘Headstrong’), a competition for rising stars aged 5–14. Because of its exceptionally mild winter climate, Biarritz has sea-swimming and even sunbathing for much of the year – if you’re not here on Christmas Day, you can catch the communal Christmas Day swim at Le Port Vieux on the national TV news.
Worth a visit is Biarritz’s Rocher de la Vierge, a statue situated on a small island that is accessible by footbridge, with magnificent views of the surrounding coastline and even, in fine weather, the coast of northern Spain. Opposite it is the Musée de la Mer or ‘Sea Museum’, complete with an aquarium featuring a seal feeding-pool. Otherwise, you might want to visit Biarritz’s chocolate museum – the town is famous for its chocolate, so if you don’t stock up on the Henriet brand in the museum’s choc-shop, be sure to make your way to its best chocolatier, Paries.
Just to the south of Biarritz, St-Jean-de-Luz is a picturesque fishing port that’s worth heading to for some of the region’s best Basque cuisine, much of it featuring local tuna, sardines and lobster. From here it’s just a 30min drive over the border with Spain to Donastia–San Sebastian with its whaling museum and aquarium.