Ogle the impressive châteaux. But first, get children interested by taking them to Amboise’s Parc des Mini Châteaux, a landscaped park with 44 models of the Loire Valley’s loveliest castles and manor houses, plus miniature railways and boats.
Among the best real-life châteaux to visit with kids are Cheverny, mainly by virtue of its Tintin exhibition (the cartoonist Hergé is said to have used the castle as inspiration for Marlinspike Hall), and the almost ridiculously extravagant Chambord, the Loire’s biggest castle. Built as an outsized hunting lodge for François I, the latter boasts 440 rooms, 365 fireplaces and 84 staircases, one of them a famous open double-helix staircase supposedly designed by Leonardo da Vinci. In school holidays you can take family tours led by costumed actors, though they’re only offered in French, as are the kids’ booklets.
Then there’s the Château d’Ussé, which may look familiar – writer Charles Perrault stayed here and it’s believed he based Sleeping Beauty’s abode on the castle when he wrote his 17th-century classic. As a result, Ussé contains a schlocky waxwork exhibition recreating scenes from the tale. Fashion-fiend girls may also like the display of sequined-bedecked outfits from the 1920s and 1930s.
There are more waxworks at Chenonceau, arguably the most beautiful of the Loire castles, straddling and reflected in the Cher river. The mannequins here represent the famous women who built and inhabited this castle, known as the ‘Ladies’ Castle’. Summer sees workshops for kids, with huts built for them around the maze, and from April to October there’s a free play area for young children. Older children can borrow iPods taking them on a tour of the castle and grounds, from the kitchens to the medieval mill.
It’s worth noting for family holidays that Chenonceau is one of the stops on the Trail of the Child King (PIste de l'Enfant Roy), a Tourist Board devised itinerary of the Loire Valley for kids 7–12 and their parents. Each of the 53 participating sites has leaflets, activities and events for kids. Another castle on the list is Villandry, famous for its incredible gardens: its booklet of puzzles and games is themed on gardening and vegetable growing, and there are children’s workshops, a playground and a maze, a shop selling kids’ gardening books and utensils, and a restaurant with both a babies’ and a kids’ menu featuring hot pancakes, home-made ice-cream and more.
As well as various castles and other sights, the Piste de l’Enfant Roy includes the Troglodyte des Goupillières – three cave farms that were found hollowed out of the local tuffeau (soft rock). As well as exploring the farms’ wells, stables and so on, kids can get close to a variety of animals here, play in a wooden fortress and more. In summer, there are even special days when kids up to 10 can dress up as peasants and learn farm tasks.
Another site on the Piste is the Clos Lucé, the mansion where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life, with stunning grounds featuring around 40 interactive models of the artist-inventor’s prototype machines in a spellbinding woodland setting.
The Loire river itself is best discovered by boat: the 66-seater St-Martin-de-Tours offers 50-minute guided tours taking in hidden islets, troglodyte dwellings and lots of birdlife as well as châteaux. For information on canoeing in the Centre region, plus a downloadable map, see the Comité Régional Centre website, canoe-regioncentre.org.
Not far from Amboise and Chenonceau, the Zoo de Beauval is a reliable bet for a morning or afternoon outing – this is a large wooded zoo with unusually large enclosures for its animals, which include elephants, gorillas and koalas. A good standby for a rainy day is the Aquarium du Val de Loire between Amboise and Tours, with fish species from everywhere from the Loire itself to the tropics.
Lastly, if you’re heading back out of the Loire towards Paris, make sure to swing by for a peek at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame in Chartres, UNESCO World Heritage listed and widely regarded as France’s finest Gothic cathedral. Enquire at the town’s tourist office about school-holiday family tours by costumed actors (in French). There’s also a Museum of Natural Sciences and Prehistory offering children’s workshops.