Start in the Pays de la Loire in Nantes, specifically the Ile de Nantes or ‘Nantes island’ – home to, among other things, the amazing Machines de l’Ile, an ongoing artistic project involving the creation of giant mechanical ‘living machines’ based on the imaginings of Jules Verne, Leonardo da Vinci and more, some of which you can ‘test’ or even ride, including the 12m-tall Great Elephant and the Marine Carousel with its sea creatures to ride. You can also observe ongoing creations in the workshop.
Still in Nantes, check out the Musée Jules Verne with its multi-media trail on the science-fiction author who was born in the city. And don’t miss the Castle of the Dukes of Normandy, complete with the city’s impressive new history museum (including displays on Nantes’ role in the slave trade) and lovely ramparts and gardens. The city’s natural history museum has also had a big revamp in recent years.
Take the plunge at gorgeous La Baule an hour from Nantes, with its awesome 8km beach, kids’ beach clubs, family-friendly hotels and apartments and little tourist train. Nearby Le Croisic has an Océarium where you can marvel at Atlantic and tropical sea-life.
Or head to the Vendée, a popular spot for family holidays, with La Tranche sur Mer, Notre Dame de Monts and St Gilles Croix de Vie all holding the Famille Plus label for being particularly child-friendly resorts.
Make a jaunt inland to the Parc Naturel Régional de Brière, where you can ride in traditional barges, spot birdlife, explore the marshes and islands by bicycle or on foot, and stay in a thatched cottage. Nearby Guérande is a charming medieval town famous for the salt harvested from its marshes.
Further south, go wild at Planète Sauvage, a large safari park at Port St Père not far from Nantes airport, complete with mock African village with a jungle bridge, plus a special encampment for overnight stays. Not far away, at Frossay, Le Grand Parc des Légendes is a totally off-the-wall theme-park of myths, legends and superstitions, with a magic forest, an elves’ village, Father Christmas’s summer home, reindeer and scores of forest and farm animals; costumed events take place on a regular basis.
Venture inland. The remaining départements of the Pays de la Loire are largely rural and very untouristy. Maine et Loire straddles the mighty river, as does its main town, historic Angers, where you’ll find one of Europe’s biggest medieval castles plus the Terra Botanica plant-world 'theme park'. Doué la Fontaine is famous for its cave dwellings, some of them now forming part of the Zoo de Doué, one of the best zoos in France, set in a quarry with spacious enclosures.
At nearby Saumur you can ogle another lovely castle, although the town is most famous as home to the National Riding School and its Cadre Noir equestrian display teams, who put on incredible shows – make sure to book ahead. There’s also a tank museum and the Parc Miniature Pierre et Lumière, where you can see the likeliness of the châteaux of the nearby Loire Valley carved out of the region’s soft rock. Just down the road, the Musée du Champignon is an entertainingly look at the world of mushroom-growing in another cave. West of Saumur, Rochemenier is an entire village of cave-dwellings, including farms, an underground chapel and a modernised troglodyte house, plus farmyard animals.
Also near Saumur is the incredible Château de Brézé, described as a ‘castle beneath a castle’ because it contains more than 1km of underground passages that you can explore, as well as a dried-up circular moat where you can discover more old caves, including ones used for a silk-worm farm, a bakery and a wine press. There are also some old storerooms with cathedrals and giant faces hewn from the rock, with music-and-light displays to add to the atmosphere.
North of the Maine-et-Loire lies the département of Mayenne, best visited for the river of the same name: there are several places to hire cabin-cruisers and canoes, plus pretty towpaths for walking and cycling. At St Loup du Gast there’s a ‘velo-rail’ – a French peculiarity whereby you ride multi-person ‘bikes’ set on old railway tracks. At Mayenne’s main town of Laval, older kids might like the Museum of Naïve Art, with apparently artless, ‘child-like’ works by the master of the genre Henri Rousseau (born in the town) and others. Laval is also home to the unique Lactopôle, no less than the world’s largest dairy museum, where the artefacts on display include Marie Antoinette’s milk churn!
Last comes the département of Sarthe, with a capital where you can watch one of the world’s most famous car endurance races, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, held each May or June since 1923. Near the circuit lies theMusée Automobile de la Sarthe, where enthusiasts can admire all manner of racing cars. South of Le Mans is one of France’s oldest and most highly regarded zoos, La Flèche. Again, one of the best pleasures to be hand in this tranquil region is just messing about in boats this time on the Sarthe itself. Ask at tourist offices about canoe/kayak or boat hire.