The region’s main attraction for family holidays – so major, in fact, that it has its own TGV station with direct trains from Paris – is Futuroscope, a futuristic themepark loosely based around the moving image (many of its attractions are 3D or other quirky cinemas). The park is encircled by hotels catering especially to visitors, some with swimming pools and shuttle services, or you can stay in nearby Poitiers – the historical regional capital, full of good shops, restaurants and cafés.
Thirty minutes’ south of Poitiers lies the Vallée des Singes, a conservation park with 30 species of free-roaming monkeys, plus jungle-themed play areas and a mini-farm.
Go for a punt along the cool green waterways (actually, canals covered with duckweed) of the Marais Poitevin or 'Venise Verte' (Green Venice), an area of marshland to the west of Poitiers, around the town of Coulon. It's also a good area to cycle around, with lots of quiet, flat lanes – hire of bikes and tandems for adults and kids is available. Other options are horseback excursions with stops for picnics by the water, and rides in horse-drawn carriages or wagons.
The next major town after Poitiers is La Rochelle on the coast – a pleasant spot with cobbled pedestrianised streets, great fish restaurants, a small but good sandy beach with lots of kids’ entertainments in high summer, and an excellent aquarium. If rain strikes, the town’s Museum d’Histoire Naturelle has naturalist and ethnographical displays that include the stuffed body of Zarafa, a giraffe given to Charles X by the Viceroy of Egypt in 1824. Transported down the Nile by boat, accompanied by three cows to provide her with milk, she disembarked in Marseilles, from where she walked to Paris (900km – special shoes were made for her!)
La Rochelle is the gateway to the Ile de Ré, an Atlantic island popular with French holidaymakers and Parisian second-homers, partly because it has about the same hours as sunshine as the South of France. There’s not much to do here beyond hire bikes, laze on the sandy, child-friendly beaches and eat ice cream and local oysters and fish (sold directly from the boats in some ports) – but that’s the point, really. A little further south, the Ile d’Oléron offers more of the same – though it’s bigger and has less tourists. Just getting there is a thrill – the bridge from the mainland, at more than 3km, is France’s longest.
Between La Rochelle and the Ile d’Oléron, Chatelaillon-Plage is a family-oriented resort little known among Brits, and a good place for a low-key seaside holiday without the crowds.
Toward the far south of the region lies Royan, a seaside resort with largely modern buildings, including a crazy cathedral that looks like something landed from Mars (most of the original town was razed by WWII bombs). There’s an old-fashioned, rather 1950s feel to the town that some love and others find lacking in Gallic charm, but there’s no denying the attraction of the vast flat beach for those with young kids. Close to Royan, at Les Mathes, the Zoo de la Palmyre is a world-class conservation zoo in the midst of a forest of maritime pines.
Among other attractions worth singling out is the Zooodysée, a forest ‘zoo’ with uniquely European animals, including wolves, owls and bisons, horse-and-cart rides, and little pavilions full of interactive and educational displays; it’s not far inland of La Rochelle in the forest of Chizé. Inland of the Ile d’Oléron, St-Savinien is well known for its boating lake with miniature replica ferries, steamers and the like, each of them taking one adult and one child (note that they’re only in operation in July and August).
Further south still, at Jonzac, Les Antilles is a huge indoor and outdoor waterpark with a wave machine, vast slides and more aquatic fun – great for days when the weather lets you down.
Lastly, don’t miss the under-rated town of Angoulême, billed the ‘capital of the comic strip’ – many of its walls have been decorated by famous comic strip artists, and it’s also home to the Cité Internationale de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image, comprising six ‘museums of the imaginary’: the Museum of Fine Arts, the History Museum, the Museum of Natural History, the Museum of Ethnology, the Museum of Sciences and Techniques and the Museum of Contemporary Art.