It is an almost constant source of outrage to me that our society, in the Year of our Lord 2023, recognises that children need 3 weeks rest at Christmas, 2 weeks rest at Easter, 6 weeks rest over the Summer, plus weeklong half term breaks all over the place and Inset days scattered throughout the year.
Yet – as soon as you hit the working world as a parent, you’re allowed about three days off. No one has ever been able to satisfactorily tell me who looks after children for the rest of the time when parents are working. I assume the Internet picks up quite a lot of the slack with my two.
The reason for my grumping about this is that I have often observed that the Spring Half Term, if not planned correctly, can be like a hideous preview of the horrors that are the six long, hot, weeks of a Summer Holiday. Keeping 2 under 10 children entertained for any period of time is always a challenge, and it was with this in mind we looked unwillingly at the Spring Half Term dates in our diaries and racked our brains for what we should do.
My suggestions of selling the children to a local farm to pick fruit for a local farmer was quickly rejected by the always sensible Mrs B, although child neglect and Internet-based babysitting for a week looked like a valid option at one stage before saner heads prevailed and we decided to use a little of our precious leave to take a week off.
The next problem, as any parent will tell you, is that once you have decided to take some time off, is … what to do with it. It is a well-known fact that School Holidays are a not-so-secret code for UK-based holiday providers to triple their prices and gouge your wallet of every last pound. Even if you’re not a parent, you can easily find out when half term is, because that’s the week Center Parcs charge four times as much to sleep in a shed next to a pool inside a posh greenhouse.
Mrs B, who is steadily becoming more socialist as she gets older, rages loudly against such practices, whereas I, as a disgusting free market capitalist (just) simply chose to exercise my right to not pay inflated prices.
And so, it came to pass that Mrs B and I spent many a night surfing the Internet looking for a break that was cheap, available and child friendly. Again, those of you who are parents will know this is like trying to push three magnets together that repel each other. Find something cheap and it won’t be in the school holidays. Find something child friendly and it won’t be cheap. And find something available and you discover it will cost you ten thousand million billion pounds.
Cote D’Argent Campsite – Eurocamp
The mood in our house plummeted into despair until suddenly, Mrs B, who is blessed with brains as well as beauty, suddenly realised that while it was half term in England… that was not the case in, say … France.
Of course! France! Good old France, with its cheap wine and reasonable spring temperatures! France, with its socialist mindset (perfect for Mrs B) and relaxed approach to life (perfect for me). We’d been there before, to the Europcamp Le Domaine du Clarys on the Atlantic coast, near the town of St Jean-de-Monts which I’ve previously written about here.
Having popped my Eurocamp cherry previously, I was more than happy to go again, and having briefed a couple of like-minded friends with similarly aged children, they too were attracted by the thought of the nice wine, the nice weather and nicest of all, the reasonable prices.
Getting to Cote D’Argent Campsite
Having googled around for a place to stay, we’d selected the Eurocamp Cote D’Argent for a bit of Hourtin Plage camping (more on this in a bit).
This was about a five-hour drive from the port of St Malo on the North coast of France, so being from the South Coast, we opted to sail on the overnight crossing from Portsmouth. If you’re travelling from afar (I am a Southerner, so afar is “anything North of Watford”) you might want to consider staying an extra day here either before or after you sail as there’s lots to do in Portsmouth including my favourite day trip, the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard.
The Portsmouth to St Malo Ferry
We opted to sail with Britanny Ferries this time and managed to book a return trip, with a car and two adults and two children, plus a cabin each way, for just over £800. Now, before you clutch your wallet in fear, Britanny Ferries quite reasonably let you pay a deposit at the time you make the booking, and then as long as you pay the balance a month before you sail, it’s all gravy.
You can also bring the price down a couple of hundred quid if you chose not to have a cabin but given it’s an overnight crossing from the UK to France (the France -UK leg is in the day), you’d be well advised to get a cabin so you have a chance of a decent night sleep, especially as you’ll have a long drive the next day.
You could chance your arm and opt to try and snooze in one of the many lounge chairs dotted around but frankly, that just looked weird and sleeping in public is not my thing.
Final check-in for the ferry is an hour before departure, and once through and parked up, it was time to explore the ship. We headed straight for our cabins to dump off our overnight bags.
The cabins, while basic, are clean and comfortable. The standard cabins come in either twin or 4-bed configurations with the option of a porthole or no porthole; the only real difference is the 4-bed cabins are twice as large, but also have twice the beds, so no real win there with all options having an ensuite shower, sink and toilet.
Tip: While Brittany Ferries do not let you select a cabin when you book, it is well worth a follow-up email to them to ask for a cabin on one of the upper decks, not the lower decks near where the cars are parked. As our friends found out, as the boat rocks around, it sets off car alarms … which leads to a disturbed night’s sleep. We were on Deck 8, 4 decks above any noise. Judging from their bleary eyes the next morning, they were not.
Bags dropped, we walked the decks to discover an arcade for the children (or immature adults, I’m not judging), an array of duty-free shops, a self-service or a la carte restaurant choice, a café, and a bar, complete with evening entertainment. We opted for a swift nightcap in the bar, and then realising we’d lose an hour’s sleep with the time difference, hunkered down in our cabin to be rocked to sleep by the ocean waves.
Now I’ve been awoken by some odd things in my time. I was once memorably awoken in Africa by a man trying to steal my socks while I was wearing them, and in my Army days, I’ve been awoken by the good sort of gunfire (Army tea mixed with enough rum in it, to kill you) and the bad sort of gunfire (no tea, just straightforward people trying to kill you).
But nothing beats the weird medieval music Britanny Ferries chose to blast into your cabin an hour before docking to ensure every sleepy head is awake and ready to drive off at the other end. Their music of choice is Dremmwel’s “Lans” part N° 4 “Troellenn” which is just frankly the most weirdly effective wake-up music I’ve ever heard. You sort of wake up and stumble around putting your socks and pants on and the music is just too calming for you to be mad about the fact it’s 5 am. I’m setting it as my new alarm ringtone.
The Cote D’Argent Campsite at Hourtin Plage
Anyway, weird medieval wake-up alarms aside, we grabbed an express breakfast (coffee, croissant and juice) from the café for £8, and jumped in the car. Once outside the port, it was straight onto the annoyingly well-maintained French motorways for five hours of monotonous driving straight down to Bordeaux, turning right to the coast for a week of camping in Gironde.
Apart from a stop at a French Motorway Service Station for a snack and a top-up of diesel, we rolled into the Cote D’Argent Eurocamp at Hourtin-Plage in the middle of a perfect early Summer afternoon.
As we pulled in, the Cote D’Argent Campsite was reassuringly still. It had an air of slumber around it as if the approaching summer heat had pulled all the energy out of everything and people were perfectly content to amble around or hide in the shade.
As per our last visit, Eurocamp thoughtfully provides a Duty English Speaker, although the camp reception itself is also staffed by incredibly talented multilingual staff. Having received instructions to our lodge, we drove slowly around the camp noting the well-appointed reception area with a small shop, a restaurant, and a games area, and passing by the exciting-looking pirate-themed pool area.
Again, for just over another £800, we had secured 7 nights in an Azure cabin, which had 3 bedrooms, a shower room and a separate toilet area as well as air-con, a decking area and a BBQ which came in very handy for one of my favourite pastimes, which is grilling meat while drinking beer.
Tip: Don’t bring your own coal BBQs – they’re strictly banned on the site as the area is heavily forested with pine trees – it’s a huge fire risk.
I’d gambled on this lovely southwest corner of France being quite warm so had packed light and the gamble was well rewarded, with balmy temperatures in late May needing no more than a t-shirt and shorts for everyday wear. We’d soon settled into a nice routine of waking up, strolling down to the Camp Shop for croissants and bread, breakfast, wresting the children into suncream and swimming kit and walking up to the pool area for a really tough day of lounging around by the pool trying to get brown.
Tip: There are no supermarkets near the Cote D-Argent campsite and the shop on site is relatively expensive. Stock up at a supermarket on your way down. In case you forget on the way down, the nearest supermarket we found to the Camp was the Carrefour at 1 Bis r Cantelaude, 33990 Hourtin – about a 20-minute drive from Hourtin Plage itself.
The Pool Area at Cote D’Argent Campsite
Now, bear in mind that we’d booked early in the season during a period where French children weren’t off school, but even so, there was none of the normal scrum for a poolside sun longer at the Cote D’Argent campsite.
Being not-particularly-early risers, we thought that getting to the pool when it opened at ten would be a doddle, but of course, once we’d been through the bread/breakfast/suncream ritual, it was closer to eleven than ten but even then, there was always plenty of sunbeds available. I suspect that would change in the height of summer though.
The pool area is laid out in a typically efficient continental fashion. Any sort of footwear is banned inside the pool area, so there’s a storage area for your flip-flops followed by a foot bath. The pool area consists of a main pool area bisected by a bridge, a shallower outdoor pool plus a separate covered small pool, both ideal for younger children. There is a separate pirate-themed waterpark with slides that range from “very gentle” to “bowel-loosening levels of frightening”.
Tip: French pools are oddly keen to enforce speedos at their pools. I was told this is because men tend to keep a lot of stuff in the pockets of their Bermuda shorts, and this, in turn, increases the number of bacteria transferred into the pool – hence the insistence on wearing the old budgie smugglers. However, this wasn’t enforced here, despite many, many signs to the contrary.
Aside from Bermuda shorts, the other things that are banned poolside, are music, food, drinks other than water, running, and pretty much all the things you can’t do in your local leisure centre. Outside the pool is allegedly a small café that sells refreshments, but as it was out of season, it wasn’t open so can’t comment. But I’m not going to lie, it would have been nice to grab a lunchtime snack without having to trek all the way back to the cabin, or indeed, the local town. Which brings me nicely onto…
The village of Hourtin Plage
If you’re a lazy a traveller as I am, you’ll be delighted to note that the nearest town is a mere 300 metres from the entrance to the Cote D’Argent campsite. Out the gate, turn right and you’re in Hourtin Plage, a proper beachside village populated by French surfer types and fellow tourists.
There are a few Hourtin Plage restaurants to grab a bite to eat, a couple of bars, an ice cream shop and a few shops that sell beach stuff, but not much else – but then, you don’t need much else because the beach at Hourtin Plage is magnificent.
A massive stretch of golden sand as far as the eyes can see, in either direction with a long, flat foreshore where kids can swim safely. There are no tacky shops, no arcades or fast food – it is literally just endless, golden sandy beaches which is good if you like simplicity, bad if you have children that like tacky shops, arcades and fast food! So, you need to be prepared with snacks, water and food to keep small people going. If you’re feeling adventurous, and just can’t get enough sand, the longest sand dune in Europe, the Dune of Pilat is about an hour away.
Being so close to the sea, seafood is freely available – I mean, not as freely available as drugs at Glastonbury, but nearly as available and almost as cheap. We went to Aux Moules (15 rue des Atriplex, 33990 Hourtin) and were blown away by the quality and quantity of food you got for your money.
The moules were excellent and for those who don’t like seafood, there’s also a steak option and the inevitable chicken nuggets and chips for children. In fact, I was so impressed, I snuck back the next day with a friend and had more of the same, along with three beers, a glass of wine and a gin and tonic before returning quite giggly to Mrs B.
I think it was not only the quality of the food, but the rustic charm of the place – it had an aura of friendly chaos and was obviously popular with locals and tourists alike.
Confusingly, the larger, but slightly further away town of Hourtin isn’t the same place as Hourtin Plage. It’s a teeny tiny town (population about 4,000) about 12kms from the beach, and well worth a half day to wander around in the spring sunshine.
It sits on the Lac d’Hourtin-Carcans, one of the great lakes of the Landes and very impressive it is too. The lake is about 18 km at its longest point and 5 km widest, making it the largest natural freshwater lake in France.
It’s vaguely reminiscent of the great lakes in Northern Italy like Lake Garda – the key difference being this lake isn’t full of icy water from the Alps, so the water temperature is very pleasant and, coupled with some lovely sandy beaches, it makes it just right for a little paddle for the children. Speaking of which, there’s also a water park and a “children’s island” which is a good-sized adventure playground for the younger ones.
The Town of Montalivet
If you’re in the area, the other place worth checking out for a day is the town of Montalivet, which is only a 15-minute drive from the Cote D’Argent campsite. There’s a definite surfer vibe to the whole area – it feels like Newquay, but with better weather and significantly more beach.
Like Hourtin Plage, the endless golden sand extends for miles in each direction, and a vibrant main street has every type of restaurant and beach shop your heart could desire, selling everything from real estate to tattoos to souvenirs and everything in between.
We stopped for a drink at L’Ocean 2, a beachside bar with an industrial, yet strangely 70’s vibe to it, occupying a commanding view over the beach. I clutched my wallet in fear, as normally a prime beachside bar like that would cost you a pretty penny to enjoy the view, but to my Bank Manager’s relief, it was all very reasonable for a round of drinks – a pretty neat way to enjoy briefly pretending to be a millionaire, without the actual cost.
Travelling Back to St Malo
Sadly, before we knew it, it was time to return back to the UK. The lazy French lifestyle suited me quite well. The Spring temperatures were a very lovely 27 or 28 degrees but cooled by a refreshing sea breeze. I hadn’t needed to wear anything more than a t-shirt and shorts for days, and the family had grown tanned and healthy looking so the desire to return back to England was … somewhat lacking.
Ever keen to extend the break, Mrs B suggested a route back that took us home via the picturesque Le Verdon-sur-Mer – Royan ferry over the Gironde estuary, which was exactly like travelling on the Isle of Wight car ferry on holiday, except with less Health and Safety and more surly French ferry men smoking cigarettes in the sunshine, which for my money I fully supported.
We stopped for lunch at the wonderful town of La Rochelle, which was so good I’ll save that for a separate blog, before resting up for the night before our Ferry in an excellent Air BnB in St Malo.
As we waited for the ferry, I totted up the cost. So, at £800 for the ferry, and £800 for 7 nights for 4 in the accommodation, plus two tanks of diesel, I was really pleasantly surprised to find that the half-term break had set us back less than £2k if you didn’t include the treats we spent such as the occasional meal out.
If you’re feeling the pinch in this day and age, you could probably trim that down even further by taking more of your own food from home and not having a cabin on the ferry on the way back from Hourtin Plage, but it was all entirely reasonable and a really enjoyable break to get you in the mood for the Summer.
Vive le France!