A mini cruise with Brittany Ferries…

Me jumping in front of Mont Saint Michel
So what’s it all about?
I’ve just been on a mini cruise with Brittany Ferries and loved every minute of it. If you are looking for a different kind of weekend break then this is it.
Let me start by explaining a little bit about a mini cruise with Brittany Ferries
During the winter months Brittany Ferries do ‘mini cruises’, which means two nights on a ferry and a day in France. Our ferry left on a Friday night at 8pm from Portsmouth and arrived in St Malo at 8.15am local time on Saturday morning. We had all day to explore with boarding starting from 6.30pm that evening. The boat departed at 8.30pm local time and arrived in Portsmouth at 7.45am on Sunday morning. The mini-cruise package allows you to keep your cabin and leave luggage on board.

 

On board
Arriving in port pull up to the check in kiosk for your destination and hand over your passport and booking reference number. You’ll be given a boarding card to hang on your rear-view mirror and your cabin key. After that it’s all really straight forward, you’ll be told what lane you need to go in to board the boat and then directed from there onto the vehicle levels. We waited around an hour each time to board so make sure you’ve used the toilet before you get in line!
Once parked up a member of staff will greet you and give you a card with the door and level to access your car on arrival at the destination. Make sure you take everything you need for the crossing, as access to the vehicle decks during the crossing is not allowed.
GMT is used whilst on board and arrival and departure times are in local time and there’s a wake up around 1 hour 15 minutes before arrival.
We were on Pont Aven. It has two restaurants, two bars, a spa, 2 cinemas, a pool (it wasn’t open on our trip) a shop, a small amusement arcade and a children’s play area. There was Wi Fi in public areas on deck 6, 7 and 8.
Our 2 berth inside cabin with bunk beds and ensuite was compact but just what we needed. We didn’t mind not having a window as with two night crossings we figured we wouldn’t see much anyway. We spent pretty much all our time on board either in the restaurant, at the bar or strolling outside on the decks. There are larger cabins with windows and suite style cabins if you want a bit more luxury too.
The evening entertainment in the main bar was brilliant and something that I didn’t expect. It really added to the trip and made us feel like we were on a cruise! There was bingo, a quiz and a really great band. The atmosphere was fantastic with people dancing and enjoying themselves. Drinks were reasonable and being 5 months pregnant I was pleased to find non-alcoholic beer and mocktails on the bar menu.
We ate in the self-service restaurant on the first night; steak, chips and creme brûlée, yum! We bought our own food to eat on the return.  Breakfast was good, full English and continental were all available.

 

 

The day in France:

 

Mont Saint Michel
Arriving in St Malo early in the morning meant we had plenty of time to explore. We headed straight for Mont Saint Michel, around one hours drive from the ferry terminal. This area of Normandy is absolutely beautiful. The car parks are located quite a way back from the shoreline to help preserve the natural beauty of the area. Parking in low season costs 9 Euros, walk the 1.5 miles or use the free shuttle bus. It’s around a 30 -minute walk, you could walk there and jump on the bus back like Matt and I did.

 

Dinan
Straight out of the pages of a fairytale, timber fronted buildings line the cobbled streets of Dinan. There’s a creperie on every corner and a picturesque castle to set the scene. Located on the banks of the River Rance, there is so much to explore from the old city walls to Saint Malo Church and St Sauveur Basilica. As well as a top spot for history lovers, there are plenty of shops from shabby chic interior stores, art galleries and patisseries. Not to mention the food. For panoramic views of the town and Brittany, climb the 158 steps to the top of Tour de l’Horloge. The clock tower stands at 40 metres high, on a clear day you can see all the way to Mont Saint Michel.

 

Supermarket stop
A day trip to France wouldn’t be complete without a supermarket stop to stock up on alcohol, chocolate mousse, cheese and other French delights! Carrefour in St Malo is huge so be sure to allow enough time to browse. We also stopped at another Carrefour near Mont Saint Michel; it was smaller than the St Malo one but had some nice things in it.
The whole trip was so easy and it was so nice to try a different mode of transport to flying. Being able to take our car was a bonus and the distance between each of our planned stops was easily achievable in one day:
– St Malo ferry terminal to Mont Saint Michel: 55.4 km – roughly around a 1 hour drive
– Mont Saint Michel to Dinan: 58 km – around 1 hour
– Dinan to St Malo ferry terminal: 30 km  – about 35 minutes

 

If you are looking for more to do in Normandy I’ve blogged all about my trip to the fishing town of Port en Bessin: Exploring Port en Bessin, France.

 

Exploring Port en Bessin, France…

Chances are if you are planning a trip to Normandy in France then the quaint fishing town of Port en Bessin will be on your radar.  This area is well-known for the drama that unfolded on D-Day on 6th June 1945.  It is hard to imagine now in such picturesque and peaceful surroundings the horrendous scenes that unfolded that day, not just in Port en Bessin but all along this coast.  In short the town had been under German control for four years, it took 47 Royal Marines Commando two days to regain the town in what was a dramatic battle resulting in a huge loss of life. You can’t go far here without stumbling across a piece of history be it the Mulberry Harbours sitting out at sea or the bunkers along the clifftop; all are stark reminders of the past.  I am ashamed to say I had very little knowledge of what happened during D-Day so found the small snippets of information and memorials to 47 Commando dotted around the town really interesting.  I found a great article from the Telegraph all about the history of  Port en Bessin too. This little town is not only about the war it has a huge fishing industry, a daily fish market on the quayside is the best place to pick up some fresh fish and the many restaurants serving locally caught fish are a must visit.  L’Ecailler was my favourite, I loved the choice of set menus, the sashimi I had to start was to die for! There are plenty of scenic strolls around the harbour walls, up along the clifftops and to the west a lovely viewpoint looking down on the harbour from the Marines memorial.  For breakfast, coffee and afternoon drinks Cafe du Port right on the harbour front was a firm favourite, always bustling with locals it was so nice to sit outside and watch the world go by.  On Sundays the streets are lined with a farmers market and look out for the beach covered in scallop shells, I have never seen anything like it.  Leaving Port en Bessin behind there are some fantastic beaches on this coastline, when the tide is out Omaha Beach has miles of golden sand to explore and the nearby seaside town of Arromanches is another nice spot.  My favourite place for ice cream in the sunshine was Courseulles-sur-Mer.  Inland, Bayeux is a must visit, gourgoues buildings and architecture, bakeries full of artisan bread, the very impressive Notre Dame Cathedral and the Bayeux Tapestry.  A drive along the country lanes reveals old stone buildings, rolling fields and cider farms. Normandy is the perfect place for a weekend break or even longer and is so easy reach from the UK.
Getting there: Getting to Normandy from the UK is very straightforward, Matt and I went with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen.  Living in Chichester meant an easy 20 minute drive to the ferry terminal, it was a nice alternative from flying and very easy to simply pack up the car and not have to worry about weight limits on baggage, especially with a baby in the mix!  The crossing is six hours, we added a cabin onto our reservation which was really useful for when Emily needed a nap.
Where to stay: We stayed at La Mer est Belle, a gorgeous three storey house right on the harbour in Port en Bessin.  A stylish beachy chic interior and a sea view out of every window made it the perfect place to stay for the week.  The kitchen was so well equipped along with three bedrooms and four bathrooms meant there was plenty of room for four adults and two babies to spread out in.

 

A Summer Holiday in the Midi-Pyrenees, France…

A two hour drive from Toulouse airport along winding roads, past sunflower fields and beautiful farmland is the tiny town of Loudet.  So tiny in fact that apart from a church, houses with terracotta roof tiles, chickens and fields there isn’t much else….perfect for escaping everything.  This equaled six days in the Midi – Pyrenees of exploring, drinking red wine and munching on bread and cheese, bliss!
Our Gîte ‘Pyrenees View’ certainly lived up to its name with views of rolling fields and snow capped mountains.  Evenings were spent relaxing on the front terrace barbecuing and quaffing on sparkling wine or a tasty rosé, while watching the sun go down and the clouds change from dusky pinks to vibrant oranges leaving just a faint outline of the mountains in the distance…
Day 1:
A supermarket was the first thing on the agenda to stock up for the week ahead, especially as the nearest shop from Loudet was around 25 minutes drive.  This was followed by a stop off at a boulangerie to get the all important bread and croissants!  Arriving at our Gîte via a tiny lane we were greeted by owners Jane and David who gave us a quick tour and a welcome bottle of red.  Blue skies, sunshine and 38°C heat meant it was time for a quick dip in the pool.
Surrounded by farmland every morning we would stroll along tiny lanes hardly seeing any traffic.  Walks took us past barns with donkeys peeping out, fields of wild flowers and crops, vineyards, buildings with wonky shutters, goats living in a house made from an old barrel and lots of chickens.  Apart from cockerels there was pretty much glorious silence and limited wi-fi meant that relaxing and reading was the number one option.
Day 2:
A twenty minute drive to Montréjeau had us peering over the bridge into the fast flowing river below and exploring the local boulangerie and charcuterie. (The equivalent of a butchers in England but with dried and cured meats.) Here we found lots of meats hanging and tons of tasty local cheeses.  I loved observing the locals greeting each other with double kisses, so very French!  Next it was on to San Giron for a spot of lunch, the highlight for me was dessert; a chocolate mousse which was to die for.  Made from dark chocolate and oh so light and fluffy in texture, one thing the French are good at is definitely dessert!  A lovely river and waterfalls surrounded this gorgeous town, this was a beautiful characteristic of many of the towns we explored.  Leaving San Giron, on a lovely drive along winding roads I caught a glimpse of children swimming in a crystal clear stretch of water.  Pulling over to explore, a check of the map indicated that this charming little place was Engomer.  We strolled along the river’s edge past elders chatting in the shade and buildings on stilts above a weir with pastel coloured shutters.  I stopped to take few photos of a small Fromagerie and a man fishing, it was such a picture perfect area and felt somewhat undiscovered.
Day 3:
Day three saw us drive across the border to Spain stopping at Bossòst for a coffee, full of alpine chalets this little town had a very Pyrenean village feel.  I was still a little confused as to whether I was in France or Spain it felt like such a novelty to be suddenly in a different country!  Continuing through Spain, we drove up further into the mountains along winding roads and down into steep valleys.  Passing Vielha a large ski resort and continuing into the Vielha tunnel, a three-mile stretch through the mountains added more excitement to the journey.  Coming out the other side, yet more gorgeous views and alpine rivers greeted us.  This signalled a quick stop off by the river and a paddle to cool off from the midday sun, the tranquil rush of water looked very inviting but on dipping my toes in I came to realise it was in fact icy cold!  Feeling hungry and as we were in Spain, Tapas was on the cards.  The tiny village of Aubert had the answer, so small I’ve not really been able to find out anything about it online.  A five minute drive from Vielha in the Aran Valley, or Val d’ Aran the restaurant Roc ‘n’ Cris served up cracking Tapas, so be sure to visit if you ever pass through the area.  Unsure what to try and speaking minimal Spanish we asked the lovely waitress to choose a selection for us; she was very excited at this prospect and we were looking forward to being surprised!  Starting with bread, mussels and a tuna dish, a plate of tasty looking cured meat and anchovies followed.  Octopus and a dish of snails were next, the snails were apparently a very local dish to the area, the waitress checked with us first to see if we wanted them.  Having never tried snails before I felt I should…I have to say I am up for trying anything new, but I did struggle with the snails, perhaps thinking about it too much in the process!  After much deliberation and picking the smallest one I could I shut my eyes and went for it.  I was actually pleasantly surprised as it tasted pretty good, but I left it at just the one!  Finally a lamb dish appeared and ending our Tapas selection nicely was a chocolate mousse.  It was a delicious selection and such a novelty driving over the border for lunch.
Day 4:
Still not tired of exploring we jumped in the car and drove 32 miles to the pretty town of Arreau; one thing I noticed about all the towns in this area of France is that they all seemed quite untouched by the tourist scene.  There were often a few tourist type shops to be found but no sign of ice cream vans or stalls.  Going in between school half terms meant that we hardly saw another soul around, it was nice to feel like we had these beautiful places all to ourselves.
From Arreau we hit the mountain roads towards Bagnères-de-Louchon; signs here indicated that the Tour de France would be using the route.  As we meandered up the mountains more signposts displayed the altitude, climbing higher and higher the views became more and more dramatic.  Snow capped mountains and steep valleys appeared all around. Stopping at 1563 metres Matt and I jumped on a landmark indicating the altitude for a photo.  Following hairpin bends down into a huge valley was an adventure in itself.  Arriving in Louchon the temperature must have been up above the 30 degree mark so we decided to relax in the shade with a beer.  Our mission here was to find the gondola up to the ski resort of Superbagnères; in winter Louchon turns into a bustling place for après ski.  Feeling refreshed we walked along the high street and came across the base of the gondola.  A word of warning, in the height of the summer the gondola cabins become sweltering so take plenty of water!  It takes just 8 minutes for the gondola to climb 1800 metres, just over one mile high, the views of Louchon and the surrounding mountains were fantastic.  It felt strange to be standing on a ski resort with no snow, and to see chair lifts lying dormant.  Looking just like a scene out of ‘The Sound of Music’ cows were busy grazing, the bells around their neck majestically ringing.  The air felt fresh and clean and although warm there was still snow on the peeks of the higher mountains.  Looking out across the vista I spotted a glider far below us, the Pyrenees Mountains certainly have some epic views summer and winter.
Day 5
On our last full day it rained heavily, a trip to a market at nearby Lannemezan came in handy as I bought a very smart umbrella!  The market was huge and lined up along many different streets in the town, full of local fruit, vegetables and cheese plus some interesting bric a brac stalls and not forgetting heavenly bread and pastries.  It was well worth a visit even though it was pouring down with rain.
Day 6:
Day 6 signalled the end of our break, on the drive back to the airport in Toulouse there was an opportunity to stop off by the sunflower fields, I’ve never seen so many sunflowers, endless fields of yellow finished off by terracotta buildings in the distance.  France is just picture perfect and this was a lovely end to a lovely break.
Things to know:
  • A Gîte is the name for holiday accommodation in France, typically the owner will live nearby or often on site and be on hand to welcome you when you arrive and assist when needed.
  • Lunch in France tends to be served in most restaurants between 12pm – 2pm, this is worth bearing mind as after that time you will be hard pushed to find anywhere serving food until dinner time.
  • If you plan to cross the border into Spain take your passport as Police sometimes stop cars for random border checks.
  • The Gondola in Louchon costs €9.50 per adult for a round trip.
  • Lannemezan market is on Wednesday mornings until midday.

24 hours in the South of France….

With only 24 hours to spend in Nice, in the south of France I wanted to make the most of it.  This doesn’t sound like a lot of time but you can definitely cram a lot of exploring in!  Arriving in the evening meant checking in at the hotel and heading straight out to explore the nightlife.  With the airport located conveniently close to the town it didn’t take too long to find ourselves in the old town in a very cool bar with a beer in hand.  Wayne’s bar was rammed with locals, and with live music playing it was definitely the right choice of venue.  Although, we enjoyed it a little too much and ended up staying out slightly longer than planned.  This meant sore heads all round in the morning and slightly more money spent than had been intended!  None the less we dragged ourselves up early, ravenous for a typical French breakfast.  Coffee and croissants in a lovely café was the perfect antidote.  All perked up and ready for the day ahead we strolled to the train station, the plan was to spend the day in Monte Carlo.  I was really looking forward to the train journey along the coastline, but once at the station we discovered there had been a landslide and no trains were running!  Feeling a little disappointed we went back to the town centre and decided having only explored Nice’s nightlife that the rest of this lovely Mediterranean area was waiting to be uncovered.  Strolling along the bustling Promenade des Anglais, with the sea shimmering and the sun shining we headed towards the cliffs near the harbour.  Climbing the steps up to the clifftop revealed fantastic views over the coastline, old town and the port on the opposite side.  You could even see snow-capped mountains further inland.  Known as Parc du Château this cliff top park has a man-made waterfall called Cascade Donjon and lovely gardens, perfect for a picnic with beautiful views of the ocean.  Next stop was a visit to the food and flower market in the old town.  It’s a great place to pick up fresh bread, meats and cheeses.  The Corsican cheese I bought was a particular favourite.  There were also lots of lavender products, soaps and oils to purchase.  After checking out the market, it was time to get lost in the tiny side streets.  This is one of my favourite things to do in European cities; the buildings and beautiful architecture were a real highlight of the trip for me.  Continuing further we stumbled across a wonderful bakery and bought some scrummy fresh pastries.  With a huge variety of restaurants to choose from for lunch and being in France I felt it was only right to go for Moules – frites with a glass of white wine.  After lunch it was time for a bike ride, Velo Bleu rental bicycles can be found all over the town and from €1 a day you can help yourself to one of these beauties.  We cycled along the promenade stopping for ice cream along the way.  A quick coffee outside in the sun along with a bit of people watching ended our glorious day in France.  Back at the airport I bought a bottle of red wine as a souvenir of a perfect 24 hours on the French Riviera.  Cheers!