TRAVEL GUIDE: The Loire Valley
For a fun-filled family holiday in Europe it is hard to beat the Keycamp experience. It has become almost a way of life for my family each summer — the only hard bit is choosing where to stay from more than 100 destinations.
Having had nothing but good experiences with Keycamp I would say its brochures and well planned website provide very reliable information and accurate descriptions.
My wife and I would be confident booking a trip to any of the parcs selected by the leading self catering holiday firm, which has now been operating since 1976. Last summer we considered parcs in Spain, Italy, Portugal and the Cote D'Azure before opting for a picturesque and tranquil old favourite — Loire in central France, the Valley of the Kings.
Loire — also known as the garden of France because of its lush beauty — couldn't be easier to get to from Ireland. We took a two-hour flight from Dublin to Tours, a tiny airport from where we were able to collect our bags and pick up our hire car within 10 minutes of arrival.
Using Keycamp’s reliable directions we made the 39km (24 mile) drive to the pretty little village of Sainte Catherine de Fierbois in less than 40 minutes and headed to the parc a further quarter of a mile away.
Of course by the time we arrived at Parc de Fierbois our three children — aged five to eight — were beside themselves with excitement.
Previous parc holidays had whetted their appetites for a fun-packed fortnight of swimming, cycling, go-karting, pony rides, day trips and the prospect of meeting new pals from all over Europe.
The sight of other kids racing around on their hired bikes or heading to the pools and water slides carrying their towels had our mob chomping at bit to join the fun.“I see ponies, Daddy. I see ponies! Can we go for pony rides tonight?” screamed Emma.
Her twin Andrew, 8, had spied the dodgem style car race track — a circuit he and his five-year-old brother, Christopher (who turned out to be a right little Lewis Hamilton) were to get to know very well over the next fortnight.
If there's one word that sums up Keycamp holidays it’s freedom. Children are free to have adventures and enjoy themselves in a family friendly, safe environment.
As parents we know our kids will have a great holiday in the parc alone but the parcs are also an ideal base from where to explore a region on day trips.
As ever our spacious and pristine, three-bedroomed mobile home was first class, complete with the usual mod-cons inside and with a handy gas barbecue outside, which got plenty of use during our trip.
After unloading our car we began exploring Parc de Fierbois which is set in 250 acres of wooded parkland surrounding a private château.
It’s a beautiful, leafy setting. In the area near the mobile home pitches there are the usual excellent facilities including a bar and restaurant, pizzeria, take-away, a shop (which sells gorgeous, freshly made bread each morning), a reception area with computer facilities, children’s play areas, a gym, games room, three pools (one covered) and waterslides.
But it’s a short stroll from the pitches to the acres of forest which surround a large lake. On our arrival families were taking in the sun at the lakeside beach while others were out in the water in hired canoes and pedalos. And as we walked around the lake we found dads and youngsters camped out in secluded spots doing some fishing. Most mornings we dropped our children off at the Fun Station where they and their new chums were looked after by multi-lingual couriers who entertained them with games and crafts, including the ever popular face painting.
The kids time at Fun Station gave us a few hours to ourselves each day to chill out, perhaps do some reading or take a swim.
As ever the atmosphere on parc was very laid back, full of friendly people from all over Europe spending some quality time with their families.
In the afternoons we took daytrips around the Loire region. These days its a peaceful place loved by tourists because of its magnificent Chateaux, walled medieval towns with cobbled streets, quaint antique shops and classy restaurants not to mention it’s famous wines.
But of course those fortress towns and castles have a bloody history of famous battles and heroic knights which frankly our kids — brought up on Narnia films, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter adventures — just love.
Among our daytrip highlights in Loire were...
One of the most famous and picturesque fortress towns in France is less than 40 minutes drive from Parc de Fierbois. Inside the 2.2km of city walls is a sizable medieval town featuring a royal château, tower of St. Antoine (formerly the belfry), ancient churches, prisons and a dungeon. My kids loved the spooky dungeons.
Zoo de Beauval
A huge zoo rated among the best in France. Its star attractions — white lions and white tigers — were a big hit with our kids.
The fairytale style 15th century château featuring Gothic and Renaissance architecture. It was the inspiration for the tale of Sleeping Beauty.
Château de Villandry
My green-fingered wife especially enjoyed the majestic flower and vegetable gardens at this famous, elegant Renaissance period castle which is a very popular tourist location. See www.chateauvillandry.fr/en/n
Musee des Blindes (tank museum) in Saumur
A huge collection of 20th Century tanks. Perhaps not everyone’s cup of tea but my kids loved it because they were able climb into a few of the vehicles, get to wear army hats and pretend to be driving a tank.
A charming town full classy shops and restaurants and featuring a medieval town centre. Another of my wife’s favourites.
Château de Chinon
Famous former residents include Joan of Arc and Richard the Lionheart — just the place to excite the imagination of my Knights and Narnia-obsessed five-year-old son.
During our stay we also enjoyed meals out in the pretty little village of Sainte Catherine de Fierbois — a pleasant 10 minute walk from the parc — and St Maure du Torraine, a town just a five minutes drive away, which also featured a thriving market day.
As in previous years we left Parc de Feirbois with three kids demanding we make a return visit soon.
Emma, Andrew and Christopher had enjoyed a carefree fortnight in Loire — picked up a few French phrases such as how to politely order “une baguette et cinq pan au chocolat, merci beacoup” each morning — and stored up bundle of very happy memories of go-kart rides, water slides, knights, castles, dungeons and white lions.