Just a short hop across the Channel, Normandy is one of France’s most appealing family holiday destinations.
Many Brits see the region as a place for a pleasant pit-stop on the way to sunnier parts but this means missing out on a holiday which ticks all the boxes without the long haul.
Our own Norman invasion started in the charming town of Houlgate on the coast and took us to quiet sandy beaches, lively visitor attractions and world famous historic sites from the Bayeux Tapestry to the D-day landings.
We stayed at Eurocamp’s La Vallée parc and what strikes you immediately about this holiday site is the space. Each holiday home has its own dedicated area with hedging so you’re not squashed in, as is the case in some sites.
It is set in a picturesque valley just a short walk from the coast so you are surrounded by green fields and forests – and in some pitches you can watch the sun set over the sea.
We also noticed that quite a few of the mobile homes were permanent holiday homes for French families. They had used the space around to establish lovely little gardens and the various personal touches gave a very nice, homely feel to the place. We also found it reassuring that families find it such a good place to stay they keep coming back!
My wife and I would have been quite happy to sit on the deck of our holiday home, admire the views and chill out while the kids cycled around the camp and splashed in the pool.
The weather was sunny and mild most of the time so we could have easily slipped into the French life, strolling to the village for bread and croissants, leisurely meals and afternoon snooze even but Normandy – and the children’s list of places to visit – beckoned.
Houlgate itself is a pretty little town, with the most amazing Belle-Epoque houses worthy of a Hammer movie, which no doubt comes to life in the summer months.
There are lots of family-friendly restaurants and a good range of little shops as well as a few big supermarkets a short drive away.
There is a long, safe, sandy beach which was often livened up by local children having an outdoor lesson, including swimming lessons one slightly overcast and brisk morning.
It has to be said it’s not the most amazing of sea views – on clear days you can see the port of Le Havre over to one side and at the farthest edge the railway line runs alongside on its way up to Cabourg but it’s a nice spot with a friendly feel.
Our favourite beach was just up the road at Villers-sur-mer – a lovely beach which on one of the days we visited was holding a vintage car rally. Though not particularly interested in cars we found it quite fun walking along the prom picking out our favourite car, a sporty MG number in our case although somewhat inevitably the judges went for a Renault.
The pretty town has lots of cafes and restaurants where you can sit outside and wile away an hour over coffee.
In our dreams of course.
Instead we found a fantastic chip shop and then the kids buried me in sand.
Just up the road is Deauville, a cosmopolitan town which shopaholics would love and which only a few days before had played host to Barack Obama and various world leaders.
And this is one of the great advantages of Houlgate – there are so many places to visit within a very short distance.
The beaches all along the coast are a great attraction and make for a great seaside holiday but, of course, this is Normandy, so the beaches also mean something very different.
Wherever you go you can’t escape this link with history.
During our visit we often came across veterans from Britain, America and Canada.
We had talked to our children quite a bit about the D-day landings but nothing could really prepare them or us for the sheer scale of the endeavour explained in various museums, most notably at Caen and at Arromanches.
Some of the displays and memorabilia did go a bit over their heads but we found it fascinating and very moving.
In particular we’d recommend taking the steep walk up to the clifftop gallery at Arromanches where you can see some extraordinary photographs taken during and immediately after the invasion and watch a 360° film which takes you over the peaceful Normandy countryside then flashes back to the fighting.
I don’t think a mum in there left dry-eyed.
And you can take the family further back in history with a visit to the world-famous Bayeux Tapestry.
It is displayed in glass cases in a darkened corridor and as it is nearly always busy you do have to sort of shuffle along in near-silence as everyone listens to the commentaries in handsets handed out at the entrance.
We did wonder if the children would become quickly bored but the commentary designed for children kept them really interested and they came out full of fascinating facts which had passed us adults by.
The trips back in time may not appeal to families with younger children – ours are 10 and 12 – but one visit which would appeal to everyone was the Cezra animal park near Liseux.
I’m not a great fan of zoos, it has to be said, so the trip wasn’t exactly top of my list – but it should have been.
The zoo is set in massive grounds where the animals have large areas to roam.
The best way to see the place is on a little train where you see tigers one minute and wolves the next. If you ever find yourself within travelling distance it is well worth a visit.
A holiday in La Vallée combines the best of all worlds – a lovely, family-friendly site, a walk away from the charming town and beach and a great base for exploring the best of Normandy’s attractions.