Somewhere off the usual map?
The French Ardennes, in the north-east corner of the country close to the Belgian border, is often overlooked by visitors heading further south to the sun or the snow. But this rural area, with its dense forests and pleasant villages, is an attractive and accessible holiday destination.
Ideal for families is Nocturnia, in the Argonne forest at Olizy-Primat (00 33 3 2471 0738; nocturnia.fr ), which this year will acquire a wolf enclosure, designed so that adults and children can observe the animals from close quarters. This will complement the night-time area where visitors can get a close-up view of nocturnal animals. Other features of Nocturnia include raised paths through the forest, and the chance to swing through the trees on a series of hammocks. Nocturnia opens 10am-6pm Thursday-Monday from April to June, 10am-7.30pm daily in July and August, and 2-6pm at weekends in September and October. Admission is €9 for adults, €6.50 for children aged 6-17. It is an hour’s drive east of Reims, and is easily accessible from the Channel ports by motorway.
An hour north is Charleville-Mézières, the regional capital, where a new boutique hotel has just opened. The Dormeur du Val is at 32 bis rue de la Gravière (00 33 3 24 420 430; dormeur.fr ) and has family rooms available. Prices from €112, with discounts for early bookings online.
Book now or later?
Rather than waiting until the last minute in the hope of bagging a bargain, this year there are some tempting offers for those who book their summer holidays in the next few weeks. The discounts available include those from Club Med (08453 670 670; clubmed.co.uk ), which has seven resorts in France, and is offering savings on holidays booked before the end of February.
Mark Warner (0871 703 3889; markwarner.co.uk ) offers free accommodation for a child under 13 at its properties in Corsica when two adults make a booking.
Eurocamp (0844 406 0402; eurocamp.co.uk ) is offering a 15 per cent discount for holidays booked before 15 February.
Holidaylettings.co.uk offers a selection of properties in rural and coastal locations as well as in Paris, and has discounts on bookings outside the summer holiday period.
Eight-day family cycling holidays along the Loire with Exodus (0845 863 9600; exodus.co.uk ) are capped at £699 for adults and £579 for children aged 3-11 throughout the spring, summer and autumn. Prices do not include the cost of transport to and from the starting point of Amboise, and bike rental is extra.
Any new cultural attractions?
The Centre Pompidou-Metz (0033 387 598 939; centrepompidou-metz.fr ), a regional offshoot of the Paris Pompidou Centre, will open in May and is the first branch of the Pompidou outside the capital. It will be housed in a newly built hexagonal building whose interior space can be configured to suit each of the exhibitions, which will change frequently.
The inaugural exhibition, Chef-d’oeuvre?, will look at the concept of the masterpiece through many creative art forms including installations, video and photography. The centre is located in the Amphitheatre district of Metz, two minutes’ walk from the handsome railway station, which links the city to Paris Gare de l’Est in less than 90 minutes. Opening times and admission charges will be announced shortly.
Other attractions in the city include its impressive Gothic cathedral, containing a stained-glass window designed by Marc Chagall.
Fans of 19th-century art may prefer to head for Normandy, where a summer-long festival will focus on the links between the countryside and the paintings of Monet, Pissarro and other Impressionists. There will be a series of exhibitions in towns across the region, including Rouen, Honfleur, Caen and Le Havre, as well as concerts and son et lumière shows. Details from normandieimpressionniste.fr .
Cartoons, not culture?
British families have long comprised the commercial bedrock for Disneyland Paris (0844 800 8898; disneylandparis.co.uk ). From 2 April, new Disney characters, including Buzz Lightyear, Remy the Rat and Princess Tiana, will be arriving at the park east of Paris to join in a year-long “new generation festival”.
In the summer, Toy Story Playland opens at the Walt Disney Studios Park, opposite the orginal Disneyland Paris. It will provide the chance of a toy-sized perspective of the world. Three new attractions will open: the Toy Soldiers Parachute Drop is a simulated sky dive; and RC Racer and the Slinky Dog Zig Zag Spin are coaster rides.
A number of inclusive deals are on offer, including free accommodation and park admission for under-sevens, and there are early booking discounts for trips at certain times of the year.
Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com ), which operates direct services from London St Pancras to Disneyland Paris, is offering reductions on hotel rooms in the resort for those booking before mid-February to travel before the end of March.
Futuroscope, the “European Theme Park of the Moving Image”, is located just outside Poitiers (00 33 5 49 495 906; uk.futuroscope.com ).
New attractions this year at Futuroscope include Arthur, the 4D Adventure, created by the film director Luc Besson, and combining motion simulators, animation and physical effects that shrink visitors ready for a breathtaking ride through the land of the Minimoys.
Imax technology is also used to look at the life and work of Vincent van Gogh in Brush with Genius; and Hurricane on the Bayou is a big-screen exploration of the wetlands of Louisiana. Futuroscope is close to the A10 motorway and around 10 minutes from Poitiers airport, which is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000, ryanair.com) from Stansted. The park also has its own TGV train station.
Futuroscope opens daily at 10am from next Saturday (6 February) until mid-November, then some weekends during the winter. Closing times vary from 8pm to 11.45pm, according to the time of year. Full-day tickets cost €35 for adults, and €26 for children aged five to 16. Offers combining park entrance and accommodation are also available.
We’re interested in history
On 22 March, La Coupole, a vast underground blockhaus in the Pas-de-Calais region, is expected to reopen after several months of renovation. Located on the rue Mont-à-Cars in Helfaut, La Coupole (0033 321 122 727; lacoupole-france.com ) was designed by the Germans in 1943 to store the V2 rockets that were intended to destroy London. The exhibits, some of them in chilly underground bunkers, show the history of the occupation of northern France, and the weapons used by the Germans Nazis. It will open from 9am-6pm daily, 10am-7pm in July and August. Admission will cost €9, €6 for children aged five to 16. Family tickets, to cover two adults and up to five children, will cost €19.50.
Linked to La Coupole, but at another site at Landrethun-le-Nord, is the fortress of Mimoyecques (0033 321 871 034), which was the base for the secret V3 rocket, a fixed super-gun that was aimed at London. This will be opening to the public on 1 April, and will be open 10am-5.30pm Tuesday-Sunday from April-June, and September; 10am-6.30pm daily in July and August. Admission will cost €5.50, children €4.
Any new airline routes?
Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com ) is offering a number of new routes for this summer. These include flights to Avignon from Birmingham, Exeter, Manchester and Southampton; to Bergerac from Edinburgh, Exeter and Manchester; to Bordeaux from Birmingham and Southampton; to Brest from Manchester and Southampton; to La Rochelle from Glasgow and Manchester; to Limoges from Birmingham, Gatwick, Manchester, Newcastle and Southampton; to Perpignan from Southampton; and to Rennes from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Manchester and Southampton.
Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com ) has a new summer route from Leeds/Bradford to Bergerac. From late March, easyJet ( easyjet.com ) begins flying from Gatwick to Bordeaux, and Ryanair (0871 246 0000, ryanair.com ) will begin operating flights from Prestwick to Carcassonne.
Les Trois Forêts
Center Parcs has an entirely separate Continental venture, which already has three properties in France In May the enteprise is opening what it is describing as its “greenest village”, in the middle of a lovely woodland area in the Moselle region.
Les Trois Forêts is on the rue de Bertrambois in Hattigny, not far from Sarrebourg (00 31 104 989 754; centerparcs.com). Accommodation is in wooden villas, and the facilities will include a farm, indoor and outdoor sports facilities, and a water park, the Aqua Mundo, which combines a tropical beach, rapids, and plenty of waterbased activities suitable for all age-groups.
Around the park is a protected woodland area, with deer, sheep and other animals, which can be explored on one of the hiking and bicycle trails that have been created. Prices start at €1,199 for a week in July in a villa for four people.