Nature created the world's finest adventure playground, stuck it on to the north-west corner of France. That's Brittany. In equal parts familiar and pleasingly alien, it has all the vital ingredients for the sort of holiday that children will remember.
As Cornwall is to England, so Brittany is to France, although with more coastline (a whopping 2,800km compared with Cornwall's 480km) to explore. Brittany is so strong in cultural identity that locals often consider it a country in its own right.
The region is made up of four départements: Finistère, Côtes d'Armor, Ille-et-Vilaine and Morbihan. Finistère translates as "The end of the earth" and is a magical place for families. Here, nature is writ large, from the crashing Atlantic breakers on its westerly surf beaches such as Pointe de la Torche to the easterly depths of the beautiful Parc Naturel Régional d'Armorique (00 33 2 98 81 90 08; pnr-armorique.fr). It includes one-off gems such as the Wolf Museum (00 33 2 98 79 73 45; museeduloup.fr; €3.50 adult, €2.50 child), which explores the wolf's biology, behaviour and history, as well as playing into childhood myths.
And, Finistère excels when it comes to messing about on the water. There are facilities galore for sailing, kayaking, surfing and windsurfing, and plenty of trendy stuff such as sand yachting and kite surfing. Many sailing schools are English speaking and geared up for teaching youngsters, including Centre Nautique Crozon-Morgat (00 33 2 98 16 00 00; cncm.fr).
You can sSail direct to Finistère on Brittany Ferries (0871 244 0744; brittanyferries.com) from Plymouth to Roscoff – home to many childhood delights, including the Seaweed Discovery Centre (00 33 2 98 69 77 05; algopole.fr; free entry.)
The first major diversion you are likely to come to is Brest, a university city. Its main family attraction is the Océanopolis sea-life centre. The south coast of Finistère provides gentler bays and beaches. Port Manec'h is set at the mouth of the Aven Estuary and was one of the great holiday centres of the Belle Epoque. White beach huts stand sentinel behind a perfect cove of a beach with rock pooling at either side, while Cardinal Sud – Club Nautique de Port Manec'h de Kersidan (00 33 2 98 06 71 98; cardinalesud.fr) offers sailing and kayaking.
To the east of Finistère is Côtes d'Armor, best known for its Pink Granite Coast, where kids can spot Napoleon's hat, a witch or a tortoise in its rosy rock. Perros-Guirec is one of many seaside towns that draws families to its three sandy beaches. If it's a glimpse of Brittany's bird and seal life you're after, catch a boat to the Sept Iles and Ile Brehat with Vedettes de Perros-Guirec (00 33 2 96 91 10 00; vedettes-perros-guirec.com). A two-hour trip including the island and Pink Granite Coast costs from €17 adult, €11 child.
A highlight is the new Zooparc de Trégomeur (00 33 2 96 79 01 07; zoo-tregomeur.com; €13.70 adult, €9.70 child) with animals and plants from Asia and Madagascar.
The wild coast around Cap Fréhal is a must-see, not least for the jaw-dropping sight of Fort La Latte (00 33 2 96 41 57 11; castlelalatte.com, €5 adult, €3 child) which hugs the cliffs.
To the east of Côtes d'Armor is the medieval town of Dinan, near the Rance Estuary. This history lesson has an impressive rampart walk and a tourist train (00 33 2 99 88 47 07; ttdf.com; €5 adult, €4 child).
Otherwise known as "Haute Bretagne" (High Brittany), Ille-et-Vilaine may have the smallest coastline of all four départements, but it packs a punch with the mighty bay of Mont St-Michel and the ancient ramparts of St-Malo, which greets Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth.
This most easterly, most landlocked, and – some would say – the least Breton département, holds some of the greatest gems for families. In St-Malo, you can scale the ramparts for free and discover a town full of pirate history before heading out to the Grand Aquarium (00 33 2 99 21 19 00; aquarium-st-malo.com; €16 adult, €11.50 child) with its "Shark's Ring" tank containing over 600 sea creatures. A quick hop west across the bay is Dinard – one of the first Breton towns to attract British families, largely due to its beaches. A plaque on the Promenade des Anglais commemorates the arrival of the first British residents in 1836. The English Film Festival runs from 5-9 October (00 33 2 99 88 19 04; festivaldufilm-dinard.fr).
Further inland there is much for families, from the animals at the Desert Goat Farm (00 33 2 99 58 92 14; €6.50 adult, €5.50 child) near Dol-de-Bretagne to the theme-park rides at Cobac Parc (00 33 2 99 73 80 16; cobac-parc.com; €16 adult, €13.50 children over 1m) in Lanhelin.
The southerly département of Morbihan ("little sea") is Brittany's less showy side. It may not have the mighty coast of Finistère, but it makes up for this with the vast Golfe du Morbihan, a Swallows and Amazons' playground for families. La Mouette Sinagote sailing school (00 33 2 97 66 53 67; lamouettesinagote.com) offers sea kayaking from €74 for one and a half hours or €130 for a five-day course. Or, hire a boat from Tradiloc (00 33 6 84 94 05 46; tradiloc.monsite-orange.fr) from €75 for a morning.
Morbihan also has the celebrated standing stones at Carnac, a Unesco World Heritage site, home to the most extensive Neolithic remains in Europe and are free.
To bring the period alive, visit the Museum of Prehistory (00 33 2 97 52 22 04; museedecarnac.com; €5 adult; €2.50 child) in Carnac Village which offers school holiday workshops for six- to 12-year-olds on life in Neolithic times.
Besides the Brittany Ferries crossings (fares start from £238 for a family of four and a car, rising to £579 in August), the region is accessible by road from all the other Channel ports. Or, fly from East Midlands or Stansted to Dinard with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) . Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) flies to Rennes from Exeter, Manchester and Southampton; and to Brest from Birmingham, Manchester and Southampton.
Jane Anderson is the author of the Footprint guide to Brittany with Kids (£13.99). Independent readers can claim 25 per cent off any of the Footprint Travel with Kids series at footprinttravelguides.com by entering IND7 in the coupon code at checkout
Best family beaches
You need not venture far from the ferry to find a crowd-pleaser: the Grand Plage at Dinard is a fine, traditional beach.
For more seclusion, go west to the Baie des Trépassés on the Atlantic Finistère coast. It's a good place for beachcombing as the tide brings a varied bounty to this unusually deep bay, with caves looming under the cliffs. It's also a great surf beach and there's a lifeguard in summer, but beware of the strong currents.
Check out Sensation Bretagne (00 33 2 97 53 67 64; sensation-bretagne.com), a group of 17 coastal resorts, which, from mid-July to mid-August, have all sorts of free events for families such as beach clubs, games and films.
Tour de Bretagne
Brittany has 840km of Voies Vertes ("Green Ways") – paths that follow routes of old railways, towpaths and forest trails. Breton Bikes (00 33 2 96 24 86 72; bretonbikes.com) can arrange child-friendly cycling routes and pre-booked campsites along the way. Camping costs from £195 per week for an adult and from £190 a week for a child. Bikes and all equipment provided. Gîte or hotel-based tours are also available.
Brittany has a penchant for tree-top adventures. Forêt Adrénaline (00 33 2 908 40020; foretadrenaline.com) near Rennes and also in Carnac offers family-friendly zip wires and tree climbing. Prices range from €5-€16 for children, to €20 for adults. If you want to sleep in the trees, catch the ferry from Lorient to Ile de Groix. Here you'll find Parcabout (00 33 2 97 86 57 61; parcabout.fr). Vast swathes of netting are strung among mighty Californian Golden Jubilee pines, and include walkways, hammocks and massive trampolines, allowing visitors to scramble and bounce around this woody wonderland. The "nests", which look like big balloons snagged in the branches, are waterproof spherical tents designed by Chien Noir. They wouldn't look out of place in a design hotel, with a large round mattress filling the 3m diameter. Each nest is large enough for two adults and two small children. Nests cost €69 for two people; breakfast is €8 per person.
Rainy day attractions
Océanopolis (00 33 2 98 34 40 40; oceanopolis.com; €16.50 adult, €11.50 child), near Brest, is one of the region's best-loved attractions and is on a scale more in keeping with a holiday in Florida than rural France. Being in Brittany, though, the emphasis is on education as much as spectacle, with four ocean pavilions covering Temperate, Polar, Tropical and Biodiversity.
The Eric Tarbarly Sailing Museum (00 33 2 97 65 56 56; citevoile-tabarly.com; €11 adult, €8.40 child), which opened last year, de-mystifies the world of sailing with inventive interactive features such as a trimaran simulator. Inspired by the French yachtsman Eric Tabarly (1931-1998), it's the closest you will ever come to sailing on dry land. It can be found at Base des Sous-Marins de Kéroman.
In and around the pretty village of Lizio are fabulous family attractions. Top of the list is the Scrap Metal Poet (00 33 2 97 74 97 94; poeteferrailleur.com; €6 adult; €5.50 child) in La Ville Stéphant, a collection of magical, moving sculptures. At the Insect Museum (00 33 2 97 74 94 31; insectariumdelizio.fr; €7 adult, €5 child), kids can meet the Black Widow spider that bit Spider-Man.
By far the cheapest family option is camping. There are plenty of good options, including Camping des Menhirs (00 33 2 97 52 94 67; lesmenhirs.com), which is just a short stroll from the standing stones of Carnac and its beach resort. A pitch with car costs €29.80-€40.50, plus €8 per adult and €5.95 per child.
Camping des Menhirs is one of 12 sites across Brittany used by Keycamp (0844 406 0319; keycamp.co.uk), which also offers mobile homes with kitchen, lounge, up to three bedrooms, shower and toilet. Keycamp offers seven nights starting on 18 August for a family of two adults and up to four children staying in a Villagrand mobile home at Les Deux Fontaines from £992, accommodation only. This campsite is near the white sands of Plage Tahiti.
For a chic farm stay, check out Char à Bancs Ferme-Auberge (00 33 2 96 74 13 63; aucharabanc.com), a 10-minute drive inland from Binic. The Lamour family has brought this farm back to life with a big dose of Cath Kidston style and a children's adventure playground. Doubles from €74 per night including breakfast; gîtes from €410 per week for a family of four. For more farm stays, see Bienvenue à la Ferme ( bienvenue-a-la-ferme.com/en).
For a more traditional gîte, Kervec Farmhouse (01425 650511; mybrittanyholidayhouse.com), five minutes' drive from Pont Aven, has a large lounge, a kitchen with stone open fire and utility room, plus three bedrooms. The garden is vast and has a trampoline. For the grandparents, the Old Dairy, a one-bedroom barn conversion, is next door. Rental of the farmhouse costs from £800 per week; the Old Dairy costs from £450 per week.
Hotel des deux Mers (00 33 2 97 52 33 75; hotel-des-deux-mers.com) is a family hotel with oodles of local character set between two coastlines on the Quiberon Peninsula. Bedrooms have stunning sea views, and there are interconnecting rooms for families. Surfing, sand yachting, kite surfing, diving and fishing are all on the doorstep. Doubles from €80 per night room only.
For a true one-off, check out Auberge des VoyaJoueurs (00 33 2 97 93 22 18; auberge-des-voyajoueurs.com). This new hotel south of Broceliande has a board-game theme, with 400 games, including a giant Connect 4. Doubles from €69 per night, room only.