Travel: Four go exploring in France: We kick off a six-week series on France with a special issue in which Frank Barrett goes holidaying en famille

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The Independent Travel
TO PUT France to the test, this was the idea: driving off a ferry and following our noses. To show how good the country is for a family holiday, the plan was to hit the road, see where we ended up and then report back - the travel equivalent of a blind tasting.

Instead of starting off at a Channel port, we began our journey from the bottom end of France near the Spanish border (by virtue of having arrived via ferry in northern Spain).

Before we set off, opinions were canvassed on the general direction we should choose. Inland or seaside? 'Seaside.' North, south, east or west? There was some dissent here, so in my role as benign dictator and keeper of the car keys, I chose west. The ultimate destination was the Breton Channel port of Roscoff and I wasn't prepared to indulge in a mini-Tour de France, even in the sacred interests of consumer journalism.

Besides, I wanted to get better acquainted with the western Atlantic coast of France. My only real experience of it was a family trip with my parents - our first to France - when we spent some time near La Baule. Not, I suspect, because my father was especially keen on the belle epoque pleasures of the town, but because La Baule was rather close to St Nazaire, famous for its Second World War German submarine pens.

My father was a couple of years too young to have seen active service in the battle for France. But what he failed to accomplish in 1944, he more than made up for in family holidays in the Sixties. In the length of France, there was no battlefield memorial, war cemetery, pill-box, submarine pen, nor even the smallest portion of Nazi barbed wire that he considered too insignificant for careful appraisal.

On those mornings when other families would gather up their windbreaks and picnic hampers and prepare for a sunny day on the beach, we would be off inspecting the remnants of Atlantic Wall concrete fortifications and gun emplacements. These inspections were painstaking procedures that involved my father studying the site from every possible aspect and reading every explanatory sign (even if it was in French, a language wholly unintelligible to him). As a result, a stop to examine a roadside tablet marking the place where four French Resistance fighters had been executed, for example, could take 20 to 40 minutes.

Our family learnt to tolerate these constant interruptions to our journey with surprising fortitude. My children, on the other hand, will not brook even the shortest halt. 'Why are we stopping?' they demand with undisguised irritation. Any car journey longer than 10 minutes they see as a cruel and unusual punishment; the car should only stop when the drive is completed. I tell them that, when I was a child, people used to go out for 'a drive' with no aim other than simply to be in a car and look out the windows. But they listen to me as if I was explaining the workings of a Victorian lunatic asylum.

So we stay on a fast road until we reach the seaside and find our journey's end. Ideally, I am informed from the back seat, we should reach our destination in time for lunch. (They consider eating meals in the car a humiliating procedure: 'People will see us eating,' they groan. What people, I inquire: Prince Rainier of Monaco? Francois Mitterrand? Gerard Depardieu? But reasoned argument makes no difference.)

We leave Biarritz at around 8am and head north. Immediately, the pleasure of driving through the French countryside washes over me. I remember reading a piece written towards the end of the last war - by Cyril Connolly, I think - that expressed a painful yearning to see France again. For those trapped in the wartime austerity of London, the pleasures of a holiday in France must have seemed far away indeed.

Even on the French dual carriageways, away from the delights of the back roads, driving still has its pleasures. We rapidly make progress up the Landes, skirting Bordeaux and the ubiquitous vineyards, and on into the Charente-Maritime. Within three hours of leaving Biarritz we are approaching Saintes and reaching the moment of decision.

In one direction, near the mouth of the Gironde, lies the resort of Royan - north of which is the attractive- sounding Wild Coast: Cote Sauvage. Much further north is La Rochelle, and beyond is Les Sables-d'Olonne.

However, a much more interesting adventure is promised by the group of off-shore islands: Noirmoutier, the Iles d'Yeu, Oleron and Re. The guidebooks make the Ile de Re sound the most attractive, being the least developed of the islands.

We would most certainly have chosen the Ile de Re had I not read in the Michelin guide that the toll for the bridge to the island is a staggering pounds 13.50 (and we think the Severn Bridge is pricey at pounds 3.10). Since the bridge to Oleron is free, the choice turned out to be straightforward.

The approach to Oleron lay across an uninspiring flat landscape: this dip into the unknown was beginning to seem distinctly unpromising. But at least we would reach journey's end in good time for our promised lunch, although this didn't prevent an outbreak of heavy sighing from the back seat: 'How much longer? Surely we must be there now . . .'

I played a tape borrowed from the library with a collection of better- known English poems from Chaucer to Betjeman. The back seat collective would rather have had Martin Jarvis reading Just William but we sometimes dare to overrule them.

They greet the opening line of Masefield's Sea Fever with delight: 'I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky . . .' (Their version continues: '. . . I left my pants and socks down there, I wonder if they're dry.')

Masefield's lonely sea barely exists in England today; there is precious little lonely seaside. The portions of coastline that have not been claimed by caravan parks and other tourist developments have been more creditably colonised by the coastal-footpath industry. But either way, lonely sea and sky, even in the wilder parts of Cornwall, can be very hard to find. Would the Ile d'Oleron, France's second largest island after Corsica, offer greater seclusion?

The brochure I picked up at a tourist office near the bridge made Oleron sound extremely alluring. 'Luminous isle . . . The charm of Oleron works through the mildness of her climate, which brings the mimosa into blossom as early as the end of January . . .'

Still trusting to luck after crossing the bridge to the island, we turned left and took the road to St Trojan. Nowadays, most seaside places in Britain are either very tatty or insufferably twee and touristy. Oleron in general, and St Trojan in particular, were typical of many French seaside resorts: uncomplicated and relaxed.

St Trojan displayed signs of an up- market past - a casino now served as a cinema - but in no sense was it run- down. There were several good-looking restaurants and plenty of shops. Still following our noses, we decided to continue through the pine forest to the foot of the island.

Here we found journey's end. In front of us was all the lonely sea and sky a holidaying family could ever conceivably desire. But here also was something not even John Masefield could have dreamt of: a Novotel.

Novotels are the three-star chain hotels normally found in that commercial no man's land of hypermarkets and furniture warehouses which marks the outskirts of most French towns and cities.

But here was a Novotel in the most idyllic spot: on one side beach and sea, on the other an apparently endless pine forest. And it had a room big enough to accommodate the four of us. When my son switched on the TV and discovered Sky News, the general feeling was that we may all have died and gone straight to heaven.

There is an excitement about being on islands that probably derives from reading Famous Five books. You are practically forced to go out and, not to put too Enid Blytonish a point on it, explore. The Novotel was slap bang on the beach: two seconds out of the back door and your feet were in the sand, five minutes' steady walk along the shore and you left all trace of humanity behind. This was the Caribbean without the palm trees.

After our walk, we used the hotel sea-water swimming pool, part of a thalassotherapy health centre. (An attendant insists you wear rubber bathing caps - I'm not sure whether this is for reasons of hygiene or because he just wants to enjoy a good laugh at your expense. My children considered the sight of me in a cap particularly hilarious.) Hotel guests also have free use of the centre's Turkish bath and saunas. For a fee, you can be wrapped in seaweed and sprayed with something that looks like the ferocious jet from a fireman's hose.

The hotel has bikes for hire and there is a network of bike trails running through the forest. On high days and holidays, a little tourist train chugs along a 10-mile track.

Unless you are the recent recipient of a substantial pools win, you will probably not wish to dine at the Novotel. Close at hand, and this is one of the principal pleasures of a family holiday in France, are several good-value eateries. At random we picked La Maree, which turned out to be a sensational sea-food place in St Trojan harbour.

At last, at the age of 39, I have stopped feeling embarrassed at explaining to French waiters and waitresses that I am a vegetarian. I now get a more enthusiastic response. Restaurants respect firmness of spirit on the part of diners - betray nervousness and they'll have your arm off.

I had stunning salad and chips as a main course (honestly, my favourite dish]); my companion, as they say, had exquisitely barbecued sea bass in black butter; the children dined handsomely from the children's menu on a fish steak served up in a cheese sauce. What with puddings, cheese, coffee and wine, at the end of the meal I bore an uncommon resemblance to the Michelin man. The total, for four, came to just pounds 34.50 - so much for the growing belief that eating out in France is becoming prohibitively expensive.

The following day, after another shameful calorie feast at the all-you- can-eat buffet breakfast, we made the 60-minute drive into La Rochelle. This must be one of the finest places for a day out in the whole of France: a handsome harbour, historic streets, fine squares, good museums (reflecting the city's key role in the Protestant war and its place in the discovery of the New World), excellent pavement cafes, even a reasonable supply of parking spaces.

You could spend days simply ambling around and never get bored. Even on a cold and rainy bank holiday Monday, when the shops were shut and the place was running at one-quarter speed, we were captivated. But Oleron was calling us back.

On the way back to the Novotel, I popped in to take a look at Le Grand Large, Oleron's poshest hotel and a member of the Relais et Chateau chain. The exterior was surprisingly modern and the interior a bit like that of an Indian restaurant, but the location on the beach was indisputably magnificent. With rooms from pounds 80 per night (and half-board from pounds 78 per person per night), it's probably too pricey for most tastes (and

probably no Sky News, my son and I concluded).

But, like most French holiday places, Oleron has a good choice of accommodation across the whole price range. There are many good campsites on the island charging around pounds 7 per night and 'villages de vacances' that offer full-board accommodation for around pounds 20 per person per night.

If you need to be convinced of the pleasures of a family holiday in France, why not try a blind tasting. Better still, why not just go to Oleron?

(Photograph omitted)

Accommodation: The Novotel (010 33 46 76 02 46) on Oleron is 2.5 kilometres (1.5 miles) from St Trojan; rooms that sleep up to four cost from around pounds 55 per night. Le Grand Large (010 33 46 75 37 89), the Relais et Chateau hotel, has rooms from pounds 80 per night. The village de vacances La Maison Familiale de Vacances (010 33 46 47 53 02) is on the Route de la Giraudiere, near

St Trojan.

Further information: Office de Tourisme et Accueil de France, quartier du Gabut, place Petite Sirene, La Rochelle (010 33 46 41 14 68); Office de Tourisme, carrefour du Port, St-Trojan-les-Bains (010 33 46 76 00 86); French Tourist Office, 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (071-491 7622).