This year it is estimated that a record 100 million tourists will visit France, with holidaying Britons leading the pack. For families in particular, it’s the greatest show on earth – and one that puts the UK’s coastal caravan parks, costly trains and child-unfriendly hotels to shame.
There are fairy tale-worthy castles (the one in Carcassonne inspired Walt Disney himself) and picture-perfect cities. It’s a nation where children can indulge in their favourite diet: baguettes, salami, Orangina, croissants.
More than that, France is the most family-friendly nation I’ve visited with my three children. The thought of kids being barred from cafés, or being scolded for being boisterous in a museum, is incroyable. The country is a sun-kissed playground with 52 Unesco heritage sites, many of them outdoor, including Versailles, the Champagne hills and the precipitous Pont du Gard bridge that families can walk across. Only Italy and China have more.
The amazing bit? For many families, the holiday starts on the journey. Each summer over one million passengers ride Brittany Ferries (our favourite of the five Britain to France operators; brittanyferries.com) from Portsmouth, Plymouth or Poole, adding a £99 family cabin to their foot passenger fee.
Overnight cruise-ferries such as Pont-Aven have French restaurants like Le Flora. Kids can watch toqued chefs preparing fruits de mer in an open kitchen while adults mainline Vin de Pays de Loire. France slides into view after breakfast (St Malo looks like a castle in the sand) to a collective “Bonjour!”.
The same goes for Eurostar (seats from £39 one-way, 30 per cent off for kids under 12 and free if you are prepared to have your under-four on your lap). French staff take breakfast orders for mini-saucissons and pains aux raisins. At Gare du Nord, you step directly into a Gallic opera. Oyster bars, pavement cafés, charcuteries selling cow tongue sarnies, street markets with pongy cheeses. Culinary drama for less than a Nando’s main.
France’s greatest cities constantly reinvent themselves. Between 2000 and 2010, funds allocated to France’s national museums rose from €334m (£285m) to €528m (£450m). Since then, new museums have included Mucem, dedicated to Mediterranean culture in Marseille; Jean Nouvel’s Musée du quai Branly in Paris and the continuing restoration of the capital’s Grand Palais.
Paris’s blinging Bourse de commerce stock exchange now hosts the Pinault Collection of contemporary art. In Marseille, the new Cosquer Méditerranée experience reproduces a nearby cave, discovered in 1985, that contains spell-binding Stone Age drawings untouched for 20,000 years. In Arles, the Frank Gehry-designed Luma art space spirals skyward like a mirrored rocketship. In Cannes, subaquatic sculptor Jason deCaires Taylor recently installed six subsea monoliths in snorkel-friendly shallows. There’s always something fresh.
There’s Disneyland Paris, of course, but historic theme park Puy du Fou, Parc Asterix, Vulcania and the floral Terra Botanica too, as well as Europe’s biggest aquarium, Boulogne-sur-Mer’s vast Nausicaá and Poitier’s Futuroscope. And if you don’t want to fork out, summer is the season for son et lumiere shows that light up France’s magnificently historic architecture night after night.
France’s big cities are a joy to railroad between en famille (especially with a station purchase of a Tunisian brick à l’oeuf egg pastry or Vietnamese ricepaper roll). SNCF trains have picture windows that screen a French panorama: apple orchards to sunflower fields, Rhône vineyards to snowy Alps. Tablets are unnecessary with views like these (although French trains have USB sockets aplenty for sulky teens).
During the past two years, SNCF has reintroduced night trains from Paris to Nice, Biarritz, Toulouse and other cities – book from €59 (£50) per person for a first class Intercités de Nuit four-person couchette. For kids, a sleeper train to the sun is a memory to last a lifetime. For adults, it saves on a night in a hotel.
On a budget? SNCF also operates a low-cost city-to-city service called Ouigo – you can zip south from Paris-Marseille in three hours for €16 (£13.60), a journey of more than 400 miles. Plus, Lyon-Montpellier in 1h 45 mins for €10 (£8.50). Children under 12 travel for half price.
The rule says that you’ve never really “done” France with kids. For families there’s always a new destination to explore – with a fun way to travel there too. Like Chaussay, a French Channel Island fuelled by oysters and lobsters, accessed by a tiny ferry. Or Mercantour National Park, where hiking trails are guarded by Bonnelli’s eagles, accessed by a mountain train from Nice. From e-biking in the Loire to camping in Corsica, the list goes on.
Which brings us to accommodation. As a parent, you’re likely going to spend longer in, and more on, this aspect of your holiday than anything else.
My own family holidays tend to start with the canvas fantasy that is Camping France (campingfrance.com). The website categorises all 8,236 campsites in France in terms of wellness activities, kids’ clubs, heated pools, access to kitesurfing and more.
The actual range of camping accommodation is vast. From a lonely campsite in Ardèche forest, where you leave €20 (£17) per family stay in a rural letterbox, to Les Tournels near St Tropez (tournels.com), a five-star Maldives-themed camp with waterslides and spa, from €1,000 (£850) per week for a family log cabin. There really is something for everyone – and every budget.
For smart summer frills, families should peruse three camping chains. Collection Rivages (collection-rivages.com) is an eco-chic range of outdoor hotels in glam locations, with cycling and paddleboarding thrown in. Slow Village (slow-village.fr) offers natural camps with posh cabins serving organic food to Boden kids. Huttopia (huttopia.com) is a fancy camping giant that connects families with the great outdoors. By comparison, Pontins looks like Mephistophelian purgatory.
Beyond rural hinterlands, France majors in excellent-value three-star hotels and chambres d’hotes. In cities, I’d recommend two hotel chains.
For affordable chic in vintage buildings, HappyCulture (happyculture.com) has 45 authentic hotels from €60 (£51) per night. These include Villa Bougainville, which showcases the tropical travels of explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville, in a hip Nice townhouse. For bargain basement city central rates try B&B Hotels (hotel-bb.com). It has nearly 400 options from €40 (£34) per night. In France it’s always cheaper for families to purchase a boulangerie pétit dejeuner than to breakfast in a hotel.
Final family tips? Usual rules apply, folks. Hotel prices and ferry tickets will only rise. The best campsites and Airbnbs book up. So go brew yourself a café au lait, channel inspiration from the French travel portal (france.fr) and click “réserver”.