Travel review: Saddle up for a cycle trip to the real France

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Beautiful beaches, gorgeous countryside and history-filled castles line the Vendee coast

If you had time to spare, this was usually not a problem. However, if you were racing to catch a ferry, that was a different matter altogether.

We suffered the ignominy of being the last car on board the ferry on a few occasions, with the vehicle ramps rising behind us as we grabbed our overnight bags from the boot.

I ruminated on this memory while enjoying a beer in the Innisfree Lounge on the Irish Ferries WB Yeats as we sailed past the beaches of Co Wicklow on our journey from Dublin to Cherbourg.

While the road networks have improved in the years since those journeys, it was much more pleasant to be in the comfort of the lounge, enjoying the scenic views of the Irish coast, rather than in a tailback on the M7.

The WB Yeats is a comfortable, roomy ship with a choice of restaurants and entertainment in the high season. Travelling outside of the school holidays meant the ship was quieter than normal.

Sunset in Laval

Our final destination was to be St-Michel-en-l’Herm, a little town a few miles back from the Vendee coastline. It could have been driven in about six hours from Cherbourg, but as a known meanderer, and wanting to avoid the motorways as much as possible, we took a route along the Normandy beaches and then inland to Laval in Mayenne.

We even stopped in at the famous (if you know the TV show) Chateau de la Motte Husson, which was on our route. Sadly, Dick and Angel Strawbridge weren’t at home, but it was good to see such a well-known building in reality.

Our overnight stop was in Manoir La Coudre, perched on a hilltop close to Laval, overlooking the Mayenne River. The building is like a miniature castle and dates back centuries. It was lovingly restored recently and has become a boutique B&B. The views across the valley are stunning.

We arrived at our oasis of calm the following day. Le Petit Michelais Gite is on the edge of St-Michel-en-l’Herm. It’s a two-bedroom bungalow with a lovely outdoor area, though the piece de resistance is the private heated swimming pool.

Having stayed in the same house for a week once before, we knew what to expect and had booked a two-week stay this time around as we had loved it so much.

It is widely known that visitors flock to the Vendee, drawn by the lure of its many beaches and resorts, such as St Jean de Monts, Les Sables d’Olonne and La Tranche sur Mer. However, going a few miles inland brings visitors to the real France.

​St-Michel-en-l’Herm is on the Vendee cycle route and is also remarkably flat due to its location within the Marais Poitevin, the low-lying wetlands the region is famous for.

The morning baguette run in St-Michel-en-L’Herm

With that in mind, bicycles were a must, and we found the service from Loca Cycles in nearby La Faute Sur Mer was great, especially as the owner delivered our two bicycles direct to our front door.

I felt like a local as I cycled through the sleepy streets to the patisserie to buy our morning croissants each day. The wetlands surrounded our gite, which meant we could go off-road and see the local wildlife in its natural environment.

Despite never being further than 2km from the centre of town, out in the serenity of the wetlands, it felt like it was a world away.

I am, admittedly, quite a Francophile, so visiting in the low season is ideal as the locals are happy to chat and it’s a great chance to practise your language skills. It also allows visitors to see places as the locals see them, before prices are seasonally inflated.

If visiting the Vendee, effort should be made to spend a day a Puy du Fou, a history-based theme park.

Don’t be put off by the ‘theme park’ bit though — it is not a place where you will find roller-coasters.

The park features a host of live-action shows, based around historical tableau, which include hundreds of actors and animals. It all leads to quite a spectacular day out.

Chateau de Talmont St Hilaire in Vendee

The region is also famous for its vineyards. Muscadet is a favourite of ours, so being able to see the vines the grapes grow on and buy direct from the vineyard was a particular treat.

There are, in fact, five wine routes, called Fiefs Vendeens, that can be explored, with numerous vineyards open for tastings.

If in the region, a visit to La Rochelle and Ile de Re is a must. La Rochelle has a beautiful old town area.

Hidden beneath one of the streets near the covered market is a Second World War bunker which was used as the headquarters for U-boat officers and has remained intact for more than 80 years. In the summer period, Ile de Re becomes Paris on sea as residents of the capital make a beeline for their summer properties.

However, there is always somewhere interesting to explore on foot, on two wheels or by car among the 10 villages on the stunningly pretty island.

As I’ve got older, I have discovered the benefits of slowing down and enjoying the relaxation that holidays of this nature allow. Ending a day of pottering around French villages by enjoying local cheeses and wines, produced within walking distance of your gite, as the sun goes down is pretty hard to beat.

The castle of Laval (Photo by Jean-Francois Monier/AFP via Getty Images)

Factfile

■ Irish Ferries sails from Dublin to Cherbourg three times a week, 11 months of the year. The journey time is 18 hours.

Entry to the Innisfree Lounge is included in Club, Deluxe and Premium cabin bookings.

For details of special offers, visit www.irishferries.com.

■ www.vendeeholidaycottages.com manages a number of properties in the Vendee region, including countryside gites, beachside villas and large family homes.

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