.......Ile D'Oleron, which is a big island off the Atlantic coast due west of Rochefort.
After a brief stop at the Marennes Intermarche for supplies, we drove across the bridge to the island in the sun and admired acres and acres of oyster beds.
Our campsite was pretty good, except that our pitch was next to the biggest caravan that we had ever seen. And on the side of that caravan was the biggest, full-width awning that we had ever seen. And on the side of that awning was the biggest full-width canopy that we had ever seen. Strictly, they hadn't impinged on our ground, but they had covered every inch of their ground with caravan-awning-canopy, which left us camping in their front yard! We considered trying to move, but the place was pretty packed, and the only alternative offered to us was on the other side of the trees that separated us from the toilet block, which we didn't fancy. So we put ourselves in a far corner on the flattest section and made ourselves comfortable under a ma-hooooo-sive pine tree which provided ma-hoooo-sive pine cones to play with.
Apart from being a little overcrowded, it was a great little campsite. Very friendly, with nice little touches such as recycling bags given to each tent, and great communal areas - not too big, not too small. There were picnic benches next to the play ground and a quiet bar which sold drinks and ice creams and pizzas so that you could sit and read with a cold drink while the kids played. There were two small swimming pools set into decking, and the kids loved them. We crept in at 7:30 that evening, just before they closed and made the most of the quiet. Thea put on her armbands, and after a few minutes of holding on to me, let go for the first time and floated off on her own. This was a major deal for her - all term she has refused to do this! Of course, after that, we weren't allowed to touch her at all and she just sedately paddled herself round and round in a strange upright position looking rather like a swan - totally motionless above the water, powered some unknown propulsion.
Library picture for our enjoyment!
It was warm and sunny and so the next morning we jumped on our bikes and headed to the beach. But to Nathaniel's delight, rather than cycling the whole way, we rode back into Saint-Trojan-des-Bains to board Le Petit Train. It's a narrow gauge railway that heads west through the forest towards beaches unreachable by car. It was fun!
Thea wasn't entirely sure at first. She assured us that she was happy, but her face wasn't so convincing. We sat right at the front so that we had a good view of the engine, but it was rather loud which may have been a bit overwhelming. Fortunately, the view was distracting. First we travelled through the forest, sounding the horn every time we crossed a pedestrian path. I spent this section yearning after following one of these paths as they snaked up and down dunes into the distance.
Then we emerged at Gatseau Beach, and after a quick stop at the station, carried on along a Dawlish-worthy line along the shore.
After more forest and dunes stretching away from us as far as we could see, we reached Plage de Maumusson. we stepped down straight onto the sand and had to stay where we stood for the next 20 minutes so that the turning of the engine and the moving of the points could be properly examined!
And then we walked down onto the beach which was wonderful! In either direction, the yellow sand stretched as far as the eye could see, backed only by lowish dunes. In front of us, big waves pounded the shore (swimming was prohibited due to their strength), and white horses flecked the bright blue sea. The sun shone. There was pretty much no-one around. We were very happy!
After lunch (we had important cheeses to prioritise over playing), we started by digging. Nathaniel was a spy-car (don't ask!), and zoomed backwards and forwards, hurtling onto the sand and spinning it around with his hands. Then he drew his very own Petit Train.
I was really impressed! Then we spent hours and hours jumping over waves, running away from waves and generally playing with water. It was hot, but with a breeze so that it just felt decadently warm - perfect for getting splashed and then drying off while playing.
We quit while everyone was happy and had an ice cream at the wagon bar while we waited for the return train.
Next day, we couldn't see any reason why we shouldn't acquiesce to Nathaniel's request that we go to a beach again. We had cycled into the village the night before and had a brief wander around - enough to establish that it was primarily a resort village, and not worth the effort of extensive children-persuasion to enable us to explore further. So off we went by bike, along forest bike tracks, to Plage Gatseau. It was a very different beach.
It was definitely busier, but not unpleasant. It was sheltered from the wind and the strong currents and the forest reached right down to the sand. All very picturescue. We collected buckets and buckets of cockles, and then giant handfuls of empty cockle shells. Nathaniel spent most of the time building structures for his cockles (mainly spy-cockles), but I built a boat (which didn't last long against the incoming tide);
And a hole, which Thea played in for ages;
And then sat around in the sun!
We were really getting into this holiday thing - not getting in the car, and prioritising family fun over cultural experiences. After all, even going into a supermarket is fun in foreign countries. So rather than trying to see more of Oleron, which seems to be a resort-ish island made up of lots of oyster-related tourist stuff with only a smattering of older villages, we thought we'd continue on a theme and just go to more beaches! We spent the morning at the campsite playing boules and drawing in our sketch books;
And then we headed to beach three - Le Grand Plage. It was slightly further away, again along bike tracks through the forest, but with some serious inclines which gave Nathaniel ample opportunity to practise using his gears. He showed up some of the adults who we met on the way, pushing their bikes up the steep bits!
Of course, the best bit was the level crossing for the Petit Train. At least it was not as I had feared, and we were allowed to continue without waiting for a train!
What can I say? We should have been prepared when we saw the bike park.
This was, of course, in addition to the car park. But I am naive in the way of beaches (Polzeath in the winter is not preparation for France in the summer), and hadn't even considered that a beach might look like this:
Full is an understatement! Coming over the dunes, we were faced with a wall of parasols and had to pick a path between beach mats and then walk through the sea along the beach to find a gap big enough to put our things down. The tide was in, so there was only a narrow strip of beach, and that was, well, covered.
The waves were giant and impressive. The lifeguards were officiously herding people between their flags with a constant shrill of whistles and they had to carry out at least one person. Nathaniel was delighted, as this necessitated the red rescue land rover, complete with blue flashing lights, driving over the dunes and through the sea to carry an embarrassed looking lady to "safety".
We splashed for a bit, but to be honest it wasn't really the place for any of us, so our trip was a short one.
So back to the campsite we went and installed ourselves in the bar/play area which was a decked area with a fancy wooden snack wagon, and had ice creams, beers, a bit of a book (me), french fries (I think Thea ate them all!), and so much pizza that we had to sit there until quite late! Nathaniel and Thea enjoyed learning about playing on playground equipment with kids who speak another language and got quite good at "Attends!" and "Attention!" Thea suffered a little, as big children kept trying to take her under their wing and help her and didn't understand her firm "I don't need help- I'm very big!"
There was much admiration of a couple of children who could monkey bar, and after much faffing, this occured:
He was very pleased with himself. Thea, of course, was keen to imitate, but the bars were rather far apart for her.
It was a very fine last evening on Oleron, which was good because the next day would be less relaxing!