Exploring the Beaches of Normandy with the Kids17/09/2017
Over the summer we took a little break to Normandy in France to stay with some friends. The first step was to weigh up the channel crossing options, and whether we were better off driving for longer or being stuck on a ferry for hours and hours. It’s the eternal question of where’s best to keep the kids entertained!
We had a great experience of using the Tunnel when we went to Disneyland Paris but it’s a 2.5 hour drive over that way, and even further away from Normandy. The ferries from Portsmouth would be quickest (3 hour journey times), it’s just another long car journey to Portsmouth. That’s when we discovered DFDS sailing out of Newhaven which is only half an hour away from Brighton. But the biggest difference for the price, Portsmouth ones were around £400 but Newhaven to Dieppe was much cheaper at £150 return. We didn’t need much more convincing.
We got to the ferry check-in around 90 minutes before departure, the latest you can arrive is 45 minutes before but it’s better to get there early, get on the ferry first and try and bag the comfy seats. If you’ve got little ones and a pushchair the person at check-in might ask if you want to be near the lift - say yes! It means you get in the disabled lane and loaded onto the ferry so you park next to the handy lifts. The stairs aren’t too bad if you’re carrying kids, but can be a nightmare in the crush when everyone’s trying to get back to their cars after hours on the water and people are just done with ferries and have vowed never to return.
The DFDS ferries aren’t anything fancy but seemed to offer plenty of seating and some distractions for the kids. If you get on-board early enough head for the bar area and try and bag a table next to the big windows. That way you get plenty of space for the kids to run around and a decent view. There’s a ‘soft play’ area next to the shop, but don’t get too excited, it’s basically a padded area where the kids can cram in like sardines and watch Moana on the telly.
Like the kid’s area, the shop is also modest. There is a white cupboard outside which has English and French books which kids can borrow - it’s not very well sign-posted and we only realised what it was when another parent’s curiosity got the better of them! There are also reclining seating areas, plus a self-service restaurant. If you venture outside and it’s nice weather then there are plastic chairs if you fancy taking in the sea air while the kids have a run around. Leaving Newhaven you get a great view of the Seven Sisters as you depart.
At Dieppe it was quick getting off the ferry and on our way. The return journey wasn’t as smooth and there was a lot of traffic trying to get out of the small Newhaven terminal. It didn’t seem to help that you had to exit via a busy crossroads and roundabout. French roads are much less congested although you have to pay tolls for the privilege, roughly 10-15 Euros to get across to Bayeux in Normandy. Remember to take all the required supplies for driving in France (our Disneyland Paris guide cover this) and documentation like vehicle registration and insurance. To save hassle you can get bundles like the AA Euro Travel Kit on Amazon but remember to get breathalysers.
We were staying near Bayeux and it was a great spot for driving up to the coast and exploring the beaches and fishing villages. There’s also a lot of history around that area with plenty of D-Day monuments and museums to see. Boys will love of the tanks dotted around and military wreckage washed up on the beaches, although it might be difficult to explain to little ones the enormity of what went on in World War 2.
Visiting Omaha beach is a particularly conflicted experience. It’s a lovely stretch of the coastline, a sandy beach that stretches for miles when the tide goes out and it was busy with families and tourists happily playing. It’s impossible to imagine the horrible death and destruction that happened during the D-Day landings and going there knowing that history gives it a sombre edge. Yet seeing our kids digging holes and splashing in the waves made us feel grateful for those sacrifices that meant we still have such freedom. There’s a striking monument to D-Day on the centre of the beach as well as a D-Day Museum. Nearby there’s the huge American cemetery for the soldiers lost in Europe during World War 2.
Seeing our kids digging holes and splashing in the waves on Omaha beach made us feel grateful for those sacrifices that meant we still have such freedom.
Further East we went to Arromanches-les-Bains which was codenamed Gold beach and this was where British forces landed and put together a makeshift port. Out to sea you can still see the port’s remains and there are some of the concrete containers still washed up in the sand. There wasn’t a lot of fighting this side so the town remains picturesque and a lovely place to wander around. There are a lot of tourist shops and plenty of places to keep the kids happy with an ice cream. Arromanches is a focal point for D-Day commemorations so it can get very busy, all the car parks were full so we ended up parking on the street and walking down the hill to the town center.
A less touristy area we discovered was Port-en-Bessin-Huppain, a small fishing town between Omaha beach and Arromanches. Unlike those other areas, this beach was rocky and just covered with shells. Literally, that’s what it was made of and you had to crunch your way along while trying to spot pristine ones to keep as souvenirs. The beach is lined with tall cliffs and the shells are embedded all along where they’ve been smashed in by the sea. We went late in the day so the tide was out and the beach was left with plenty of rockpools to explore. The kids grabbed buckets and nets and spent hours trying to catch shrimp and crabs. We didn’t venture into Port-en-Bessin-Huppain itself but there seemed to be restaurants and cafes around for those staying later into the evening.
We popped into Bayeux itself a couple of times, mainly to stock up on cheap booze and cheese at the supermarket, but it’s lovely place to wander. There are loads of shops, cobbled streets and cafes, plus the magnificent Bayeux Cathedral which you can visit around for free. There’s the large Tree of Liberty outside the Cathedral where they do light shows during the summer. It’s free and starts at dusk although after the busy days exploring our kids were wiped out by then so we didn’t get to see it, sadly.
Going out of the Bayeux city centre there’s a very nice 19th century botanical gardens that’s worth a visit if you fancy a quieter corner. Huge trees and well kept flowers, there’s even a small park for the kids which seems quite rare in France!
Overall it was a lovely few days away, although we were all feeling a bit on the chunky side after the diet of bread and cheese. The kids also gorged on butter and these little crackers that look a bit like little bits of toast - thankfully we don’t have them over here! Normandy is a beautiful area and well worth a jaunt along the coast to see what you can find.