French Roadtrip: Days 4 and 5 – The Long Drive Home

It is a long drive from Brittany to Coventry, but at least we were on our own schedule for this part of the trip, so decided to split it over two days, with an extended stop on the first day. I had planned to stop in Honfleur, a lovely little fishing port, but realised that it wouldn’t be suitable for Owen, so decided to stop a few miles away in Deauville, so that Owen could run around on the beach and dig some holes!

After another great breakfast, we said our goodbyes to Michel and Collette, my Mum’s cousins who had been hosting us in St Brieuc, and my parents, who were extending their trip with a few days in the Massif Central. We made plans to meet Simon and Sophie in Deauville, then set off, initially retracing our route from day 2. It took around three hours to get to Deauville. Owen only slept for the last hour, despite still seeming tired from his late night previously. There were a few traffic snarl ups around the Caen ring road, but we made good time and even managed to find a parking space right next to the beach. Ideal when you have a grumpy toddler who just wants to dig holes in the sand!

Whilst Owen was building, then immediately destroying sandcastles, I went to find some ham and cheese baguettes for lunch. Deauville beach is really well set up, with a boardwalk, little cabins (named after Hollywood stars, who may or may not have visited Deauville) then little kiosks selling beach essentials – including lunch! After eating our baguettes we walked along the beach road, checking out the impressive old buildings. The Normandy Hotel, where my Mum used to work, was the highlight, with its half timbered exterior. We then walked back along the boardwalk, stopping for ice cream. I found my new favourite ice cream flavour – chestnut. I’m not sure where else I will be able to get it from again. Although I do know some chestnut farmers, so have got them on the case! Whilst we were eating our ice creams, Simon and Sophie turned up, so we spent some time with them whilst Owen played in the sand some more. When it was time to leave, he ran all the way down the boardwalk to the car – quite a long way for someone with such little legs! It was a good job he was tiring himself out, as we had almost another three hours of driving ahead of us.

Our overnight stop was in Le Touquet, and we spent most of the drive looking out for tractors with Owen – he seemed way more impressed with them than the huge bridges we went over. As we were getting closer to Calais we noticed that most of the cars on the road were British registered, which I thought was funny. Not having been to Le Touquet before I wasn’t expecting to drive through pine forests on the edge of town and was pleasantly surprised to see that everything was really well set up for cycling. We were less impressed with our hotel, which felt really tired and due to a strange layout we were in the 153rd of 156 rooms down a really long corridor. At least the location was good – right on the beach! The town itself seemed nice though! We walked along the beach, past the wake boarding pool, the beach bars, kids clubs and volleyball courts to the town centre. I wasn’t prepared for just how busy the town centre would be – there were people everywhere, shopping, drinking and generally having a good time. As we were all pretty hungry, we went to the first place we found, a little pizza restaurant just off the main street. The pizza was amazing! I love that in France you can get pizzas with an egg on – quite a rarity in the UK. Owen was a bit of a monkey during dinner, I guess he had loads of pent up energy, after being cooped up in the car most of the day. So while Jen did some last minute shopping in town, I took Owen down to the beach for more digging! This is the photo at the top of the post. Once again, Owen enjoyed himself on the beach, hopefully two beaches in one day made up for all the time stuck in the car!

The tractor and combine harvester conversations we had been having with Owen in the car must have been playing on his mind, as he work up at 5:45 asking about combine harvesters! We let him get into bed with us, forgetting that toddlers seem to have an inbuilt need to sleep perpendicular to anyone else in the bed. With only a tiny slither of bed to balance on, I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. At least this meant we were ready to leave early for the relatively short drive up to the Chunnel. When we got there we were given the opportunity to take an earlier train – result! Jen had never used the Le Shuttle, and was wowed by how seamless it all was. We were pretty much straight off the motorway and onto the train! Before long we were speeding along under the English Channel. Whilst I was stretching my legs Owen took the opportunity to commandeer the drivers seat, thinking he’d get to drive the next leg of the journey. He was so upset when I put him back in his car seat.

We’d worked out that it would only be a twenty minute detour to visit Jen’s sister, Heather, in Hackney. So as it was her birthday it would have been rude not to call in! I love the drive into east London, with the Canary Wharf skyline, Olympic Park and the O2, then through the 120 year old Blackwall Tunnel. At this time on a Sunday morning it was a pretty easy drive too. Owen was very excited to see Heather, especially as this was the first time he had been to her flat. We had brunch at the cafe around the corner from Heather’s flat. As I was in East London I felt that it would be rude not to have smashed avocado on toast (and of course post it to my Instagram story).

I was surprised at how easy it was to get from Heather’s flat to the M11 for the start of the final leg of our journey – two hours back to Coventry. I was back on familiar roads, and driving on the left, so it was the easiest drive of the trip. We were home by 14:00, exactly five days since leaving, having covered just over 1,000 miles!

French Roadtrip: Days 2 and 3 – Brittany

We woke up to rain, not ideal on holiday. After a good breakfast at the hotel in Coutances, we loaded up the car for the drive to Brittany. It was still raining. At least it was a good opportunity to test the new wipers and RainX on the windscreen of the BMW. My main niggle with the car since getting it, is that there is no intermittent setting on the wipers, only an “intelligent auto” setting. Which isn’t that intelligent. Even on the most sensitive setting it waits until you can’t see anything ahead, then wipes the screen. I found an old bottle of RainX in the garage and thought it would be worth a try. I wish I’d thought of that a few years ago, as it worked a treat! Even in the heaviest rain I could leave the wipers set to auto and I could see the road ahead clearly!

Just because I could see where I was going didn’t mean that the journey went smoothly. Our first stop was in St Malo, and we had been sent directions to the car park we were meeting everyone at. However the directions opened in Google Maps, and we find that whilst the directions are usually spot on, they aren’t communicated well. It seems to be a lottery if it tells you the road name/number to turn on to and doesn’t show the number of the exit from roundabouts. To be fair we also didn’t have the audio mix tuned, so I could barely hear the turn by turn instructions, so we took a few wrong turns. I think I’ll stick to using Apple Maps.

When we arrived in St Malo the car park that we were looking for was full, so ended up parking somewhere else anyway. It was still raining. The plan had been to have a walk around the old town, but no-one really felt like it, so we followed my Dad straight to his favourite ice cream shop – Sanchez. He seems to have a favourite ice cream shop in every town we visit! 11:00 isn’t really ideal ice cream time, but it was somewhere we could sit in the dry, and I’d heard Dad saying how good this place was for a few years,. So we had to try it out. I had a giant sundae, with coconut, white chocolate and banana ice creams. It was good, but even I struggled to eat it! The plan had been to get “galette saussice”, for lunch, but I was so full of ice cream I couldn’t face one, so shared with Owen. For those that don’t know, a “galette saucisse” is a buckwheat pancake wrapped around a sausage. It is a typical Breton street food and one of my favourite lunches in France.

From St Malo we drove an hour along the coast to St Brieuc, where fortunately the weather was better. We were staying with my Mum’s cousin Michel and his wife Collette. We saw them in the UK last year, but it is probably 25 years since I last visited them. I didn’t really remember their house, but it is lovely, with the living areas (and a massive garage, with workshop) downstairs, then the guest bedrooms upstairs. The downstairs is very modern, with each of the guest bedrooms decorated with a different theme. Jen, Owen and I were in the historically themed room, with a Louis XIV wardrobe that Michel restored in his workshop. The wardrobe was an ideal place to hide all of the breakable ornaments from Owen – as it is very much the sort of house that a two year old could cause trouble in! Michel is also a petrolhead and has a lovely classic Simca 1000, that was manufactured in the year he was born, so we did some tyre kicking. Owen liked the “old car” too.

We drove into the centre of St Brieuc for a walk around, then down to the harbour, where the Rosengart car factory used to be. We had a little walk around, looking at the boats and one of the cars made in the factory. On the way back, we stopped at the supermarket to pick up some essentials: milk for Owen, chestnut puree for me and wine for Jen! Owen was disappointed that this supermarket didn’t have a tank of live crabs/lobsters, unlike most other French supermarkets. Michel did a BBQ in the evening – french sausages and merguez (a spicy north African sausage), which was one of the foods we particularly wanted to eat on our trip – result! Michel and Collette are great hosts (they used to run bars), and we had a lovely three course meal, with the sausages/merguez as main course. Owen loved watching the sausages being cooked on the open fire, and wolfed his sausage down. Then stole some of my Mum’s merguez too! We had to break our “no iPad after dinner” rule, as toddlers and extended French meals are not an ideal combination – something I remembered from when I was a little boy. He sat happily on my Mum’s knee playing tractor/digger games whilst the grown ups chatted, mostly in French.

After his late night Owen had a short lie in, and when we got downstairs Michel had just arrived with croissants for breakfast from the local bakery – they were still warm! They were the best croissants I have ever eaten, they were so light. Nothing like the croissants you get in the UK. The bread was amazing too, and this is just from their local neighbourhood bakery. After breakfast we went to the beach at Les Rosaires, as we hadn’t really done anything aimed at Owen and digging holes at the beach is his favourite thing to do. We were there about an hour, Owen made sandcastles, paddled in the sea, explored rock pools and generally had the time of his life! However, we had to leave, as we had to fit in a three course lunch before our afternoon excursion!

Collette made us an amazing lunch – cockles, pot roast pork and raspberry panna cotta – I think they also grew/caught everything in the dinner apart from the pork and the milk! As is the way with French meals, it took a wee while, so we were late leaving for the pink granite cliffs at Ploumanach. The drive took just over an hour and Owen slept for most of it. When he woke up we were in a little seaside town that reminded Jen of Lulworth Cove in Dorset, and me of 17 Mile Drive in California. We had to carry him past the ice cream shop and the beach (“sandpit” in Owen’s words), then up the hill to the pink granite outcrops. He absolutely loved it there! Climbing on the rocks and posing for photos. I also like to think he was taking in the amazing views and wondering what geological and ocean forces were at play to form these amazing rock shapes. As the grown ups were taking their time walking back, I sat Owen on my shoulders and carried him to the beach, to do more digging in the sand. I’m not sure where he learned to do it, but he has taken to using my head like a steering wheel if I’m not walking the way he wants to go. Then if I mention it, he tries to steer me off the path or into something. He is such a cheeky little monkey!

Michel led us back the scenic route to St Brieuc, so it was already past Owen’s bed time when we got back. Collette made him egg and toast for dinner – his favourite. He had also asked for baked beans, not understanding that you don’t really get them in France. As we’d had a large lunch I was expecting a light dinner, but it was a 6 course job, including the aperitif and cheese! Aperitif (nibbles), mackerel pate, mussels, cod in white sauce, cheese and fruit salad! We were all stuffed after that. After his dinner, Owen had perked up a bit and didn’t want to go to bed, he sat quietly on his iPad, until the fruit salad came out. He took a liking to the homegrown blackcurrants, stealing them from my Mum’s bowl, then requesting more from the serving bowl! He actually stayed up later than his grandpa!

French Roadtrip: Day 1 – Normandy

We are in France for a few days visiting my Mum’s family. As we are visiting a few different places we are roadtripping in my BMW – our first proper road trip as a family of three! Our ferry left Portsmouth at 9:00 this morning, so we travelled down to the south coast yesterday.

As I was loading the car Owen asked to sit in the drivers seat, it is one of the few places where he can sit still for ages, so I took advantage. The only problem was that he thought he was going to be driving us down the motorway. He was absolutely gutted when eventually removed him and strapped him into his car seat. He had a proper tired two year old tantrum. Luckily within a few minutes of setting off we saw a tractor, which cheered him up. Then before we even got to the city centre he was asleep!

The journey south was uneventful, we called in at Itchen Valley Country Park in Eastleigh, to let Owen have a run around and stretch his legs. The drive took us two hours and Owen woke up just as we pulled into the park. Owen enjoyed both the playground and the play trail, which had animal themed play equipment dotted around in the woods. It also looked like there was a decent, albeit flat, bike trail, but there wasn’t room for my bike on this trip. Only a few minutes off the motorway it makes a much better stopping point than a service station!

All the fresh air made us hungry, so we tackled the rush hour traffic and drove to Whiteley for dinner. It is a nice little out of town shopping/leisure area, which seemed to cater well for kids with animatronic dinosaurs and sand pits to play in. We ate at Bar + Block, a steakhouse which I think may be coming to Coventry soon. Jen and I enjoyed our steaks, but I’m not sure Owen was too fussed about his – he still has a lot to learn!

In the morning we woke up early and called into McDonalds for breakfast on the way to catch the ferry, on the basis it would be cheaper and probably better than what was on offer on the ferry – we were right! Despite the early start, we only just got to the port in time. It has been well over ten years since I last caught a ferry from Portsmouth (I think it was 2005, when I first had my mk1 MX-5!), but it seemed strangely familiar. Owen was very excited to get on the ferry, looking out of the window at all of the activity on the Solent and waving at the boats.

The crossing wasn’t great, Jen and I don’t really have sea legs – I suppose that is because we live about as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK! Owen didn’t seem too bothered though, wanting to explore the ferry. It was funny watching him wobbling around as the boat pitched and rolled. We were definitely glad to dock at Cherbourg and that we will be coming home on the Chunnel!

The first stop of our trip was a very small village called Gonfreville, where my Mum grew up, to visit her friend Christiane. Gonfreville is about an hour south of Cherbourg, slightly longer with a boulangerie stop for lunch. The French really know how do make a perfect ham and cheese baguette. Jen’s theory is that it is down to the butter, and Normandy butter is supposedly the best in the world. Owen slept the whole way, only waking up when he heard my Mum’s voice, as they had arrived at Christiane’s a few ays before us. The excitement of being on a farm, with rabbits and an excitable dog meant that Owen woke up quickly and was soon practicing his French, by saying “bonjour” to everything!

We worked out it must have been seventeen or eighteen years since I was there, as I remembered Christiane’s granddaughter being about Owen’s age – she’s twenty now! My brother Simon and his wife Sophie also joined us, which made both Owen and Lola, the dog, even more excited. We had a drink, ate some cake and looked at old photos, including one of me as a baby. Owen and Jen thought that was funny. I’ve seen photos of me at around nine months old and I looked exactly like Owen did at that age, but at a few months old we looked nothing alike.

Leaving Christiane’s we had a tour of Gonfreville, my Mum showing us the houses she’d lived in and her old primary school. We drove in convoy to Coutances, which was our overnight stop. Our hotel was on the edge of town, so we dropped our bags and walked into town, down a steep hill and then up the other side. It was hard work in the sun, especially pushing Owen’s pushchair, so our first priority in town was to get an ice cream! Suitably cooled down we had a wonder around town, Owen particularly liked the public gardens, with ponds, a playground and a maze. We also went to see my Mum’s secondary school before walking back down, then up the hill to the hotel. I haven’t been to Coutances for over twenty years, some bits of it seemed familiar, but I’m glad my Mum knew where we were going.

We had a bit of downtime before all meeting for dinner. As is the French way, dinner seemed to last hours, so whilst Owen was well behaved to start with, he was getting grumpier and grumpier as the meal went on. Jen and I both had melon and parma ham to start, chicken tagine for main and apple tart for dessert. All the food was really good, Owen seemed to enjoy his too and seemed keener to try new things than he was in San Sebastian a few months ago.

I didn’t manage to take any photos in Normandy, so the one at the top of the post is of Owen, whilst I was loading the car back in Coventry.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 12: To San Francisco

Our last day with the Dodge Challenger started with another run up the CA-41 to Yosemite, then west along the CA-120 back towards San Francisco. There was a section of road west of Groveland which was a series of hairpin bends descending thousands of feet into the valley which I really enjoyed. So much for America only having straight roads!

We dropped the Challenger off at San Francisco airport having added 1677 miles onto the clock – it had been a great car for the trip. With the road trip done it was time to start the second part of our honeymoon, a long weekend in San Francisco.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 11: Yosemite

Our plan for today was to explore Yosemite. We decided to start at the visitor centre at Yosemite valley, which meant driving the CA41 – possibly my new favourite road, in 30 miles there is only one straight and that is through a tunnel! When we got to the visitor centre we discovered that they were celebrating 125 years since the park opened, complete with overhung star spangled banner and “America is great” speeches – so we left to hike up to another waterfall.

The hike to Vernal falls was classed as strenuous, so we wimped out and stopped at the viewing platform lower down the valley, which proved to be a good move. After seeing Vernal falls we walked to Mirror Lake (which isn’t actually a lake nor did it give any reflections) about halfway to the “lake” the heavens opened – we were soaked through. We finished the hike and went straight to the cafe for emergency hot chocolate and cookies. By the time we had finished those the rain had stopped, and although we were still damp, we were not keen to get any wetter so we decided to resume sightseeing from the car.

We retraced our route down CA41 as far as the Glacier Point turn off, which is a 17 mile road, again with lots of corners and gradient changes, ending at Glacier Point (no glacier to be seen). Glacier Point overlooks the whole Yosemite valley, so we were able to see Vernal falls and Mirror Lake, where we had been previously, as well as a great view of Half Dome mountain, one of the most famous peaks in the park. As a bonus, standing on windy cliff top managed to dry out our clothes from the rain earlier.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 10: Mammoth Lakes

Rainbow FallsMammoth is the only place we were staying for one night, so we had to get our exploring done before lunch. I had hoped to hire mountain bikes to try out the world famous bike park at Mammoth Mountain, but it had closed for 2015 the previous weekend – annoying. Instead we took the car up the mountain, first calling in at the earthquake fault, which isn’t an earthquake fault, but just a fissure in the earth’s surface – still impressive though. At 9,000 feet above sea level we struggled with walking in the thin air. Our next stop was Devil’s Postpile, a geological formation of basalt columns, thankfully lower down in the valley as there was a half mile hike in from the car park. A further two miles down the trail is Rainbow Falls, pictured above, which we continued on to. The forest is still recovering from a fire in 1992, so there was plenty of young growth on the ground – perfect for chipmunks to scurry around in, we enjoyed watching them as we walked through the forest.

Hiking done, we returned to Mammoth for more Mexican food at the Good Life Cafe before getting in the car and driving to Yosemite. Our route took us over the Tioga Pass, at 9,945 feet above sea level, with stunning views from each corner. The beautiful scenery and great roads continued all the way to our hotel at Wawona at the south end of Yosemite national park.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 9: Death Valley

This was our longest day on the road, from Las Vegas, through Death Valley to Mammoth Lakes. Before we set off we had breakfast at the Hexx restaurant at our hotel. As the terrace was in the shade we decided to sit outside, overlooking the strip – perfect for people watching. The restaurant specialises in creative combinations, so I had their carrot cake pancakes, which were good, if a little big, and Jen had their take on eggs benedict.

Suitably fuelled, both us and the car, we set off to Death Valley. Even before we got into the national park the scenery was beautiful but it got even better inside the park, with multicoloured mountains rising either side of us. At Furnace Creek we took a diversion to Badwater – at 280 feet below sea level it is the lowest place in America. It was also bloody hot – 41°c, so we only stopped briefly for a few photos and a quick walk onto the salt flat. We returned to Furnace Creek via Artists Drive, a one way scenic road showing off the multi coloured mountains.

The next part of the drive along the Death Valley Scenic Byway (CA190) was one of the best roads I’ve driven, with dips, twists and hairpins. It reminded me of the old military road in Scotland, but obviously a lot warmer! The remaining slog up to our overnight stop at Mammoth Lakes seemed to take forever – it was 8 hours in the car in total, and the sun was setting as we arrived in town.

Tired from the drive, and the after effects of a few days in Las Vegas, we just took a stroll down the road to Roberto’s Mexican Cantina for what turned out to be a lovely, but very filling Mexican meal.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 8: Las Vegas

Today was meant to be a chill out day in Las Vegas, but it isn’t really a place for chilling out, everything is so full on! We started our day at the breakfast buffet at the Bellagio. It was the most decadent self-service restaurant I’ve ever seen, carrying on with the Italian theme from the rest of the casino. Pretty much all food groups were covered, but my highlight were the pancakes with caramelised peaches – surprisingly my first pancakes this trip. Breakfast was followed by a quick go on the fruit machines, then a walk round the miracle mile shops and sorting out tickets for a show in the evening.

By this time we needed to relax for a bit and cool off, so we went to the pool at our hotel, it was quite surreal swimming in the pool and looking up at the Eiffel Tower, I’ll admit that I preferred the view from swimming in Santa Barbara though. Suitably cooled down we took a trip up the Eiffel Tower for a great panoramic view of Las Vegas, unfortunately we’d timed it badly as we were too early to see the Bellagio fountains, which start at three o’clock. Next we braved the heat and madness of the strip to check out the Venetian hotel, complete with canal for gondola rides and replica of St Mark’s square – I imagine that this is the only time that the original would be madder than the Las Vegas recreation. We crossed the strip to return to our hotel, but ended up getting lost in the shops under Caesar’s Palace.

When we eventually made it back to our hotel we both felt like we needed to chill out for a while before heading back out. Before long it was time to walk back up the strip for our dinner reservation at St Mark’s square, where we enjoyed pizzas sat “outside” on the terrace, being serenaded by a band and watching all the tour groups coming past. After dinner we crossed the strip to the Mirage for roulette and cocktails before the show. We saw Cirque du Soleil’s Love, which is based on the Beatles music and was easily my highlight of Las Vegas, the choreography and acrobatics were amazing. We finished off our day in Las Vegas with sore feet – we walked over 23,000 steps – but happy watching the last performance of the Bellagio fountains from our suite.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 7: Driving to Las Vegas

This was another long day on the road, from Santa Monica, by the Pacific Ocean to Las Vegas in the Nevada desert. After a light breakfast I drove the first stint through Los Angeles and onto the i15. Leaving Los Angeles on Sunday morning worked well, the traffic on the freeway was flowing nicely and we reached our lunch stop near Barstow in about two and a half hours.

Barstow seemed like one of these forgotten desert towns, but I’d heard that Peggy Sue’s 50’s Diner was the best place to stop and it certainly lived up to its reputation. The food was good and it has also turned itself into a tourist attraction in its own right with a diner-saur park and gift shop.

After lunch Jen took over driving duties and got us across the state line to Nevada, where I resumed driving and took us on a detour to see Lake Mead and the Hoover Dam – which meant we also crossed into Arizona, so 3 states in one day!

Driving back from the dam towards Las Vegas we got more and more excited as each of the landmarks became visible on the horizon, but it was only when we turned onto the strip that we got the full effect and realised just how crazy this city is. We checked into our hotel – Paris – and decided to upgrade to a suite, it was expensive but the views over the Eiffel Tower and Bellagio fountains were worth it. I’m slightly concerned that Jen is getting a taste for hotel suites though!

One thing we learned early on is that you need to make a reservation for the popular dinner spots. We ended up doing an impromptu tour of the strip looking for somewhere to have dinner, eventually ending up at Gallagher’s in the New York New York casino. It was worth the walk – we both had huge steaks which were delicious.

Honeymoon Roadtrip Day 6: Santa Monica

Today was similar to day 4 in Santa Barbara, we had another good breakfast (at Jinky’s) then a wander around the shops. Around lunchtime we hired beach cruiser bikes an cycled the 6km to Venice Beach. We weren’t really taken by Venice beach, it seemed a bit seedier than Santa Monica, Jen compared it to Camden in London, where Santa Monica is more like Covent Garden. We finished the ride off with an ice cream by the old carousel on Santa Monica pier.

We spend the late afternoon on the beach, which was busier than in Santa Barbara, maybe because it was the weekend. Frustratingly the waves were too big for swimming, but breaking too late for surfing – another trip where we failed to go surfing! In the evening we sampled the local nightlife, avoiding the British pub and trying some local beers/ciders in a trendy bar (Misfits), before marking our last night by the beach with more seafood at the Waterfront Grill.