Family Friendly France
With Paris as its beating heart, France has many facets to offer visitors, from its rightly lauded food and wine culture, to countryside spotted with castles and fairy-tale woodlands. However you choose to relax, there are options galore, even if you have little ones in tow.
Like most people, we began our French odyssey in Paris, the city of love, the home of more artistic masterpieces than you can poke a stick at – though we don’t recommend poking any of them, they are lovely – and that certain chic that Parisians wear so effortlessly.
Springtime in Paris may be the stuff of romantic fables, but the city is wonderful at any time of the year. In winter, rugged up in scarfs, hats and jackets, facing the crisp air and often-overcast skies, there is an appealing mood about the place.
Though having a six-month-old baby as a travel companion may seem at odds with days spent leisurely wandering through galleries and museums, we did our fair share of just this – ticking off major draw cards like the Louvre, Musée D’Orsay and Musée L’Orangerie (most famous as the home of Monet’s ethereal water lilies) over a few days.
The Louvre can be a nightmare even for adults, with its sheer size making it difficult to navigate and its crowds making for an unpleasant experience. If you don’t feel you can leave Paris without taking in the Mona Lisa (or a few of the museum’s amazing artworks) try to go with a plan of what you want to see and download the free ‘Louvre Museum Visitor Guide’ app (available on both Android and iOS) before you go, so you can plot your desired course in advance.
Another option is to go on a Wednesday evening, when the museum is open late and the crowds are less full on than during the day. Those with small children might wonder about the wisdom of taking a stroller out and about in Paris (public transportation in particular isn’t super-friendly to wheels), but if you are going to the Louvre, having a stroller means skipping the line, with a special lane at the entrance for child pram-toting families.
Actually, despite their reputation for aloofness, Parisians (being only human, after all) light up when face-to-face with a cute baby, and pushing a stroller to sights such as the above museums, as well as the Palace of Versailles, we found to be a fantastic way to skip some obnoxiously long lines.
We also managed to skip quite a few of the major museum lines by purchasing a Paris Museum Pass (we got ours at the Louvre, but they are available for pre-purchase or at many sights around the city). If you are doing a reasonable amount of sightseeing, the pass is undeniably good value, with two- four- and six-day options priced from 42 to 69 Euros and access to a long list of museums and other tourist destinations
included (the only sight we had to pay to access outside of the pass was the Eiffel Tower).
Another option for families who might want to take in a museum, but have kids with attention spans that won’t make it through the densely packed warrens of the Louvre or Musée D’Orsay, is to take in a few of Paris’ smaller museums. The quality is often very high and the investment in time and attention isn’t as intense.
A personal favourite is the Musée Picasso Paris, a small museum located in the trendy Marais district dedicated to the life and art of Pablo Picasso, the Spanish master of cubism who spent the bulk of his adult life in France.
The museum actually came into being following a tax beef between the French government and the artist’s heirs, who donated this collection of his works to be exhibited to the public rather than pay the hefty inheritance tax they owed the government.
This government-encouraged donation is undoubtedly a boon to art lovers, with this intuitively laid out museum dividing Picasso’s life and work into different stages and relationships, clearly showing how what was going on in his personal world spilled over into his artistic development.
Just by virtue of basing ourselves at The Peninsula hotel, just steps from the Arc de Triomphe and luxury-shopping mecca the Champs-Élysées, we were already soaking up the storied history of the city.
The hotel, which opened little more than a year ago, was formerly France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and was the location for the Paris Peace Accords, which bought an end to the Vietnam War upon their signing in 1973. The room where Henry Kissinger and his contemporaries hashed out the details is now the hotel bar.
Family friendly touches abound at this hotel, with everything from a baby-sized robe and slippers lined up next to their adult contemporaries in the dressing room (cuteness overload) to toys and colouring books on hand to entertain kids at mealtimes, a selection of baby-friendly bath products on offer in the bathroom and a crib complete with a teddy bear outfitted in a bell boy uniform.
The rooftop restaurant, L’Oiseau Blanc, is the perfect place to take in stunning views of Paris, including a certain spire, without which the Parisian skyline just wouldn’t be the same.
Likewise, in the forests of France’s North-Eastern Alsace region, it’s very easy to feel as though you truly have gotten away from it all. There is something timeless about the dense green forests. In winter, they are even more beautiful, with fir, beech and birch trees dusted with white snow.
The towns and villages of this region look like something out of a fairy-tale, with clusters of triangleroofed dwellings surrounding the singular bell tower of a church. The people are also something to behold, emanating a genuine friendliness and openness difficult to find in other parts of France.
In a country as well visited as France, it can be a challenge to find a travel experience which feels authentic, something perhaps not mirrored in the trips of the millions of others who take in the views from the Eiffel Tower each year, or crowd around the glass case of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. This is exactly the experience we found in Alsace, where good food and a serene environment combine for the ultimate in unwinding.
By the village of La Petite-Pierre, in the Vosges du Nord national park, lays La Clairiere, a family-run, wellnessfocussed hotel, which operates in complete harmony with its natural surroundings, and offers plenty of peace and quiet alongside its holistic therapeutic offerings.
Though children under 12 aren’t allowed in the spa area of the hotel, this is the perfect excuse for mother dearest to take some time out from the kids and enjoy some “me time”, in the hands of some exceptionally capable therapists.
La Clairiere’s spa treatments focus on traditional therapies spanning naturopathy, TCM and Ayurveda. We chose a head massage in the south Asian Ayurvedic tradition, a 25-minute ultra-relaxing treatment that uses warm oil and strategic pressure points to relieve stress, as well as a Dr Hauschka Classic Facial.
The latter is suitable for all skin types and can be personalised for individual needs. This holistic facial includes two mask treatments and the use of soft brushes to stimulate the skin’s balancing and regenerative properties.
The result of this combination of treatments was a glow that radiated from my stress-free insides, to my clear outer complexion.
Also helpful to the complexion, as well as overall health, are the organic offerings at the hotel’s restaurant, which showcases the region’s typically heavier cuisine with a fresh and light touch.
Just because the food is healthy, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be paired with a top notch local wine, this is still France, after all, and the wine is organic, in case that helps you feel better about keeping up your alcohol intake while on holidays.
Originally opened in 1981, La Clairiere has in recent years been taken over by the daughters of its original founders, who continue to update and transform the property, while ensuring it remains true to its roots.
It was the perfect end to our wonderful and varied Tour de France, where the balance of opulent beauty, delicious cuisine and a healthy dose of the great outdoors make for a perfect family getaway.
The Loire Valley
Beyond Paris, France’s countryside never fails to charm, with its myriad chateaux (and wineries). The Loire Valley, just shy of two hours from the capital, is the perfect place to tour the former, and relax with a glass of the latter’s finest.
In the small village of Onzain, we stayed at the beautiful Domaine des Hauts de Loire, our very own chateau in which to lay our head.
Set on expansive, 70-hectare grounds, featuring manicured lawns, gardens, a pool, tennis court and even a pair of swans, this boutique hotel is the perfect base for a lowkey Loire Valley experience.
Hire a car to take in one or two of the area’s famed châteaux each day – we saw the chateau of Blois, Cheverny and Chambord – or just kick back in the garden with a good book and while away the hours between mealtimes.
The mansion’s restaurant is a highlight, presided over by Michelin-star awarded chef, Remy Giroud, and a staff that do not miss a beat, paying particular attention to the comfort of all guests, even the littlest ones (a high chair complete with fine china place setting was thoughtfully, if a little impractically, provided for baby).
Though French waiters have a haughty reputation, the service here, from the gentle and expert suggestions of the sommelier to the sweet attention paid by the management to everyone in the family, made the experience truly special.
Perfect for a short break, or a week surrounded by greenery, sunning yourself by the swimming pool and indulging in the exemplary local cuisine to really refuel.
Where to stay:
THE PENINSULA HOTEL, PARIS
Even if it’s just for a couple of nights of your trip, if at all possible, it is completely worthwhile to splurge on one of Paris’ beautiful, luxury hotels while you are there. There is something so luxe about this city that staying in a nice hotel is just a quintessential part of the experience. It’s difficult to look past The Peninsula, Paris as a family-friendly luxury hotel option, not only for its location and service (though they are both exceptional), but also for the personalised attention and special touches to make life easier when traveling with little ones.
DOMAINE DES HAUTS DE LOIRE
A wonderful country retreat, less than two hours from Paris, and perfectly placed for touring the châteaux of the Loire Valley. Ideal for those who want to eat wonderful meals, drink local wines in a tastefully appointed drawing room, chill out by the pool or wander among expansive gardens. If it sounds like paradise, that’s because it kind of is.
LA CLAIRIERE BIO SPA & HOTEL
A small hotel nestled at the edge of a national park, La Clairiere offers the best of the Alsace region’s great outdoors, alongside a comprehensive list of health and wellness offerings – all delivered with a focus on sustainability. It is, in short, incredibly tranquil, and friendly to young children, with the owner’s kids regularly spotted playing about the property and child-friendly amenities available at the restaurant. Rooms are spacious and comfortable and the vibe is friendly, welcoming and relaxed.
Getting There And Around
Some very affordable fares are available from Shanghai to Paris via Kuala Lumpur on Malaysian Airways, and via Moscow on Aeroflot. At the time of writing, Ctrip has fares from RMB 4,000, including taxes.
France has great public transportation links and fast trains between many destinations. By booking train tickets in advance on the SNCF Voyages website, you can also save yourself some cash, with early bird tickets considerably cheaper than last minute options. Most routes have an option to pay online and print out e-tickets, or to collect tickets from SNCF machines at train stations once you get to France, simply by swiping the credit card used to travel.
Web: www.ctrip.com / en.voyages-sncf.com
Paris Museum Pass: en.parismuseumpass.com
Musée D’Orsay: www.musee-orsay.fr
The Louvre: www.louvre.fr/en
Musée Picasso Paris: www.museepicassoparis.fr/en
Loire Valley Tours: www.loire-valley-tours.com