The South of France is just about perfect for family Easter holidays. Find out why Katie Bowman says ‘oui’ to Provence as a parent and discover this gorgeous, sun-kissed corner of Europe that’s now a train journey away from the UK.
There is the Provence we conjure up in our imagination, a mental Polaroid that stars a chilled bottle of rose set atop a wooden table-for-two on a cobbled village square, shaded by plane trees.
Lunch is soon to follow – a leisurely affair of three courses that will run the gamut from escargots to crème brulee, via local, seasonal oddities such as whole, giant artichokes and figs soaked in French brandy.
Then it’s a mooch through town, a stop at a small gallery, perhaps a peruse through the antiques at a street market. No hassle, no timetable, no picky eaters. Provencal perfection.
Now add kids to the snapshot. Looks a little different, doesn’t it? It looks so different from your fantasy, in fact, that you put off Provence for another year, and book the holiday park with the water slides – again.
We say: non! It’s time to make this year the year that you do Provence as a parent. This gorgeous, sun-kissed corner of France has tons to see and do with children, and thanks to Côte d’Azur beaches that are still warm as late as October half term, or as early as Easter, you have a huge chunk of the year in which to visit.
Even winter, with its Christmas festivals and village fairgrounds, can be a brilliant time for a break.
Low key South of France beaches win with kids
If you’re going to get your kids on board and expect them to be visiting vineyards by the time this trip is through, you need to kick off with something they’ll love: beautiful French beaches. The coastline east of St. Tropez – starry Cannes, Nice, Antibes – is mobbed in summer. So go west instead to the lower-key resorts of Cassis, Bandol, Sanury-sur-Mer and Giens.
Giens, in particular, is a crowd-pleaser as it’s a peninsula, with easy shallows and beach clubs on one side, and untamed surfy stretches on the other. Affordable beach kiosks rent SUP boards, kayaks and windsurfing kit to families. No surprise most of them are French and either camping or renting an apartment. Word to the wise here: many South of France Airbnb don’t provide sheets or towels, as most French families pack their own.
La Capte is another good option. It’s an unpretentious beach town with cool cafes serving oysters to grown-ups and steak haché to kids. Its sheltered position make it great for very young children and non-swimmers, plus you’re within candyfloss-smelling distance of Magic World.
What’s Magic World? It’s exactly what it sounds like: a bells-and-whistles funfair, with dodgems, carousels and rollercoasters, that only opens at night. You can forget 8pm bedtime in the South of France.
Take the ferry to absurdly photogenic Les Porquerolles
Older kids will be getting the itch to share by now, so take a ferry to Porquerolles, an absurdly photogenic island that’s the stuff of social-media fantasy.
The boat takes just 15 minutes from Giens, although you can also visit from Toulon, but you arrive in a different world, where there are no cars, and everybody looks like an influencer.
Take time to scour the chic stores selling kaftans and woven bags. Stop for a gelato, the range of flavours is astonishing, from bubblegum to Kinder Egg. Then finish off on the beach.
Plage d’Argent is the prettiest, with aquamarine waters backed by lofty umbrella pines. There’s a lovely sand-under-foot restaurant here too, selling everything from takeaway baguettes to a turbot-for-two, so you have every taste covered.
Provencal food will bewitch your kids
Now, lure the kids – artfully, gradually – inland with the promise of Provencal food they’ll never forget.
Serendipitously, Aix-en-Provence’s most famous edible gift is the biscuit. Dedicate a day to this town, one of the most picturesque in the region, and seek out its biscuit stores, which you’ll find at every turn. We lost almost an hour as my daughter carefully scanned the huge shop, picking up almond drops and lemon rounds as she went, plopping them into her yellow paper bag.
Although, as previously mentioned, ice cream plays a starring role in any Provencal family day out. They take it very seriously here, so be sure to try a scoop of local flavour Brousse de Provence Crumble au Citron, in which clotted cream cheese is magicked together with pieces of lemon and biscuit.
South of France markets to steal your heart
Aix-en-Provence also has one of the greatest markets in Provence, if not France, selling everything to keep your brood happy, from saucisson to fidget-spinners. The market takes place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 8am to 1pm, and Place de l’Hotel de Ville is dedicated entirely to flowers.
Give the kids your phone and let them go mad taking photos from kooky angles; the smell of the square is extraordinary, too.
Other must-see markets include St-Remy-de-Provence on Wednesday, for chic gifts such as Marseille soap, linen tablecloths, and raffia bags. For antiques, it has to be l’Isle-sue-la-Sorgue on Sundays. And Marseille also has a brilliant monthly flea market where kids can spend euros with abandon.
Hop on a train and enjoy the sea views
Getting between these market towns is easy enough by car, but I recommend the SNCF train, too.
Provence’s rail network is brilliant, and French trains are renowned for their punctuality and cleanliness. A standard return ticket between Hyeres and Marseille costs from under 10-euro per child, but to see their faces as the train pulls in – a double-decker, with stairs going up and down – is priceless.
This route also makes a wonderful day-off for a designated driver, as everybody is able to see the sparkling Mediterranean from the train window, something you can’t from the car. Choose a set of seats with a table and your game of Uno with-a-view will be a family highlight.
Now squeeze in some South of France culture
Okay, you’ve reached the final few days of this parental Provencal trip, and you have the kids well and truly under its spell. Now it’s time to squeeze in some culture.
Don’t panic, they’ll barely know they’re being enlightened at the whacky Fondation Vasarely, a gallery outside Aix that looks like a giant set of dominoes. Within the bizarre building – a honeycomb of hexagons from above – children will love the work of artist and architect Vasarely who designed one of David Bowie’s album covers. The art works are gigantic, made from aluminium, wool, sometimes plastic and mosaic, and all stretching from floor to the glass ceiling.
Make time for beautiful Hôtel de Caumont
Another education-by-stealth can be had at Hôtel de Caumont, an 18th century mansion turned into an arts centre. The environment is so beautiful, it’s impossible not to be wowed by the works, but if you do find kids flagging, promise them tarte aux pommes from the old-fashioned dessert display in the salon-style café. Another trick is to settle in at the Hôtel Caumont cinema, which shows an entertaining 25-minute movie about the life of Impressionist Paul Cezanne, who was born in Provence.
Head underwater in family friendly Marseille
On to Marseille, where children can learn about prehistoric times at the Cosquer Cave, an ancient underwater cave accessed by a subterranean elevator, which you then traverse on exploratory vehicles; it’s James Bond meets the Jurassic era! Marseille, on the whole, is an incredibly family-friendly city, with its lovely Old Port area, where musicians play and boats come and go.
An excellent restaurant for your last night in France is Entrecote, on an idyllic square with a fountain, just far back enough from Marseille harbour to avoid tourist-trap territory. There is only steak frites on the menu, though the desserts are never-ending, and the wine list is long and affordable. No hassle, no timetable, no picky eaters.
See? I told you Provence as a parent could be perfect.
How to plan a family holiday in Provence
How to get there
Eurostar from London St. Pancras to Aix-en-Provence takes from 6 hours, 25 minutes.
Direct UK flights to Nice, Avignon, Marseille, Toulon or Hyeres take from 1 hour, 38 minutes.
Where to stay
James Villas has beautiful homes to rent in Provence, from an ancient two-bed townhouse to a luxurious farmhouse that sleeps 18.
The Radisson Blu Hotel Marseille Vieux Port is affordable, with an excellent harbourfront location, and a family-friendly rooftop pool.