Published: August 23rd 2012August 23rd 2012
On our US coach tour with Trafalgar Tours earlier in the year we were treated to what the Tour Guide called ‘Hidden Gems’. These were places or sites that we were taken to but were not on the original itinerary. It meant we got to see Stanford University near Silicon Valley, a Dutch settlement outside Santa Barbara, and (scarily) the inside of a Walmart. I think part of what we have experienced in the past week could fit into this category as well. Many months ago Paul and Bénédicte suggested that we rent their villa in the Vendee region on the western Atlantic coast. The seaside resort town of La Grière was our destination, which meant a 200 kilometre drive from Vary – as an aside we have just gone through 8000km in the car since picking it up at Heathrow on May 6, although we will fall slightly short of my target of 10K by the time we give it up in Paris in a couple of weeks.
How does one describe La Grière? My first impression was that it reminded me of a 1950s Pauanui. It had the pine trees, it had the pine straw covered
sand, it had a long ocean beach, and it was made up from a collection of architecturally designed houses. They were mostly of 1940 – 1950 design and many had an art deco feel to them. This was an area that was originally a haven for wealthy Parisians who would venture across to the coast for two weeks of every summer. That is not to say that wealthy Parisians do not head there anymore but there is more of a family feel to it now. In fact while we were there it was very busy with holiday makers including many Brits who are easy to identify as they were going red on the beach and their car number plates. The permanent residents are identified by a tan that rivals Ross’ efforts after going to the spray tan clinic too many times in one episode of Friends – basically they are a couple of shades off black. The ‘slip, slop, slap’ movement is not big on the Vendee coast. But who can blame them. The beaches are divine and stretch up and down the coast – there is some 8km of beach in the area and they were groomed each day
by the local council to remove all traces of yesterday’s beachgoers. They are sandy and very safe to swim at; although we did nearly lose NLS who mistimed an incoming wave and ended up upside down and under it with her bathers round her ankles. The little Irish boy, who was being taught to bodysurf by his father nearby, will be in counselling for months. The only other downside, but thankfully I never saw one while swimming, were large jelly fish – and by large I mean massive. They were the size of car wheel with tentacles fanning out below. Not to be cruel but I do feel that the best jellyfish are always ones that are found above the high tide mark.
It has not always been a picture of calm in La Grière as the area was ravaged by Cyclone Xynthia in late February 2010. This was a storm that claimed the lives of over 50 people in France. The Vendee coast was hit by a storm surge that saw 7.5m waves hitting the shoreline, this together with a high tide and the collapse of a 200 year old seawall sent flood waters into La
Tranche-sur-Mer and L’Aiguillon-sur-Mer; the resorts on either side of La Grière. La Grière itself was not spared with the foreshore damaged, and the beach scoured back to rock. Even today a massive tree planting campaign is in place to protect the dunes and houses from future erosion. Houses will require on-going protection as over 900 houses were destroyed by Xynthia’s force.
Thankfully Paul and Bénédicte’s house is far enough away that erosion should never be a problem but it is close enough to wander to the beach for a late afternoon swim. We did this every day and it was idyllic. Swimming in the sea is always easier when the outside temperature is 30 degrees and the sea temperature is near 22 degrees. There is also a strange but very French phenomenon of the beaches being empty between about 1pm and 4pm. We walked along and nearly had the beach to ourselves. Come back an hour later and the French have finished their midday meals, had a nap at home and are ready to take on the beach again. And what better way to help digest the niçoise salad, half a French bagutte, a few sardines, the
bottle of White Burgundy and a small ice cream, than getting back in the water or kicking the footie up and down the beach – suddenly the beach was standing room only. I think they may have got it all worked out.
The Olympics came to a close while we were at the seaside. In a far more subdued manner than the opening two weeks previous, Narelle and I watched on French TV the festivities that marked the end of what can only be deemed a quite fantastic Olympics. London has really turned it on and the results are there for all to see. Looking back in a positive manner at London 2012 will be very easy for New Zealanders who watched its athletes secure six Gold medals and end up 15th
on the Medal Table. The rowers were a joy to watch and I must admit that I missed at least two lunches by hiding myself in front of the TV to watch their finals – thankfully Olympic coverage was by the BBC, and in English at the Chateau. I bit every nail and cheered every short corner as the Black Sticks tried their best to
rollover the Dutch; oh so close but missing out in circumstances that can only be deemed gutting. The belated news that Val Adams had secured gold due to Barry the Belarusian testing positive was the icing on the cake. It is great to hear how the NZ public has welcomed the athletes onto home soil – even the veteran Mark Todd could not believe the reception, which is a nice touch. Roll on Rio 2016 he said! Brilliant! Seb Coe has said that the 800m Final was the greatest Olympic feat of the fortnight – he would know. I on the other hand look at Mo Farah who won Gold in the 5000m and 10000m. He upheld all that an Olympian should and his win in the 5000m was so controlled he looked unbeatable. He is already a role model for many in Britain but his response to a journalist question in regards his Somali heritage and would he have rather won for his birth-country rather than Britain was brilliant – ‘Not at all, mate,’ he said. ‘This is my country and since I was eight years old this is where I grew up. This is where I started life.
This is where I went to uni. This is where the people I know are, this is my country and when I put on the Great Britain vest I’m proud, very proud, that it’s my country.’ In a time when being British has not been that ‘cool’ or embracing what Britain has to offer has not been that well received he should become a role model for all British youth, and that’s great. The odds may be shortening on him becoming Sir Mo Farah in future years – however, an MBE must be a dead cert for the New Year ones. They have been talking down the chance of honours for Olympians this week; apparently it is what you put back into the community, not what you do. I think that idea may get short shrift from the public. There is a small bit of me that wishes we had been there but we will make the extra effort to head out to the Olympic Park in Stratford once we get back in September. I am sure that the largest park to be created for London in well over 100 years will be a great legacy of London 2012 and
a tourist mecca for many years to come. It will be fun to see it.
Paul used his escape tunnel and came to join us at the beach for a night. He has grand plans for ‘Manani’ – the French name for their villa which is on the front wall for all to see. It is a special spot and our recommendation to him was that it becomes their bolthole to get away from Vary during the season. In much the same way we have used Waiheke, and my cousins use Pauanui, it needs to be a place to escape the daily routine and the more you feel you are escaping the more relaxed you feel. Yes, it does need some updating but the bones of the structure are there and with an architect’s advice it could be stunning. We both felt it was a fantastic spot and loved the vibe of the town. Everything you needed was there including a 1950s mini-golf course, which was still manned by the original developer’s son. I am not sure I have played a more challenging mini-golf course and, under the floodlights, Paul and I were swept away by Narelle’s
red-hot putter. Even back to back ‘holes in one’ on my finishing holes was not enough to reel her in and she walked off with all the intrinsic rewards on offer. The age old course record was a surprisingly low 32, which can only mean that Seve Ballesteros holidayed here as a youngster; nobody else could play the shots needed to get round in a score like that.
Being close to the Atlantic meant one major thing was in abundance. Seafood! Wow – did we eat well on the local produce. Paul and I went to the weekly market at La Tranche and came away with crab, oysters, sardines and fillets of fish. The crab in itself was over 1 kilo of meat. Paul also bought some local saucisson, which we were lucky enough to try before buying – it was stunning. The restaurants served wonderful seafood dishes and we were lucky enough to eat out twice. Perhaps our best meal was at Bar Andre in La Rochelle where we had a very simple lunch of moules frittes but sat amongst tables full of people tucking into large platters of chilled seafood: crab, langoustine, scallops, cockles, and
fish. There was enough on each platter for double the amount of people it was meant to feed. This restaurant is a La Rochelle institution and has been serving seafood since 1947. It is huge – there must have been 400 people there the day we went and the entire restaurant spans a block of the port dining area; think Auckland’s Viaduct harbour. For those thinking of a trip to La Rochelle take in www.barandre.com
– you will not be disappointed. We did enjoy La Rochelle as a city too. It is a medieval port city that still thrives in and around the port area. Thousands of people crowded the harbour on the two occasions we visited. It is also a major rugby area and has a professional side. The All Blacks have played games in the city before but not since the good old days when a tour of France meant a one or two match test series and then mid-week games against a French Barbarian side – often a test side in disguise. One of the more intriguing shops was called Otago Rugby, which appears to be a French inspired clothing line with Otago all over it. If
that does not take your fancy then every city has the famous Eden Park clothing shops; opened by Franck Mesnel it celebrates the famous ground where he played a World Cup Final in ’87 and the clothing is superb.
There have been some funny moments in and around the Loire. At one dining in evening it appeared apparent that most attending had discovered on trips out that marijuana appears quite the local product. Driving near Sermaise one day I had to stop the car as by the side of the road was a crop to end all crops. The plants were at least eight feet high, dark green and looked (to my untrained eye) ready for harvest. On further investigation it seems that “pot” cultivation is fairly widespread in the Loire and in fact some call it “the symbol of the Loire”. I still think the wine is a better advert for the region. With the authorities coming down hard on the brazen style of growing it looks like the easy days may be over but it may take a while. Driving up near the Vendee we saw an even bigger crop, which can only
be there for the hemp market otherwise we could be on the verge of a Columbian trade. It all makes Coromandel Gold and the Northland markets appear quite tame.
Our last night in the Loire was left to Paul to organise and he came up trumps. To mark our farewell and, more importantly, the Goodwin’s 26 years of marriage he booked us into a restaurant on the banks of the river in Angers. The restaurant was called Le Favre d’Anne www.lefavredanne.fr
and we did the degustation menu with matching wines. Due to the fact that it was 34° during the day they sat everyone outside under the large magnolia trees and it was all perfect. In the shadows of the Angers chateau we toasted P & B’s special day and chatted away about Vary’s exciting future and where we all might be in a few years. After a few wines we did make the plan for Christmas 2013 ‘downunder’ – Paul seemed swayed by the coinciding Ashes Tour. And with that we were off into the night. I am not sure if it was the drink or the emotions but our trip back to the car had
the drama of Bénédicte’s necklace disintegrating and while I was on my hands and knees scooping up diamonds, opals, and rubies I put my glasses on a ledge and thought no more of them until NLS said to me in the car, “where are your glasses?” – whoops! Thankfully they were still on the ledge after we drove back to them.
Saturday at the Chateau is always changeover day so when we awoke the next morning we offered to assist. Narelle and Bénédicte headed off to strip beds and exchange the linen and Paul and I…well we made sure the Chateau was all OK and Paul fed his Facebook addiction. I did try to breathe life into the plants which had sadly been left to die by guests – with the temperatures we have had this week everything is parched. Sadly this was to be our last day at Vary and our last day with Paul and Bénédicte. It only feels like last week that we arrived at their home in Ellesmere, but in reality it was nearly four months ago. Be it at Vary or at their home they have spoilt us in every way and
treated us so well. We have loved their company and enjoyed feeling part of their family – be it Celine’s new job or Will’s rugby exploits we get a real kick out of what they do. We will be following all their news with extra interest in the next few months. We will miss the nights on the terrace, Paul’s chatter, Bénédicte’s charm, the ambiance of the chateau, and a whole lot of humour that has marked the last few weeks and months – thank you!
There are more photos below