Having suffered the British weather for the last 2 summers, I decided it was time to head to the continent in search of sunshine. I have a friend who, like me, is a single parent and I asked if she and her 2 young lads would like to join my son and me on a trip to France in Max.
France is notoriously excellent for choice when it comes to campsites, almost to an overwhelming degree. So to narrow things down I chose to go with a site found within the Eurocamp Independent listings. Originally I wanted to go to the Vendee as that looked promising for better weather, but by the time I booked, the sites in that region were full. So we ended up booked into Ty Nadan, near Arzano, South Brittany. Fingers crossed that the weather would be kind.
Because this was my first jaunt abroad in Max, plus we'd have 3 young lads on-board and the fact that unleaded is more expensive in France than it is here, I elected to go for a long ferry crossing followed by a short drive. So I booked to travel on the Brittany Ferries route between Portsmouth and Saint-Malo on their Bretagne.
Prepping for the trip was quite a job. Firstly I wanted to make sure Max was in tiptop condition in terms of mechanics and functionality. I've learned over the time that I've owned Max that it isn't necessarily a good idea to fit new parts immediately before heading out on a long journey. For instance the leisure battery that I purchased back in Summer 2009 started to play up at the beginning of June. It was covered by the 3 year Tayna warranty and they replaced it with a brand new battery. Having fitted this new unit, the self-switching relay didn't seem to want to charge the new battery and I had to keep adjusting the Smartcom over a period of a week or so to get the point where it kicks in, satisfied that the starter battery is fully charged. I wouldn't have wanted this issue on the way to the Continent.
A club member recently had front beam issues with his Kombi when being recovered after a breakdown. Further to this another club member has mentioned on the site that ferry companies wouldn't tow you onto their ships unless you had a dedicated tow hitch on your vehicle. Brazilian Kombis don't have a front tow hook, so I purchased a universal one off eBay and tasked Paul Brand with welding it to the front nearside chassis leg. Whilst Max was in his care, Paul also adjusted and bled the brakes, fitted new rear brake cylinders, lubed up all the front suspension and reset the tappets. I have to say that Max has never sounded so smooth and interestingly since Paul worked his magic, Max has not stalled when hot whilst coasting to a stop. Good times.
Paul having done his bits, I then set about making sure everything electrical was working and that anything that could be lubed, was. I'm so glad that I made the effort to get a new gas cylinder for the hob/grille. There's no way the butane cylinder that's been in Max for the last 3 years would have lasted for our trip abroad – and you can't get that size and fit of canister abroad (allegedly!) I also renewed the cylinder that I run the Royal stand-alone fridge with too. I popped Max up onto the camping ramps, dropped the front cover plate down and white greased the cables and mechanisms underneath.
There's a rule of thumb that says if you have a part on-board then you won't need it. To that extent I prepared 2 tool boxes: one full of tools, the other containing the following items:
A spare clutch cable
Bike brake cable plus some electrical block connectors for makeshift repairs to the accelerator cable should it snap.
4 new spark plugs
A couple of old HT leads
An old distributor cap and rotor arm
Rocker cover gaskets
Electrical wire plus crimp connectors
So I figured I ought to be able to get out of most problems with that lot at my disposal, and as it turned out, the only thing I needed to pull out of the tool box was a pair of latex gloves when one of the kids fell off his bike, cut his knee open and I needed to play doctor!
I'm fairly organised, it's a characteristic I've inherited from my mum and it's vital for the job I get paid to do. To this extent I make lists, much to the amusement of those closest to me. But generally they tend to benefit from it! On that list I included RAC European cover, which would ultimately bring us and Max home should a problem arise that couldn't be fixed abroad. It would also cough up for us to stay in a hotel if required. Also I bought an International Camping Card, via the RAC, but to be honest it wasn't used at all on this trip. Maybe if I was doing a tour I'd benefit more out of it, but in this instance it just resided in my wallet. So then the rest of the list was the normal camping rundown.
Before I loaded up to head out on this continental adventure, I emptied all of the cupboards and storage in Max. I only wanted to take what I'd need, plus I wanted stuff accessible at the right time. Hence by the time we drove away towards Portsmouth, there was a large crate full of stuff sitting on the floor in my home that wouldn't be travelling with us, and to be honest, it may never go back in.
So holiday time arrived and my son, Max and I headed off towards Sussex to pick up our friends. Within 3 minutes of driving disaster nearly struck. The Olympic Surrey Cycle race was taking place in 4 days and all the roads around where I live were FULL of practising competitors. As I approached a roundabout a huge contingent of these racers pulled across the road in front of us, one of whom just didn't see this huge red and white rectangle coming along, with daytime running lights on too, and she nearly became part of the nearside front panel. I couldn't believe it – that would have just been perfect. However, we missed each other by millimetres and we continued south.
At Portsmouth, I decided to fill Max's tank so we wouldn't need to stop for a while once we arrived the next morning in Saint-Malo. There's a Shell petrol station a 1 minute drive from the Brittany Ferries Terminal, so I didn't fill the tank to the brim – I didn't want fuel sitting in the filler pipe rotting away that rubber hose! It was a gloriously warm evening and there was already a sizeable number of vehicles lined up to board the Bretagne by the time we joined the queue. Here came my next concern. We had been directed into a lane that seemed to contain only vehicles of a lower height than Max, and to fuel my worries, all the other motorhomes and caravans were in a line way over to the left of us. My Kombi is 2.2 metres high taking into account the air vent. I had to ask the boarding official twice if we were in the right lane with a vehicle so high. His response both times was 'it should be ok.' 'It should' has potential for 'won't be' in my book so it was only as we actually drove into the ship that I relaxed and could see where we were headed was amply high. Phew!
You have to have a cabin on an overnight crossing with Brittany Ferries – I guess they don't want everyone wandering around in the small hours. Max was parked on Deck 4 and our cabin was 2 decks lower – under the waterline and towards the bow. It actually was great. Plenty of room for the 5 of us to spend the night – even though it was officially a 4 berth cabin. (I'd booked a reclining seat for the fifth member, but we never used it, it just satisfies the Brittany Ferries booking requirements.)
We headed up to the posh restaurant as we fancied a decent bit of tucker on this inaugural night of our holiday. Lots of folk had the same idea – the a la Carte restaurant was packed. But once you saw the delicious food on offer you could understand why. As we tucked into our first round of French bread, Bretagne slipped out of dock and headed into the Solent.
The weather was amazingly warm – we could well have been on a Mediterranean cruise. After dinner we strolled around the outer decks and enjoyed the beautiful moonlit night. We made our way down to the cabin and settled down, grateful in fact that we were towards the bow as you get very little rumble from the propellers there.
Bretagne docked on time in Saint-Malo at 8.30 am French time. There was a bit of a panic at this point. As we'd pulled up inside the ship a very enthusiastic employee of Brittany Ferries rushed over to say how beautiful our van was and to give us a card detailing which deck and door we were parked near to return to our vehicle the next morning. She wrote down the wrong deck and I didn't think to question it when she handed me the card! It was quite obvious that Max wasn't where the card indicated as the height of the parking area it described would have sliced the poptop off in seconds. We found Max – surrounded by a load of people already in their cars ready to drive off the ship. But it went like clockwork, Max fired up on the button and off we set en France. It's weird, you get the impression that a good proportion of people bringing their cars, motorhomes and caravans off the ferry have done it so many times that the speed they hack into Saint-Malo would have you believe they do it every other day. Anyway, 10 minutes later, the satnav had us separated from the pack and I began to settle into commanding my Kombi on the wrong side of the road.
We can only have been driving for 15 minutes, when suddenly an all white AquaBay came towards us on the opposite carriageway. We were both thrilled to see each other and lots of waving and flashing of lights took place. It put a big smile on my face.
I had decided to allow the satnav to choose the route entirely. No interference by me, we weren't in a rush and I was curious to see where we would travel through. It was one of my best decisions. The scenery we drove through was magical. It was a good mixture of A and B style roads, with no tolls to pay whatsoever. Max was purring along, sitting comfortably at around 55-60 mph on the fast bits and puttering gently through les villages and farmland. We stopped just outside a village called Ereac at a picnic spot to stretch our legs and take in the view. It felt like being on holiday.
We made it to Ty Nadan by about 2pm. It was obvious by the shrieks of delight eminating from the swimming pool area that a lot of fun was being had by the kids there. It's a busy campsite with lots of activities, many of which you do have to pay extra for such as quad biking (only for under 12s,) zip wire, kayaking etc. Most of which we wouldn't use much anyway, however I was a little peeved that you had to pay 10 Euros to hire a tennis court for an hour. It was in a lovely wooded location though, each pitch being separated from the next by either a row of trees or some bushes. It was full by the looks of it when we arrived – I only worked out where our pitch was by the very nature that it was empty, although it was clearly numbered when we actually pulled up beside it.
The kids were understandably keen to sample the waterslides, so Jane took them off and I set about making camp. For this trip I decided to take an old 2 man tent of mine to use as storage, it turned out to be invaluable so I'll take it along on future adventures. The electric hook-up box on each pitch had UK style connectors on the bottom 2 sockets and the Euro 2 pin type on the top two. I had read it was wise to have an adaptor so we could have plugged into either, but initially I used the regular UK style. Several days later I would swap this to the 2 pin socket to help out a new family that took over the pitch to our left – they had only brought UK style cables, luckily for them we had the flexibility to swap plugs.
We were really quite lazy! We slept in until 9am most days, had a very leisurely breakfast, which always consisted of French bread and alternated between combining that with croissants or bacon cooked on Max's hob. We ate outdoors all the time, even when one morning there was a light rain shower, I took this opportunity to try out the new Bus Shelter Sun canopy, and it proved excellent as protection from the drizzle. Where it failed however was when the wind picked up and the figure-of-8 connector detached from the gutter and the whole lot dropped. I won't be using that connection again for it, I'll use a pole and clamp. The canopy doesn't have enough weight to it (which is a good thing from a load point of view) to keep it down if a breeze kicks in.
Activity-wise we swam, waterslid, played badminton (I keep a set on-board permanently now,) played tennis, table tennis, cycled, the kids quad-biked and we played lots of cards.
The nearest town was Quimperle which was beautiful. Not a lot to see there but it had a decent creperie and a virtually new Leclerc supermarket which makes Tescos look like Woolworths. I love browsing the aisles of French supermarkets, the choice is phenomenal and you can get so much stuff in there. I didn't need any, but 5 litres of Castrol GTX 15w40 was 11 Euros in Leclerc. Which is about 9 quid. Over here it's double that.
We had a trip out to one of the local harbours recommended by the campsite: Doelan. It was truly picturesque and slap bang in the middle was a busy restaurant, which we felt obliged to sample as its setting was just perfect.
We also popped along to the beach just down the road from Doelan, but it was a Saturday and reasonably busy with locals. The sand was like golden caster sugar.
The 8 days flew by and it was time to pack up and head home. Bretagne leaves Saint-Malo at 10:30 local time each day, and with an hour check-in beforehand, we had to leave Ty Nadan at 5am to make it. We did that with ease in fact, again allowing the satnav to lead the way. Funnily enough it did take us back a slightly different route to the way we had come. There were times when I thought it was having a laugh as the roads seemed to get narrower and narrower, but just as it had predicted, we arrived into Saint-Malo just after 8am and fantastically didn't take us along the autoroute into town, instead taking us to the west of the town and across a bridge over a huge amount of water. The view was fabulous.
We weren't first to arrive at the check-in at around 8.30am. Shortly after we had lined up though, we were joined by the same AquaBay that we had waved at the previous week. Naturally we got chatting and I think they have now signed up on the site. They were on their way back to Shetland! Then a Classic pulled up too and I had a natter with the folks on-board that Bay too.
We pulled up into Bretagne, locked Max up and headed to the self-service restaurant to try the Full English Cooked Breakfast. It was great. The ship was substantially quieter on the route back to Portsmouth. This time we just had reserved Club Class reclining seats, which were excellent as the lounge in which they were located was very peaceful and you could catch some sleep during the crossing.
We arrived back slightly late into Portsmouth, due to heavy shipping traffic in the port! As we pulled away from Bretagne and onto the UK roads, what do you think I noticed instantly? Potholes! The French roads have super smooth surfaces and no potholes. Sacrebleu!
Max performed superbly throughout our 10 day break - all I had to do was fill the tank. My Kombi did all that it's supposed to - it transported us to and from our destination and when parked it created our base for our holiday. Looking forward to venturing further now.
Max, now you get that oil change I promised you.
________________________________________________________________________________Max SportsKombi - The Bay Racer