Anyone who’s ever been to La Rochelle knows that it’s the essence of charm and style. A pretty harbour surrounded by cafés and stalls. Historic twin towers stand watch and usher in the Atlantic, ancient covered arcades and narrow streets that lead to the market. An effortless southern style in a western corner of France.
That’s all well and good but how does it fare if you to have children and grandparents in tow? What then of the café culture and street art? And, what do you do on a day when the temperature is hitting nearly 40 degrees in the shade and passing the day with a bottle of wine isn’t an option?
La Rochelle aquarium
The aquarium is a bit of a must. Just to the left of the harbour as you look out to sea, it’s one of the largest aquariums in Europe. It’s privately owned, has 83 individual aquariums and takes about two hours to do the whole thing. It explores the Atlantic, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean and the Indo-Pacific oceans and seas.
As you start, you go through the jelly fish tunnel and that’s not the last you’ll see of those. The shark and turtle areas are big hitters of course, as are the piranhas. There are headsets available and film areas dotted along the way. And for the smaller children, you’ll also find special attractions such as a cave, a magic carpet, games and cubby holes.
There are puffer fish, octopus, lobster, seahorses, eels, anemone, sting ray and crab. In fact, sea creatures of every shape, size and description as you’d expect. If you haven’t been in a while, they have a new Gallery of Lights which opened in February 2016 designed to explore light in the ocean and some of the eco systems to be found from the surface to deep into the abyss where humans rarely if ever go.
My recommendation however would to be arrive as soon as the doors open first thing in the morning. By 2.30pm it’s very busy, fairly dark and pretty hot. It makes keeping track of the children as they run from one tank to another a bit of a challenge.
There are various ticket options available including a VIP ticket and out of season tickets. It’s also open all year round which makes it a great thing to do when some of the other regional attractions shut out of season.
A trip down memory lane in La Rochelle
While we went under the ocean, my parents were happy with a potter down some of the narrow streets with their timber framed houses and quaint little boutiques. The last time my father visited La Rochelle was in 1963 as a fresh faced young man having a last (and indeed first) boys holiday before he married my mother. He and his friends flew their new Riley 1.5 salon from the UK to Le Touquet in a “Bristol Freighter” developed from war time transport. It makes Eurotunnel sound like a breeze and he described it as like travelling in an “old and airborne tractor”. So his take on the 21st version of La Rochelle? “It hasn’t changed much but there’s slightly more people” he said as I caught up with them sitting in the shade of a tree close to the harbour, enjoying an impromptu busker and a cool drink.
If you’ve got kids, you may well have seen the hit children’s TV show, Fort Boyard. Children are exported to this impenetrable fort which sits an hour’s boat ride from La Rochelle and once there, they are set all sorts of “ultimate challenges”. Dangling on a rope from a great height over the Atlantic is one I’ve seen.
The 19th century fort is oval shaped, 68 metres long with walls 20 metres high and just off the coast of La Rochelle. There are trips out to see it at least every hour in peak season and it’s a two hour round trip. You can’t actually go into Fort Boyard anymore but it is an impressive sight. The overly dramatic commentary over the boat’s tannoy system adds to the fun.
The children loved being on the boat. But the highlight for them were spotting the giant, and I mean huge, jellyfish which were bobbing along beside the boat, easily the size of dustbin lids.
As the sun sets
Arriving back late afternoon, we were booked for a “theatrical city tour” leaving at 9pm from one of the harbour towers. Not quite sure what to expect, we had a superb meal of moules from one of the many pavement restaurants next to the harbour. We say enjoying the sun set over the yachts. We then walked past the harbour towers to see the last of the day’s sailors creeping home for the night before we joined up with the tour.
Our guide was in full costume and very charismatic. The only down side was he didn’t speak a word of English and spoke fast and furiously in what I think was a sort of medieval French. Anyway, there was a large group of French tourists who found him hilarious but I was struggling to keep up. The first stop was the tower dungeons in the dark but sadly that was one adventure too far for my youngest aged 8. At 9.30pm and with a long drive home, we wondered back through the streets of La Rochelle watching the nightlife ignite. Although I was sad not to join the rest of the tour it was well worth hanging around just to see this pretty southern town basking in sunset.
Of course in a city that is so rich in history and culture there’s much else to see. Medieval buildings, museums and the Ile de Ré for a start. But for me and my little tribe, we’d sampled some of the city’s delights, had a taste of the ocean and were more than happy to head north into the warm dusk of the Charente Maritime.
Parking in la Rochelle
Parking is fairly easy and not expensive. We parked right on the seafront, 5 minutes from the harbour. I parked a 10-minute walk from the town centre because I was worried about height restrictions. There is also parking at the Aquariium and elsewhere nearer the town centre.
For more information about La Rochelle visit: www.holidays-la-rochelle.co.uk
Lucy Pitts is a freelance writer and deputy editor of The Good Life France.