back to Destination Inspiration

Bath to Brittany with bikes!

Cycling campaigner Saskia Heijltjes tells us about her family’s cycling holiday in Brittany

22 Jan 2024 5 min read

'Voie Verte' (greenway) cycle route in Brittany

We’re a non-car family and own a longtail cargo bike for daily trips, shopping etc.

A longtail cargo bike has an extended section behind the rider for two or three children and/or luggage, and ours is electric.

Our children are five and eight years old and we frequently ride our bikes together. We’ve dreamt about taking bikes with us abroad for a little while now, so for our holiday last summer we looked at ferry ports that we could easily get to by train from Bath. Portsmouth was the obvious choice, with a direct train connection.

Brittany Ferries offers four different routes to France from Portsmouth, so we looked for accommodation near those four ports. We found a holiday home about 15 miles from St Malo, which was doable by bike in terms of safety and hills, and meant we didn’t have to transport any camping equipment with us – just four people and all their luggage for 10 days’ holiday!

Brittany (actually most of France) is well-served by cycle routes, and we used the French cycle tourism website to look for good destinations for cycling. The Eurovelo route 4 goes all the way from Ukraine to the Western tip of France, including the coast line of Brittany.

Taking bikes on a train can be a bit of a challenge depending on where you live, let alone with two cargo bikes (we borrowed a second one from a friend for this trip), two kids and luggage.

We decided to do a test run a few weeks beforehand, so we knew we’d fit and how long we’d need, without having the time-pressure of a ferry to catch.

It was a good job we did, as the test run didn’t go well! Our bikes fitted in the lift so we could easily get onto the platform, but once the train arrived it turned out there was no way our bikes could make the turn to get into the carriage. 

The very helpful station staff told us that on any given day there were two trains running to Portsmouth with the type of carriage that would very likely be suitable for our bikes. The train manager gave us his phone number and suggested we call him on the morning of our travel day to check which train would be suitable for us to take to Portsmouth. Our ferry didn’t leave until the evening, so we had the whole day to get there. What a kind and generous manager!

On the day of travel we contacted the train manager and found out the only suitable train was around 1pm that day. We got to the station on time and made sure we were in the right spot on the platform. The train had a near-perfect storage place for our bikes and luggage, and we could sit right next to them as we made our way to Portsmouth where we’d have around six hours to spare before our ferry was leaving.

We went to explore the historic dockyards and when it was time for dinner, we found a restaurant with outdoor dining and parked our bikes right next to us.

Navigating around a ferry terminal that is designed for lorries and cars can be daunting, but cyclists are common passengers and ferry staff are used to bikes coming aboard.

Cycling to the ferry was easy along National Cycle Network signposted routes. We had to queue with cars to check in but were then given priority to get on the ferry. Navigating around a ferry terminal that is designed for lorries and cars can be daunting, but cyclists are common passengers and ferry staff are used to bikes coming aboard.

Our bikes were parked in a little space where some machinery was stored and fastened in place by the friendly ferry staff. We were asked to take all our luggage with us, which was a bit of a pain, but doable.

The ferry travelled overnight from Portsmouth to St Malo, and we had a cabin with two bunk beds in it.

One of our children went straight to sleep after we got on the ferry and the other wanted to go up on deck to wave England goodbye. Spending the night on the ferry was fun and comfortable and in the morning we all had breakfast in the restaurant on board.

Getting off the ferry was easy, although it was rather cold and windy. The 15-mile trip to our accommodation was the least fun bit of the entire holiday with kids being tired and cold, and as it was early on a Sunday morning, stops were not easy to find. We decided to stop and warm up in the first village cafe we found outside St Malo and then continued on to get to our accommodation. The journey took about two hours in total, with stops.

During our 10-day holiday we used the bikes for most outings and day trips, including to Cancale and the breathtaking Mont Saint-Michel. The paved and unpaved cycle lanes along the coast and easy cycling across the entire area made the bike trips easy, fun and comfortable.

The beach at Hirel

We found other road users to be very respectful when sharing the space with us and the quiet country roads made for very pleasant cycling. We saw plenty of people cycling on the Eurovelo route along the coast, including children on their own bikes and children in bike seats, trailers and tagalongs. The Eurovelo route 4 definitely seemed suitable for a family cycle touring trip!

Once it was time to return to the UK, we cycled back to St Malo, right into the spectacular historic walled city, which was so much more fun than parking outside the town and walking in. We stayed right next to the seaside and spent a lovely sunny day in the city before taking the daytime ferry back to Portsmouth the next day.

…we cycled back to St Malo, right into the spectacular historic walled city, which was so much more fun than parking outside the town and walking in.

On both ferry journeys there were only a handful of other cyclists, and we were surprised there weren’t more! We stayed the night in Portsmouth on our return to allow plenty of time and options to get our bikes back on the train to Bath the next day. Getting on at Portsmouth Harbour is really easy because it’s the start of the line. It’s also where the ferry to the Isle of Wight and North Spain departs, so plenty of adventures to be had from Portsmouth!

If you don’t own a family cargo bike or don’t want to take bikes on trains in the UK, you could take the ferry as foot passengers and hire bikes in France.

There are plenty of places where you can hire bikes, including e-bikes, children’s bikes, trailers and tandems.

The French cycling tourism website has lots of information about cycle hire too.

For more tips and inspiration for cycling holidays, check out the holiday section on the Cycle Sprog website.

Saskia Heijltjes is content editor for family cycling website Cycle Sprog. She is a mum of two children and a campaigner for better infrastructure for walking, wheeling and cycling.

You can read an extended version of this blog on the Cycle Sprog website, with more detail about the bikes, and tips for travelling this way yourself!