Our family loves planning educational travel with our boys. We wanted to show them as many WWII sights as possible so this Normandy road trip was planned to learn more about the war and have fun doing it. It is important to us that our kids learn about WWII and visiting the Normandy Coast was the perfect way to do it.
I have always wanted to visit the D-Day beaches and visit locations in France that were important landmarks during the war. Watching documentaries like WWII In Colour on Netflix and movies based on the war provided an immense amount of inspiration for our itinerary and even our boys were fascinated by the history and were excited about the trip.
Our Normandy road trip took us from the beaches of Dunkirk all the way to the island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. We took side trips to Belgium and Brittany and had one of the best educational vacations we have ever had.
A Normandy Road Trip Starts in Dunkirk
Dunkirk was a great place to start our trip. We arranged a home exchange just on the outskirts of the city and the location was easily accessible to places like Bruges over the border in Belgium. There are also great day trip options from Dunkirk to across the channel in the UK to Dover and Leeds Castle.
We had of course watched the movie Dunkirk and read all sorts of stories about the enormous evacuation known by the code name Operation Dynamo so it was very interesting to see it all in person. While the city itself had rebuilt after the war, you could still sit on the infamous beach and imagine what had happened there 75 years prior.
Operation Dynamo – Musée Dunkerque
The museum Operation Dynamo is definitely worth the trip while in Dunkirk. The museum tells the incredible story of the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation DYNAMO in May-June 1940, the largest evacuation effort in military history.
The museum houses a rich collection of weapons, uniforms, models, photos and maps of military operations. There were endless artefacts, authentic machinery to view, a rich collection of weapons, uniforms, photos and maps of military operations.
Admission to the museum was incredibly affordable. Children under 10 are free and adults are only 8 Euros. Our boys loved this museum and sat through the 10-minute movie they presented about the evacuation and had lots of questions for us afterwards.
The Bunkers in Bray-Dunes
Next on our list was to visit the Bray-Dunes area where a large amount of German-built bunkers remain intact on the beach. It was an excellent way to explore the bunkers and let our boys run around freely. The bunkers are in the deep sand, which made it fun and a bit laborious getting from bunker to bunker.
It was interesting to sit there, imagining what it would have been like during the war. The bunkers were all different shapes and sizes and completely open to the public to explore.
Fort des Dunes Museum
The Fort Des Dunes Museum is a 19th-century fort that still bears the scars of the battle of 1940 and the German occupation. The English audio tour around the fort allows you to explore the history of the site, located in a well-preserved nature reserve. Inside the building, an exhibition tells the story of the Battle of Dunkirk and Operation Dynamo.
Day Trip to Bruges, Belgium
One of the reasons we chose to start our Normandy road trip in Dunkirk was because of the close proximity to Bruges in Belgium. It was an easy 50-minute drive and we spent a full day touring around the city, took a boat ride on the canals and had very expensive Belgian waffles for lunch.
It was a nice break from our WWII adventures and the kids were happy to have ice cream in another country.
Road Trip to Epernay, France
Prior to leaving on our vacation, we knew that friends of ours would be visiting Epernay, in the Champagne region of France while we were in Dunkirk. Epernay is a three-hour drive from Dunkirk so we arranged to spend a couple of nights there and enjoy some champagne with them.
I had just finished reading the historical novel “The Winemaker’s Wife,” which centred around the resistance efforts of vineyard owners throughout the Champagne region during the German occupation. While there was very little trace of the effects of WWII in Epernay, it gave us perspective regarding all the generations of families who fought for the resistance during that time using their vineyards in the battle against the Germans.
Mercier House offers a family-friendly champagne tour, so we were able to take our boys along with us. Children under 10 are free and adults are 25 Euros for the tour, which includes an audio tour, a train ride through the caves and champagne (adults only!) at the end.
There are over 18kms of tunnels in the underground caves, and we all enjoyed the train ride through them and the elevator ride down to the cellars. The train ride is a guided tour through the caves so while the ride itself entertained the boys, Andrew and I were able to listen to the guide and learn about the fascinating history of Mercier House.
Vimy Ridge Memorial
After a few days in Epernay, we started the drive back to Dunkirk. Vimy Ridge was on the way so we stopped to tour around for a few hours. While the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is dedicated to the soldiers of WWI, Andrew had never been there before and wanted to see it.
I had visited in my early twenties but it was definitely worth a second visit. The drive into the memorial is just stunning and the memorial itself sits out on the ridge with a breathtaking view. It is quiet and sombre there but knowing the history of what happened there ensures that part of history will never be forgotten.
Walking through the bunkers was a highlight for the boys but they really surprised us at the cemetery, asking all sorts of questions and seemingly trying to understand the magnitude of what went on there, so many years ago. There are many things I love about educational travel and while many people will say that our boys were too young to learn about WWII, kids will surprise you.
I was amazed at all they took in and while they are probably too young to understand the scale and scope of the war, they were certainly interested and engaged throughout our Normandy road trip.
Discovering Laon, France
After leaving Vimy Ridge, we discovered the most incredible village on our drive back to Dunkirk. From the highway, we could see this beautiful medieval hilltop village and took a detour to take a drive through it.
Perched on a rocky hill, Laon, the oldest part of the city (the upper town), looks down from a height of 100 metres over the plains of Champagne and Picardy below. The walled city was built in the second part of the 12th century and a magnificent cathedral sits on the top of the hill dominating the view.
The streets of the old medieval city we so beautiful. One was entirely shaded in a colourful rainbow of parasols and another street had thousands of crystals overhead that twinkled in the sunlight. It was such a fun adventure, discovering new things around every corner.
It would definitely be worth spending a few days there to take in the magic of the city and it was such a great way to end our road trip.
Day Trip to Leeds Castle & Dover in the UK
We can’t visit Europe or the UK without taking our kids to a castle! We were quite excited by the idea of taking the Eurotunnel from Calais to Dover and Leeds Castle was just a quick 20-minute drive from the port. Leeds Castle was a wonderful day trip from Dunkirk and a great way to spend a day exploring.
The grounds of Leeds Castle are magnificent to explore, our boys fed the ducks that lined the ponds and welcomed us as we made our way to the castle. They just opened a child-sized playground castle that is a replica of Leeds Castle and there is a giant maze for visitors to try and make their way through. We had lunch by the lake, toured the inside of the castle and took the train ride around the grounds.
On our drive back to the Eurotunnel, we detoured to Dover to see the magnificent white cliffs. They are a sight to see in person so we parked our car and walked along the trails next to the cliffs. There are no barriers on the trails so make sure you keep a tight grip on young children.
I opted to walk on the trail a little farther away from the cliffs as I don’t do well with heights and I was worried about my youngest being so close to the edge.
Day Trip to Plopsaland de Panne
When we were planning our trip to Dunkirk, we wanted to include an excursion to Disneyland Paris or another theme park. When we discovered that we could do a day trip to Plopsaland de Panne from Dunkirk, we were thrilled because it made our decision easier and exponentially cheaper.
We wanted to make sure that our Normandy road trip wasn’t entirely about educational travel so we looked for places like Plopsaland de Panne to mix in with the trip and let our boys be boys.
The Belgian theme park Plopsaland de Panne is an easy day trip from Dunkirk as it is a quick 20-minute drive and it is far less crowded than Disneyland Paris. Our boys loved it, the ride Dino Splash was a huge hit and the fact that they served beer throughout the park was a bonus for Andrew and me to enjoy while the boys did laps at the Mercedes Benz track.
We spent the entire day at Plopsaland but we didn’t have time to explore their water park next door called PlopsAqua de Panne.
I would highly recommend the Plopsaland amusement parks if you are near one in Europe. We would love to go to their parks in Germany when we go there next. Plopsaland is not overwhelming like Disney, far less expensive and you don’t have to spend your time waiting in line except for a few of the popular rides.
After leaving Dunkirk, we headed to the beautiful port city of Honfleur. We wanted to mix up our Normandy road trip by including locations that were not WWII related but were nearby to include in our itinerary. Honfleur has so much history and the old port called the Vieux Bassin is full of picturesque architecture and yachts in the harbour.
We took a walk from our hotel to the beach and strolled through the public gardens on the way there. The Plage du Batin is a great family beach, located at the entrance to Honfleur and has a playground for children and lots of parking. We enjoyed our meals along the Vieux Bassin and it was a perfect two night stop as we made our way to the D-Day landing sites.
The second part of our Normandy road trip took us to the D-Day beaches. We were there during the 75th anniversary year and it was beautiful seeing all the French villages flying flags of the allies involved. American, British and Canadian flags were everywhere.
As we are a Canadian family, our first stop on our D-Day Tour of Normandy was Juno Beach, the site of the Canadian landings during the Normandy Invasion known around the world as D-Day.
I really cannot say enough about our experience here. It is run entirely by Canadians and there was so much to do and experience that we spent almost an entire day there. We started with a walking tour that led us into the bunkers and our tour guide was fantastic. She engaged everyone from our little five-year-old Heath all the way up to many elders from cities around the world.
It was a fascinating tour full of factual information that most of us were not aware of and was a great start to our day. We walked the beach where the landings took place and although there isn’t anything remaining from WWII, it was staggering to look up and down the beach and see nothing but an endless coastline.
Ranville War Cemetery
After leaving Juno Beach, we stopped at the Ranville War Cemetary. Andrew’s great uncle, who was a fighter pilot shot down during the war, was buried here. As sombre as the experience was, the cemetery itself was immaculately kept and was an incredibly peaceful setting.
The boys had endless questions about Andrew’s great uncle, what he did in the war and how he died. It was a great learning experience for them, having a personal connection to what they were seeing.
The Ranville War Cemetary was the first war cemetery I had visited other than the one at Vimy Ridge. I was so impressed with how immaculate it was kept and how well it was laid out to make finding the headstone easier. While it would seem like visiting a cemetery is a sad thing to do, it turned out to be a beautiful experience for all of us.
Pointe du Hoc
The next day we went to Pointe du Hoc overlooking Omaha Beach. This is one sight that you must see if you do a Normandy road trip. The scale of it is staggering. Looking out over the cliffs above Omaha Beach really put into perspective the incredible feat of the American Second Ranger Battalion on D-Day.
My boys were fascinated by the endless bomb craters and massive bunkers throughout the site. Andrew and I often found ourselves just standing and staring, hardly able to comprehend what occurred there during the war.
Arromanches les Bains
After leaving Pointe du Hoc we headed to the village of Arromanches. We didn’t initially plan to visit or stay in Arromanches but it turned out to be one of our favourite parts of our Normandy road trip that we would highly recommend for everyone to experience.
The village itself is quaint and we enjoyed one of our best lunches of the trip, while the boys played in view on the beach. It was on the beach of Arromanches that, during the Invasion of Normandy immediately after D-Day, the Allies established an artificial temporary harbour to allow the unloading of heavy equipment. There are still vast amounts of the temporary harbour still remaining on the beach in plain sight.
We also went to see Arromanches 360, which was a circular cinema based on the events of the temporary harbour installation. The cinema overlooks the village and was a really cool experience seeing a movie playing all around you. There is also a beautiful art installation on the grounds of the cinema. The soldiers look like ghosts and it is truly something to see in person.
One of our favourite museums was Musée du Débarquement, located right in the middle of the village of Arromanches. It is a small building but it packs a punch of history. Our visit to the museum started with a short movie about the installation of the temporary harbour and it was incredibly fascinating as we really didn’t know much about its history.
We then continued on to view the animated models of the site which the boys absolutely loved. It was perfect for them to see it in model size to help them understand it all better. It doesn’t take long to tour the entire museum but it is well worth the visit.
Next Stop: St Malo
Even though St Malo is located in Brittany, not the Normandy region, it has a huge part of WWII history and it was high on our list of places to see on our Normandy road trip.
I had read the book “All The Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr and it was the author’s stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors that made me want to see the city. It absolutely did not disappoint.
The city was one of the hardest hit by German bombs during the war but was one of the most impressive post-war reconstructions of any city involved in WWII.
We walked the streets of the old city but spent the majority of our time in St Malo on the beach. The boys had been so great throughout the trip and we all just needed some relaxation time. Andrew and I sat at the cafe above the beach and drank panachés while the boys spent hours digging and playing in the sand.
St Malo is entirely surrounded by Ramparts and the old city within the walls is extraordinary! We spent a few days exploring the city and we loved our time there. Our boys thought the ramparts were really cool and we had the absolute best dinner of our trip within the walls of the old city.
Outside the Ramparts of St Malo
We also spent some time along the boardwalk outside the ramparts and checked out more beaches which made the boys happy to run around and just play. The boardwalk was so lovely with the beautiful French architecture. It truly was a magical place to visit.
Exploring Bunkers on Guernsey
The last stop on our Normandy road trip and WWII adventure were hands down the best of the trip. We headed to Guernsey in the Channel Islands which is just off the coast of France but is actually a self-governing British Crown dependency.
Guernsey is probably best known now for the historical novel “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” which I read in 2009. I loved the novel and knew that one day I would visit the island of Guernsey. In 2018 the novel was turned into a movie, and after getting Andrew to watch it, our WWII trip was born, and Guernsey was decided to be the last stop on our itinerary. Even though the movie was not filmed in Guernsey, I knew that the island would be a unique experience for our family.
I was so excited about this part of our trip and the island of Guernsey did not disappoint. Everywhere we turned was an adventure and even though we only visited a very small portion of the island, every part we did see was memorable. Perhaps my absolute favorite picture taken on our trip was of Andrew and the boys standing on top of a German-built bunker overlooking the ocean.
There were bunkers everywhere, all over the island. It was unbelievable the number of bunkers that still remain gloriously intact. There was even a bunker behind the pool of our hotel! The really cool thing about Guernsey Island is that the bunkers are so well-preserved and you can explore them inside and out. This was a big factor that contributed to the boys’ excitement factor. They could touch, feel, imagine what it was like in WWII. You just cannot teach or learn these things from a book.
The hiking on Guernsey is truly spectacular. There are hikes everywhere, all over the island. We were able to hike right from our hotel for as long or as far as our legs would take us. We hiked down to the ocean and found endless bunkers in pristine condition along the way. Every hike was an adventure because everywhere we turned, we discovered something new.
Educational travel is such a powerful experience for families. Each family member will get something different out of each adventure and it will provide the basis for many conversations. Educational travel doesn’t just have to be about museums or tours, it can include those but be lots of fun too.
Our Normandy road trip exceeded our expectations, both for our boys but also for the experience itself. It is a vacation that we would like to do again when our boys are teenagers, but I would highly recommend this type of travel for families with kids aged similar to our own.
Casandra Karpiak is a travel writer and the co-owner of Savoteur. A Toronto native with Danish roots currently residing in British Columbia, her travel writing has been seen on The Associated Press wire, MSN, CBS, NBC, Entrepreneur, 24/7 Wall St, Times Daily, and many more.
You can follow her travel adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.