The Best of France: WWII Route July 1-19, 2019

Our family loves to find new adventures when we travel. We will typically choose Europe over an all-inclusive and then include beach time or kid-specific excursions throughout the trip.

Our trip to the Normandy Coast was hands down the best vacation we have ever taken as a family. Holter and Heath loved it, Andrew and I loved it. We spent almost a year planning it and I don’t think there is much we would have changed if we were to do it all over again. We had been reading historical novels and watching documentaries about WWII for the year leading up to the trip and the boys were interested in the history of it all. These are the highlights of our trip showcasing the places and experiences that went above and beyond our expectations. I cover the trip more extensively in a separate blog post and you can read that here.

Dunkirk, France

To begin our trip we headed to Dunkirk. We had watched the movie and read all sorts of stories about the enormous evacuation known by the code name Operation Dynamo. 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. The museum Operation Dynamo was a highlight during our time in Dunkirk. There were endless artifacts, authentic machinery to view and endless stories from those few days of evacuations. 

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Downtown Dunkirk, France

Perhaps the most fun for the boys was going to Bray-Dunes to see all the bunkers there on the beach that the Germans built. Bray-Dunes is where the remains of the Nazi coastal gun battery are and we all had a lot of fun cruising around from bunker to bunker in the deep sand, imagining what it would have been like during the war. There are many kid-friendly excursions in and around Dunkirk that are not WWII related and I go into detail of all the fun we had doing them in another blog post here.

Vimy Ridge Memorial

While the Canadian National Vimy Memorial is dedicated to the soldiers of WWI, it was only a short drive from Dunkirk and Andrew had never been there before. I had visited in my early twenties but it was definitely worth a second visit. The drive in to the memorial is just stunning and the memorial itself sits out on the ridge with a breathtaking view. It is quiet and somber there but it is so well done and ensures that part of history will never be forgotten.  The boys loved walking through the bunkers of course but they really surprised us at the cemetery, asking all sorts of questions and really seemingly trying to understand the magnitude of what went on there, so many years ago. 

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Exploring the bunkers at Vimy Ridge
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Cemetery at Vimy Ridge

Juno Beach, Normandy

Our next stop took us to 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 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 there.

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Juno Beach, Normandy
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Walking along Juno Beach, Normandy
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The Juno Beach Museum, Normandy

After the tour we headed into the museum and the kids were very excited to discover that there was an interactive tour designed just for them, where they were given their own cards and could log into the computers located in each section of the museum to answer questions by playing along with all sorts of games created for them. There was a lot to see at the museum but the interactive game kept the boys involved and excited throughout our visit.

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Interactive tour for kids at Juno Beach Museum, Normandy

Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy

After leaving Juno Beach, we stopped at the Ranville War Cemetery where Andrew’s great Uncle, who was a fighter pilot shot down during the war, was buried. As somber as the experience was, the cemetery itself was immaculately kept and was an incredibly peaceful setting. The boys again had endless questions and it was a great learning experience for them, having a personal connection to what they were seeing.

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The final resting place of Andrew’s Great Uncle, Normandy
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The beautiful and immaculately maintained Ranville War Cemetery, Normandy

Pointe du Hoc, Normandy

The next day we went to Pointe du Hoc overlooking Omaha Beach. This is one sight that you must see if you come to the coast of Normandy. The scale of it is staggering and looking out over the cliffs above Omaha Beach really put into perspective the incredible feat of the American Second Ranger Battalion on D-Day. The 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.

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Overlooking Omaha Beach, Normandy

Arromanches, Normandy

After leaving Pointe du Hoc we headed to 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 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.

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The beach in Arromanches, Normandy

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.

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Part of the temporary harbour in Arromanches, Normandy

We 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. 

The museum in Arromanches, Musée du Débarquement, located right in the middle of the village is a must see. 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 the history of it. 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. 

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Overlooking Arromanches, Normandy

Next on our journey was a stop in St Malo. 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.

St Malo, Brittany

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Relaxing on the beach outside the rampart walls of St Malo

Guernsey, Channel Islands

Our last stop on our WWII adventure was hands down the best of the trip! In 2009 I read the historical novel “Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society” and knew that one day I would visit the island of Guernsey. In 2018 the novel was turned into a movie and after watching it, our WWII trip was born! Even though the movie was not filmed in Guernsey, I knew that the island would be special. We hopped on a ferry from St Malo and arrived in Guernsey a few hours later. I was so excited for 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 favourite picture taken on our trip was of Andew and the boys standing on top of a German bunker overlooking the ocean.

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Standing on a German built bunker on Guernsey Island

There were bunkers everywhere, all over the island. It was unbelievable the amount of bunkers that still remain gloriously intact. There was even a bunker behind the pool of our hotel! I could talk all day about our time in Guernsey (and I do in my longer blog post here but all I can say is this island is a must-see. You will not be disappointed!

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A German-built bunker behind our Hotel Jerbourg, Guernsey Island

You can read more about our trip in our posts on Part One, Part Two and Part Three of our trip. There was so much involved in our itinerary that it took three full posts to cover it!