When it comes to family-friendly cities in France, Nantes on France's Atlantic coast might be one of the best choices your clients have never heard of.
The city, technically in the Loire but unofficially considered the gateway to Brittany, has all the requisite medieval charm American travelers look for in a French city but without the pomp of some of its more traditional rivals.
Nantes' lighthearted spirit was immediately apparent on a recent visit to Les Machines de L'Ile, part art installation and part amusement park on the Isle of Nantes, a city island in the Loire River.
The island once housed nothing but dilapidated shipyards but is now being transformed into a space for galleries, restaurants and — its jewel in the crown — the phantasmagoric Les Machines attraction that was inspired by the works of favorite son Jules Verne, author of "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea." A highlight at Les Machines is a surreal, 40-foot-high animatronic elephant that sprays water from its trunk and walks around the grounds, carrying up to 50 passengers at a time.
Les Machines also features the Marine Worlds Merry-Go-Round, a futuristic carousel populated with sea creatures, interactive diving bells and flying contraptions that parents and kids can ride. The carousel opened in 2012 and just won the best original attraction award for 2014 from the Themed Entertainment Association, an international nonprofit organization that represents the industry.
The third attraction is the Heron Tree, inhabited by two huge steel herons that visitors can ride on as the birds move up and down along a track.
Kids who love greenery can ramble in the Jardin des Plantes de Nantes, a botanical garden containing more than 1,000 species of plants as well as some of the quirkier statues and outdoor exhibitions you are likely to see in a French garden. Giant squash and potato-like creatures with smiley faces dot the landscape, for example, the works of French illustrator Claude Ponti, and mini-islands and waterfalls add to the fairy tale charm of the park.
One of the most famous products from Nantes is the Petit Beurre cookie, created by the LU company, and over the years the LU factory has morphed into a cultural center and tourist attraction in its own right. Families can take the elevator to the top of the LU Tower for views of the city and play on the gyrorama, a kind of turntable that visitors can move to change their view.
At the Nantes Cathedral in the medieval Bouffay district, Harry Potter fans will likely notice a statue with a face on the back of its head at the tomb of Francois II, which, according to the guide, evokes comments about Voldemort, Harry Potter's nemesis, from young visitors.
On a more serious note, families can explore the Abolition of Slavery Memorial Museum on the banks of the Loire featuring quotes, many in English, acknowledging Nantes' history as France's largest slave port from the 15th to 19th centuries.
Active kids will enjoy the fact that Nantes is bike-friendly, so much so that there are nearly 800 rental bikes and 230 miles of paths in the city. Other green achievements in Nantes, which was named Europe's Green Capital in 2013 by the European Commission, include the reintroduction of electric trams, which reduce emissions and provide a fun way to get around with kids.
As to food, kids can sample the LU Petit Beurre cookies as well as Berlingot Nantais, a colorful hard candy that dates from the 19th century. They can also tuck into crepes of various types, including the classic galette, a savory Breton version typically crammed with melted cheese, eggs and ham.
Finally, Nantes is easy to get to. Our Air France flight from Paris only took about an hour; the TGV train from Paris takes about two hours. See www.nantes-tourisme.com