Would you sign up for a trip where you’d only find out where you’re going on arrival at the airport?
As someone who likes planning most of my travel (and my life) to the smallest detail, this sounds like a scary idea… at first. But this is exactly what happened to Chris and I a few weeks ago. Invited to go on an adventure with Surprise Trips, the only things we knew were our dates of travel, as well as our departure airport – and that was it.
Although it was only a few weeks of not knowing, my anticipation levels were at an all-time high. In those weeks, it felt like I had tried to mentally prepare myself to visit the majority of the world’s destinations. Thankfully (for my nerves), our departure day soon arrived. On that morning, we got to Gatwick Airport, where we received an email that said that our destination could now be revealed.
The title of this post already gives away where we were heading to… But, before I get to how that big reveal happened, how does a holiday with Surprise Trips work?
– How does it work? –
Since the beginning of our relationship, my boyfriend and I decided that, when it comes to birthdays, we wouldn’t give each other gifts; instead, we would surprise each other with a trip. The only drawback of these trips is the fact that one of us will plan the trip, and would then have to guard the secret destination until getting to the airport.
Surprise Trips works in the same way – except that none of the travellers know where they’re going!
The booking process is easy: enter the dates you’d like to travel, your preferred departure airport, as well as your maximum budget for the whole holiday. Click on the ‘Surprise Me’ button and then you book the trip. Surprise Trips includes journeys to 77 destinations, all within Europe, and your booking will include both flights and hotels. The destinations could be anywhere between Reykjavik, Iceland, and Athens, Greece. To make sure that you don’t go to a place you’ve just travelled to, you can also exclude up to three destinations from the Surprise Trips list.
From there, you sit back and wait until it’s time to travel to the airport. And let me address your packing-related concerns; Surprise Trips will send a weather forecast for your destination so that you’ll know whether you need to pack your swimsuit or your winter coat.
– At the airport –
You’ve packed, you’ve gotten to the airport on time, and it’s time to find out where you’re heading to.
Chris and I nervously clicked on the video link that had popped up in my email. Watching as letters formed different, familiar city names, the scrolling letters and numerals slowed down to settle on a final word.
NANTES. We were heading to France for the weekend!
Also, if you’re worried about boarding passes, don’t be. Surprise Trips only uses airlines that allow you to check in and print out boarding passes at the airport. We were flying with EasyJet, and got immediate support at the check-in gates. At the moment, all Surprise Trips are short stays, so the fact that we were only allowed to bring cabin luggage wasn’t a bother as this was more than enough for the weekend.
Full of excitement for what we would discover on our unexpected adventure to Nantes, we boarded our plane to set off for France.
– Arriving in Nantes –
I’d travelled to France before, but, happily, Nantes was completely new to me. We had a delay coming from London, but, once we were in Nantes, I was surprised by how easy the next few steps were – even without organising anything beforehand.
After a visit to the information desk at Nantes Airport, we found out that our hotel was central so we hopped on the airport shuttle bus, which gets to Nantes city centre in 20 minutes. This service costs 8 euros one way, and also makes a stop at Nantes train station.
The best thing about Surprise Trips is that not only will your flights be sorted, but you’ll have a booked central hotel as well. Our accommodation in Nantes was Appart’City Nantes Quai de Loire. This hotels comprises of holiday apartments, and our Nantes hideaway was spacious and comfortable. Plus, the attractions of the city were all within easy reach, which is always the most important factor for me.
– The highlights of a weekend in Nantes –
Once we had dropped the bags off at our hotel, it was time for the most enjoyable part of all travel: discovering more about our destination. We had two full days to see as much as possible and, as someone who often – and literally – clings on to a typed-up itinerary when I travel, Surprise Trips was forcing us to take a far more spontaneous approach to sightseeing.
Of course we did an internet search as soon as we got to the hotel room, but, over the course of that weekend, I had the most relaxed version of sightseeing than I have had in years. And, to be honest, I absolutely loved it.
If you arrive in your Surprise Trips destination and don’t know where to begin, I’d recommend stopping by the nearest tourism office. Or, if you’re feeling a bit more adventurous, pick a direction or look out for the nearest tourist sign and see where your feet will take you.
Without further ado, here are the highlights of our Surprise Trips weekend in Nantes.
Exploring Les Machines de l’Ile
When we got back from Nantes, the first thing I’d say about our time there would invariably be along the lines of: ‘there was an elephant!’
Before you start thinking that there are wild animals on the loose in France, this elephant is part of an artistic and cultural project set up on the banks of the Loire River. Translating to ‘Machines on the Isle of Nantes’, there are three different components to Les Machines de l’Ile. There’s the Grand Elephant, which you can hop on for a ride. This machine walks, can trumpet like an elephant and, if you happen to be within range, it’ll also spray water on passersby.
This elephant can take up to 50 passengers between its riverside docking station and the workshop, which is home to the Galerie des Machines. Instead of framed paintings or static statues, this gallery is full of machines. Apart from seeing more fully functional artworks, the gallery also illustrates how Nantes’ resident elephant was made, and sets out future plans for Les Machines de l’Ile.
Our favourite section of the project had to be the Carrousel des Mondes Marins. Located across the river from the Jules Verne Museum, this multi-story carousel draws inspiration from the novels of one of the city’s most famous inhabitants. Unlike traditional carousels you can find all over France, this one features sea monsters.
The three different levels of the carousel represent the different levels of the sea. Once you’ve decided on which sea-related machine you’ll ride, staff will show you how to move its components. We chose a ferocious fish of the deep, whose mouth and fins could move, as well as a submarine, which unexpectedly dropped beneath the floor of the carousel to reveal a different scene entirely.
Les Machines de l’Ile is the brainchild of artists Francois Delaroziere and Pierre Orefice, who used Leonardo da Vinci and Jules Verne as equal influences on their designs. I cannot urge you enough to visit this project – I can guarantee that you have never seen (and probably never again will see) anything like it.
Note: There is no combined ticket to see all of these attractions, although buying one ticket may give you a small discount to the next activity. Access to the elephant, carousel or gallery is allowed through their individual ticket offices.
Marvelling at Nantes Cathedral
We first happened upon Nantes Cathedral by chance. Strolling through the streets of Centre Ville, the Old Town, the narrow thoroughfares gave way to a space with far more breathing room. Nantes Cathedral takes centrestage here, with its graceful towers unimpeded by any other building in the immediate vicinity.
Considered to be one of France’s last Gothic cathedrals to be built, construction commenced in 1434. It took over 450 years until the cathedral was completed; the structure then suffered damage during World War II and again when a massive fire broke out in 1972. Despite those difficult times, Nantes Cathedral now stands completely restored.
Once through the extremely detailed doorways, the solid exterior gives way to white columns and an airy nave. It’s a spectacular cathedral. Bright colours reflect from the cathedral’s stained glass windows and, while we were there, someone was playing the cathedral’s organ. On a visit here, don’t miss out on the ornate tombs of Francis II, the Duke of Brittany, and his wife, Marguerite de Foix.
Entry into the cathedral is free (yet another reason to visit this architectural gem).
A quirky escape to nature at Jardin des Plantes
It’s difficult to choose a favourite amongst all of these Nantes highlights, but both Chris and I fell in love with what we saw at the Jardin des Plantes.
Most of our first day in Nantes featured grey skies. In need of some colour, we noticed a big patch of green on the map we had in our hands. Following the signs, we soon arrived at the gateway to the Jardin des Plantes. The garden is free to enter, and spans over seven hectares. Jardin des Plantes first opened to the public back in 1829; since then, it has expanded and is now home to a staggering 11,000 different plant species.
The plants aren’t the only things to admire here. As we wandered along the pathways, we spotted greenhouses, ponds, a grotto, birdlife and even a giant sleeping beast fashioned out of plants. The park has other quirky touches, such as the unusual benches you’ll find lining the paths. On one path, benches range in size, from the minuscule to the giant, while on another path, we saw curved benches that wouldn’t be out of place in a Tim Burton film.
I imagine that this is a popular spot to visit in the height of summer and, if you need a breather from city sightseeing, Jardin des Plantes is the place to go to.
Walking along castle walls
Most of the places I’ve listed thus far are free to enter, and the Nantes’ castle is yet another one of these venues.
With ‘Chateau des ducs de Bretagne’ as its official title, the building is a formidable presence in Nantes city centre. Its thick fortifications and towers are surrounded by a moat and, within the castle courtyard, grand buildings dominate. Hundreds of years ago, this was the home of the Dukes of Brittany, as Nantes, which is now part of the Loire-Atlantique province, was once an important base in historic Brittany.
Nowadays, the castle complex houses the city’s history museum (which carries an admission fee). Since there is no charge for visiting the castle courtyard and for walking along the walls, the castle can be a busy place.
The stairways leading up to the castle walls are steep, but I guarantee that you’ll be rewarded for your calf muscle strain. Up here, you will be able to follow the entire circumference of the castle. Each step will afford new views on the castle itself, but also on various parts of the city centre. Set aside a decent amount of time to wander at your leisure. There aren’t many information signboards on the walls, but, enjoying the vantage point, I could start to imagine how strategically important this building was in the times of medieval Nantes.
Sometimes, the wall walkways will briefly lead you into buildings but, for the most part, the views are unimpeded. On one side, you’ll be able to see Nantes Cathedral (and you’ll be able to grasp how big it actually is!).
We didn’t have enough time to see the history museum, which is spread throughout 32 of the castle’s rooms, but it’s highly recommended by the tourism board. And I’m officially making it my number-one reason to return to the city. Ok, maybe the second-most important reason, but you’ll see what I mean when you get to the next Nantes highlight.
The food and drink
Don’t – and I mean DON’T – come to Nantes and expect to keep to your diet plan. When you see the food and drink on offer, any goals of fitness will need to take a temporary backseat.
Even as a planner, I knew that we’d be alright when it came to the sightseeing part of things. But I’ll admit that I was nervous about our dining plans. When I normally plan a trip, I do plenty of research (namely, reading and drooling over other people’s blogs) so that we have some good food recommendations. Chris, who is allergic to making detailed plans, will also inevitably end up researching a few bars we could visit on our travels. With Surprise Trips, it was impossible to do any of this.
So how did we find our excellent dining spots? A combination of asking locals and a few choice Google searches, that’s how.
For one of our lunches, we stopped by Heb Ken Creperie. This restaurant is surrounded by other creperies, but we were advised to visit Heb Ken above all other options. As soon as our orders arrived, I could see why. Not only is Heb Ken extremely affordable, they also serve almost every variation of crepe imaginable. We had the ham, cheese and egg crepe, and it was, without a doubt, the very best crepe I’ve had in France. A word of advice, however: try to time your visit before or after weekend lunch rush hour – Heb Ken gets busy.
Our dinner recommendation saw us walking to the outskirts of the city centre, and I’m so glad that we did. Le Broceliande stands on a street corner, with its rainbow fairy lights beckoning you in. While France is known for its wine, Le Broceliande specialises in natural wines, and has a seasonal food menu. At this bistro, we started with a cheese and charcuterie board (the ingredients of which had been bought at a nearby market that day), while we both had modern French cooking for our mains and then ended off with a chocolate-mousse-and-biscuit number for our dessert. This meal was flawless and, if you haven’t tried natural wines yet, this is the place to do so in Nantes.
Apart from these sit-down meals, we snacked on flaky pastries, sugary macarons and indulgent quiches. And I genuinely can’t think of a single bad thing I ate during my weekend in Nantes.
If you’re looking for a spot to have some after-dinner drinks, we loved Le Sur Mesure for its craft beer selection, as well as L’Antidote for its wine and its friendly staff.
Stumbling upon treasures in the Old Town
Even when I do have a plan, simply walking around is one of my favourite ways to discover a new destination.
One of the best things about visiting Nantes is that it’s perfectly compact, meaning that all of the main attractions are within easy reach of each other. It was often as we were on the way to another sight that we would stumble upon some of our top Nantes finds. On the way to the castle, for example, we found the elegant Passage Pommeraye, which is a covered shopping arcade dating back to the 1840s.
After taking photos at Les Machines de l’Ile, we stopped to catch the sun setting over the Loire River, where plenty of picnicking locals were doing the exact same thing. On the way to most other places, we’d get lost in the streets of the Old Town, turning corners onto postcard-ready French cafe scenes, or glimpsing grand buildings down alleyways.
Nantes may be a busy, living city, yet it also manages to be one of the most photogenic French cities I’ve been to.
Taking in the views at Tour Bretagne
Normally, getting to a destination’s highest vantage point would be the first item on my agenda. However, for our time in Nantes, this was the very last thing we did before catching the shuttle bus back to the airport.
For the price of 2 euros, visitors are whisked away to the 37th floor of the Tour Bretagne. From up here, you will see Nantes in its entirety stretching out below. In a way, I’m glad that this was the last thing we did in the city. As we made our way around the walkway, we caught sight of all the places we had visited during that weekend: Nantes Cathedral, the sprawling castle walls, the Old Town and the riverside with its fantastical machines.
I felt like our time in Nantes was too short, with me leaving with the feeling that I had just started falling in love with the city. Up at the top of Tour Bretagne, with the city all around us, I knew that there were many more discoveries to be made. And I have no doubt that I’ll return one day to continue my exploration of Nantes.
If you’re looking for a unique drinking spot, by the way, Le Nid, the top floor of Tour Bretagne, doubles up as a bar and events space. At the time of our visit, a giant bird was wrapped around this floor, and all of the seats comprised of half-broken eggs. You can’t make this stuff up.
– Why should you travel with Surprise Trips? –
There are many reasons that come to mind when considering why someone should travel with Surprise Trips. The most obvious involve convenience: you name the dates of travel and the budget, and Surprise Trips does the rest. There will be no need to research anything, such as finding a destination, sourcing cheap flights or sorting through accommodation options.
For me, though, the biggest reason has to be because Surprise Trips is so different from any other kind of travel you could do. By taking out any pressure to plan, there are no expectations and, if I’m honest, I felt more relaxed on my weekend in Nantes than I have on most of my other, meticulously planned trips. As a bonus, it’s simply fun; all of the travellers get the benefit of an exciting reveal at the airport, and all that’s left is for them to travel to the destination and do some spontaneous exploring.
Obviously, this kind of travel wouldn’t work for a person who is extremely fussy about where they’re going or what kind of hotel they’d like to stay in, but, maybe, just maybe, even these kind of travelleres might be tempted to try something like this once or twice.
Would I do it again? It’s a definite yes, especially after experiencing just how much you can discover in a new place and how fun it can be to travel without an itinerary. Who knows? Maybe this experience will make me, for future trips, rank spontaneity as highly as the idea of having a detailed plan …
Would you travel with Surprise Trips? Or does the idea of not knowing where you’re going terrify you (like it initially did for me)? Let me know in the comments below!
Note: My trip to Surprise Trips was complimentary in return for a review but, as always, all opinions and startling levels of crepe-eating are entirely my own.
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