If ever we’ve had a travel/parenting fail, it might be this one. But for my more-than-a-little car-obsessed husband, a trip to the 24 heures du Mans was a necessary edition to our year’s itinerary.
The first indication that this might have been overly ambitious on our part came while we wandered the grounds before the race started. Although we’d seen a handful of children (all wearing handy bracelets provided by the organizer with a parent’s phone number in case they got lost) it was almost three hours before we saw another stroller. Maybe there just weren’t enough die-hard fans of our generation? Or did all the other parents understand that you can’t really watch an edurance race with a toddler and decide to wait a year or two?
As the start time approached, we took our seats in the grandstands. Given the blazing sun and 95 degree heat, Fernando and I were both pretty excited to sit in the shade but Luca was having nothing of it. He refused to wear his BabyBanz as the cars roared by and naturally he had wet his diaper immediately after we took our seats. So as the first cars completed the first lap, Luca and I headed out to find the bathroom (and not wanting to wait, I decided to change his diaper behind a mobile boutique) and he decided to throw those earmuffs as far as he could behind a fence. (We got lucky because when we came back by, the maintenance crew was picking up garbage in the area so we were able to recover them and didn’t have to buy a new, too-big pair.) We’d been back in the stands less than five minutes when we decided to leave.
So off we went to play at the Airbnb, hoping that day two would go a little better.
The next day we headed back thinking we’d at least be able to see the end of the race. Although Luca did a LOT better (and didn’t throw his ear protection!) we didn’t make it quite that long. We did, however, find the kids club, which probably could have extended our stay the day before by at least an hour. (Though probably not much more than that since you aren’t supposed to leave them there indefinitely.)
So what can you do at the Circuit other than watch the race?
The nature of a 24-hour race is that if you are there, you are probably a pretty big car person. But even so, 24 hours is a long time. And at a minimum, we all have to eat. So unless you go and explore Le Mans, you’re probably going to be looking for things to do at the track. Lucky for you, there are plenty of options.
- Learn More at the Musée des 24 Heures du Mans—Located at the Circuit, we stopped at this museum before heading out the first day. It contains a nice, but not-too-large collection of cars (and motorcycles—Luca’s personal preference) and displays of some key figures (drivers and automakers) from the race’s history. (Though I am surprised that none of the female drivers from the race’s early days were featured.) Plus some helpful explanations of the difference between Formula 1 and other race cars for people like me who just can’t seem to keep them straight.
- Ride the Ferris Wheel—I didn’t know much about the 24 heures (other than the length) before we went, so I was surprised to learn how iconic its Ferris Wheel is. We didn’t ride it, but I think it would be a fun activity for slightly older kids and the views are supposed to be amazing.
- Attend a Concert—The organizers know that 24 hours is a long time, so for those of you who don’t have a 7:30 bedtime, there is late night entertainment at the Circuit. And I must say that I am a little disappointed to have missed out on a performance by Kool and the Gang.
- Indulge at Le Pavillon des Femmes—Does the sexism inherent in the name make my skin crawl? Yes. But I still wish I’d been able to go have some oysters and champagne. Of course, I would have had to go by myself because it’s no men allowed.
How about in Le Mans?
It’s not the biggest town in France but there are still a few experiences in Le Mans that are worth having while you aren’t at the race:
- Check out the Cathedrale de Saint-Julien and grab breakfast at the Sunday market—We didn’t go inside this massive gothic cathedral but we did see it from the outside, where we sat on the steps by the fountain and ate croissants before heading back to the Circuit.
- Eat a baguette from E.Leclerc—Sounds odd, I’m sure, but the baguette we bought at this grocery store was seriously the best I had while I was in France. Don’t miss out!
- Wander through the Cité Plantagenêt—We didn’t do this but after seeing pictures online I am rather embarrassed. Sure, I was anxious to get to move on to the next part of our French vacation, but still. Next time we go to the 24 heures I will make sure to spend a couple hours wandering around this historic city. And I’d even consider a quick getaway from Paris in the summer, to see the La Nuit des Chimères light show.
Toddler Travel Tips
- Don’t forget sunscreen and a hat! One thing I definitely wasn’t prepared for was the heat in Le Mans. At over 90 degrees Fahrenheit, France was about 20 degrees hotter than in Prague and even hotter than Los Angeles, where we headed the next weekend. Plus, if you’ve ever been to a race track before, you probably noticed that there were NO TREES. (Why is that?) As a result, the heat and the sun are especially strong and your little one is definitely going to feel it. So unless you want to be dealing with a sunburned tot later on, be sure to pack plenty of sunscreen and a hat. Oh, and water. You’ll probably both want to drink lots and lots of water.
- Look for the Kids Club. This might be my new toddler travel mantra. It never even occurred to me that a venue that was so obviously designed for adults would have something especially for the kids, but there it was. And while you could stay and play like I did, you also had the option (much more popular) of dropping off the kid and heading back to see the race (or drink in one of the other tents). And don’t worry if your kids are older. They didn’t forget about you. There are actually two tents—one with blocks and art supplies for the younger kids and another with video games and other electronic toys for bigger ones.
Have you ever taken your kids on an age-inappropriate trip? Where to?