Adventure Travel

A slow exploration itinerary for the Normandy coast

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View from the famous white cliffs of Etretat on the beach and the village, Alabaster Coast, Normandy

Image: Shutterstock/Bildagentur Zoonar GmbH

If you enjoy lazy coastal walks, epic sea views, and charming villages, a visit to France’s northern and central-most Normandy coast is in order. Normandy, named after the Scandinavian “northman” tribes who settled in the area in the 9th century, is a region of serene natural beauty and simple pleasures.

Without any major cities to homebase an excursion, the sprawling countryside is open to slow exploration. In fact, Normandy has less in the realm of true “points of interest” and more in the arena of scenic views and babbling sheep. That is, of course, apart from France’s most recognizable landmark of le Mont Saint-Michel.

Panoramic view of famous Le Mont Saint-Michel tidal island in beautiful twilight during blue hour at dusk, Normandy, northern France

Image: Shutterstock/canadastock

Pictures of this famous fortified city-island are all over the internet. It’s wonder is seemingly unreal. At high-tide, le Mont is a literal island. At low, you can walk or horseback ride over the sand to the gates. So is visiting le Mont Saint-Michel really worth the jaunt? A resounding yes is in order. It’s simply an example of some of the most impressive architecture in the world. The abbey atop the island stands tall and proud overlooking the winding streets filled with unique shops, restaurants, and period-driven demonstrations. As you walk through town, you’ll truly feel as if you’ve gone back in time. Come prepared, however, for an insurmountable crowd. Le Mont is truly great, which means plenty of tourists want to experience it for themselves too. Take a deep breath and “do the tourist thing” for the afternoon—you won’t regret it.

From le Mont, it’s possible to begin a journey on Normandy’s long distance footpath named the GR 223, or colloquially le Sentier des Douaniers. The trail circles the entire Bay of Mont Saint-Michel north all the way to Carentan within the Parc Naturel Régional des Marais du Cotentin et du Bessin. If you choose to embark on this 430 kilometer trail, you’ll gain an incredibly deep understanding of the French country way of life, with only the sheep and expansive green views to keep you company in between villages.

Once you’ve braved the tourist crowds at le Mont and hiked le Sentier des Douaniers, it’s time to take a break from it all at the beach. Large swaths of sand, several dozen meters in depth, line much of the Normandy coast. An unfortunate history has claimed the beaches of Normandy in the past, but at present-day, they’re nothing more than relaxing and scenic. A few easy-going spots to enjoy the beach are the miles of sand near Barneville-Carteret and the locals-only shores of La Dune near Saint-Germain-de-Varreville.

To experience at least one moderately large town in Normandy, be sure to head to Cherbourg-Octeville. Home to around 40,000 people, Cherbourg has the perfect mix of big-city amenities and charming coastal scenes. The seafront, lined with adorable whitewashed row houses, has plenty of museums, eateries, and ice cream shops to keep you occupied for hours. Spend too much time simply sitting, having a picnic, and watching the colorful fishing boats bob up and down with the current. For a cheap (free!) excursion, consider perusing the pathways at Parc Emmanuel Liais, where the exotic plants are a sight to behold.

While Normandy may not be the most en vogue region of France to explore, it’s almost better that way. Besides the typical crowds at le Mont Saint-Michel, a visit to Normandy is a step away from it all. A step back in time. A step towards a deep understanding of what France really looks like and how the people really are.

Take a vacation to the Normandy coast. Your peace of mind will thank you.

Mandy Burkholder is a travel, adventure, and outdoor writer who honed her craft in the foothills of the La Plata Mountains of Southwest Colorado. After a stint in the Swiss Alps, she now resides in Tennessee. Follow her on twitter — @mandyburkhold3r