1/7 Mont St. Michel
One of France’s top tourist attractions, the Mont St Michel welcomes around three million visitors every year. Known in France as La Merveille ‘the marvel’, the UNESCO-listed Mont St Michel is a majestic tidal island topped by a magnificent Gothic abbey that was built between the 11th and 16th centuries. The island is located in the bay of Mont St Michel – a bay that has some of the biggest tides in the world and is also a member of the ‘most beautiful bays in the world’ club.
Go horse riding or walking across the wide sand flats when the tide is out and the more adventurous can try sand yachting! Always go with a guided tour as the tides can be very dangerous and rise very quickly. The Mont has recently become an island again and you can walk along the footpath of the new 2,500ft bridge or take one of the regular shuttle buses across. The causeway has been removed to protect the environment of the bay.
On the island, kids will love exploring the weaving, cobbled main street that is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and crêperies and climbing all the way to the abbey at the very top. Some monks do still live in the abbey but it is open to the public.
Best for? Romantic adventurers and beach sports fans
Distance from port: From St Malo port, Mont St Michel just under an hour’s drive
2/7 Cherbourg & Contentin Peninsula
The blustery Cotentin Peninsula is the perfect spot for enjoying the great outdoors. In fact, the western-most tip of the peninsula, Cap de la Hague, is known as la Petite Irlande because of its rugged and rustic scenery. Pick a section of the 430km GR233 coastal walk to enjoy dramatic views along some of the highest cliffs in Europe or you can try horse riding or cycling instead.
If you’re less a landlubber and happier in the sea then there’s plenty of reasons to get in the water – canoeing, kayaking, sailing, diving, rowing, water skiing and paddleboarding. Kids will also love a boat trip to Ile Tatihou just out of St Vaast la Hougue’s harbour – the amphibious craft also has wheels so it can get across at high and low tides!
Explore the port town of Cherbourg to learn all about the seafaring and naval history of the area and particularly the lively history of the town itself. A trip to the Cité de la Mer is unmissable and is excellent fun for all the family – from the exhibition of the Titanic featuring recreations of life on board to La Redoutable, the largest submarine open to the public in the world. It also has 17 aquariums including the deepest aquarium in Europe!
Best for? Nature lovers and fans of outdoor and water sports
Best route? Either of Brittany Ferries’ routes to Cherbourg
Distance from port: From Cherbourg port, Cap de la Hague is a 40 minute drive
3/7 St. Malo, Dinan & Dinard
These three Breton towns form a triangle over the River Rance estuary and each has a very distinct flavour. St Malo is a walled port town famous for its past as a favourite haunt of French corsairs. The ramparts, gorgeously varied beaches and two islands just off shore (you can walk to the largest at low tide) are the perfect stomping grounds for kids who want to imagine they are pirates whilst parents can enjoy the stunning views.
Across the estuary is Dinard, a fashionable tourist resort with a long-standing British connection. Hugely popular among aristocratic Brits and Americans in the Belle Epoque era, this seaside town has fantastic, large sandy beaches but there’s also an eclectic mix of villas built along the coast that make for a great little discovery tour.
Head upriver to peaceful Dinan and walk the windy cobbled streets overhung by medieval half-timber houses or maybe even climb to the top of its clock tower. Filled with quaint shops and crêperies, Dinan has the oldest ramparts in Brittany, a pretty castle and was the home of French medieval military hero, Bertrand du Guesclin who’s depicted in statues all over town. There’s also a medieval festival every other year – the next one is in July 2016.
Best for? Beach lovers and little adventurers
Distance from port: From St Malo port, Dinard is around a 20-25 mins drive and Dinan is 35-40 mins
4/7 Caen & Bayeux
This is William the Conqueror territory and the perfect area to visit for those who fancy a bit of history and culture on their holiday. Storm the walls of William the Conqueror’s Château de Caen and marvel at this 11th century masterpiece that is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe. Inside is housed the Museum of Normandy where you can learn all about this beautiful region.
William is also responsible for the striking Gothic abbeys in Caen – the Abbaye aux Hommes and Abbaye aux Dames, which he built as penitence when he got into trouble for marrying his cousin Mathilda against the pope’s wishes. In Bayeux, the medieval journey continues with a trip to see the famous Bayeux Tapestry that chronicles William’s conquest of England including the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
For some frivolous historical fun, don’t miss the Festyland theme park on Caen’s outskirts. Travelling through different eras from 1066 to the Vikings and the Belle Epoque, Festyland’s 30 rides and attractions make for a great day out for all the family and there’s even a 3D cinema. A trip underground at Le Souterroscope into a former slate mine to see the wonderful water and light show is also a must.
Best for? Quixotic wannabe princes and princesses of the castle and history lovers
Best route? Brittany Ferries’ route from Portsmouth to Caen
Distance from port: From Caen (Ouistreham) port, Caen is a 20-25 minute drive, whilst Bayeux is around 35-40 mins away
5/7 D-Day beaches
6 June 1944 was the date of one of the most incredible seaborne invasions of all time, the D-Day Landings. All five of the D-Day landing beaches – Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword – occupy the coastline between Cherbourg and Ouistreham and are all beautiful beaches in their own rights as well as finding their place in history.
There are lots of museums at key towns and sites in this area but the one you really must visit is the Memorial de Caen. This enormous modern museum showcases Europe’s descent into war from the rise of Hitler and the Nazis to VE Day but also looks at various wars that have happened since. With a huge number of historical artefacts and lots of educational resources for kids it is an incredible journey into wartime and WW2. Outside, in the beautiful Souvenir Gardens, there’s also a recreated German bunker to explore.
Other sites to visit include the many gun batteries and bunkers of the Atlantic Wall and windswept Pointe du Hoc where American marines valiantly scaled the cliffs. A visit to the American Cemetery where over 9,000 soldiers are buried is a sombre reminder of the scale of the war.
Best for? Beach lovers and history buffs. To discover more about D-Day and the liberation of Normandy, take a look at this useful D-Day guide created by Brittany Ferries
Distance from port: Most of the D-Day sites are anything from ten minutes away to around an hour’s drive from either Caen or Cherbourg port
6/7 Bay of Morlaix & Monts d’Arrée
Fairies and mermaids, giants and elves… All inhabit the coves and woodlands of this spell-binding region. In the Bay of Morlaix discover the mystical and ancient megalithic mausoleum, the Cairn de Barnenez. Europe’s oldest and largest mausoleum, built in 4500 BC, it is covered in curious symbols.
Out in the bay, the imposing Château du Taureau stands proudly on its island and is great for playing hide and seek among the battlements. Further out to sea are the seven tiny islets that make up an ornithological reserve for some fantastic birdwatching. In winter, it is home to 60,000 puffins and terns.
Back on dry land, travel south into the mysterious realm of the Monts d’Arrée which form the spiky granite spine of the Finistère department. Superb for hiking, this area of Brittany is popular with walkers of all ages and abilities and there are many local myths of magical creatures. Not far away is the Forêt de Huelgoat, a fairy tale forest filled with legends where King Arthur once walked. Enchanting streams and fairy pools, oversized granite boulders once thrown by giants, caves and intriguing rock formations – all make this fantastical forest an incredible adventure.
Best for? Those who have epic imaginations and a love for the outdoors
Best route? Brittany Ferries’ route from Plymouth to Roscoff
Distance from port: From Roscoff port, Morlaix is just over 30 mins drive away, the Monts d’Arrée is just over 40 mins and Huelgoat is just under an hour
7/7 Alabaster Coast
France’s own magnificent answer to the White Cliffs of Dover, the Alabaster Coast, or Côte d’Albâtre in French, is a set of striking white chalk cliffs stretching for 80 miles along the Normandy coastline. Its most famous cliffs are at Etretat where the arch of the Porte d’Aval and the solitary rock called Needle stand out against the horizon. Walk along the coastal path for the best views of the landscape that inspired Monet and the Impressionists.
To the south of Etretat, the busy port city of Le Havre is home to MuMa, a museum of Impressionist art where many of the great paintings by the school are on display. Perret’s concrete church of St Joseph is also well worth a look for the stunning stained glass paintings inside its tower. Across the estuary is pretty Honfleur with its charming harbour-side houses, all squashed in like a compressed concertina, that are sure to delight young visitors.
Further up the coast from Etretat are the towns of Fécamp, renowned for the distinctive liqueur, Bénédictine, and the bustling fishing town of Dieppe. Both are great areas for water sports too so you can admire the beautiful cliffs from another angle.
Best for? Artistic outdoor types who like a bit of culture
Distance from port: From Le Havre port, Etretat and Honfleur are 35 mins drive away in each direction, Fécamp is 45-50 mins and Dieppe is around 1hr and 25 mins