Normandy, France: Do It

Normandy, the province in the the northwest corner of France, is probably most famous for the D-Day invasion beaches.  After spending a 3-day weekend in the region, I found it offers even more.  The impetus for the trip was sparked by seeing the amazing pictures of Mont Saint Michel and the glistening reflection on the Atlantic as well as a few days between work jobs in Europe.  It seemed like the perfect fit for a trip to the region.

There were a few options for travel, and we decided to rent a car from Paris and drive/self-tour.  You can take a train, fly to the small airport in Caen, or sign up for a tour from Paris.  I was flying in to Orly from London, although due to a mechanical issue with the plane, we ended up landing at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, which was eventful, to say the least.  Luckily, we landed without an issue.

The port town of Honfleur, one of the cutest in France

Our plan the first night was to drive to Honfleur as our starting off point.  We ended up arriving a few hours too late to make it to have dinner there.  Honfleur is probably one of the MOST charming French cities I’ve been to.  It’s a port town on the water a few hours from Paris and although touristy, it’s very charming.  The port and the cobblestone streets deserve a weekend, for sure.

From Honfleur, we self-drove to the major D-day sights for the majority of the day.  Bayeux, Arromanches les Bains, Omaha Beach, Pont du Hoc, and Sainte Mere Eglise.  Although I wouldn’t consider myself a “war enthusiast” it was fascinating to see the impact of the liberation movement in person.  And as I’ve heard, the people are incredibly friendly to Americans in the region, evidenced through a much more appreciative tone when I used my poorly conjugated French.

Mont Saint-Michel

After our 3/4 day tour, we drove an additional hour to Mont Saint-Michel.  There’s a parking area and shuttle that takes you directly to the island–a bridge that was completed only in 2014, allowing people to travel to the island regardless of the tides.  Mont Saint-Michel had been on my bucket list for a while, so it was fantastic to see it in person.  Although February was a bit chilly, it was a lovely visit.  The island is magnificent, but we did encounter a not-so-fun bait and switch at our hotel (see below).

 

See it

Honfleur:  When you wish you had more time in a place, you know it’s good, right?  We had a short night in Honfleur and a brief walk around this gorgeous port town.  It’s what you want a small country French town to be.  Cobblestone streets, quaint shops, an outdoor market, cute hotels and restaurants, old churches…I could go on and on.  Our hotel was in the center of town and very charming.  Everything here is charming.

Sunrise in Honfleur

Bayeux:  Our first stop on our D-day tour, we took a brief walk around town and visited the cathedral.  A small, charming town and good home base if you plan to stay for a few more days–it’s closer to the D-Day sights than Honfleur.

Cathedral in Bayeux

Arromanches les Bains:  Arromanches was the first stop on our self-guided tour.  It was helpful to stop at the D Day Museum to understand the history of the beach landings from different countries as well as the French resistance.  Remnants of the artificial harbor are just offshore.  You also get a good understanding of the landscape–the beaches butt up against tall cliffs and you can imagine how difficult it was for the soldiers during the landing.

American Cemetery and Memorial: Our second stop was the Cemetery and Memorial, near Omaha Beach.  You definitely get a sense of scale seeing the power of thousands of grave markers.

American Cemetery Memorial
Memorial Cemetery

Omaha Beach:  Following the Memorial, we stopped at Omaha Beach in a few spots–it’s a huge, wide beach, with high cliffs.  A beautiful memorial sculpture sits on the beach.

Omaha Beach

Ponte du Hoc:  One of the more interesting spots, a massive bluff the Americans invaded and climbed the steep cliffs to the German batteries.  You get to meander around the batteries and see the massive craters from the bombs that landed from the reinforcements.

Pointe du Hoc

Sainte Mere Eglise:  The first city where paratroopers landed, Sainte Mere Eglise was one of the first spots–and one of the paratroopers got stuck on the church in the center of town, playing dead for hours before finally escaping down the steeple.  There is a model parachute and trooper still attached to the building in remembrance.  The museum nearby is great–a fantastic experience to walk through and imagine yourself jumping as a paratrooper and this history of the liberation highway.

Spot the Paratrooper on the church

Mont Saint-Michel:  One of the highlights of the trip, we were excited to finally see Mont Saint-Michel.  The island has a massive cathedral, as well as a maze of houses, hotels, boutiques, and restaurants.  Although we visited in the off-season (many things were closed) you could still meander around the walkways and enjoy the views.   You can stay on the island (we did) and there are quite a few spots just on the other side of the bridge off the island that are good options as well.  Timing your visit with the high tides can results in more interesting reflective photos!

Drawbridge to Mont Saint-Michel

 

Sleep it

Les Maisons de Lea in Honfleur:  Incredibly cute and cosy hotel in the middle of town.  Rooms are very French country (as you’d expect) and it’s charming as hell.  There’s a Nuxe spa (that unfortunately I didn’t have time to enjoy) and what appears to be a great restaurant.

Les Maisons de Lea

Eat it

Restaurant La Confiance:  Meh, it was ok.  We didn’t make a reservation at any of the nicer spots on the island, so we ended up here.  The Mont Saint-Michel omelette is apparently famous.  The only way to describe it is “foamy.”  It’s odd and I’m not sure I’d recommend it.  There are a few creperies on the island that might be a better bet.

Restaurant Les Maisons de Lea:  This is where I wanted to eat in Honfleur…a charming library themed room and the menu looked great.

 

Skip it

Le Mouton Blanc:  We took a gamble on our hotel choice at Mont Saint-Michel.  We debated on splashing out or choosing a more budget-friendly option.  We found what we thought was a good value–a cute, rustic place called Le Mouton Blanc.  After arriving on the island, we walked to the hotel and there was a large sign in the lobby re-directing us to another hotel to check in “due to construction and renovation.”  Uh oh.  It turns out we were staying in “the annex.”  They handed us what was essentially a photo map to find the annex, which was up several staircases (thankfully, we packed light) and down a path to a random brown door, which was the annex.  Run down, soiled curtains and carpet, tiny bathroom.  It wasn’t even close to what the photos showed on the booking site.  Definitely the bait-and-switch.  After reading some online reviews, apparently it’s a regular occurrence, since many of the guest houses and hotels are operated by the same company.  We tried to see if we could upgrade, but the island was crowded with tourists and no dice.  We left very early in the morning.  Bummer.  There are quite a few options off the island across the bridge that seem like good choices, plus you’d have the view of the island.  Stay there.

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