Road trip to Normandy & Brittany – Highlights of Northwest France
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
As you can see in my social media pictures and previous blogs I love France! It’s without a doubt one of my favourite European countries because of its diversity, nature, gastronomy, classy character, castles, and abundance of history and heritage. And because it’s such a big country I keep coming back to explore more regions.
During my childhood we visited Corsica and several French regions many years in a row. And in the past 3 years I’ve revisited Paris 4 times, and the Cote d’Azur, Provence, La Drôme, Burgundy, Chantilly, and the French Alps through several (road) trips.
France is easy to reach by car from the Netherlands, and most of the regions we visited so far were just a 4 to 8 hour drive away. Since we hadn’t been to the west coast of France yet, but didn’t want to drive too far at once, we mapped out a route from Normandy, through Brittany to Nantes and the Vendée Valley.
Peugeot 5008, the ultimate road trip car
Next to the fact that traveling by car is less harmful to the environment than flying, we also like the freeing feeling of road trips and we just love to explore! However, since we also like comfort and a bit of luxury, we decided to look for the best and most unique hotels along the route and drive there in the super classy and comfy Peugeot 5008 SUV.
This stylish SUV is suited for 7 persons, has leather interior and many other luxurious additions, like the panoramic electric roof and heated seats, which even had multipoint-massage functions!
Peugeot keeps innovating with new models, and both adding and improving them with special features like the signature Peugeot i-Cockpit®, Amplify and Focal®-hifisystem, which made our road trip super smooth and even more fun!
Normandy is located just 2,5 hours by car from Paris and 6 hours from our hometown The Hague. It’s the most northwestern of the 18 French regions, and has been named one of the world’s top regions to visit for 2019 by Lonely Planet! Impressionism, stunning cliffs, D-Day landing beaches, cycling routes, walking trails, Medieval sites, castles and more. Normandy has much to offer, but unfortunately we were only able to visit a small part of it during this trip.
For our first stop we chose to stay at a fabulous historic castle hotel in one of the most famous seaside resorts of the region, about which I will tell you all in this blog, with many of my own pics:
What appealed to me most about the region were the rugged cliffs and stunning quiet beaches combined with pure countryside. Especially striking are the white cliffs that can be found in the seaside resort Étretat. World-famous for its naturally-formed archways, geological wonders that can be seen from afar!
Over the ages many artists were drawn to these chalk cliffs as well, being featured in books, poems and paintings, with Monet as one of the most well-known fans! These cliffs include 3 natural arches, of which one a pointed formation, also known as ‘the Needle’, rising up 70 meters above the sea.
You can follow several free walking trails on both sides of the town, all with stunning views of the cliffs, some even from 90 meters height.
With these exciting coastal paths along and over the cliffs, a quaint chapel, cliff-top golf course and picturesque town filled with historic chateaus, cozy restaurants and café’s with outdoor terraces decorated with flowers, Étretat is certainly recommended for its authenticity, striking architecture, impressive natural surroundings and nice atmosphere.
Another fun attraction here is the artistic nature park called:
Les Jardins d’Étretat
A unique blend of gardens and sculptures, with some of the most stunning views over the town and cliffs of Étretat. Even though the entrance fee of €12,50 p.p. in peak season is quite steep in my opinion, this spot should not be missed if you like fairytale places with that Alice in Wonderland-feel!
This wonderful artistic mix makes it THE place for both garden- and art lovers, who appreciate nice views as well. Also stunning in the evening when the village below lights up and the sky turns red and pink.
The gardens were originally created by Madame Thébault, a famous French actress from the Belle Époque, owner of the Villa Roxelane, and friend of Claude Monet, who visited regularly to paint. He inspired her to create an avant-garde garden in this idyllic clifftop spot.
A local landscape gardener helped Madame Thébault make her dream garden come true in the beginning of the 1900’s. Just 4 years ago the renowned landscape architect Alexandre Grivko, inspired by these gardens, re-designed them with the creation of living sculptures and neo-futuristic shapes in the vegetation of over 150,000 plants. And by adding Modern Artworks and sculptures to the gardens as well, he created the magical place it is right now, as you can see here:
Situated just a 10 minute walk away, in a green park up the hill, we had the pleasure to stay for 2 nights in the beautiful 19th century Anglo-Norman castle, turned hotel, with gourmet restaurant, swimming pool and Spa, overlooking the seaside resort of Étretat.
Le Donjon – Domaine Saint Clair
This cozy historic boutique hotel with seaside villa offers 25 rooms and suites, with everything you need to fully relax and enjoy this gorgeous region.
Combining class, comfort and history perfectly with the quaint atmosphere of the town, creating the most unique and relaxing place to stay in Étretat. We stayed here in the super cute cottage with vegetable garden, overlooking the castle and seaside resort. What a view to wake up to, slide on in this gallery to get an impression:
Each of the hotel rooms is designed differently with unique fabrics, antique furniture and 19th century decor, creating a very special and homely atmosphere. Telling stories of times when artists and writers came to visit this place over the ages.
The 5 lounge areas, and abundance of outdoor seating options by the pool and patio offer plenty of choices to relax, read a book by the fireplace or admire a stunning sunset over the sea, village and renowned chalk cliffs.
The lush grounds with stunning trees, park and flower-and vegetable gardens, provide the perfect setting to fully relax, while the buzzing town is just an 8 minute walk away.
Restaurant Le Donjon
Unfortunately we visited on a Monday and Tuesday, which are the only days that the hotel’s restaurant is closed. But this gourmet restaurant is a leading name in the region and should not be missed! Rated '3 forks in the Michelin Guide', with a seasonal menu, depending on the produce available on the market, featuring local cuisine and traditional dishes revisited, with an emphasis on sea food.
The restaurant even has its own vegetable garden of 350 m2 of which the fruit, vegetables and herbs are used as much as possible in all dishes to create those authentic flavours.
Luckily we were able to have some delicious breakfasts in the artistic dining rooms, offering direct views over the town, cliffs and sea as well.
Next to several castle suites with Jacuzzi’s and the heated outdoor pool, which is open from May to September, the hotel also has a 'Relaxation & Well-being' area. Here you can book several private packages to indulge yourself with a range of treatments to choose from.
I had a 75 minute massage in this stylish setting, which was revitalizing, and performed well by one of the skilled therapists. Perfect after a long drive, and the ultimate way to start your holiday as relaxed as possible!
Find out more and book your own stay at: Le Donjon - Domaine Saint Clair.
This extraordinary mount with Medieval monastery is the most visited monument of Normandy, bordering Brittany.
For many years this Unesco Site has been one of Europe’s major pilgrimage destinations, which can be seen from afar. Surrounded by a bay flooded daily by the tide, creating an island with abbey at the top, a magical sight for sure.
Since I saw many stunning pictures of this on social media, I was excited to go see it with my own eyes, but unfortunately I also read and found out that it's very touristic, overcrowded and quite commercial.
Since my partner had been there already many years ago and said it was worth it, even though the town itself is quite small and the abbey’s architecture is not exceptional, we wanted to take the chance, hoping it wouldn’t be this bad later in the season.
Regrettably we found out that the visitors car parks near the mount had been recently relocated, now 1,5 miles away from the island to preserve its natural surroundings.
The parking costs €14 a day in high season and unfortunately there were long queues to park your car, even while we visited half September. From the car park shuttle buses take you near the mount itself, which was quite disappointing to us, since we were really looking forward to the walk there with those magical views upon the island.
I did find out that it is still possible to walk there with a guide. Find out more here: Book a walking guide to Mont-Saint-Michel.
Of course you can always stay overnight in Mont-Saint-Michel itself too, which usually includes a parking spot in the walled area of the town, but be prepared to spend a lot of money on a low quality hotel, generally rated 2 to 3 stars.
Therefore we decided to not get in line, skip this site and look for some less touristic sites instead, as that is the real charm of France to me!
We found a great alternative just an hours drive away, located on the north coast of Brittany:
Originally built as a walled citadel protecting the mouth of the Rance river from pirates. This fortified town takes you back in time with its cobble stone streets, unique historic buildings and of course the ramparts that can be followed all the way round, offering the best views into town and its beautiful surroundings!
The sea here is quite stunning, and just outside the city walls there are 2 little islands with ancient forts which can be reached on foot at low tide. See some of these stunning wall views in this gallery, slide for more:
What really amazed me was the fact that all of this is still free to visit, and unlike the city walls of Dubrovnik for example, a walk on St Malo’s walls is free of charge. It is however fun to rent an iPod with historic facts and walking routes from the tourist office for a small fee, to learn more about St Malo’s turbulent history while exploring the town and ramparts at your own pace.
Inside the city walls there are also many other historic sites, cute boutiques, quaint restaurants and terraces. And of course a visit to a traditional creperie should not be skipped!
We stayed a little outside St Malo, on the Plage de Rochebonne, just a 15 minute drive from the town's center and a scenic 30 minute walk over the boulevard. A quiet area by the sea with many surfers and colorful mansions, and more convenient for free parking.
Near Saint-Malo there are many more scenic seaside towns to visit, such as Cancale, Dinard and of course the city of Rennes. But we decided to save those for next time because of the bad weather, which can be quite gloomy on the coast of Brittany in September. We drove on south to Nantes and the seaside resort La Baule instead, since the weather was much better there. More about this in my next blog!
For more tips for your own visit to Normandy and Brittany you can also check the website of France Tourism.
Did you know these regions of France already, and if so which is your favourite? Or would you like to visit them as well? You can ask me for more tips any time, just let me know in the comments below or find me on social media via the icons at the bottom of this page. I will also post more daily pics there of Normandy, Brittany and the other sites we visited in France.