We planned to spend the day in Belle-Île, but an invitation to have dinner at Jeanne’s brother’s home that evening made us rethink going north along the Brittany Coast . Instead we planned a trip to Vendée, an area just south of Saint Nazaire and the mouth of the Loire River, closer to his home. Vendée isn’t part of Brittany and has its own very distinct history from the region where Jeanne grew up. It was famous for opposing the French government many times, including during the Revolution, and has a long history of raids, seiges and massacres at the hands of the government in Paris. Before that, L’île de Noirmoutier itself was attacked many times by Vikings, Spanish, Dutch, English, Normans and even the neighboring Britons. The region is known today for its mild weather and for being one of the great sailing capitals of the world. Partly because of its weather, there are many boat building companies (like Beneteau) located in and around one of its coastal cities, Les Sables-d’Olonne. Les Sables d’Olonne is also the beginning and end of one of the world’s great single-handed, no ports of call, circumnavigation sailing races, the Vendée Globe.
L’île de Noirmoutier
L’île de Noirmoutier is a great day trip, and one of many islands along the Atlantic Coast that can be explored. Because it has a bridge, it is more accessible than many, but that also means more people and less distinction from the mainland.
We drove down the coast, out to the island by way of the bridge. The other choice, tide depending, is the Passage du Gois, a paved-over sand bank that is submerged for part of the day. Once on the island, we immediately saw large banners announcing that this would be the start of the 2011 Tour de France, which made our trip seemed very timely. We also saw that like Fleur de Sel de Guérande, Noirmoutier is famous for its salt pans and salt-as-a-delicacy. Once you see the time-honored and highly manual process for collecting salt, the price begins to make sense.
We made our way to the largest village on the island, Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, home of the 12th Century castle, Château de Noirmoutier. It is located at the far end of the island and our first task was to find bicycles. Easy task, as even hardware stores have bike rentals, and at 9am, we were among the first people out and about. For € 12 each bike for the day, we had nice, light mountain bikes with locks.
We saved the castle for the end of the day and instead, looked for the Office of Tourism.
A great first stop in any European destination is at the Office of Tourism, found in every sizeable city, and a free source of local information and maps. Quite often, the very same map sold in a local shop will be found for free here. We arrived just as the doors opened and were ready for our adventure. The route we chose was 15 km, which is only a small part of the 60+ km on the island.
Riding the island
Once riding, we noticed and enjoyed the smell of the ocean, which only grew stronger with the lowering tide. We passed several campgrounds on the sea. One in particular, Indigo, was located in a pine forest that went to the edge of the beach sand. The French were out in force, enjoying the holiday of l’Ascension and every campground was full of enormous tents and RV’s with attached tents the size of small houses…not a backpacking crowd.
The cycling trail around the island is a mixture of streets, paved bike paths and hard-packed sand and passed through dark forests, along sea walls, crossed villages and traversed salt-producing lagoons. A mountain bike is a much better option than a regular bicycle. Also, we learned that we should have brought cash and/or water, as the locations that had ATM’s did not coincide with our thirst.
We stopped at a large tidal flat, where Jeanne showed me how to look for the signs of buried clams (they have breathing holes you can see if you look closely). In a very short period of time, Jeanne collected a large handful and announced that we’d take them to her brother’s for dinner. I asked the silly question, “how will they stay fresh?” but should have known that my semi-professional clam-digging wife would have an answer. We emptied our plastic lunch bag, she grabbed some wet seaweed and created an instant cooler.
A great day ended with a thunderstorm just as we arrived at Jeanne’s brother’s house, which is a rare sight for people who live in Southern California, and made for a beautifully cool evening. We had a great dinner, as usual, with tournedos (steak), Noirmoutier potatoes, known as ‘La Bonnotte’, with a wonderfully distinct flavor (considered gourmet in France and quite expensive) and a great Medoc from near Bordeaux.
L’île de Noirmoutier advice
As always, we learned a few things along the way:
Pack a lunch and bring a backpack, as there are many great places to eat either on the sand, rocks, or at the many picnic tables in the forests
- The ATM’s on the island are in Noirmoutier-en-l’Île and L’Herbaudière, a port in the northwest corner of the island
- Bring sunscreen, as the weather is often sunny, in contrast to the Brittany reputation
- Mountain bikes are best for the unpaved areas, so don’t take the offered street bikes