Travel - January 2010 Inspire - Normandy
RUSS BRAVO and his son explore Normandy’s nautical attractions
With A 13-year-old keen to practise his French, there was something very appealing in popping over to Normandy for a short break earlier this year.
Our last experience of ferries, heading over to Ireland, had not been a happy one, but taking the three-hour journey by Brittany ferry from Portsmouth to Cherbourg was smooth and enjoyable by comparison.
We were to be based at Barneville-Carteret on the west coast, and explore the attractions of the region. And the first of these was literally a couple of hundred yards round the corner from the Cherbourg ferry port – La Cite de La Mer (www.citedelamer.com).
Imagine a maritime museum crossed with a Sea Life centre, and you'd not be far off the mark. You could easily spend a day here. It has several floors of maritime exhibits ranging from deep-sea diving vessels, to interactive displays teaching you about the mysteries of the sea.
The Abyssal Aquarium is the deepest in Europe, and its virtual simulator called ‘Walking into the depths’ is good fun and done in English and French.
Most fascinating of all was the walk round decommissioned nuclear submarine Redoubtable, which took you directly into the underwater world of the naval submariner.
What with the travelling and several hours at La Cite de la Mer, we were ready to travel the hour or so to get to our accommodation, Hotel Restaurant les Isles (www.hoteldesisles.com). And it was a delight to find French roads well signposted, easy to navigate and far from busy.
Our hotel was a cosy but high-class place, right on the seafront at Barneville-Carteret. While my French was less than stellar, we managed to get by quite happily although English speakers seemed thin on the ground.
Our comfortable room with spectacular views out to sea and down the coast soon saw us recovered from our travels and ready for an evening meal. And the food – as you'd expect in France – was fabulous. Breakfasts provided a mind-boggling buffet of just about anything you can think of, but with a particular emphasis on regional seafood.
The evening menu varied each day, and was always superbly cooked and beautifully presented. My lad coped manfully, even when presented with undercooked beef.
We slept well and were ready for an action-packed day visiting Champrepus, followed by a jaunt over to Agon-Coutainville to try our hand at sand yachting.
Champrepus is a modest little village, dominated by the expansive gardens and zoological park built in and around it. Founded in 1957, the zoo (www.zoo-champrepus.com) is home to animals and vegetation from all over the world and takes part in different European Endangered Species Programmes (EEP).
Popular with schools it has a small section for younger children, guided tours, feeding times in different areas and a wide range of wildlife. Facilities are good and prices are about on a par with UK equivalents.
After a leisurely lunch at the park, we drove over to our sand yachting (char a voile) assignment at Club Nautique Coutainville (www.evasion-nautique.com). Blessed with wide, flat sandy expanses, the club has become a popular destination for the sport, and photo displays on the clubhouse walls showed how it has developed over the years.
And great fun it turned out to be, too. Parking yourself in what seemed like a three-wheeled boat/go-kart, you soon learned how to unroll and position your sail, steer with your feet and release or pull the rope to adjust your speed.
With a fair wind, you can approach speeds of 30-40 mph and while we mostly dawdled along, cornering still proved a challenge and somebody who remains nameless did end up with a sandy face-plant. No harm done though.
Our final visit of the mini-break was to coastal resort Saint-Vaast-la-Hougue, where we took a short boat ride out to Tatihou Island (www.tatihou.com). Opened to the public in 1992, the island's dramatic history is charted in the maritime museum and ship hall (where you can see remains of Louis XIV's ships, sunk at the Battle of La Hougue in 1692), and there is also a bird reserve, gardens and the old fort to examine.
We also spent time one morning at the splendid local market in Barneville-Carteret. Dominated by live seafood stalls, bakers, cheesemakers, fruit and veg, local cider and armagnac producers, we even discovered an English couple selling British food to the French (L'Epicerie Anglaise).
A few choice purchases and we were on our way. We'll certainly be returning to Normandy again – c'est magnifique!