The picturesque fishing port and marina of St-Vaast-la-Hougue is protected by the defensive towers of La Hougue and Tatihou built in the time of Vauban.
A favourite with cross-Channel yachtsmen, the town is also popular with tourists using the port of Cherbourg - just a 30 minute drive away.
Visit St-Vaast’s twelfth century sailors’ chapel, watch ‘comings and goings’ of the yachts from cafes and restaurants around the marina and browse art galleries, food and gift shops.
St-Vaast is a major oyster farming centre with beds stretching towards the Island of Tatihou. If you’re staying nearby, get up in time to watch the sunrise over Tatihou - it’s magical.
The Island of Tatihou in the bay of St-Vaast-la-Hougue was close to the naval battle of La Hougue between the French and English in 1692. Used to quarantine plague victims from Marseilles in 1720, Tatihou is now a nature reserve and the domain of wild birds.
Access the Island by amphibious boat daily April to l October to see migrating gulls, little egret, eider ducks and wigeon, and gardens pretty with sea pink carnations and spindrift in winter. The old quarantine station houses a maritime museum and the Island also has a restaurant.
The tower on Tatihou has been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Highlight of the year is ‘Les Traversees Tatihou’ a small folk festival held every August on the island.
Cherbourg has the largest artificial harbour in the world and is one of the most popular gateways to Normandy. Brittany Ferries sail to Cherbourg from both Poole and Portsmouth with both classic cruise and high speed services.
Boat trips giving guided tours of the harbour, including its huge breakwater 2 miles out to sea, leave La Cite de la Mer afternoons April-Sept. An old deep sea fishing boat - the ‘Jaques Louise’ - is also open to visitors in the Bassin du Commerce and there is a marina for visiting yachtsmen.
Those who take time to explore this first port of call on their holiday will not be disappointed. The centre has stylish restaurants and cafes and the Italian architecture of Cherbourg’s theatre in Place du General de Gaulle provides a stylish backdrop to Tuesday and Thurday morning markets.
Visit the huge ‘Cite de la Mer’ aquarium housed in the restored Transatlantic Terminal, built in 1933 in art Deco style. This architectural masterpiece welcomed some of the most famous transatlantic ships, such as the Queen Mary, the Queen Elizabeth and even the Titanic.
Drive to the fort at the top of the Montagne du Roule, offering a panoramic view over Cherbourg harbour. The Musee de la Liberation at Fort du Roule gives a pictorial account of the darkest days of the occupation through to the D-day landings when the Allies made Cherbourg their main landing harbour.
Musee de la Glacerie on the outskirts of town exhibits souvenirs of the royal glass manufacturing workshop established there by Colbert in 1667, along with examples of lace - tel: (00 33) 2 33 22 27 15 for opening times. Musee Thomas-Henry contains works by painter Jean-Francois Millet who was born in nearby Gruchy.
Enjoy Cherbourg’s lovely parks and gardens all year round, such as those surrounding the Abbaye du Voeu founded in 1145 by Mathilde, daughter of Henry I of England. You can visit the abbey interior weekends July-Aug.
Cherbourg is also a great place to stock-up before returning home – why not stop off at the Cotentin Commercial Centre with Auchan Supermarket.
Utah Beach stretches for approximately 30km south from the resort town of St-Vaast and is the most westerly of the main invasion beaches which entered history on 6 June 1944 during the D-day landings. Utah Beach is located close to the port of Cherbourg and is easily accessible from Caen. (Brittany Ferries offer crossings from Portsmouth to both Cherbourg and Caen/Ouistreham).
Visit the Memorial de la Liberte Retrouvee in Quineville to see recreated street scenes of everyday life in France, 20 minute video and German ‘Atlantic wall’ bunker www.memorial-quineville.com
The picturesque market town of Ste-Mere-Eglise, immortalised in the film ‘The Longest Day,’ borders the open spaces and marshes close to the long sandy beach code-named ‘Utah’.
Each year Ste-Mere-Eglise welcomes veteran paratroopers of 6 June 6 1944 and the liberation of France. Their story is told in the Musee des Troupes Aeroportees built in the shape of a giant parachute.
Take a guided tour of ‘Atlantic wall’ tunnels and bunkers 7km north east of Ste-Mere-Eglise at Azeville (tel: (00 33) 2 33 40 63 05 for details) and visit the unique site of Batterie de Crisbecq at Saint Marcouf to tour a 4 hectare site of bunkers, block houses and artillery emplacements - open April to mid November tel: (00 33) 2 33 21 28 71 for times.
Set in the heart of the Normandy bocage countryside where its soft creamy cheese is produced, yet only 10 minutes from the sea, the old hill town of Coutances dates back more than 1,000 years.
The town is dominated by its thirteenth century Gothic Romanesque cathedral of Notre-Dame. Standing 80m, tall it can be seen from as far away as Jersey, has fine rose windows and fourteenth century stained glass. Amazingly, the cathedral escaped damage during WWII and is the focus of a son et lumiere display on Sunday evenings in summer.
Coutance’s public gardens are also illuminated on summer nights and make a pleasant venue for an evening stroll. If visiting in the summer, head to Coutance’s jazz festival, ‘Jazz Sous Les Pommiers to be held 28 May – 4 June in 2011.’
Set on a wooded hill overlooking the marshes and beaches of Mont St-Michel Bay close to the border with Brittany, sheltered Avranches has a mild climate and is a popular tourist centre.
Nearest large town to Mont-St-Michel, Avranches has always had close connections with the abbey. Mont-St-Michel’s original church was founded by St Aubert a bishop of Avranches and a skull reputed to be his, complete with hole pierced by Archangel Michael’s finger, is on display in St-Gervais basilica.
Henry II visited the town on several occasions - once in 1172 being obliged by an abbot of St-Michel, Robert of Toringy, to do public penance barefoot and bareheaded for the murder of Thomas Becket.
Books and manuscripts from the Benedictine abbey at Mont-St-Michel were kept safe in Avranches during the French Revolution. Illuminated manuscripts created on the Mount are displayed in the superb new Scriptorial d’Avranches museum in place d’Estouteville together with a history of the town and modern book production.
Marking more recent events, a monument to General Patton commemorates his leading troops in the liberation of Avranches on 31 July 1944 during WWII. This victory gave the Allies an open road to Paris. The Jardin des Plantes is a popular place to eat in summer.
Take a picnic and drink in the view across the bay to Mont-St-Michel.
The little fishing port of Barfleur on the north eastern tip of Manche’s Cotentin Peninsula has a number of surprising links with England. The ship in which William the Conqueror sailed across the English Channel was built in Barfleur and in 1120 the sons of Henry I of England and 300 court nobles were drowned outside the harbour when the ship carrying them struck a rock and sank.
At one time during the Middle Ages, Barfleur was the largest port in Normandy and was the chief embarkation port for England used by dukes and kings. At the height of its importance as a fishing port, Barfleur had a population of 9,000.
Twenty-first century Barfleur is a pretty, unspoilt little harbour village of white-shuttered grey granite houses with summer-only creperie and excellent waterfront fish restaurant. Watch fishermen unloading their harvests of oysters and mussels along the quay and visit little beaches nearby.
The Gatteville Lighthouse on nearby Cap Barfleur built between 1829 and 1834 is the second highest in France (75m) and signals one of the most dangerous parts of the French coastline.
Climb the 365 steps lit by 52 windows to enjoy magnificent views over the Val de Saire and English Channel. Closed mid-Nov to mid-Dec and all Jan. Open 1000 - 1200 and 1400 - 1600 rest of year, with later closing times in high season - tel: (00 33) 2 33 23 17 97 for details.
Granville old town (haute ville), high on a promontory facing the Atlantic, was founded in the fifteenth century by Englishman Thomas Scales and fortified against the French! Stroll along narrow streets of ancient granite houses and climb the imposing ramparts for great views across Mont St Michel Bay and towards Granville’s port and beautiful beaches - ideal for sunbathing, swimming and watersports.
Now a busy holiday resort thanks to its long northern beach, Granville is also a sailing centre with sailing school and has a marina with 1000 berths as well as a commercial fishing port.
From the sixteenth century, Manche fishermen left from Pleville Quay in their grandiose topsail-schooners to fish for cod on the Grand Banks. Today, trawlers and creel fishermen still land delicious fresh fish and fruits de mer used in dishes like coalfish a la Granville, in excellent waterfront restaurants overlooking the working port.
The Musee d’Art Moderne Richard Anacreon has sketches by Jean Cocteau and interesting temporary exhibitions and the childhood home of Christian Dior, now a museum dedicated to him, is certainly worth a visit.
Why not take a ferry to Jersey in the Channel Islands, only an hour away, or to the little Chausey Islands archipelago just 17km off shore. Granite was quarried on the islands (their number increases amazingly at low tide) to build Mont St Michel. Find places to stay and to eat on Chausey’s car-free main island - even a castle rebuilt by motor magnate Louis Renault.
Villedieu-les-Poeles is a lively tourist town 28km west of Vire. The unusual name translates literally as ‘City of God the Frying Pans’ a reference this ancient town’s history as a centre for craftsmen and metalworkers - in particular the art of the coppersmith - and its connections with the religious order of the Knights of Malta.
Today, small workshops still produce beautiful and practical kitchen pots and pans as well as more ornamental lamps and religious artefacts. There are plenty of shops to browse offering copper items as souvenirs.
Villedieu tourist office has a list of ateliers (workshops) where you can buy direct. In the late eighteenth century, the Villedieu Bell Foundry - Fonderie de Cloches - began production of bells of all sizes. The foundry and museum in 13 rue du Pont-Chignon is one of only 12 remaining in Europe and makes a fascinating visit.
Ancient tools used are still the same and you can see bells waiting to be delivered all over the world from Africa to America. Children can have a go at bell ringing. Watch copper being worked at one of Villedieu’s oldest workshops, Atelier du Cuivre, where they also show a 15 minute film in English.
Open Monday to Saturday and shop only on Sunday. For those who still have an appetite for more, Villedieu also has a pewter museum, museum of traditional Norman furniture and a lace museum.
The area surrounding St-Hilaire-du-Harcouet is well known for its excellent river fishing and the picturesque Lakes of Vezins and La Roche qui Boit. Unspoilt by tourism, St-Hilaire-du-Harcouet is a place where you will be welcomed by the locals.
For nature lovers and sports enthusiasts, there is a good selection of disused railway track greenways and towpaths, which are great for rambling, biking and riding.
A very special local event is the Creche Vivante (where the Christmas nativity is brought to life by actors and animals) renowned as being one of the best in France.
The Wednesday market is a perfect opportunity to sample some local French produce such as farm produced cheeses and have a chat. St Hilaire du Harcouet is the perfect place to relax and unwind and soak up the neighbourhood atmosphere.