Normandy conquest | 

With bustling towns, nature reserves and historic sights...France is just a ferry away

We had decided to travel the old, reliable way by boat, leaving Dublin Docklands near my home the day before and arriving in Cherbourg 19 hours later, refreshed and ready for adventure.

The D-Day memorial at Utah beach

Jim exploring on his e-bike

Pretty Le Grand Hard hotel

Fishing village St-Vaast-La-Hougue

Vauban Towers

The amphibious ferry to Tatihou island

Fiona Cunningham, Tourism Northern Ireland presents Deirdre Reynolds with her prize

Jim GallagherSunday World

Here we are, cycling along the Normandy coast just a couple of hours after arriving in France.

I feel a wave of euphoria as we pedal alongside a pretty marina laden with boats, the cycle track ahead promising days of fun and freedom.

My friends and I are in fine form, having arrived on the Cotentin peninsula, the most northwest tip of Normandy, in style.

We had decided to travel the old, reliable way by boat, leaving Dublin Docklands near my home the day before and arriving in Cherbourg 19 hours later, refreshed and ready for adventure.

This was not one of the ferries of my youth, where I travelled annually between Ireland and the UK on what were cruelly dubbed ‘cattle ships’.

Jim exploring on his e-bike

No, we were doing this trip on the WB Yeats, the flagship of Irish Ferries, which is more like a luxury cruise liner than a ferry of old.

We had cabins so everyone had a good night’s sleep, with ensuite showers to freshen up in the morning.

The journey itself was definitely part of the holiday. There were cafes, bars, live music — and we went the whole hog and booked a table in the plush Lady Gregory restaurant for dinner, a fine dining experience.

Forget your slices of ferry pizza, I ordered a starter of scallops and crispy black pudding, followed by a perfect steak feast.

Being a foot passenger on the WB Yeats means all you have to do is turn up at Dublin Port an hour before sailing. There are no security queues, no need to take off shoes, belts and jackets, and definitely none of the chaos that plagued Dublin Airport last summer.

If you invest in the Club Class Lounge there are free snacks, fruit and non-alcoholic drinks available throughout the journey, and free wi-fi. In the rest of the ship you get 20 minutes free, after which there is a charge.

So here we are now cycling through Cotentin on e-bikes, which will be our mode of transport for the next two days.

Our first stop is an electric boat ride with Les Bateliers des Marais du Cotentin ( to discover the wildlife dominating the marshes that run all along the eastern coast.

Pretty Le Grand Hard hotel

We sail quietly along Jourdan River at the heart of the Parc Naturelle de Marais du Cotentin, one of 50 regional parks in France and a 30,000-hectare water wilderness.

At times, it feels like we are travelling through mangrove swamps on some exotic island with all the twisted trees and stumps lining the banks.

We reach the Douve river and snap happily away with our cameras at some of the 300 stork couples who reside here year-round. There are herons everywhere, and we also spot a falcon.

We imagine the carnage nearly 80 years ago after Marie, our guide, explains how this area was scarred by war when American paratroopers landed on D-Day to help liberate France from Nazi occupation. The Germans hit back by flooding the marshes, drowning many of the young airmen.

World War II plays an integral part in tourism in this region and the next day we visit Utah Beach, the most western point of the D-Day landings, where waves of American troops landed on June 6, 1944.

There is a fascinating museum here, complete with a US bomber, recounting the local battles. You will hear many American accents among the crowd, often belonging to the children and grandchildren of those soldiers who took part in the conflict.

The beach today is all peace and tranquillity, a long sandy strand which attracts thousands of families in the summer months. On the day we visit, horses with carriages are racing along the sea edge.

Not to be missed is the nearby Azeville battery, a defensive fortress built by the Germans with 650m of underground tunnels. You can walk along them and visit subterranean rooms which were once emergency hospitals or sleeping areas. But if you’re claustrophobic, it might not be for you.

Fishing village St-Vaast-La-Hougue

We return to nature and cycle along Cotentin’s east coast to Quinéville, where we stop for lunch and a welcome beer in the Hotel de la Plage.

Then it was further north to the gorgeous town of St-Vaast-La-Hougue, which was buzzing with life — it was named France’s favourite village in 2019 — where we catch the short five-minute boat journey to the island of Tatihou as we are booked into the lovely Les Maisons de Tatihou hotel.

The tiny island of 72 acres is ideal for walking, with the Fortifications of Vauban — a Unesco World Heritage Site — at its far end.

The next day we give up our e-bikes for a hike, continuing north along Cotentin’s eastern coast from St-Vaast-le-Hougue to Barfleur, which is also listed as one of the most beautiful villages in France.

It’s a lovely 14km walk taking in rocky coastline, countless beaches and Europe’s second tallest lighthouse — the 75m Gatteville — which has 365 steps (one for every day of the year) and 52 windows (one for each week).

Barfleur is gorgeous and we stop for lunch in La Boheme creperie before taking a local bus back to Cherbourg. All bus rides in the region are just €1, in a move by local authorities to encourage people to take local transport.

In Cherbourg, our final stop, the three-star Hotel Le Cercle is an ideal base to explore this bustling and picturesque city, and its old town.

Cotentin is a worthy destination in its own right but also a great stop-off point for holidaymakers heading south to the sun.

The amphibious ferry to Tatihou island

“Who wants a long drive after just getting off a ferry?” one tourism official says. “Why not stop here for two or three days and rest up, as there is so much to see.”

And if you do, there is nowhere better to stay than Le Grand Hard in Sainte- Marie-du-Mont, a gorgeous family-owned, manor house and a great location for exploring the abundant history and nature of the region.

We had a wonderful steak dinner and great breakfast in its excellent restaurant — and our friendly host, Nicolas, even fixed one of our bikes, which had a puncture.


NORMANDY, FRANCE See ■ Irish Ferries’ WB Yeats sails from Dublin to Cherbourg four times weekly ( ■ Stay at Hotel Les Maisons de Tatihou in Tatihou (; Le Grand Hard in St-Maire-du-Mont (; Hotel Le Cercle in Cherbourg ( ■ Hire e-bikes with Les Velos de St-Vaast (

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