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Words: Chris Zacharia
Even for France, Noirmoutier is breathtaking.
A flower-shaped island on France’s Atlantic coast, with a long thin stem leading to a wider head, Noirmoutier is the Gallic getaway of choice for stylish Parisiens.
But they won’t be the only guests this summer. Noirmoutier is the starting point for the 2018 edition of the Tour de France. This peaceful little island is being invaded by lycra-clad cyclists and their avid fans, putting Noirmoutier in the spotlight.
So what’s it like to go cycling in Noirmoutier?
‘Even without the Tour de France, cycling is the best way to get around Noirmoutier’ says Fabienne, our guide and a Noirmoutier local. ‘Cars are second-place here’
Hopping on a hired bicycle, I see what Fabienne means. Sleepy Noirmoutier is blessed with tranquil roads, disturbed only by the occasional drifting hatchback and the sigh of the sea.
We cycle past tree-lined avenues and rustic farmhouses, before inevitably reaching the ocean. The view forces us to stop. Rocky outcrops punctuate the sandy shoreline. Colourful fishing boats lie sleeping on the sand. Sprawling cedar trees send bursts of green into the blue sky. It’s no surprise to learn that Auguste Renoir painted here in Noirmoutier.
‘The cedar trees are more important than they seem’ Fabienne explains. ‘Our soil is very sandy. These trees were planted in the time of Napoleon to stop the erosion’
As well as being structurally vital, the cedars give Noirmoutier a strikingly exotic aspect. I can’t seem to cycle without gazing up at their vast networks of branches. Here’s hoping the Tour de France cyclists are more focused.
‘We should hurry’ Fabienne declares. ‘There’s a storm coming from the mainland’
The threat of a downpour whips us into shape. Back on the bicycles, we’re pedaling hard, heads down, flying beneath the green canopies. Suddenly we’re making a much better impression of the Tour de France professionals.
A few shady lanes later, we’re back in the town centre – and as a reward the sun is shining. We stop for a celebratory beer at Cafe Noir, a traditional bar on the Quai Cassard.
Noirmoutier may be an islet, but it’s also part of the Vendée, a department in the Pays de la Loire region. The connection to Vendée becomes clearer at our hotel, Le Général d’Elbée.
‘During the French Revolution, not everyone was in favour of Robespierre’ Fabienne tells us. ‘In fact the Vendée raised an army to overthrow the revolutionaries and restore the monarchy. That’s why this hotel is named after the Général d’Elbée, who led the Vendée’s troops’.
Apart from the grandiose portraits decorating the lobby of the general and his men, warfare and conflict are entirely absent from Le Général d’Elbée. Wandering through the traditional, beautifully decorated rooms, we’re drawn to the plush sofas and armchairs like monarchs to their thrones. The drawing room is particularly gorgeous: a piano, a shelf full of photography books and an enlarged chess set with pawns the size of your fist.
As in much of in France, it’s possible to eat very well in Ile de Noirmoutier. But the seafood here is fresher, suppler, more aromatic. That evening, we head to Le Petit Noirmout, one of those charming neighbourhood restaurants which delivers on the promises of Gallic cuisine. The fragrance of judiciously cooked fish ad seafood embraces you as you enter, and from then on everything is as it should be. Oysters as rich and complex as wine; a tender slab of fresh hake, the skin crisp; and a knockout-blow of a brioche, slathered in salted caramel sauce.
Cycling all day puts a strain on the body, even if you’re not exactly Tour de France material. But the Vendée has long been famous for its thalassotherapy. Combining seawater, a coastal climate and sea products, thalassotherapy enjoyed huge popularity during the 19th century, leaving a legacy of gorgeous spa towns which still attract pilgrims of pampering.
In the summer, Paris swelters. Those able to do so escape the heat by heading to the coast. Some saunter to Cannes, others Monaco; and others head to Le Baule.
We arrive in the sunshine of late afternoon, the grand facades of the beach-facing promenade glowing white. Built in the 19th century as a spa resort, La Baule has attracted a steady stream of French bourgeoisie, lured by the the three kilometre beach and the impressive seafront hotels.
The most impressive of these is the Barriere L’Hermitage, a glamorous five-star hotel frequented by the stars of French cinema. First opened in 1928, it’s one of the few hotels in France which was purpose-built. Criss-crossed with cafe au lait coloured wooden beams, the Barriere is crowned with a gabled roof.
Parking our bags inside, we climb aboard bicycles and begin exploring Le Baule. Cycling beside the golden sand, we flit from idyll to idyll, as if cycling through postcards. We admire the architecture, from little chalets perch on cliffs to vast ancien régime farmhouses, the sea air filling our lungs. It’s hard to be in Le Baule without imagining how lovely it would be to live here.
The following morning, we stroll along the beach to L’Hermitage’s sister hotel, Le Royal. Guests of L’Hermitage can visit the larger Spa Diane Barriere at Le Royal free of charge. It might not have been the Alpine stage of the Tour, but we’ve cycled a fair few kilometres and suddenly a massage seems justified. My legs are in need of some tender love and care.
My masseuse, Sophie, asks if there’s anything I’m having particular trouble with. Deciding against ‘Everywhere’, I ask her to focus on my back. Half an hour later, I emerge from the massage chamber with the French equivalent of a healthy glow.
If there was any tension left in me, it’s healed by the chromatherapy. In a vast, jet-lined bath, I lay down and await the watery assault. ‘Seaweed’ says Eleanor, dropping green ribbons into the water. The jets take it in turn to blast water onto my limbs and torso, starting with the feet and working their way up to my head. With each burst of water, the jets light up a different colour, illuminating the tub in red and green and yellow. After two circuits my eyes are closed; after three I’m miles away.
‘Excusez-moi’ rings a voice. ‘Mr Zacharia? Ça va?’ Twenty minutes have passed very quickly, and no sooner am I out of the chromatherapy bath than I begin missing those jets. So I head down to the pool, float on through to the swim out jacuzzi and let the sun do the rest.
Emerging in the blinding sunlight an hour later, I feel reborn – and ready for some biking. We may not be the Tour de France, but I’m starting to feel like a champion anyway.
Enjoy a one-hour ‘Relaxation Ritual’ at Barrière Le Royal’s Spa Diane for just €99
To book a room at Noirmoutier’s unique Hotel Général d’Elbée, click here