NORMANDY COAST HIKING TOUR – TOP TIPS

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Arromanches to Port en Bessin
Most of your Normandy Coast course is along Grande Randonée (GR) 223, one of the many hiking paths throughout France.
  1. Choosing Off-Season vs. Tourist Season is THE Main Fork in the Road

Picture This Post Tour reports are almost always scheduled for the off-season for the usual reasons.  We avoid crowds, we lower expenses, we meet more locals and fewer fellow tourists.  This tour was scheduled for late September/early October which delivered those plusses as expected.

The main, or perhaps only downside, is that this calendar includes more rainy days that dictate the window of dry weather when you can best hike from town to town. If you—like this writer/photographer team—are especially energized by dawn hikes, the downside turns out more days than not to be a serendipitous plus.

Also, fellow museum buffs will likely be disappointed that some of the exhibits they would like to see, or the museums as a whole, are closed during the off-season.  Then again, some museums are closed for entire years. Check ahead with the local tourist office (see below).

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Arromanches to Port en Bessin
Normandy Coast has far more to see than a short ten-day hike allows.
  1. Spend MORE time in Normandy if your life permits.

Why only a ten-day tour?  That is NOT a recommendation—it was an adaptation of the tour to the particular schedule demands of this reporting team.

Digital Nomad?  Retiree? On a Gap Year?  There are far more spots in Normandy to hike to if your life allows. Or, if possible, the top pick on this itinerary that could easily have included a longer linger—especially for World War II history buffs—is Arromanches-les-Bains. Any stop though, would have been very comfortable for an extra day to re-charge our batteries.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Houlgate
There are many places to stay all along this tour that are very close to the beaches.
  1. You can book ahead or you can wing it—hotel-wise.

In the off-season MOST of the hotels and resorts in each town were lightly occupied.  It seems extremely likely that you could make on-the-spot decisions regarding where to stay and when to stop your hike. That said, if you too have limited language skills this could eat your time and be a source of frustration.  And, don’t forget you are a turtle, carrying all your belongings on your back, and adding time to hunt down a hotel might get very annoying when you tire.

Generally speaking, look for hotels, resorts or Air BnBs near the coast. That typically puts you on track to re-start your hike to the next destination without extra km/miles.

With 20-20 hindsight it became apparent that paying attention to check-in times will pay-off.  If you are tired from a many-hour hike, and the accommodations you have booked are not yet open, and they don’t have personnel on hand to at least negotiate a backpack drop-off, it becomes an annoyance. This tip is more relevant to fellow budget travelers.

Be prepared for some beach locations to be a bit of a hike to the town center for grocery shopping if you choose to self-cater. Some towns have a dearth of restaurants open during the off-season or on Sundays. Because dining options might sometimes be limited, bring a supply of nuts and dried fruit to help you get by. A stop-gap bread, wine and cheese meal is usually easy to procure until evening store close hours.

Be prepared also for some of the places you book—especially beachside Air BnB—to be without workable WIFI, or without WIFI altogether.

Luck may have something to do with it, but this writer/photographer team spent less than an hour doing all bookings from home—about 6 weeks prior to the journey. The variety of accommodations we acquired on-the-fly turned out to be a huge plus. They ranged from swank beach resorts in the off-season with room rates closer to a song, to small apartments in working class areas that gave us a better taste of how real people here live, and much in-between. There was only one hotel that had the amenities a US Road Trip regular takes for granted—24/7 access, 24/7 desk clerk, and 24/7 coffee. The usual pictures and specs in the online booking site didn’t quite convey each situation, which is perhaps typical.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Ouistreham to Courseulles sur Mer
Stopping into a local tabac in the early morning hours gives you an opportunity to mingle with the locals-- who are there picking up their daily baguettes or gabbing with a friend over espresso.
NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Ouistreham to Courseulles Sur Mer
Your phone GPS -- at the time of this writing-- isn't in sync with the tides. It may suggest you are drowning while you enjoy hiking on firm sand.
  1. Timing – tides, rain, hunger.

Since most—but not all—of your route is along the beach, you get the thrill of planning your day around the tide tables. You can get these at the local tourist office or online. Most of us will never have felt as connected to the moon and sea before. Low tides give you firm sand to walk on. Too much shoreline walk does tend to get boring—even with the new exhilaration of feeling the bounce of kelp-covered rocks during low tide, reminding of striding on a trampoline—so you too might want to mix it up with quiet hamlet streets parallel to the beach. Studying your map alone won’t cut it. You always need to know when the tide is low or high, so you can have your options for detours and mixing it up on the ready.

And then there is the rain—nearly every day in the 10 days of this autumn tour. That said, there was only one downpour strong enough and long enough to dissuade us from our planned hike.  A bus with the same endpoint as our planned hike for that day won out—and even with that cover, we entered Cabourg’s Grand Hotel of Proust’s imagination with muddy shoes and dripping umbrellas.

Planning around the sunny window in your days, coupled with more than ten-mile hikes, will often mean that you are ready for a large dinner meal at inconvenient times. Sometimes this might mean skipping sight-seeing or making it a quick add-on after a meal. More often than not you too may arrive in a town when the luncheon hours are over and the later dinner hours have not begun. You also might not want to start a dinner at 8 PM when you know you are scurrying out again to hit the trail at 6 AM the next morning. Prepare yourself to go to restaurants or bar/tabacs that would otherwise be on your B-list of dining choices.  If you can get to a town before the boulangeries close, make a bee-line for a fresh baguette sandwich.

This writer/photographer team quickly settled into a routine of one meal per day in order to optimize our hiking experience.

 

  1. Make the local tourist office your first stop always.

France’s tourist offices are gems!  Every town—every one!—seems to have multi-lingual staff who are poised to help. They can spare you the trouble of trying to visit museums that are closed. They can find you a bus on a rainy day. You can ask them to point out sites you might not be aware of, or tell you about hours and entrance fees.  They will even make phone calls for you to make reservations for a nominal one or two Euro fee.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Trouville
In a chaotic switch from train to bus, a kind young woman took us in tow to help navigate the impromptu instructions from the Train staff--in rapid fire French-- on where to go
  1. Locals help too.

Even if you aren’t hitchhiking, do expect kind offers of rides, and especially if you are hunched over consulting your maps or phone GPS. If you too arrive with limited French language skills, you can count on finding a friendly person who speaks enough English to help you navigate most confusions.

  1. Get your bearings with combination of GR maps and GPS.

Most of your course is along Grande Randonée (GR) 223. Studying this route ahead of your daily journey, especially when your cellphone GPS comes to bad reception hiccups, truly pays off. A quick google will help you find maps of the GR routes from many mail-order sources. They are surely worth it.

And do be poised to outsmart your smart phone! At the time of this writing, the Maps app reports of open and closed hours for various businesses were more wrong than right, perhaps because the off-season affords many proprietors a chance to relax after the hectic high season.

That the weather apps get it wrong frequently is not news to most. Yet, with coastal hikes, this seems to be especially so. In short order, you too will likely ignore the weather app and instead gauge just how far off that storm cloud is from your path and which way the wind is blowing.

  1. Pack lightly.

Since you are carrying all your clothing, toiletries, water, maps, computers, plugs, etc.—you really want to keep it to the minimum. You are able to buy anything you think you truly need—you are not in a remote area. The only relevant consideration is that shopping might cut into your pure tour time.

Don’t make the mistake that this team did of thinking air tickets didn’t need to be priced around baggage. Our thought was that we were taking our backpacks as carry on and there wouldn’t be checked baggage fees.

Alas, the much better knapsacks we already had were two inches longer than allowed by the budget airline we booked. Smaller packs without lumbar support were okay in a pinch, but certainly not optimal.

  1. Pay attention to the LOCAL news!

If our itinerary had us returning to Paris one day later, we wouldn’t have gotten there due to a national strike affecting railways. Registering for US State Department safe traveler alerts might be an option, but likely not as granular as you will need to stay aware of how your surroundings might impact you.

NORMANDY HIKING TOUR Bayeux
Attending Sunday mass in the historic Bayeux cathedral gave insight into who really lives in this much touristed town.
  1. Sundays present special challenges.

If you too hail from a major US city, you might not think of preparing for most stores and restaurants to be closed on Sundays. You need to.

For example, in the itinerary of this report, there were no buses to Bayeux from Omaha Beach on a Sunday. Worse, the taxi the tourist office had pre-booked for us in lieu of the bus was a no-show, and it was only the kindness of our hotelier** who drove us to Bayeux that got us there on a Sunday, and ahead of our next day departure to Paris.

Finding food in Bayeux on a Sunday also proved to be challenging, mainly due to our aversion to inauthentic touristy watering holes. After logging hours of walking to one or another recommended Bayeux restaurant, we realized we had no choice but to find the most touristy area and look for an open restaurant/bar there. It wasn’t horrible—we lived to tell the tale.

  1. Top Picks for Your Time

  • Colleville – Take a tour of the American cemetery.
  • Musée du Embarquement
  • Juno Centre
  • Proust Museum
  • Tapestry Museum
  1. Questions? Suggestions?

Add your comments below.

Want to share your pictures and tips for an off-season tour?   Write to editor@picturethispost.com.

 

 

 

 

NORMANDY COAST HIKING TOUR Omaha Beach
The proprietor of the Omaha Beach Bed and Breakfast -- Villa Omaha.

AND MERCI BEAUCOUP!  to the proprietor of most congenial, well-appointed and comfortable Bed and Breakfast of Omaha Beach Normandy. He  jumped into action on an early Sunday morning when the taxi we had booked was a no-show. After quickly ensuring that his other guests were all set, he went out of his way to make sure we got to Bayeux in time for Sunday Mass, chauffeuring us in his personal car. Better yet, he gave a tour of the area as we traveled, bringing the local flavor of the area to life.  And even better, it was a chance to tour the countryside in his low carbon footprint electric car.

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