Happy New Year!
This is one of my favorite blog posts of the year, my Best Places To Stay of the past year. If you’re a regular reader of Experience France By Bike, you know how much time I spend researching places to stay, probably at least 3 hours for every night’s stay! When I’m bicycling overseas, where I stay each night is as important to my overall experience as my itinerary. I want a place to stay that enhances my travel experience, rather than just a place to sleep.
What makes a perfect place to stay? For me, Here are some of the things I look for in my choices: something small, charming, authentically French, run by the owners, good value for the price, a choice that provides an unusual travel experience, preferably a place not found in mass market travel books, great breakfasts, on-site restaurant or within walking distance of local restaurants, and a million dollar view. More than anything, I love to discover B&B’s and small hotels that have never even been reviewed by tripadvisor. There is a very good chance these choices will be very special indeed.
Even after hours of research, I still cross my fingers as each trip approaches, and hope that I chose wisely. I never know until I get to each night’s destination. Fortunately this year, all of my selections were completely spot-on. My only complaint with each was that I could not stay longer. As time goes on and I get more experienced at touring via bicycle, I have really come to enjoy spending at least two nights at a location. This will definitely be something I strive for more in the future.
All of my 2014 Best Places to Stay are located in Normandy and Brittany, since I spent all my bicycling time in these regions. If you are considering a bicycling trip to either of these areas, I recommend that you give these places some consideration. Everyone of the accommodations met every lodging expectation I look at, and then some!
Chambres d’Hotes de Carentan in Carentan
Our first stop on our bicycling tour of the D-Day Beaches was Chambres d’hotes de Carentan. It’s hard to believe that this small, charming and unassuming town was a pivitol battleground during the Invasion of Normandy. The town and this B&B are warm and inviting and you never get the feeling that you are in the middle of one of the most touristy parts of France. It’s a very easy walk from the Carentan train station to the B&B, making it perfect for bicyclists without a car. The 1920’s home has been carefully restored over the last 15 years by owners Nancy and Pascal Foucault, both of whom you will probably meet if you stay here. With just 5 rooms, this B&B makes you feel like you are visiting French relatives rather than just staying overnight in a B&B.
Nancy and Pascal take great pride in their home. The house and rooms are spotless, and it is expected that guests help take care of the house during their stay. The rooms are huge by European standards, ours had a master bath that was huge, with a large soaker tub, a real indulgence when you are cycling. Nancy is a wealth of information on the town and the region and will provide as much or as little assistance as you are looking for. She respects guests privacy, but is happy to help if needed.
While we stayed here just one night, you could easily stay several nights, as Carentan is perfectly located to explore the D-Day Beaches by bike. At 60Euro a night for 2 people, this place is not only a perfectly charming place to stay, but is also a bargain. You could easily stay here and eat for well under 100Euro/day.
Le Clos des Matignon, in Torigni-sur-Vire
From the first time I saw pictures of this unbelievable home, I knew I had to stay here, even though it was 10km off the Petit Tour de Manche bike route. The hotel and B&B choices for neighboring town Saint-Lo were limited and a bit too commercial for me, so we would bicycle to the medieval town of Torigni sur Vire, home of Le Clos des Matignon. 10km wasn’t that far……except at the end of a hard, very warm day…..and if the 10km is uphill! Regardless of the physical challenge of getting there, this was one of my favorites of the year, and one of my all time favorites. It was the most expensive place we stayed on this trip, a complete indulgence (we have one each trip), It was completely worth every penny!
We arrived in picture-perfect Torigni-sur-Vire on a Saturday evening to the sounds of an angelic boys’ choir at the Catholic Church across from the gite. As we walked our bikes down the street, I felt like I was in a medieval movie set. I quickly realized that coming to this town was more than worth the detour!
We finally located the entrance to Le Clos des Matignon (the home is almost a city block long!) where we met the owner, Colette Martin. From the moment Colette greeted us until the next morning when we said our goodbyes to the Martins, our stay at their home was as perfect of a French experience you could ever ask for. To say that Colette is the perfect hostess is an incredible understatement. She sets a whole new standard for hospitality, receiving two tired and ragged looking bicyclists into her home as if we were personal family guests. Before we knew it, she offered us tea and some lemon cake that had just come out of the oven, insisting that we sit in the library to unwind from our ride. Despite the fact that we were only staying one night, Colette had prepared a huge packet of tourism information that rivaled any that you might get at a tourism office. She and husband Daniel also made sure that we had reservations for dinner, it was Saturday night and since it was holiday time, only a few restaurants in town were open.
About the gite: it is an outbuilding of the Castle of Torigni, which the Martins have painstakingly restored. To say that this house and the walled grounds are spectacular is an understatement. The curved staircase that leads up to the three B&B rooms is breathtaking. Our room for the night was the Savannah. At 140Euro for the night, it was definitely the splurge for the trip, and what an indulgence it was….worth every penny! The room was huge with exquisite built-ins and furniture, a gorgeous canopy bed and a master bath with its own wall-to-wall mural of an African savannah. Breathtaking! It is possible to stay here more affordably also, the room called the Pearl is just 105Euro/night including breakfast.
Then there was the breakfast. Since it was a bit cool the morning we were there, breakfast was served in Colette’s amazing chef’s kitchen, with lots of copper cookware. Breakfast was a total epicurean delight, definitely the best breakfast we had of the trip: lots of homemade juices and jams, croissants, local meats and cheeses, yogurt, breads and brioche and pastries. Torigni-sur-Vire is the type of charming town that you could easily spend several days, and Le Clos des Matignon is the perfect place to call home during your stay. While I wished my stay had been longer, I am so thankful that I had the opportunity to meet and visit with Colette and Daniel. Spending an evening in their very special home was a highlight of my trip in Northern France and a memory I will remember forever.
La Fosse, outside of Perriers-en-Beauficel
La Fosse is a small B&B located in the middle of nowhere in the hilly countryside of southern Manche in Normandy, between Vire and Sourdeval. The Logis that I wanted to stay at in Vire on the bike route was closed for August holiday, so I started exploring other interesting options. I discovered this small B&B owned by Brits Carole and Patrick Head, and there was just something about it that attracted me. I’m not sure that I fully understood how hilly the countryside in this area was, and if I had, I don’t think it would have made a difference in my decision to stay here.
Patrick and Carole are incredible hosts, completely dedicated to making sure that their guests’ stay is completely relaxing and memorable. Their home is warm and cozy and exudes the comfort of being home, just better. As we entered the home, the views of the surrounding countryside from every window was breathtaking, the rolling hills reminding me of the terrain that we had biked on to get here…..and the terrain we would take to leave. Carole showed us to our room and invited us to enjoy some tea and a freshly baked tea bread that had just come out of the over. I was starving. It was unbelievable! Our room for the night was the Orchid, the largest of the three rooms at the B&B. It has a balcony with panoramic views of the surrounding countryside that seem to go on forever. Spectacular and definitely a side of Normandy we had not seen. The rooms at La Fosse are impeccably clean and comfortably decorated and modern. At 70Euro/night including breakfast, this room was a bargain and a splurge at the same time.
Like most of our lodging choices, La Fosse has been lovingly restored by its owners. Carole and Patrick discovered the house when they were vacationing in the area years ago. They fell in love with the incredible views and the character of the house, parts of which date back to the 1700’s. Over the last 10 years, they restored and renovated the house, transforming it into a gorgeous, comfortable, charming home. My favorite part of the home and my favorite part of our experience at La Fosse was the kitchen and dinner with our hosts. Carole and Patrick offer a host’s table to guests, a four-course meal shared with them. At 25Euro/person including aperitif, wine, coffee and a four course meal this dining experience was a highlight of our bicycling trip. Sharing travel experiences and stories with Patrick and Carole in their carefully restored kitchen was a memory that I will never forget.
We left La Fosse the next morning in the pouring rain. I took some of Carole’s tea bread with me for a snack. As we bicycled all day in the pouring rain, the thought of having that tea bread with a hot cup of tea at the end of the day helped me get through the day! That and my memories of the last day with Carole and Patrick.
Le Grand Hard, Saint-Marie-du-Mont
This is the perfect place to stay for exploring the D-Day Beach attractions in and around Utah Beach by bike. There are places that are cheaper, many that are more expensive, but there are not a lot that have the charm and warmth and beautiful location of Le Grand Hard. Located in the countryside, a few kilometers past the lovely town of Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, Le Grand Hard is a small hotel with the feel of an intimate B&B. The hotel is in the nature reserve, Le Parc des Marais and is surrounded by grassy pastures, swamps and hedgerows. Most importantly, it is located less than an hour’s bicycle ride from some of the most popular D-Day destinations.
This large country manor reveals itself slowly as you bicycle down its long driveway. Even though the estate has 11 rooms, 4 duplexes and a full restaurant, the hotel exudes the charm, comfort and intimacy you would expect of much smaller accommodations. Rooms in the main building are clean and very large, by European standards. The large estate that the hotel is located on insures that you will have a perfect night’s sleep, even with the windows wide open.
The hotel is family run, with everyone dedicated to making each and every one of the guests feel welcome. One of my favorite things about Le Grand Hard is that there is a full on-site restaurant. So after a busy day of sightseeing and bicycling, all we had to do for dinner was walk downstairs and across the courtyard to our table for dinner. Half-board was 38Euro per person including breakfast and a three course dinner. Meals were always a highlight of the day, especially the eggs cooked any way at breakfast, always a favorite of mine when we are bicycling. If you are looking for a relaxing place to stay while exploring the Normandy D-Day Beaches and other WW II attractions, do yourself a favor and stay at Le Grand Hard. The hotel is also part of the Accueil Velo network, and is an endorsed accommodation for bicyclist.
Breizh Cafe B&B, Cancale
Most people come to the Breizh Cafe for the food as it’s home to 2 restaurants, one of which has a Michelin star. Few know that at the top of the restaurant’s staircase are 5 charming guest rooms with million dollar views of La Houle Harbor in Cancale and Brittany’s Emerald Coast. The single reason I chose to stay at the Breizh Cafe was for the views, which were beyond spectacular. Like any popular tourist attraction, the town is very busy in the day but becomes charming and intimate when the sun goes down and the day-tourists leave.
In keeping with the style of its Japanese owner, rooms are of simple Japanese decor with wood and slate and incredibly comfortable beds with luxurious linens. The simplicity of the rooms allow the fantastic views to take the front stage: rooms that look out on Quai Thomas have views of the lighthouse, the harbor and the Emerald Coast. Rooms on the back side look out at the oyster beds and the fantastic rocks of Cancale. Both are equally terrific. There is also a fantastic breakfast complete with local specialities and homemade treats. The location right on the harbor means that you are right next to the oyster stands selling fresh oysters from early morning until dark. We had oyster appetizers for breakfast and late afternoon snack each day we were there.
My only regret about staying at the Breizh Cafe B&B was that I did not stay longer! Cancale is one of the most charming towns in Brittany, and the Breizh Cafe B&B is a great place to stay to explore it. At 100Euro/night in high season including breakfast, this may not be the cheapest place to stay in town, but I doubt there is a better view for the money!
Le Moulin de Ducey in Ducey
My guardian angel must have been looking over me the day I chose Le Moulin de Ducey as my place to stay in the flower town of Ducey. Little did I know that this hotel would be my final stopping point on the worst day of my summer bicycling trip. By the time my husband and I arrived at Le Moulin de Ducey, we had bicycled in the down pouring rain for more than 8 hours. We were filthy dirty and there was not a dry spot on our bodies. I was afraid that the hotel clerk would take one look at us and turn us away. Then I met Patricia, who I soon came to understand is a one-person army at the hotel. Despite the fact that I was covered with dirt and mud from a day of bicycling in the rain, she greeted me warmly. As she realized that most of the clothes that we had were wet and dirty, she recommended that we change and use the hotel washer and dryer to clean our clothes. Since it was summer holiday, she made calls to find us a place to eat dinner. While we ate, she made sure that our clothes were put in the dryer. Quite amazing for a woman who I had never met before.
Originally I chose this hotel for its location along the Selune River. The next day was my husband’s birthday, and I thought it would be lovely to wake up with a gorgeous view of the river and the old bridge. Little did I know how special the employees of this very small charming hotel were. Patricia ended up leaving for the bank before we could say goodbye in the morning, so I never learned her last name or said thank you. I’m not sure if she had any idea of the kindness that she extended to us during our stay. I have a feeling that is just the way she is. The view from our room at this hotel was spectacular, but Patricia was the real bonus of our stay at this hotel. Non-discounted room rates run from 70 to 170Euro, depending on room type, location and season. There are often specials so watch the website for seasonal deals. There are numerous small cafes close to the hotel, so I would recommend having breakfast at a cafe. If you are in town on market day–Tuesday–have breakfast from the crepe stand, it’s the best deal in town!
Villa Mons in Pontorson
Choosing a place to stay near Mont-Saint-Michel can be challenging, especially when you are traveling by bike. Fortunately for us this summer, I could not have made a better choice than the town of Pontorson and the B&B called Villa Mons. The town was one of our favorites of the trip, and Villa Mons was perfection, by every criteria important to me. From the moment we bicycled into town, I knew that I had made a perfect choice. Despite the fact that Pontorson is less than 10km from Mont-Saint-Michel, it is the most charming Normandy town you would ever want to visit. The people are friendly and warm and I quickly wished that we could prolong our vacation to stay here longer.
What to say about Villa Mons? The B&B is owned by Tomoko and Damien, two amazing talented young people who seem to be the most popular people in this town. The renovated B&B is spotless and modern, with great beds, wonderful linens and fresh flowers in each room. Tomoko will provide any type of touring advice you might need, and she’ll make reservations for the best local restaurants too. If you are lucky enough to get one of the three rooms at this perfect French B&B, you will enjoy the kind of warmth and hospitality that few people enjoy while on vacation. Oh, and then there are Tomoko’s homemade breakfasts! There are always fresh yogurts, cheese and sliced meats, but she will also prepare eggs, any style. She’s also becoming famous for her special French toast, served with creme and maple syrup….totally decadent!
There are enough bicycle paths around Pontorson to keep you busy for several days, so if you plan on coming here, be sure you stay for at least two, preferably three days. Rates for the rooms at Villa Mons include Tomoko’s breakfast and run from 95-115Euro during the busy season.
Symphonie des Sens in Rennes
Very rarely can you return to a place that holds great memories and not be disappointed that things have changed. I wondered if my return visit to Symphonie des Sens would provide the same great experience as my first visit. I’m happy to report that my stay this year was as great as my original visit, and so Symphonie des Sens is the first repeat winner on my Special Places to Stay annual list. Rennes is definitely one of my favorite towns in Brittany, and Symphonie des Sens, my favorite place to stay. Despite the fact that Rennes is one of the largest towns in Brittany, there are very few B&B’s in town, making Symphonie des Sens quite a popular place. There are only 4 rooms and one apartment, and prices range from 185Euro for 2 for the apartment to 115-123Euro for the rooms. The rooms are typically small, but are furnished with the highest quality bed linen and towels.
Located in the center of Rennes’ Old Town on the Rue du Chapitre, the B&B is an easy walk/metro ride to almost any where in town. There are plenty of great restaurants within walking distance, including my favorite crepe restaurant almost next door.
The building that houses the B&B is one of the few to be spared in the Fire of December 23, 1720 that destroyed over 900 historic buildings in just 6 days. Great care was taken during the renovation of this building to preserve its character and charm. Just one look at the oak staircase to the bedrooms and you know that you are staying in a very special place. There is a large comfortable lounge and terrace for reading or an afternoon cocktail. There is no air conditioning, but there are large windows that provide good ventilation. Fabrice’s home made breakfasts are better than I remembered with fresh squeezed juice, yogurt, fresh fruit, crepes, croissants and baguette, fresh Brittany butter and jams and great coffee. If you are lucky enough to be here on Saturday morning, the Rennes market is one of the largest in France and is one of my all-time favorites!
That’s it for my 2014 list of Special Places To Stay. I hope that you think about planning a trip to Normandy and Brittany this year, and if you do, I hope you take a look at staying at one or more of these B&B’s and hotels. Each and every one of them brought me some of the best memories of my bicycling trip to Northern France, as well as friendships that I will cherish forever.
Best wishes for a great 2015!