Cotentin Peninsula, France: A beautiful and overlooked coastal gateway

Savvier travellers know that just outside the dour-looking harbour city is a beguiling coastal landscape.

It's mid-June and the gardens of Chateau de Nacqueville are in full bloom. Sprays of rhododendrons and azaleas in a riot of pinks, reds, yellows and white are artfully arranged alongside ornamental trees, clumps of giant gunnera and exotic palms spread across vast undulating lawns.

A small bridge in the upper reaches of the park straddles a stream that cascades in a series of waterfalls, arum lilies and greenery down the main lawn to an historic drawbridge, a mirror-still lake, verdant fields and the English Channel beyond.

The drawbridge stands guard in front of an exquisite, fairytale-like manor house – dating back to 1510 and subsequently modified in the 18th and 19th centuries – framed by steep and dense woodlands that seem to wrap the estate in a cocoon of contentment.

With the sun breaking through clouds, causing the lawns to glisten after a sudden rain shower, the scenery is utterly bucolic and time, for one brief moment or two, appears to stand still.

All too often in this fast-paced world of ours, the destination is more important than the journey. We race from famous landmarks to iconic attractions with nary a thought for what's passing by the car window, mostly because it isn't, well, famous or iconic.

And like many time-poor Francophiles, I've driven around Normandy on urgent quests to see the region's best-known sights in the shortest amount of time: Mont Saint-Michel, the Bayeux Tapestry, D-Day beaches and Monet's wonderful gardens at Giverny.

This time, however, I'm determined to explore the Cotentin Peninsula, a beautiful yet often overlooked coastal gateway to France, at a much slower and more leisurely pace. It's a decision rewarded in spades.

The Cotentin, also known as the Cherbourg Peninsula, is perched on the country's northwest coast, fronting the English Channel on three sides and Brittany to its southwest.

Ferry-loads of tourists funnel into the major cross-channel port of Cherbourg each day, jump into rental cars, and just as quickly drive south to warmer, ritzier and more alluring climes.


Savvier travellers, on the other hand, know that just outside this somewhat dour-looking harbour city is a beguiling coastal landscape awash with glorious beaches, patchwork farmlands, historic chateaux and gardens, storied World War II history and delicious locally sourced seafood, cheeses and nectar-coloured cider.

The argument to drive west and south or east and south of Cherbourg is a moot one because you can do both in a couple of full days and still have time for a relaxed lunch in whichever direction you choose.

Head west and south and the names of pretty villages, near-empty roads and jaunty little ports roll off the tongue like butter on a freshly baked croissant: Urville-Nacqueville (home to the aforementioned chateau); Greville-Hague; Vauville; Biville, Flamanville and Surtainville – essentially ville after ville after ville.

The closer you keep to the coastline, the more beautiful the views. The peninsula's west coast is a necklace of long, pristine and almost deserted sand beaches, rising to lofty headlands like the one just south of the tiny port of Dielette.

Perched on top is the entirely unassuming Le Semaphore guest house which serves up a heart-starting cafe au lait with breathtaking views of the English Channel and coastline bathed in sunlight.

Head north from Dielette to the Jardin Botanique de Vauville, an extraordinary collection of semi-tropical gardens which are open to the public. Stop for lunch at Les Tamarins, by far the best restaurant in Vauville, with its breezy rooftop deck looking out to the channel.

The rest of the afternoon should be spent at Cap de la Hague, a spectacular peninsula with ancient granite cliffs, rugged coves and panoramic views of La Hague lighthouse as well as Alderney, Sark and Guernsey – three of five English-speaking Channel Islands off the Normandy coast.

The following day, head east and south for an entirely different experience. Widely billed as "the prettiest village in France", Barfleur is a charming fishing port and village on the Cotentin Peninsula's northeast coast, about 30 minutes' drive from Cherbourg.

Wander the quaint village and quays before tucking into a bowl of delicious wild mussels harvested just offshore.

The rest of the day should be devoted to the town of Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Utah Beach where US forces landed during the D-Day invasion that eventually led to the liberation of Europe.

The town is replete with military history and nostalgia from its excellent Airborne Museum telling the story of Operation Overlord to a somewhat disturbing life-size replica of an American paratrooper whose parachute was famously snagged on the church spire.

Utah Beach recalls the heroic landings with some beautiful memorials and American and French flags fluttering in the brisk sea breeze.

Not to say Cherbourg itself is bereft of attractions. The old port is pretty enough, albeit with touristy waterfront cafes and bars, and the acclaimed Cite de la Mer offers visits to a retired nuclear submarine and a first-rate Titanic exhibition.

The Cotentin Peninsula offers myriad accommodation options from rustic rural farmhouses to stately chateaux. One of the best is Bruce Castle at Brix, a 15-minute drive from Cherbourg, a replica of an 18th-century chateau filled with antiques and artworks.

Spacious well-appointed suites, a large, sun-filled drawing room, tranquil garden and linen-and-silver service create an elegant and relaxed haven after a busy day's sightseeing.

Given the peninsula's sylvan landscape, it's no surprise that good food lies at the heart of the Cotentin experience. The rich, fertile soil supports a thriving agricultural industry – especially dairy, fruit and vegetables – producing sensational cheeses, cider and calvados.

In Bricquebosq, a 20-minute drive south of Cherbourg, Cidrerie Le Pere Mahieu is the Cotentin's Big Apple, offering cellar door sales of lip-smacking cider and apple juice. It's off-the-beaten-track, tucked away in a maze of narrow country lanes, but definitely worth seeking out.

All along the Normandy coast, aquaculture is a rapidly growing economy delivering some of the plumpest and tastiest oysters and mussels in France.

Far from the rat race of Paris, Cotentin life moves at a decidedly unhurried pace, allowing visitors to slow down and smell the wild roses which seem to adorn every village square.

Back in the hugely romantic gardens of Chateau de Nacqueville, the only sound is of spring water gurgling in one of the fantasy grottos set amid the stands of colourful rhododendrons.

Later that evening, the estate owners invite us to a karaoke night at La Riviere, an unassuming roadside diner just beyond the gates of the chateau.

The place is packed to the rafters with locals enjoying a hearty meal, seemingly endless rounds of wine and cider, and belting out classic French songs with Gallic gusto.

The tumult of lusty singing and raucous laughter is such that passing motorists stop to see what's happening, pressing their noses to the cafe windows because there is no more room at the inn.

Our group rendition of Chanson d'Amour is a crowd-pleaser and I'm left with the lasting impression that the glorious Cotentin Peninsula isn't so quiet and reserved after all, and anyone who drives past it doesn't know what they are missing.



One of France's greatest cultural treasures, this magnificent island monastery is a 2½-hour drive south of Cherbourg. Arrive early to beat the tourist stampede up winding streets to the abbey's great halls and soaring church, then stay late to watch the sun set over the tidal bay.


Just to the west of Mont Saint-Michel lies the old walled port city of St Malo in Brittany, once a stronghold for swashbuckling pirates and bootlegging. Step back in time in the fascinating intra-muros ("inside the walls") district and 12th-century cathedral with its exquisite rose window.


Home to the iconic 68-metre tapestry depicting the 1066 Norman conquest of England, the city of Bayeux's timeworn cobbled streets, half-timbered houses, elegant botanical gardens and imposing Notre Dame cathedral is an outstanding showcase of history from medieval times to the heroic battles of World War II.


While the Cotentin's Sainte-Mere-Eglise and Utah Beach deliver a powerful World War II punch, the full D-Day landings experience lies further east along the Normandy coast on the windswept beaches of Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword. The nearby military cemeteries overlooking the channel are moving beyond words.


Board a ferry at Dielette or Barneville-Carteret, small ports on the Cotentin's west coast, and head for Guernsey, Alderney or Jersey – three whimsical Channel Islands offering a mix of British nostalgia, Gallic charm and glorious coastlines. Fun for a day out or a longer visit. and

Trip notes



Qantas operates daily flights from Sydney to London. Travel by train to Portsmouth or Poole and cross-Channel ferry to Cherbourg. See and

Alternatively, fly to Paris, then travel by train to Cherbourg. Various major operators offer rental cars from Cherbourg.


Chateau de Nacqueville,

Andrew Conway visited Normandy at his own expense.