Home > Destinations > Racing the tide to the French island of Ile de Noirmoutier?

Racing the tide to the French island of Ile de Noirmoutier?

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Have you ever built up an expectation of how a place will look, only to find it completely different when you arrive?  I’m sure most travellers will have had this experience at one time or another.  We certainly did when we drove a motorhome across the Passage du Gois and onto the Ile de Noirmoutier.

To the uninitiated – a word that makes sense once you’ve been – Ile de Noirmoutier is an island just off the mainland of France,  west of Nantes.  While the island is beautiful, the access to the island is a feature and a compelling reason to go if you want to experience something a little different on a road trip. 

As avid watchers of the Tour de France each year, we like to use their ‘tour map’ to identify new places in France that we haven’t been to before. Each year, the roads travelled by the cyclists resemble a list of where we’ve been, and where we’ve yet to go. We get excited when we recognise a town we’ve been to and quickly make a note of new ones to visit in the future. This is how we came to know about the island.

In 2011 the Tour de France commenced its annual campaign at Ile de Noirmoutier and the Passage du Gois. It returned again in 2023 mid-stage.

More reading >> Planning a trip to follow the Tour de France?  Read our comprehensive guide to following the Tour de France in a motorhome.

Passage du Gois

On one end of the island, there is a conventional bridge allowing access to the island at Barbâtre, but the centuries-old causeway, the Passage du Gois, draws all the attention. Thousands of tourists come here each year to experience the unique drive to the island.  A mix of the older cobblestones that once lined the entire four-kilometre passage meets with newer road surfaces, now used to repair deteriorating cobbles.

The road allows vehicular traffic to run the gauntlet against the tide, making their way to and from the island between the two high tides that completely submerge it twice a day.

On the mainland, large signs carry all the information you need to ensure a safe passage. Ignore this at your peril. If you mistime your run or ignore the advice, you’ll need one of the safety towers. If you are in a vehicle, you’ll also need exceptional insurance should your car get stuck. Actually, most of us would agree that no insurance company would ever cover you for damage incurred here.

While the general advice might be that driving about 1-1.5 hours either side of low tide might be acceptable, take the guesswork and stress out of it by using the information on the signs and chatting to those around you.

The first of many warning signs on the mainland
The first of many warning signs on the mainland

 These signs give clear information relating to the times of the tides.

Warning signs for passage du gois
These signs are located at the entry to the passage crossing
Warning signs for passage du gois
There are no excuses for getting caught. These signs are prominent.

You can see that the height of the road offers no resistance to an incoming tide.

Cars crossing the passage du gois
Cars crossing the passage

(click on full screen to enlarge)

At low tide, locals in their gum boots and waders come out in droves to hunt for shellfish on the exposed mud flats.

Shellfish hunting and collecting near Passage du Gois
Shellfish hunting and collecting

They even park their cars on the mud flats too.  Increases the need to watch the tide!!

Parking the cars on the mud flats.
Parking the cars on the mud flats.

All of this is done with an ever-watchful eye on the incoming tide.  A tide that comes in from all directions can easily sneak up behind you, blocking your exit back to the road.  It’s part relaxation, part adventure.

Don’t get caught

At strategic points along the causeway (although not nearly as many as you might hope for if you need them) are safety towers. These are built to provide refuge for unsuspecting people who find that the tide has indeed caught them unawares. Once you are up here it’s a long wait for the tide to recede.

Safety tower on the Passage du Gois
One of the safety towers along the passage

As we were driving across here in a motorhome, we read the signs – all of them – and talked to locals to ensure it was safe enough to cross the causeway.

What’s on the island?

What the island lacks in size (it’s only 20km long and 7km wide), it makes up for with great beaches, activities, and industries that thrive on the sea. Fishing and sea salt production are two of the largest industries here. Some of the best sea salts come from this region and further up on the Normandy coast.

Each year, the lure of warmer temperatures, sun and sand turn the island into a haven for holidaying families, particularly those coming from England.  It is a a reasonably simple trip across on a ferry from Portsmouth to St Malo.  The island is then a three-hour drive south.

Are we really in France?

On first sight of the island’s buildings,  I felt the short drive over had taken us away from France altogether.  The whitewashed walls and terracotta tiled roofs that filled the landscape conjured up images of Portugal and Spain.  Clearly, its proximity to these countries has been an influence. 

The main city on the island is Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, where cobbled streets give an air of days gone by. Finally, I feel like we are back in France.

There are many wonderful places to eat here, many as you can imagine specialising in fresh seafood.

Breton Galette
Not a huge fan of seafood, so had a local sensation – the Breton Galette

The city is also home to the Chateau de Noirmoutier, built in the 12th century.  It’s worth a visit, even if just for the view from its bell tower.

The Chateau Noirmoutier - visiting Ile de Noirmoutier
The Chateau de Noirmoutier

How do you get here?

Visiting Ile de Noirmoutier is straightforward.  Visitors to the region can fly or catch the TGV to nearby Nantes and hire a car for the short drive.  With a deep-berth marina, the island offers a safe place to moor visiting boats.  The west coast of France is also an incredible place to drive, with many interesting towns in the area.  This was our preferred approach.

Once on the island, public transport is easily accessible. Walking and cycling are also easy, and cycling is a regular method of getting around.

With a number of secluded beaches dotted around the island and quick access to the mainland, it’s no wonder it is a destination for those who crave the sand between their toes on their holidays.

 

Book your flight: Flights are an important part of travel and we’re always looking for the best deals. If you can travel mid-week and be flexible, you’ll often find great deals on flights. We also use Skyscanner and Expedia for flight bookings. Dollar Flight Club is a great resource for getting special advance offers and even error fares directly to your inbox.

Book your accommodation: We all love to stay in different places, from the comfort of a self-contained apartment or house to a resort or luxury hotel. Sometimes we need something quick, easy and comfortable for an overnight stay. 

We use all of the following online booking portals depending on where we want to stay and the type of accommodation we are looking for.

  • VRBO and Stayz (in Australia) – great for holiday rentals of more than seven days and often have discounts for longer periods.
  • Booking.com and Expedia – two of our favourites due to their cancellation and refund policies.
  • Trip Advisor – perfect for getting reviews, checking availability and pricing comparisons all in one place.

Book your rental car or motorhome: We always use Discover Rental Cars anywhere in the world for car hire. Anywhere Campers is our preferred motorhome hiring company in Europe, especially if you want to be able to pickup and drop off at different locations (even countries) in Europe. If you’d like to buy your own motorhome in France, we use and recommend France Motorhome Sales. Use our code FMS1022 or tell John we sent you!

Book a tour:  We travel independently, but when we do book we book them with reputable companies who have a great cancellation and refund policy. If you are looking for advance tickets to an attraction, group or private tours, we use and recommend Get Your Guide and Viator. Both have a great range of tours and flexible cancellation policies. If you are looking to do a food tour in Europe, we also recommend Eating Europe Tours.

Be covered: We always travel with travel insurance. We did it before the pandemic and it’s even more important for us to do so now. We use Cover-More in Australia. SafetyWing has great rates for travellers who are away from home for extended periods. 

Be ready: Make sure you pack a few essentials: universal adaptorpower bank and noise-cancelling headphones

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