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

visiting ile de nourmoutier franceVisiting Ile de Noirmoutier

Have you ever built up an expectation of how a place will look, only to find it completely different when you arrive?  I’m quite sure that most travellers will have had this experience at one time or another.  We had this experience when visiting Ile de Noirmoutier on the west coast of France.

As avid watchers of the Tour de France each year, we like to use their “tour map” as a means of identifying 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.

In 2011, the Tour de France commenced its annual campaign here, at Ile de Noirmoutier and the Passage du Gois.

Planning a trip to follow the Tour de France?  Read our comprehensive guide to the Tour de France.

Where is it?

Ile de Noirmoutier is an island just off the mainland of France,  west of Nantes.  Whilst the island itself is beautiful, it is the access to the island that is a feature in itself.  At one end there is a conventional bridge providing easy access out to the island.

Passage du Gois

But it is the centuries-old causeway, the Passage du Gois,  that draws all the attention, with thousands of tourists coming here each year to experience the drive to the island.  A mix of the older cobblestones that once lined the entire 4km passage meets with newer road surfaces, now used to repair deteriorating cobbles.

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

On the mainland, large signs carry all the information that you will need to ensure a safe passage.  Ignore this at your peril or else you’ll find yourself in need of one of the safety towers.  If you are in a vehicle, you’ll also be in need of some exceptional insurance should your car get stuck.

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’s no excuses for getting caught. These signs are prominant.

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 their 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 and can quite easily sneak up behind you, blocking your exit back to the road.  It’s part relaxation, part adventure.

People do get caught!

At strategic points along the causeway (although not nearly as many as you might hope for if you find 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.  It’s a long wait for the tide to recede once you are up here too.

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

As we drove across here in a motorhome, we spent quite some time reading the sign and talking 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 it 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 comes 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 as though the 4km of causeway had taken us away from France and into the Mediterranean.  The whitewashed walls of the houses and the terracotta tiled roofs conjured up images of Portugal and Spain.  Clearly, its proximity to these countries has been an influence.  It definitely doesn’t look French.

The main city on the island is Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile, where cobbled streets give an air of days gone by, and 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 worthy of a visit, even if just for the view from its belltower.

The Chateau Noirmoutier - visiting Ile de Noirmoutier
The Chateau 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.  It is also easy to walk 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.

Visiting Ile de Noirmoutier is a great place to put on your French itinerary!

31 thoughts on “Racing the tide to the French island of Ile de Noirmoutier?”

  1. I’m French and I’ve never been there 😀 I know, I know… sometimes you travel so much that you don’t even know your own country! However I heard Noirmoutier was a great place and it’s definitely on my list of places to see in France!

  2. Tides are very important to consider! I’ll never forget a story when my friends decided to camp on the beach and never thought of it. They woke up to a 10″ water level in their tent and stuck on a tiny beach on south of France.

  3. Absolutely new place to me!!! I am tempted to visit just to have this low tide experience and pick shells. Thanks for the word of caution there about being caught up in the high tide.

  4. what a neat attraction. Never had to think about the tides when driving across a bridge! Certainly have to be cautious though, because standing on that tower for 6 hours waiting for the tide to recede would be awfully boring!

  5. That does look fun – though I’d prefer to try and avoid the race! I know people who have got stuck on the causeway out to lindisfarne over here…and it’s not a good situation to get into!

  6. I used to go there in the summer with my parents when I was a child. It’s a really awesome place when the weather is nice !!

  7. Wow I did not know about this place – sounds like quite an adventure when you have to tackle a potential incoming tide too! At least there are safety towers in case you do get stuck, but still as you say it could be a long wait until you can leave again!

  8. I’d love race the tide across the Passage du Gois – I’d never even hear of Ile de Noirmoutier, but it sounds fascinating. I don’t think I’d park my car on the mud flats, though. Are they crazy?

  9. I would totally love to go there and see if anyone got stuck, haha. Looks like it would be a great place to visit on a sunny day, but a gloomy one might be a little raw.

  10. I’m intrigued … so OK the tide comes in, you get caught and you can go up one of the ‘towers’. What happens to the car? I’d love to do it but I’d be nervous! Bravo to you for doing it in a Motor Home!

  11. I had never heard of Ile de Noirmoutier before, thanks for sharing! That’s really interesting that the French thought ahead to put safety towers up for anyone caught in high tide.

    That galette looks so delicious1

  12. I love low tides and at the same time I have a phobia since I experienced the tsunami in Phuket. Anyway, this looks like an epic journey.

  13. Omg, this looks like it would be such a thrill to do! I wonder how many people a year end up having to use those towers? I’d be triple checking everything before heading out on the road! lol

  14. I never heard of this island, despite many hours spent on the sofa watching the Tour of France, I should travel in France more! Nice discovery, thanks for sharing 🙂

  15. Oh wow, that’s really impressive. I had never heard of this place before and it’s amazing that you can drive your car this far up …

  16. Hi JoJo….it’s not a huge tide here so the car (if you are in one) will simply be covered by the tide. A lot of people have really small cars here so the tide would cover quite a bit. Virtually makes the car undriveable, not to mention what the salt would do to it’s internal parts. A lot of people walk out there though….leave their cars on the mainland, and then get caught. They are there for anyone who loses track of time and nature.

  17. That seems too much … I haven’t seen tides like this… it could be a bit scary… I was in a wood in the north of Iran when it was raining and it was an alarm of flood. We could see how the level of the river was rising … we left in time but it was a disaster and had some casualties

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