Postcard from Noirmoutier, a Magical French Isle
The first things you notice when you arrive on Noirmoutier Island are the squawking of seagulls in the air, the trilling of bells on bicycles that monopolise the island and the sight of bright blue skies over a sparkling sea.
I'm here for two weeks and after a six-month-long Parisian winter, can't wait to soak my soul in sunshine, saltwater and sand between my toes. But there's so much more to this island than just sun-drenched beaches.
From the forest fringing the sea, to whitewashed cabines (changing huts) nestled into the sandy beaches, marchés full of local produce, the ancient church and castle, waffles and crêpes perfuming a bustling village, the narrow harbour bobbing with boats of all sizes and lavender, rose and sky-blue coloured shutters adorning tiny maisons fronted by hydrangeas and hollyhocks ... it's a non-stop feast for the senses.
THE FOOD | LA CUISINE
POTATO LOVE : The most moreish potatoes I've ever eaten in my life come from Noirmoutier. Small, luscious, creamy and we don't leave the island without buying three wooden crates of them!
SALT LOVE : The island is famous for it's salt marshes producing fleur de sel which, added to it's potatoes, only makes them more scrumptious.
SEAFOOD LOVE : A seafood smorgasbord, the island has the cheapest oysters I've seen yet, mussels (the most tasty moules et frîtes I've ever eaten are here), spider crabs, endless varieties of fish including sardines, plus langoustines and prawns.
FRENCH CUISINE LOVE : We feast twice a day on typical French fare. A starter of perhaps charcuterie or smoked salmon alongside a tomato or cucumber salad, a main of seafood on a bed of vegetable-laden rice with a bechamel sauce, a variety of french cheeses and green salad, and lastly a dessert such as crème brulée or tart tatin. All washed down with unlimited french rosé, red or white wine!
One night we dine tête-a-tête by the wharf at Restaurant le 11 de Noirmoutier, enjoying chilled glasses of muscadet wine, rillettes of tuna, tiny local potatoes and creme brulée while the seagulls squawked overhead and the sun dipped into a violet sky.
LOCAL CUISINE LOVE : Flan maraîchin a local custard tart fragrant with vanilla that I became obsessed with and have been trying to replicate back in Paris! Le tourteau a "turtle" shaped cake-like bread the size of your hand, lightly scorched on the top to create a crispy exterior, with a soft, lightly sweet and luscious interior slightly tangy with chévre. Fabulous for breakfast alongside tea or an espresso.
THE SHOPPING | LE SHOPPING
Every day I cycle with my Frenchman to the little village just five minutes' bike ride from the beach. We either go early to sip quietly on coffees by the harbourside at Cafe Jean Bart, or later in the morning to explore the marché, the main rue in the village, or little boutiques hidden amongst the tiny laneways.
BOOKSHOP LOVE : Librairie trait d'Union Noirmoutier a bookstore with a difference; an English section, an outdoor garden where gourmet tea and coffee is served, and rack after rack of delightful giftcards, notebooks and handmade book pouches in brightly patterned cottons.
MARKET LOVE : Le marché, open three mornings a week and a visual feast of straw market bags, cotton sundresses, island flowers, vegetables, fruits, salt produced by the island for bath or cooking, an abundance of seafood and all manner of french tarts, pastries and cakes.
VILLAGE LOVE : The Grande Rue where all the action is; waffle shops, crêperies, boutiques brimming with island-style fashion, traditional french market bags, all manner of "NO" stamped homewares (the shortform for the island's name in the boating industry) and gourmet foodie havens. I buy a Tunisian cotton striped fouta as my new beach towel and my kind Frenchman buys me my first proper Saint James marinière, a blue and white striped sweater originally designed for the French Navy and now iconic around the world.
THE SIGHTS | LA VUE
This ancient island was originally inhabited by Celts before monks arrived in the fifth century building monasteries, the ruins of which still exist. We cycle all over the northern part of the island, past potato fields, salt marshes, wild blackberry bushes laden with fruit, an ancient monastery and into the more hilly coastal areas overlooking boat harbours and tiny curving beaches.
We stroll through littoral forest lining the beaches, catching glimpses of mainland France in the distance. I swim from the beach at Plage des Dames to the estacade (wharf) every day, a 500m round trip that helps to burn off lunch and dinner! We walk along a violet-hued beach at sunset, around 10.30pm, empty except for the odd stand-up-paddleboarder or windsurfer returning to shore.
One afternoon, we take a boat to a petite island half an hour's boat ride away, Île du Pilier, where we picnic on coleslaw, baguettes, cheese and fruit under a hot sun before plunging sun-kissed bodies into crystal clear waters so fresh it feels like a facial on my body!