Why would anyone in her right mind travel during the summer? Aside from the obvious interest of beautiful, warm weather, and the kids being out of school, I just do not understand the appeal of vacationing during peak season. As you know, I have done a lot of traveling these last few months before tourist season and I would say the most gratifying lesson I learned is that traveling out of season is like crossing Mont St. Michel’s bay at low-tide: a walk in the park, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphors and similes. Take into account that the tide here can rise at 18 feet per second and that the bay is surrounded by quicksand and disorienting fog. Sort of like any heavily visited tourist destination in the summer. Okay, I’ll stop. But remember, the #1 travel tip on my growing list will always be this: Go when the “tide” is low.
Kevin and I spent one day in Mont St. Michel, arriving from Paris in time for lunch, a walk around the whole island (it has one road, if that tells you anything about its size) and an afternoon horseback ride from the stable/hostel where we stayed for the night. Here are my tips:
1. Go when the “tide” is low. (I promised it’s my #1.) Once among the top four pilgrimage sites in Christendom, this island abbey now attracts 3.5 million tourists per year. That’s why Rick Steves (guide = $1.60 NEW for last year’s perfectly useful version!) repeatedly recommended things like arriving before 11:00 am or after 4:00 pm and taking a detour path along the ramparts instead of hiking the main drag up to the abbey. We arrived right at noon and hit only minimal foot traffic on the Grande Rue. We popped into an old hotel/restaurant for a traditional omelet and a pizza that didn’t break the bank before continuing up to the abbey itself and, once there, didn’t have to wait in any line to get tickets (reduced for students, free with a French social security card). The date was Monday, May 16. Take note.
2. If you see how hard the cooks beat the eggs at La Mère Poulard, you might understand why the traditional omelet costs 25 euros, but continue up the road for a less expensive taste. I can’t speak for the deliciousness of Madame Poulard’s famous omelets since I didn’t try one. We walked a little farther to L’Auberge St. Pierre, where we tasted the typical souffle-style omelet for 8 euros, followed by a seafood pizza. It turned out to be a good idea to try something new at such a reasonable price because (to be honest) the omelet wasn’t that extraordinary.
3. Mont St. Michel is full of secrets and mystery and even today is the cause of rivalries. It might be most accurate to say that the Mount is currently located in Normandy. The subject of much debate between the Normans and the Bretons (Brittany is just west of the Couesnon river), the abbey has been claimed by both peoples for more than a thousand years. Even the river can’t seem to make up its mind: apparently it changed its course throughout the centuries, and currently runs west. Locals say that “the Couesnon in its madness put the Mount in Normandy.” In any case, the fog makes it hard to see if the abbey touches land at all. When we arrived, the whole island seemed to be floating on the horizon.
4. You can stay in the barn for 10 euros, but a horseback ride will cost you 42. We decided to stay at La Tanière, a centre equestre located between Pontorson (the closest train station to Mont St. Michel) and the Mount itself. It’s not a bad deal if you don’t mind sleeping in a sparse gîte adjacent to the stalls. Kevin and I don’t mind the smell of horses, and there was a plethora of warm blankets to snuggle under, but bring your own towel and shower sandals (both available at the local supermarket…don’t ask how we know). Aside from one crazy old racist Frenchman (who talked our ears off about DSK, the decline of traditional French values, and the imminent Muslim appropriation of France), we had the place to ourselves, including a nice little kitchen.
The horseback ride was fine, but a little pricy for what it was: a straight shot from the barn (on slightly bitter horses) to the Mount, a photo-op in front of the Mount, and a return trip along the same trail. Kevin and I decided we were probably just a little bit spoiled by our Kentucky roots in this case. I’ll admit I envisioned galloping through the bay among the famous “salty sheep“…but the view upon approaching Mont St. Michel was stunning. I can’t complain. [Side note: we signed no liability waivers and didn’t even pay before the ride. My lawyer-father would be shocked!]
5. Finally, do a cartwheel on the soft, fine sand in front of the Mount. Take a picture. This is reason enough to go!