Our recent 10-day road trip through France was one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences that seems almost unreal in retrospect.
We discovered so many beautiful new places along the way and got a real sense of the country beyond the pomp of Paris, Provence and the Côte d’Azur.
But for now I’m going to zoom in and focus on the intimate little seaside village of Étretat, in Normandy, which turned out to be one of the main highlights of our French road trip.
Tip: Étretat is just a 2-hour train ride from Paris, so even if you’re not road-tripping through France…
Famed for its dramatic chalk and limestone white cliffs and sprawling pebble beaches, Étretat began life as a fishing village but found itself en vogue when prosperous Parisians flocked to the area during La Belle Époque in search of sun, sea and bonhomie.
The stately holiday villas they built in their wake remain today, as does the aloof sense of style and grace.
Though comparable, Étretat is much more modest than the more famous resorts found in the south of France. None of those ‘new money’ types here, darling!
It reminded me of the sort of quaint little village that Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot might be called to in old Agatha Christie detective novels. Its medieval half-timber houses and manicured gardens lending it a sense of timelessness.
As well as the dapper dandies and wasp-waisted salonnières from Paris, Étretat also attracted some of France’s most famous Impressionist artists.
Big names included Camille Corot, Eugène Boudin, Gustave Courbet and, most famously of all, Claude Monet.
Monet lived at Étretat with his would-be wife Camille Doncieux and it was here that he painted some of his most iconic works.
From the iconic white cliffs to the must-see gardens of Etretat, here are the best things to do in Etretat.
Fix your hair, throw on your glad rags and take a stroll along Étretat’s raison d’etre: the promenade.
Stop for an apéritif (absinthe, anyone?) at one of the water-facing cafés or find a spot on the white-pebble beach to admire the cliffs and enjoy a moment of contemplation.
If you really want to get into the spirit, then I suggest reciting a few verses of poetry, the fevered mutterings of femme fatales like Anna de Noailles…
From mundane tasks and cares I languish to be free,
Oh to be living now amidst the pent-up might
Of storm and spray, inhale the odour of the sea,
And breathe the morning air that silences the night.Anna de Noailles, Le Coeur innombrable, 1901
You have arrived.
Proof that nature can be sculpted to create art as well as architecture, the Alice in Wonderland-esque ‘Gardens of Étretat’ are an absolute must-visit for anyone traveling through or anywhere near Normandy.
Created by vanguard landscape icon Alexandre Grivko, who wanted to “demonstrate new architectural methods in the art of landscaping”, this is a bonafide modern art gallery.
As you enter this mystical world, you slowly feel the real world slip away.
Perched atop Étretat’s iconic Amont cliffs, the property was once home to French actress Madame Thébault, who often invited her friend Claude Monet to come and paint in the grounds.
As well as the transient spaces, flourishing plants and sweeping views over the cliffs below, the gardens also host a permanent and non-permanent collection of sculptures from some of Europe’s most progressive artists.
Each sculpture adds a unique sense of character to the gardens, and you can’t help but feel like a child as you explore the different worlds they evoke.
These singular gardens were inspired “by neo-futuristic ideas and the seacoast of Normandy, its cragged outlines and the movement of waves crashing against the shores.”
Our visit to Les Jardins d’Étretat was the highlight of our time in France (Rosana almost cried she loved it so much), and I would say they most definitely warrant a visit to Étretat in their own right.
Find out more and get your tickets (just €12.50 in summer or €9.70 in winter) at www.etretatgarden.fr.
The white cliffs of Étretat mirror the cliffs of Dover on the other side of the English Channel. I didn’t find it difficult to imagine the crack and crumble of them departing from each other, as Britain drifted off to began its long battle for independence from Europe.
Here’s how to do it:
1. I would suggest starting your clifftop hike by heading left as you face the sea and walking towards the iconic Porte d’Aval. There’s an easy-to-follow path that hugs the cliffs and offers dizzying views over the Porte d’Aval arch and L’Aiguille (needle) rock formations below.
2. Walk as far as the Chemin Des Douaniers, a craggy outcrop offering spectacular views back over the arch and needle from the other side.
3. Then stroll back towards Étretat, then along the waterfront and up the steps to the clifftop path of Porte d’Amont. This is where you’ll find the Chappelle Notre-Dame de la Garde, as well as views over Porte d’Amont.
Tip: Once you get to the top you can stop to catch your breath and enjoy the views, before heading into the Gardens d’Etretat (the entrance is right at the top of the path).
Étretat’s historic core is a petit but grand affair, a marvel of half-timber houses and charming little fishermen’s cottages. Climbing vines and birdbaths.
Peruse the old market hall on the Place Foch and pause for thought at one of the many cutesy cafés and crêperies. Rummage through the boutique stores and hunt for treasure in the many art galleries and antique shops.Etretat is becoming more and more amazing. Now is the real moment: the beach with all its fine boats; it is superb, and I am enraged not to be more skillful in rendering all this. I would need two hands and hundreds of canvases. –Claude Monet
Give the wine a break and treat your tastebuds to a few jars of Normandy’s famous ‘cidre’ (cider).
The region’s fermented apple juice has been relied on to quench locals’ thirst for centuries – possibly even before the time of JC and co.
There are countless orchards and producers to explore, but the main thing to keep in mind is that there are three types of French cider: ‘cidre doux’ (sweet cider), demi-sec (semi-sweet) and, my favourite, ‘cidre brut’ (dry cider).
La Marie Antoinette is the undisputed best restaurant in Étretat and receives stellar reviews from all who visit.
Located mere footsteps from the beach, it’s an obvious and indulgent place in which to explore the region’s excellent ‘fruits de mer’ (seafood), fine wines and, of course, cheese.
Ask the friendly staff for recommendations.
It’s not the cheapest place in town and you’ll need at least €50 per head to eat well. But, then, this is about decadence, l’art de vivre (the art of living), not abstinence or moderation.
Tip: Whether here or elsewhere, be sure to dig into Normandy’s big four cheeses from the regions of Pont-l’Évêque, Livarot, Neufchâtel and Camembert.
How to get to Étretat
Nearest airport: The nearest airport for Etretat is Le Havre. Then it’s a 30-minute drive to Etretat (maybe worth renting your own car).
Car/ferry from UK: If you’re travelling to Etretat from the UK, then I would imagine you are driving in your own car. The ferry routes Portsmouth to Caen or Dover to Calais. Get your tickets here.
Rental car: There’s so much to see in and around Normandy that I would highly suggest renting a car with Discover Car Hire and touring as much as the region as possible. We were amazed by how easy and enjoyable it was to drive around France, even if the tolls were a bit annoying.
Train/bus: If you’re planning on visiting Etretat from Paris (around two hours to Le Havre train station) or other parts of France, then I recommend finding the cheapest and fastest tickets with Omio.
When to go to Étretat and how long to stay: A lot of people travel to Étretat for the day from Paris (definitely consider this tour if that’s your plan), but I would argue that I did isn’t enough. We stayed for two nights, but I definitely felt e needed more time. I’d recommended staying for three nights if possible, so you have two full days to explore.
Where to stay in Étretat:
We stayed at the seriously cool Detective Hotel, a small boutique inspired by old detective novels and films like Poirot, Columbo, Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Magnum PI and Tintin (each room is dedicated to specific detective).
Domaine Saint Clair – Le Donjon Hotel is a beautiful 3-star hotel housed in one of the opulent seaside villas built in the Belle Époque. This is definitely where I’d like to stay next time I visit! Check rates and availability here.
Dormy House is a great 3-star option with impressive panoramic views of the cliffs. It sits in four hectares of gardens and boasts its own 18-hole golf course. We walked through the grounds on our way to the cliffs and I imagined it was a 4/5-star luxury place, but it actually offers outstanding value for money and has great reviews. Check rates and availability here.
Appartement La Belle Vue sleeps up to six people and is located right on the beach. A great option if you’re travelling as a family or group, or if you simply want a whole apartment to yourself. Check rates and availability, and find more apartments in Etretat here.