France’s Chausey Is­lands

The vast tidal ranges of this ar­chi­pel­ago off Nor­mandy of­fer a con­stantly shift­ing and mag­i­cal seascape. Jane Dun­ford is en­chanted by the time­less car-free idyll

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It’s low tide in the Chausey Is­lands and our bare­foot group are peer­ing into a shal­low rock pool. Olivier, our guide, stoops to in­ves­ti­gate: it holds a green crab, some shrimps and a clam, which he prizes open and of­fers us raw. A land­scape of rocky out­crops, linked by vast swathes of rip­pled sand, stretches to the hori­zon. Bright green al­gae and clumps of darker sea­weed cling to gran­ite mounds – yet there’s some­thing oth­er­worldly about the scene. Mud and sand squelch be­tween our toes as we wan­der, cross­ing cold rivulets of sea­wa­ter and scram­bling over boul­ders. Olivier points out seabirds, lob­ster pots and the wooden posts used for grow­ing mus­sels. Just 11 miles from Granville on the Nor­mandy main­land, the Chausey Is­lands claim to be north­ern Europe’s largest ar­chi­pel­ago – at low tide, that is. These is­lands see some of the great­est tidal ranges in the world – up to 15 me­tres dur­ing a spring tide, af­ter a new or full moon. When the sea is out there are 365 islets – and with a guide you can walk be­tween some of them – but that drops to just 52 at high tide. The re­sult is a truly mes­meris­ing, ever-chang­ing panorama. The sea can rush in sur­pris­ingly fast, gush­ing along mul­ti­ple chan­nels, Olivier warns, so we head back to sandy Grande Grève beach (and our aban­doned shoes) in plenty of time. From Granville, the Chauseys can be reached via an hour-long ferry trip to Grande-Île, the largest and only in­hab­ited is­land, but we ar­rive by yacht with Franck Voi­die, a for­mer fish­er­man who now runs gourmet boat tours in the archipeago and fur­ther afield (€72 adult, €57 child, voi­dievoile.fr). An hour af­ter we set off from Granville, the is­lands ap­pear in the form of rocks on the hori­zon, some barely pierc­ing the wa­ter. Franck ex­pertly nav­i­gates the hid­den haz­ards (tales of ship­wrecks are rife here), and we moor in the chan­nel south of Grande-Île for a lunch of lo­cal oys­ters and whelks with chunks of baguette and white wine, be­fore tak­ing the dinghy to land. Just 1½km long and ½km wide, Grande-Île isn’t ex­actly grand – but it packs in a va­ri­ety of landscapes: six sandy beaches, cliffs, woods, mead­ows and gorse-cov­ered hills. We fol­low the coastal path, step­ping into a car-free, Enid Bly­ton world of wild flow­ers, cute cot­tages and a dra­matic light­house. Pheas­ants fly up from the un­der­growth, but­ter­flies flit by, and bird­song is the sound­track. These pro­tected is­lands are rich in marine life, home to dol­phins and seabird colonies. From the mid-19th cen­tury un­til the 1950s, up to 500 quar­ry­men lived here, min­ing the gran­ite that went to build ev­ery­thing from Mont Saint-Michel’s abbey to the pave­ments of Paris. To­day it’s home to just a hand­ful of per­ma­nent res­i­dents – al­though hordes of, mostly French, day-trip­pers de­scend in sum­mer, and at week­ends. Mid­week in late May, though, the magic is largely undis­turbed. The is­lands’ his­tory is one of ri­valry be­tween Eng­land and France: ly­ing just south of the Chan­nel is­lands, they’ve of­ten been a bat­tle­ground over the cen­turies. We wan­der past a fort built in 1859 by Napoleon. In the first world war it housed 300 Ger­man and Aus­trian pris­on­ers; to­day it’s home to a few fish­ing fam­i­lies. Fur­ther around the coast, one of the empty beaches is dom­i­nated by a 16th-cen­tury chateau, bought and re­stored by car man­u­fac­turer Louis Re­nault in the 1920s, now pri­vately owned. Af­ter a day on Grande-Île, most vis­i­tors head back to Granville, which is a pretty town, with its Chris­tian Dior mu­seum in the de­signer’s child­hood home, huge sandy beaches to the north and al­lur­ing cliff-backed re­sorts to the south. But for full im­mer­sion in the Chauseys’ charm, we stay the night. There are gites to rent – in­clud­ing the tiny school­house, which closed in 1971 (ville-granville.fr) and a con­verted farm (email: la.ferme.chausey@orange.fr, the last farmer left in 1990) – but the is­land’s one ho­tel, the eight-bed­room Hô­tel du Fort et des Îles, is a spe­cial place. Opened in 1897, it has been in the same fam­ily since 1928, when ad­ven­turer and sailor Lu­cien Ernouf fell in love with the Chauseys and bought the ho­tel (with help from his friend Re­nault) and started bring­ing vis­i­tors over by boat. To­day, his great grand-daugh­ter, Lau­rence, and hus­band Vin­cent are at the helm. The beau­ti­ful, sim­ple rooms in calm blue and white have a gen­tle nau­ti­cal theme. With gar­dens run­ning to the sea, it’s a place to linger un­der the palms, watch­ing that ever-chang­ing vista. It’s also a pop­u­lar lunch spot for day-trip­pers. The wood-pan­elled din­ing room has large windows on two sides, mak­ing the most of the views. Seafood, nat­u­rally, dom­i­nates the menu: lo­cal blue lob­ster is a spe­cial­ity, and the sar­dine ravi­oli, roasted camem­bert, and scal­lop cas­so­lette are all de­li­cious. There’s just one other restau­rant and bar on the is­land: Sound, right op­po­site, where the vibe is a lit­tle hip­per (it’s cur­rently look­ing for a band for the sum­mer sea­son), but I prefer the ho­tel’s old-school charm. Af­ter din­ner I take a walk alone. The tide is as high as I’ve seen it, wa­ter lap­ping de­ter­minedly at the shore. It may be the wine, but there’s some­thing ethe­real about the night, a strange still­ness in the air. The 19th-cen­tury chapel looks like a 2D cut-out, moon­lit against a star-stud­ded sky. There’s no one else around. All is quiet, bar the eter­nal mo­tion of the dark, dark wa­ter, the world be­neath it a closely guarded se­cret. For now. • The trip was pro­vided by the Nor­mandy Tourist Board (nor­mandie-tourisme.fr). Cross­ings from Portsmouth to Cher­bourg were pro­vided by Brit­tany Fer­ries (brit­tany­fer­ries.co.uk, three-hour fastcraft from May to Septem­ber from £238 re­turn for a car and two peo­ple). Hô­tel du Fort et des Îles (ho­tel-chausey.com) is open April-Oc­to­ber, dou­bles from €79 B&B, plus ei­ther €39pp half-board or €59pp full-board

Stay­ing power Hô­tel du Fort et des Îles has been run by one fam­ily since 1928

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