The grand finale: Mont Saint Michel

For our final trip in France, Colin and I went to Mont Saint Michel. We didn’t intentionally plan for this to be our last trip, but we’d heard that Mont Saint Michel is overwhelmed by tourists year-round, “except maybe December or January,” according to our landlady. December was busy with travel to Belgium, Marseille, Carcassonne, and Spain, so January it was! In hindsight, saving Mont Saint Michel for last was the best decision we could have made because it was one of my favorite places ever. (Tied with the Alps, I think.) We definitely ended this yearlong adventure on a high note.

Anyway, the trip was magical, but we almost did it all wrong. When we first started talking about Mont Saint Michel many months ago, I imagined doing it as a day trip from Paris, simply because that’s how other people I knew had done it. There are a million tour buses that will drive you north from Paris early in the morning, drop you off for the afternoon, and then drive you back in the evening. (It’s a 3-4 hour trip.) Then we talked to Colin’s parents, who had gone to Mont Saint Michel 20+ years ago, and they mentioned that they’d stayed overnight on the island.

“That’s an option??” Colin and I waggled our eyebrows at each other, communicating in our silent, married-couple way that we were sold on the idea.

It was really a no-brainer. We had done a similar thing when we went to Bruges, Belgium, which is a super-cute but touristy village outside of Brussels. We loved the quietness of having the town to ourselves for one evening and morning. Imagining that same feeling on an isolated tidal island convinced us—we had to stay overnight at Mont Saint Michel.

Many of the hotels for the Mont are actually on the mainland, but – because early January is a profoundly unpopular time to visit – I quickly found THE BEST place to stay on the island itself. The B&B La Tête Noire is the oldest house on the island, dating back to the 14th century. Its owners, Jean and Inès, rent a room to guests, and the experience is almost too magical for words. The house is charming and very, very old. The front door leads to the main street; the back door to the ramparts. The guest room window looks directly onto the bay. Breakfast is delicious (Jean didn’t blink an eye when Colin drank two pots of coffee). We may have planned the dates of our trip specifically around the B&B’s availability, and I’m not at all ashamed to admit that. In fact, I encourage you to do the same.

La Tête Noire is just behind the tree on the right in this photo 🙂
View from La Tête Noire

The other nice thing about staying overnight is that you can take the train instead of a tour bus. On the way north, we took the TGV (high-speed train) to Rennes and then a dedicated bus to Mont Saint Michel. The whole trip took less than three hours and was incredibly easy—the buses are timed to the trains from Paris, so you just follow signs to the adjacent bus station (gare routière) and look for the platform for the bus to Mont Saint Michel. (Hint: It’ll be the one with a bunch of other camera-wielding tourists.) On the way back, we took a cheaper local train through Villedieu-les-Poêles, but it was similarly easy.

And then you’re there. The buses drop you off near the bridge to the island, and while you could take a shuttle bus across, you absolutely should not because the walk is one of the best parts. The views from the bridge are stunning. The abbey of Mont Saint Michel rises seamlessly out of the rock, which itself rises seamlessly out of the sea. I’ve never seen such attractive mud flats.

It’s worth mentioning that there are three paths you can take from the bus station to the bay bridge. While all are nice (yes, we walked them all!), I recommend heading west (the direction the bus will be facing) and taking the path less traveled along the banks of the Couesnon river. The other two take you either through the tiny town or along a wide pedestrian path. All three converge at the Couesnon dam and continue across the bridge. The walk takes about 45 minutes, unless of course you stop every few feet to take another photo… which you will, so probably just count on an hour.

As if you needed it, here’s another reason you should stay overnight: you need to see both high tide and low tide. When we were there, low tide was mid-afternoon and high tide was in the morning and at night. (The tourist office website has tide charts plus a ton of other helpful info.) In the winter, the sun doesn’t rise until nearly 9:00 at Mont Saint Michel, so we got to see high tide and sunrise at the same time.

High tide just before sunrise, taken from La Tête Noire

Anyway, we spent that first afternoon just wandering around the island, exploring every narrow road and viewpoint and reveling over the fact that there were hardly any other tourists there. January for the win! The next morning, after a leisurely breakfast at our B&B, we wandered over to the abbey, where we spent at least two hours. While you could theoretically do Mont Saint Michel as a day trip, now that I’ve been there, I strongly recommend that you don’t. The island and abbey are so breathtaking that I can’t imagine rushing through.

The abbey’s shadow

The only negative thing I have to say about Mont Saint Michel – and it’s a teeny tiny thing – is that the food options are not great. Particularly in January when many of the restaurants were closed, our only options were mediocre and overpriced. That was disappointing but not surprising, given how many millions of tourists come through, mostly on day trips, every year.

In any case, Mont Saint Michel is now one of my very favorite places on earth, and if you ever find yourself in this corner of the world, you need to go. Just do it. Walk the bridge. Spend the night. And then you, too, will understand how I just wrote a 1,000-word, 11-photo blog post that still fails to capture how breathtaking this place is.

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