With three mighty long-distance routes – La Loire à Vélo, La Vélodyssée and La Vélo Francette – the Atlantic Loire Valley region boasts more than 1,700 miles of cycle paths. A number follow stretches of the Vendée department’s sublime seaboard, and meander around its islands. Here are six routes that are sure to whet any visitor’s appetite for exploring north-west France on two wheels.
1. Noirmoutier circuits
Accessed along a paved causeway, the tidal isle of Noirmoutier is famed for the mimosa trees found amid its superb sandy beaches, salt marshes and oak forests.
Three designated riding loops navigate the isle’s varied terrain – with the most central circuit also yielding such quaint villages as windmill-speckled La Guérinière. The cycle routes can be completed in one day or, if you prefer, at a more leisurely pace over successive days.
Noirmoutier is a three-hour drive from Saint-Malo’s ferry port, accessible via Brittany Ferries – allowing travellers to easily get to north-western France in the comfort and safety of their own car.
2. The Jade Coast
Around a third of La Vélodyssée, France’s longest cycle route at more than 745 miles, is given over to the Atlantic Loire Valley region. South of Nantes (get there by train from Saint-Malo’s ferry port, via Rennes) and the Loire estuary, few trails are prettier than those tracing the 27-mile Jade Coast. Here, between Saint-Brevin-les-Pins and Bouin, riders will find rocky seascapes, broad Blue Flag shores, secret coves, traditional harbours and even the occasional bourgeois villa to admire.
Dismount on Pointe Saint-Gildas, a wild headland affording fine estuary views, and look out for pêcheries: spindly little huts perched on pontoons to enable fishing with poles. The many charming resort towns, including Pornic, work well as bases thanks to their lively, strollable streets, seafood bistros and patisseries – this corner of France is the home of brioche. Thinking of seafood, the local specialties include sardines, anchovies, oysters and mussels.
3. Ducey-les-Chéris to Mont-Saint-Michel
Despite being so close to Britain, Normandy’s pastoral scenery can make it feel like another world. A vast network of backroads and tracks combine to make the region highly enjoyable when experienced from the saddle – including this section of the well-signposted Vélomaritime cycle route which takes in the area’s most spectacular landmark, Mont-Saint-Michel.
From the town of Ducey-les-Chéris, you’ll follow lanes with little traffic through woods, arable pastures and sleepy villages – vintage rural France, in other words.
After a few hours and possibly a picnic, the Unesco-listed Mont-Saint-Michel will appear, with that marvellous, abbey-topped citadel. Out on the tidal island, the restaurant La Ferme St Michel majors in fresh, local products – think roasted apple with camembert and cacouyard or terrine of salt-meadow lamb.
Rejuvenated? Then either continue onwards for 42 miles along the Vélomaritime past swimmable coves to reach Brittany Ferries’ port of Saint-Malo (in Brittany), or turn back and spend two days pedalling beside bocage-hedgerow landscapes north to Cherbourg.
4. Longues to Arromanches
East of Cherbourg’s ferry port, the Vélomaritime route descends the Cotentin peninsula’s gorgeous reaches and passes all five of Normandy’s D-day landing beaches – offering a chance to combine cycling with fascinating, vital history.
The five-mile route follows greenways from Longues-sur-Mer, crossing the cliffs above Gold beach to Arromanches-les-Bains. As it’s a short ride, there’s plenty of time to stop and take in the views whenever you like. The German battery at Longues remains well preserved, and has a visitor centre, while the British-built mulberry harbour at Arromanches also survives and houses a museum.
You’ll find restaurants, too: the Cotentin is known for salt-meadow lamb while, what with this being Normandy’s calvados department, apple and pear brandies are guaranteed to be in good supply. It’s easy to explore the other D-day beaches en route as you pedal on toward the ferry port of Caen.
5. The Nantes-Brest canal
La Vélodyssée – France’s portion of the EuroVelo 1 route – starts at Roscoff, a port served by ferries from Plymouth, and takes in part of the glorious Nantes-Brest canal. The two meet just south of Carhaix-Plouguer and the partnership lasts for around 162 miles.
Perfect for fun-filled family day trips by bike, the canal’s towpath promises a steady, gentle diet of barges, woodland, lakes, and locks garlanded with flowers.
Especially photogenic is the steep-sided Blavet Valley, thanks chiefly to lush vegetation and imposing lock-keepers’ buildings.
Kids too young to ride could perch in child seats, or you might consider hiring tandem bikes.
At more than 124 miles and mostly confined to quiet roads or greenways, it’s ideal for cycling enthusiasts or families with energetic teenagers. The best section comes after Malestroit, when you’ll cross the Landes de Lanvaux’s high, open heathland riding on smooth paths.
Before that, close to Mauron, the trail fringes the Forest of Brocéliande, whose Arthurian-legend locations include the Valley of No Return, the Golden Tree and – supposedly – Merlin’s Tomb, all possible diversions.
It’s easy to pitch up along the way at pretty campsites such as Brocéliande’s Camping Merlin l’Enchanteur, where two swimming pools (one for kids) await.
Four days is the typical Route 3 duration, but many go slow and take a week.
From Questembert, trains can have you back on Saint-Malo’s beaches in a little more than two hours. The lungfuls of fresh air will continue during the ferry home too, what with so much open space both inside and out on deck.
Book your journey to north-western France at brittany-ferries.co.uk