Ille de Noirmoutier by Katy Freeborough
If you're staying at one of the Vendee sites I would save a day for a trip to Ille de Noirmoutier, which is about 25km north of St Jean De Monts. The French seem to specialise in these 'almost' islands with their very different feel from the mainland. The Ile is accessed either by spectacular bridge to the south or a flooded causeway slightly further north. Pick a sunny day (fairly easy in the Vendee) and head for the bridge when the tide is coming in (tide tables can be found on the internet) the speed of the water in the channel is incredible and makes you realise how carefully you need to time your exit by the causeway.
The Ile isn't massive and I guess you could park up and take your bikes because there are lots are of cycle paths criss-crossing the area but if you want to see the sites then you'd be better off driving round. A clockwise route should take you through the salt marshes/farms and I'd recommend pulling over and paying a visit. The process is quite interesting and seems to essentially involve the evaporation of shallow ponds of sea water with the farmers 'skimming' the salt crystals into piles to dry. The salt 'farmers' are usually very French but keen to tell you how the process works so take a phrase book if you struggle with the language and buy some of the flavoured salts which are frankly delicious, if a little bad for you.
The little port of Herbaudiere is worth an hour and ice cream from one of the shops on the harbour. From here keep taking any left turns towards the coast and you'll find lots of little beaches and bays but the nicest by far is at Horaires Des Marees, beautiful clean sand and ideal for swimming or snorkelling and there's a short pier where locals catch tiny fish all of which go in to some sort of pot I guess because nothing goes back alive. There are restaurants if you're feeling flushed and even a snack bar, so a good place for lunch before you head for Port of Nourmoutier itself. I'm not fussed about towns but it's pretty enough with an interesting harbour and plenty of shops to browse and if you haven't already bought one you need a hand rake and a bucket for the next activity.
Head for the causeway and by now the tide should be going out but check the signs and park on the mudflats with the hundreds of other cars (don’t worry you probably won’t sink). Shoes and socks off and paddle off into the sticky mud and join the stooped frenchies raking up dinner. I've only found cockles here but different methods and tools seem to dredge up allsorts of shellfish. Once you've got just enough for a nice meal (don’t take more than you can eat it's wasteful and frowned upon) head back to the roadside rock pools to wash your feet and food before heading home and don’t forget to check out the crows nest style rescue pylons which make you glad you checked the tide times carefully at the start of the trip.
My recipe for these fat blue cockles is very simple:
Stand the cockles in salty water with porridge oats for about 4 hours this will clean them of sand.
In a little butter and olive oil, soften some onions, garlic and chilli
Add a cup of muscadet and don’t go cheap - you'll drink most of the bottle anyway
Add the washed cockles quickly and shake the saucepan occasionally until they're all cooked [about 4 minutes] and throw away any that don’t open.
Loads of French stick for the juice and enjoy your almost free meal.