An exemplary reconstruction
The abbey was founded in the late 11th century, and right from the start, it was richly endowed with land and means of subsistence by the barons of La Haye-du-Puits. The first monks came from Bec Abbey, and Holy Trinity enjoyed a great period of prosperity until the 13th century, with several priories and a number of benefices. The wars of the late Middle Ages, and then the introduction of a commendatory regime, in other words, the naming of abbots by the king and not by the monks themselves, led to the decline of the community and the deterioration of the conventual buildings.
Lessay was spared from destruction after the French Revolution, unlike so many other religious establishments, but unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the summer of 1944, when the church was destroyed on 11 July during Allied bombing. Local residents initiated a movement in favour of its reconstruction, and a new church, rebuilt identically to the Romanesque church, was inaugurated in 1959, after a decade of research and work, under the direction of chief architect Yves-Marie Froidevaux. It is an exemplary success.
Every summer, Lessay attracts visitors thanks to a renowned music festival.
Hotel de la Marine (0033 2 33 53 83 31, www.hotelmarine.com), by the sea in Barneville-Carteret. Recently revamped in the style of an art deco liner, its best rooms, modishly furnished with Perspex chairs and white leather bedheads, have balconies with sweeping views over the estuary and sea. It has an excellent restaurant (see Dine out at…). Doubles with sea view from 125 euros a night in summer, from 155 euros with balcony; breakfast 15 euros.
L'Erguillère (Port Racine, Cap de la Hague; 0033 2 33 52 75 31, www.hotel-lerguillere.com), has one of the best locations in Normandy, on a hillside overlooking the rocky coastline of Cap de la Hague in the far north west of the peninsula. The 10 rooms are simply but attractively furnished, with comfortable beds. Breakfast on the terrace, with views of the sea streaming over the rocks below and the coastline curling away into the distance, is memorable. Double rooms with sea view from 110 euros a night in summer; breakfast 12 euros; cycling packages include hire of an electric bike.
Bruce Castle (Brix; 0033 2 33 41 99 62, www.bruce-castle.com) is one of the most charming places I have ever stayed. A convincing replica of an 18th-century chateau, it has three double guest bedrooms, each en suite and decorated (without a hint of preciousness) with lovely antiques and paintings. There is a large, sunny sitting room, a large, peaceful and beautifully tended garden and charming hosts in the Fontanets. Breakfast – the table laid with antique linen and silver – includes freshly poached fruit and home-made jams. Brix is well placed for visiting all areas of the peninsula. From 100 euros for a double room.
Or try Le Château (0033 2 31 22 66 22, pagesperso-orange.fr/alain.marion/gbindex.html) The chateau itself is no more, but the farm that survives is set around a flower-filled courtyard and several outbuildings have been converted into guest rooms, charmingly decorated in toile. Dominique is an exemplary host, and Grandcamp Maisy is well positioned for Utah and the other D-Day landing beaches. Breakfast, served in the main house, includes milk from the farm and their own apple juice. From 50 euros a night single, 70 euros double, including excellent breakfast.
Both Bruce Castle and Le Château can be booked through www.sawdays.co.uk
Spend the morning...
Following the scenic coast road (D116) from Cherbourg to Barfleur, the port from which William of Normandy set sail to conquer Britain; it still has a handsome harbour, now filled with fishing boats. Follow the coast south to the sailing mecca of Saint-Vaast-la-Hogue. Wander along the breezy seafront, investigate the chic art galleries and shops, and take the amphibious bus/boat out through the expanse of oyster beds to Ile Tatihou. Here you'll find a grassy, breezy island of giant gulls, impressive Vauban fortifications, and an interesting small museum highlighting the Battle of La Hogue off this coast in 1692 – in which the British fleet was victorious. Book the crossing in advance from Accueil Tatihou (0033 2 33 23 19 92).
Have lunch at...
Restaurant Les Fuchsias (Hôtel de France, 20 rue du Maréchal Foch, St-Vaast-La-Hogue; 0033 2 33 54 40 41, www.france-fuchsias.com). Yachtsmen brave storms and tempests to come here for the friendly service and special food (shelled spider crab with asparagus mousse, cloudlike apple clafoutis). Set menus from 18 euros.
If it's picnic weather, stock up on patés, cheese, fruit and wine at the wonderful St Vaast institution, Epicerie Gosselin (27 rue Verrue; 0033 233 54 40 06, www.maison-gosselin.com)
La Citadelle, 34 rue du Port, Granville (00 33 2 33 50 34 10, www.restaurant-la-citadelle.com) specialises in traditional dishes using local produce from sea and countryside; the sole meunière is delicious. Try to nab a table under the awning overlooking the harbour. Set menus from 23 euros, child's menu, 8.50 euros.
Just along the harbour, at 19 rue du Port, Restaurant du Port is a less expensive option (00 33 2 33 50 00 55, www.restaurant-du-port.com), with menus from 16 euros (12 euros at lunchtime), child's menu 9 euros.
Spend the afternoon...
Exploring the western stretches of the D-Day invasion at Utah beach, where US forces landed. At nearby Quinéville, Le Mémorial de la Liberté retrouvée museum(www.memorial-quineville.com) gives a fascinating insight into everyday life in occupied France during the Second World War. Further south, the Airborne Museum at St Mère Eglise (www.musee-airborne.com) tells the story of Operation Overlord in this area. Look out for the model of parachutist John Steele on the town's church spire (his unfortunate landing was captured dramatically in the film The Longest Day).
Dine out at...
Le Café du Port, by the sea in Omonville-la-Rouge on Cap de la Hague (0033 2 33 52 74 13, restaurantlecafeduport.com). A simple restaurant with very accomplished cooking, the emphasis is on local fish and seafood. Menus from 25 euros.
Hotel de la Marine (see above) is the place for a special treat, with sophisticated, beautifully presented food (pan-fried escalope of foie gras with pineapple chutney and tamarind purée) and a great wine list. Menus from 35.50 euros. La Malle aux Epices (Auderville; 0033 2 33 52 77 44, www.lamalleauxepices.com) gives local food a spicy fusion twist, such as St Vaast oysters marinated in coriander and ginger vinegar. Set menus from 14 euros.
Spend the next day...
Exploring the west of the peninsula. Start at Cap de la Hague and the Jardin Botanique de Vauville(www.jardin-vauville.fr), magnificent semi-tropical gardens that feel more like Costa Rica than Normandy at times.
Further south are the unspoilt resorts of Barneville-Carteret, their wide beaches bathed in Atlantic light. The sands extend down the coast to Granville, a bigger, blowsier resort with a casino, a fortified citadel and the delightful scented gardens at the Christian Dior Museum in the designer's former home (www.musee-dior-granville.com). Some of Dior's flamboyant creations are on display.
From the frivolous to the sublime: head inland to the Abbaye de Hambye at Hambye, the well-preserved remains of a soaring 12th-century Benedictine abbey and monastery. Finish with a flourish at the great Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame at Coutances, built over a Romanesque shell, its medieval stained glass miraculously intact.
Normandy tourist office (0033 232 33 7900) or see www.normandy-tourism.org and www.manche-tourism.com.