Mont Saint-Michel, France

Photo: Eric Pouhier (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Eric Pouhier (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Angkor Wat. Big Ben. Hagia Sophia. You spend years dreaming about visiting these iconic buildings. You plan vacations around touring and photographing them. Then you’re slightly disappointed when you arrive. You’re not the only one who has been dreaming and planning for years. So have the hundreds, if not thousands, of people standing in line with you. Forget clear photos and contemplative silence, you’ll be lucky not to get elbowed or pickpocketed before you’re hurried along. But here’s your chance to spend the night in one of the world’s most famous landmarks.

Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most recognizable places in France. The “Wonder of the West” is a Benedictine abbey that sits on an island off the coast of Normandy. It’s been used as a monastery, a fortress, and a prison. And it’s now the third-most-visited sight—after the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre—in France.

After a few days overcoming your jet lag in Paris, drive west through medieval villages, orchards, and vineyards. As the land flattens, the air becomes saltier. Seagulls circle overhead. You’re in the middle of a salt marsh—filled with grazing sheep—when you catch your first glimpse of Mont Saint-Michel at the mouth of the Couesnon River. You gasp. It looks like a castle with ramparts, turrets, and towers. No wonder it’s on so many people’s must-visit list.

Photo: Auberge Saint Pierre
Photo: Auberge Saint Pierre

You park and ride a shuttle over the new bridge built over the mud and the quicksand in the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel. The rocky island was once part of the mainland, but it now sits a kilometer offshore due to erosion and rising sea levels. Old fishermen’s houses sit outside the battlements. Enter Porte de l’Avancée, the main gate. Follow winding Grand Rue, lined with 15th-century houses, past souvenir shops and restaurants making puffy omelets and sweet crêpes. Most people continue heading up to the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey. But you wait. First, your hotel.

The entrance to Auberge Saint-Pierre is right on busy Grand Rue, but when you close the door behind you, the outside craziness disappears. The hotel has small rooms and exposed timber beams, as you’d expect in an old coastal home, but everything else has been modernized. Besides, it’s all about the view, anyway. Sit on the terrace, sip a glass of Muscadet wine, and gaze down coast. The tide is rising. Brittany is in the distance. And you don’t have to worry about catching the last shuttle off the island.

Eat freshly shucked oysters and salt marsh lamb for dinner. Walk along the ramparts as the sun sets. Let the moonlight guide you through the empty street and the steep steps after dark. The island is yours. You only have to share it with a handful of other hotel guests and a few hundred residents the rest of the evening.

In the morning, wake up early to be among the first visitors at the Mont Saint-Michel Abbey. Mass is still held daily at the Romanesque church that was built on the ruins of a Carolingian church. Visit the NotreDamesousTerre Chapel and the peaceful gardens. Explore the buildings of La Merveille: the cloister surrounded by carved arches, the 13th century dining hall, and the guest hall with two enormous fireplaces. Watch the fog roll out to sea. Cave in and eat one of those enormous omelets at La Mère Poulard. And escape the island when the crowd starts to thicken. The magic disappears when the elbowing begins.

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