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Kayak an iconic battleground, ride horses in a fancy forest and follow a todger off a bridge (seriously) in this French action haven

A man dressed as a penis is laughing – it’s a surprisingly calming influence. The Superman costume hanging behind the counter is a genuinely enticing option.

An hour ago I was raving about the stupidity it must take to jump off a bridge, but now I’m about to do it, seduced by the beauty of AJ Hackett’s rural France outpost and the blast everyone else seems to be having – forget about my hatred of heights. It turns out Normandy has so many opportunities to do fun things that you’ll even say yes to the ones you find crazy.

This part of the world is no stranger to action, its coastline the site of the vital US, British and Allied forces’ Operation Overlord, or D-Day landings, in June 1944 which led to winning France back from Germany and the beginning of the end of World War II.

These days more foreign visitors shoot from Cherbourg, where the UK ferry docks – down the motorways to southern beaches, that is. It’s a huge mistake as they’re bypassing this awesome adult playground, where you can do nothing but eat and drink the local camembert and calvados or get stuck into the extreme. With its expansive rural settings and stretches of beaches, active adventures are everywhere and in three days I give a bunch of them a crack. 

Hiking: La Hague's landscape changes every time you look up

I begin with a hike along the ragged, beautiful headlands of La Hague Peninsula, where every look up is a new painting worthy of the hundreds of artists (such as Monet) for whom it’s their muse – cliff faces, deserted beaches (more time and I was in) or paddocks with freshly bailed hay or doe-eyed local cattle who I can’t help but thank for their fine cheese (if the milk doesn’t come from these brown-eyed girls, it’s not camembert).

As my group and I follow guide Marylene, I’m captivated by the paragliders floating peacefully overhead, and how they seem to be multiplying.

This area isn’t known for the sunshine of southern France, as each morning we get an overcast mist, but that just makes the afternoon rays more appreciated – unspoiled and with every passer-by greeting us with a grin, or in my case a laugh as I stop to chat to and photograph another cow, it’s a sign of what’s to come.

Tribute at Utah Beach

The next day I experience the perfect education and adventure balance with a visit to the Utah Beach Museum at Sainte Marie du Mont and a sea-kayaking expedition off Asnelles, amid the remaining parts of the man-made Mulberry harbours that made the D-Day landings possible.

To do one after the other is a must, as our guide Christian, a local who volunteers each June, gives a remarkable – and balanced – account of what challenges soldiers faced and their incredible feats in overcoming them. The museum is built to resemble a bunker – its first room in 1962 was actually a German bunker – and at most times you can see out to Utah Beach, where 800,000 soldiers came through.

At the end of the tour Christian tells me his dad had a farm two miles away and had his horses taken by the Germans (“The day the war ended he took them back, but they spoke German now,” he joked), and was a retired veteran himself – no wonder his stories were delivered with such insight and passion.

There are too many mind-blowing stories to tell here, but look up the exploits of Theodore Roosevelt Jnr and legendary bomber pilot Major David Dewhurst (whose millionaire sons recreated his B-26 bomber in a hangar at Utah Beach) for a good gist. 

Berry inspiring: kayaking among what's left of a Mulberry harbour

We now drive less than an hour to watersports hub Centre de Loisirs Nautiques in Asnelles, next to Arromanches-les-Bains, which was codenamed Gold Beach during the war. Even though the “Mulberry” here (one of two which were each a series of almost 150 five-storey concrete structures floated from the UK and dumped in formation with roads and more to unload vital supplies and weaponry) was decommissioned six months after the landings, many blocks remain.

With guide Antony I get to paddle inside one of the behemoth blocks – totally humbling. It could have been a paddle off a beautiful beach, but with the context of Utah Beach, I could begin to try and imagine what happened here in what is now such a peaceful town.

If the wind was up and the waves too much, we could have gone sand yachting with Antony’s boss, Francois, the sport’s reigning world champion. Definitely next time.


Going wild in Normandy, France: 'This place makes you say yes to doing crazy things'
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