This large village, with its promenade running the length of the pebble beach, is renowned for the magnificent tall rock formations that extend out into the sea. The Falaises d'Étretat are white cliffs that are as famous in France as Dover's are in England—and have been painted by many artists, Claude Monet chief among them.
A stunning white-sand beach and white-chalk rocks, such as the "Manneporte"—a limestone portal likened by author Guy de Maupassant to an elephant dipping its trunk into water—are major elements in the composition. Here Monet became a pictorial rock climber with the help of his famous "slotted box," built with compartments for six different canvases, allowing him to switch midstream from painting to painting, as weather patterns momentarily changed. With storms and sun alternating hour by the hour, you'll quickly understand why they say, "Just wait: in Normandy we have great weather several times a day!"—it was yet another reason why the Impressionists,
intent on capturing the ephemeral, so loved this town.
At low tide it's possible to walk through the huge archways formed by the rocks to neighboring beaches. The biggest arch is at the Falaise d'Aval, to the south, and for a breathtaking view of the whole bay be sure to climb the easy path up to the top. From here you can hike for miles across the Manneporte Hills, or play a round of golf on one of Europe's windiest and most scenic courses, overlooking L'Aiguille (The Needle), a 300-foot spike of rock jutting out of the sea just offshore. To the north towers the Falaise d'Amont, topped by the gloriously picturesque chapel of Notre-Dame de la Garde.
The plunging chalk cliffs of Étretat are so gorgeous and strange that they seem surreal at first—the hordes of camera-toting visitors, however, can bring you back to reality quickly. So plan on heading for the cliffs in early morning or early evening.