I had already visited Cherbourg for work a few times (more on that in a moment), but had never brought the family up to the edge of the Cotentin in Normandy to this port-town known as a one-time marine port that welcomed the Titanic and boarded passengers on her. Today, Cherbourg basically has DCNS, the French submarine maker, and the Cité de la Mer. There is not a whole lot else for the local economy to subsist on – well, perhaps a few lost American tourists visiting the Omaha or Utah beaches or some British folks taking the ferry – but overall it is a rather sleepy and industrial place. So, what did I drag the kids up there? Well, I had heard good things about the Cité de la Mer and we had a long weekend…
We stayed in the Hôtel de la Gare next to – you guessed it – the local train station. Not the most amazing hotel, it is a 2-star down-to-basics place. Pretty clean, but definitely not “new”. The breakfast is typical French continental (one croissant and one baguette per person plus tea, coffee, or hot chocolate and micro-jams and orange juice from concentrate). The room was good for a family of four as it was sort of a double room with two single beds on one side and a queen-size bed on the other side. Not super comfortable but for only two nights, it was reasonably priced (about 100€ per night). The service was very friendly in any case and that does count for something! The first breakfast we took was actually in the family living room as the normal guest dining room was full. It was a little surprising to see that this family actually lived in the back of the hotel.
As for eating, we were pleasantly surprised by two local restaurants – both discovered via TripAdvisor.com. Now, I figured that the top 6 restaurants on TA were probably a little more “gastronomic” and less “family-friendly” so I aimed for 7 and 8 and I was very, very pleased. The two in question were Le Plouc 2 and Pantagruel. “Plouc” in French means “redneck” more or less but this place definitely is not in that category. The service was impeccable, the food perfect – even the kids’ portions were just right! – and the wine selection decent as well. And all for a very friendly price as well.
Pantagruel, harkening back to the legendary and carnivorous hero of François Rabelais’ classic of the same same, is a super meat-lovers restaurant. They have an open fire in the main dining area where you can watch the chef do his thing. The meat is all delicious and perfectly cooked to your tastes. You ought to reserve however because they turned away several people while we were there.
As for the main attraction, the Cité de la Mer consists of four separate areas: “Attraction: We walked on the sea floor”, Temporary exhibit space (there was something about the Titanic but with the youngins we didn’t have time for that), the Aquarium, and La Redoutable (a submarine visit). The entry hall features some cool models of deep sea exploration vehicles including my favorite as a kid, Alvin 🙂 Actually, the theme of the whole museum was really around “man and the sea” because it talked a lot about exploration of the depths, the nuclear submarine, and scuba diving. The buildings themselves represent what was once the world’s premier maritime port and are beautiful in an of themselves despite having lost their preeminence years ago.
There was a sort of undersea simulator for the kids that was entertaining if a bit silly at times. Basically, you are broken into four teams by color and then herded through a briefing session, four “training sessions” (diving hand signals, undersea darkness, the route we would take and equilibrium (walking in a room with an uneven floor not unlike that of my apartment in Paris :)), and then the simulator. The simulator took us down into the Marianas trench or some such thing in a sort of aircraft simulator but much more tame. It was not Epcot but it was not TOO cheesy either. The important thing is that both kids, 3 and 6, both loved it.
The aquarium was a bit disappointing to me because other than the classic tanks (two story tropical fish/tropical reef tank, jelly fish tank, starfish tank, octopus tank, nautilus tank), there was not some big ticket item with sharks and rays and such. The closest that came – and once again the BIG hit for the kids – was a petting tank with suprisingly friendly tiny nurse sharks and spotted rays. That was cool but I felt that the scary shark experience was missed a bit. In this same building, they talk a lot about ocean exploration, scuba diving, and everything between with a few experiments and such to explain Archimedes principle and other scientific tidbits.
The big draw for this site for French folks is most likely the real Redoutable nuclear missile-carrying submarine. Decommissioned in 1991 after an illustrious (that is to say thankfully unused) career of 20 years. In 2002, they opened the current museum and it is to date the largest submarine open to the public in the world. It is a fascinating visit as you go from the screw, through the gearing and heating systems, passing the fresh-water generation plants, the electricity plant, the empty section which previously held the nuclear plant (capable in itself to support the city and agglomeration of Cherbourg on its own), the crews quarters and then the forward torpedo room. The harrowing bit of this visit is the missile room itself. I was a bit shaken to think that the fate of the world was tranquilly in this room at one time where 16 nuclear missiles each M20 about 5-10x more powerful than the bomb over Hiroshima and just one stupid decision away from annihilating us all. I know, some readers are gonna called me a pussy, a liberal, and all that, but I honestly can understand the whole deterrent argument but I think that keeping the world on the brink of destruction for some many years still seems reckless to me. Naturally, the whole museum and the commentary in the headsets for the tour all played up the national interest card. I just found it unsettling. I visited the more recent Triomphant-class sub the “Terrible” when it was still in dry dock about a year before its launch in 2010 and had similar feelings. As an engineer and geek, all the science and gear is impressive and exciting, but the deeper implications of all this destructive power in one boat just gave me pause then as now.
Overall, Cherbourg was a good quick weekend with the family. The weather was terrible but we still were able to eat well and enjoy the Cité de la Mer. I suppose during more hospitable seasons, one would check out the invasion beaches as well for a more complete visit.