Most people in Britain think of Le Havre as a place to get off the ferry and drive straight on to their holiday in France. For the French however, it’s a sailor’s haven, a seaside resort for families and a gateway to the Alabaster Coast, with the translucent light so loved by the Impressionist painters. On my weekend in Le Havre I discovered there’s a lot more to this UNESCO World Heritage site than meets the eye and with daily ferries on the Portsmouth Le Havre crossing with Brittany Ferries, it’s ideal for a weekend break. Here’s my weekend guide to what you can see in Le Havre, France.
Arriving on Brittany Ferries to Le Havre
We arrived in Le Havre port on an overnight sailing with Brittany Ferries, having slept well in our cabin bunks, risen to a good breakfast and gone up on deck just as dawn was breaking. With flat-fronted post-war buildings lining the port, you won’t find much of the picturesque, since most of the town was destroyed by Allied bombing in the Second World War. The man awarded with the monumental and unenviable task of rebuilding Le Havre and rehousing the 80,000 people who had been made homeless, was architect Auguste Perret.
The post-war architecture of Le Havre
Rather than try to reconstruct the town in the old style, the acres of rubble were replaced with a unified town plan, with the inhabitants being rehoused in new apartments, allocated based on the size of the houses they had lost. The approach was not universally popular since the people of Le Havre just wanted their old town back, even though the scale of the devastation made this impossible.
Since there was no source of stone nearby, little petrol to transport materials and a minimal post-war budget, the options were limited. Perret’s solution earned him the name The Poet of Concrete. This flexible material could be easily transported and mixed on site, to create low rise apartment blocks that were harmonious, yet each subtly different in their colours, textures, classical columns and balcony design.
From the top of the Hôtel de Ville Le Havre, we were able to look out over the town and see how it had been rebuilt with ordered boulevards and everywhere rectangular apartment blocks. Perret’s modernist vision has now been awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status, as an example of post-war town planning and the innovative use of concrete.
If you go: Enquire in the Hôtel de Ville (town hall) or Maison du Patrimoine (the Le Havre tourist information centre) at 181, rue de Paris, to check whether there are guided tours up the tower of the Hôtel de Ville, which are recommended for the 360 degree views over the town.
The Church of St Joseph in Le Havre
As you come into Le Havre by ferry, the spire of St Joseph’s church rises 350 feet above the town, serving as a lighthouse for sailors to navigate into safe harbour. The church is one of main tourist attractions in Le Havre, a landmark building that Auguste Perret designed after the war, built on the site of earlier churches that had been destroyed.
Like the rest of Perret’s designs, St Joseph’s is a monument in concrete, the solid, square base not giving much away of what is inside. The exterior has an industrial feel, like a giant warehouse, but once inside, the interior is softened by the glow of the stained glass in geometric patterns.
Unusually the church is built on the square Greek cross, with the spire rising like a chimney above the central altar. Perret left the concrete structure unadorned, just as it came out of the moulds, but he commissioned the design of the stained glass from another artist, Marguerite Huré.
The 6500 pieces of stained glass rise in grades of colour getting paler until they end with white at the top of the spire. The impression is a harmonious whole but there are subtle variations of colour which change with the direction of the sun. To the east the lilac, green and gold represent the nativity, to the north the blue represents the Virgin Mary and to the south the orange and gold represent the victory of Christ triumphant.
Other than the stained glass there is little decoration, only the two statues of the Virgin and Saint Joseph that were brought from an earlier church. St Joseph’s church is austerely beautiful and unique. The stained glass colours reminded me, as I looked up the spire towards the sky, of a child’s kalaidascope with dots of colour forming ever changing patterns.
I remember my grandfather made one for my mother during the war with balls of coloured foil sweet wrappers. Perhaps Marguerite Huré had one too? The church was completed after Perret’s death in 1957 and is dedicated to the victims of the bombings in Le Havre.
Read more about St Joseph’s Church, The symbol of Le Havre’s rebirth
If you go: St Joseph’s church, Bd François 1er, 76600 LE HAVRE. Free entry. Open daily 10:00-6:00pm except during services.
The Auguste Perret Show Flat in le Havre
To get a feel for the accommodation that was built to rehouse families after so much of the town had been destroyed in the war, visit Appartement Témoin Perret, the ‘Show Flat’ which is an example of one of the apartments that has been furnished as it would have been in the 1950s.
In order to maximise the limited space, at a time when the priority was to rehouse the largest number of people, Perret created an open plan layout with a living area off which all the other rooms flow. It was revolutionary that the bathroom was not outside in the yard and the kitchen was now in the heart of the home, boasting labour saving appliances such as a refrigerator, pressure cooker and vacuum cleaner.
If I was a modern woman of the 1950s, having lived through the war and the town laid to rubble, I think one of these flats might have looked like heaven to me! I’d be happy to move in myself, with the wooden floors, colourful rugs and warm oak furniture, reminiscent of the classic Scandinavian designs of the same era. I loved the way that even the wardrobes were filled with clothing from the period and the shelves stacked with crockery, as if the family had just popped out to do some shopping.
If you go: Auguste Perret Show Flat, Maison du patrimoine, 181 rue de Paris. Entry: 5 €, free for under 26 yrs and on 1st Saturday of every month. Open Weds, Sat, Sun for tours at 2pm, 3pm, 4pm, 5pm and additional times in July/August.
Le Volcan in Le Havre
What Le Havre lost in its picturesque pre-war town, it has more than made up for in stunning modern architecture like Le Volcan, the Volcano shaped cultural centre by Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. We walked down the steps from the road to an open piazza below the level of the main town and through the library which was packed with families, teenagers and locals of all ages.
It’s not really a place you would think to go as a tourist, but walking through into the space below one of the two ‘volcanos’ we could see what an effective and clearly much loved venue this is. Orange and yellow chairs are grouped around casually, with book-cases for browsing, rooms to watch a DVD or listen to music and spaces to just hang out with your friends or people-watch from the upper level balconies. I think there are probably a few quiet corners if you just want a snooze too!
If you go: Le Volcan, 1 quai George V. Free entry for the library, also musical and artistic events are held here.
MUMA Modern art museum
One of my favourite things to do in Le Havre was the Musée Malraux of Modern Art or MUMA, a light and airy glass sided box that contains the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris. Start your visit on the quayside opposite the museum where you’ll find an information board telling you about the view that Monet painted from this very spot which he named “Impression, Sunrise” giving name to a whole movement of painting – Impressionism.
The art museum is a restful setting for the Impressionist paintings, many of them donations and legacies from major private art collections. Who needs Musee d’Orsay, when you can see the Monet lilies painted at Giverny, Renoir’s pretty Excursioniste with walking pole in hand, the elegant Degas ballerinas and artworks by Pissaro, Sisley and many others. I loved the colourful, flowing art of Raoul Dufy, who was born in Le Havre and the whole wall upstairs of Normandy cows and pastel sailing boats by Eugène Boudin who painted all along this coast.
When MUMA was built in the 1960s it was quite unusual to have a café in a museum and it looked the perfect place to sit with a coffee to contemplate the boats passing by on the Seine estuary. If you love the Impressionists, there’s a whole trail along the coast of information signs at the places where key paintings were made. Pick up a leaflet at the Maison du Patrimoine visitor centre (181 rue de Paris) or download the iphone app here
If you go: MuMa André Malraux Museum of Modern Art, Cost: 5€ , free for under 26 years and on 1st Saturday of month. Open daily except Tuesday 11am – 6pm. Arrive by bus Line 3 from the train station.
Maison de L’Armateur – the Shipowner’s mansion
In contrast to all all the modern architecture is the Maison de L’armateur or Ship Owner’s Mansion, an elegant 18th century house that faces the harbour. Built in 1790 by a leading Le Havre architect, it was later bought by a wealthy merchant, Martin Pierre Foache, to use as his offices as well as the winter residence of his family.
What makes the house unusual is the central glazed atrium illuminated by a glass skylight, off which the rooms of the house radiate on four floors. The mansion is elegantly furnished with wooden parquet flooring, marble fireplaces, pictures, furniture and objects of the period that show the lifestyle lived by a wealthy 18th century merchant.
The ground floor was used for storage, with the ship-owner’s office on the first floor, while upper floors were the living space of the shipowner’s family. From the upper floor rooms I could look out and imagine the merchant spending time with his family, while keeping one eye on his ships passing through the port from his window.
If you go: Maison de l’Armateur, 3 Quai de l’Ile. Cost: €5, free under 26 yrs and 1st Saturday of month. Open: 11:00 a.m. – 12:30 and 1:30 p.m. – 6:00 p.m., except Weds from 2:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m. Guided tours Sat 11:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. Sun 11:00 a.m. Closed on Tuesdays, Wednesday mornings.
By the water in Le Havre
If you love the sea, there are plenty of places to walk close to the water in and around the port of Le Havre. Stroll along the Bassin de Commerce, the harbour front, cruise port, the marinas and the beach promenade which comes alive in summer with pop-up bars and restaurants. My sister also enjoyed a visit to Les Bains des Docks, a modern public baths and spa, with pools, sauna, jets and leisure facilities that sounded amazing.
On the cliffs at Etretat
A 40 minute drive north along the coast from Le Havre is the small seaside town of Etretat with a pebble beach. The white cliffs of the Alabaster coast extend at the edge of town, where you can get the famous views of the sea arch la falaise d’aval and the seascapes loved by the impressionist painters.
On the cliff tops where there’s a car park you can walk around the pretty chapel of Notre Dame de la Garde, with cow head gargoyles along one side that match the Normandy cows munching contentedly in the fields. The original chapel was destroyed in WW2 so what you see is a reconstruction built in the 1950s, and unfortunately wasn’t opened when we visited so I couldn’t look inside.
From the chapel, paths lead along the cliff top and down to some of the hidden beaches under the cliffs that earn this the name of Alabaster coast. It was quite windy on the cliff top and I didn’t dare go much closer to the edge for fear of being blown over!
Behind the chapel is another monument known as L’Oiseau blanc that commemorates the transatlantic flight from Paris to New York in 1930 of Costes and Belmonte. They had been preceded in 1927 by Charles Linderberg who being the first (and American) is of course the one to be remembered. However there were six unsuccessful attempts before his and four of these disappeared into the Atlantic, never to be seen again.
After our wander along the cliff top we drove down to the small town of Etretat which was full of charming houses, bars and restaurants. There were just a few people strolling around and walking on the pebble beach but I imagine that it is packed in summer.
If you visit Etretat by car, you may like to also stop at Manoir de Cateuil at Valaine close by, a farm where they make cider, keep goats and sell cheese and goats milk ice cream as well as delicious chocolates which we tried – check the website for more information.
If you go: Etretat is a 40 minute drive north from Le Havre on the D940 and there is a car park on top of the cliff. You can also take the No 24 bus from Le Havre which runs a few times a day.
Try the Normandy cuisine at Le Havre
If you’d like to try some of the traditional dishes of Normandy – often based on cheese, cream, cider and calvados, I can highly recommend Le Bouchon Normande in Le Havre where we had dinner one evening (77 Rue Louis Brindeau). The restaurant has a cheerful bistro atmosphere with a menu of homely dishes that use the best of the local ingredients from the nearby market and the surrounding region. There are a wide range of choices from soupe de poisson and terrine de campagne to escargot (snails), tête de veau (brains) and tripe if you really insist. And of course there will be at least one desert that includes the famous Normandy apples in one form or another.
For food shopping in Le Havre, the covered market is open daily from 10am and well worth a visit to drool at the selection of ripe fromage, charcuterie and chocolat. On Sunday morning there’s also a street-market surrounding the market hall where we found even more delicious specialities like these Coeur de Neufchâtel heart shaped cheeses which the local ladies used to award to the soldiers and a sign of their favour. Since we were travelling home on Brittany Ferries there was no issue with space and we stocked up with a few delicacies of cheese, saucisson and Normandy cider to take back and enjoy.
For a real taste of Normandy, France we spent a morning at the country house outside Le Havre of Chef Régine who runs cookery classes as well as a “Chef Chez Vous” service where she will come and cook for your group or party.
Donning our chef’s hats we were able to try out some of the traditional dishes that Régine had recreated from the recipe books of Claud Monet who lived nearby at Giverny. Most delicious was the cheese soufflé made with gruyere, cream and nutmeg followed by the Chicken Honfleur with chicken poached in a creamy sauce of butter, wine and calvados with a scattering of piquant capers.
Lunch was served at a long table in Régine’s elegant conservatory clothed in vines and lemon trees, while we imagined ourselves to be living the rural French lifestyle that Monet might have enjoyed amidst his gardens at Giverny.
The piece de resistance was the Apple Giverny tart, a round of buttery shortbread topped with apple pieces cooked in butter and a most delicious salted butter caramel sauce. As you can tell those Normandy cows have a lot to answer for! We all came away vowing to recreate that desert and luckily Régine provided us with the recipe so I can share it with you.
Apple Giverny Tart
To make the caramel sauce mix in a saucepan 100g caster sugar and 3 soupspoons of water, add 100 salted butter cut in pieces and heat gently, adding 40cl cream slowly. Bring to the boil then turn down the heat and cook gently until thickened. Serve with the apple tart made with a shortcrust base topped with small cubes of apple that have been gently cooked in butter with a sprinkling of vanilla sugar.
Chef Régine can be contacted through Chef Chez Vous
Our weekend in Le Havre ended as we boarded the Portsmouth ferry late on Sunday afternoon for the sailing home, just as the sun was setting over the harbour. After a five hour crossing with a few drinks and a nice supper, we arrived back in Portsmouth later that evening. Our weekend with Brittany Ferries had proved that the channel ports like Le Havre are far more than a gateway to your holiday in France. They are weekend destinations in their own right, offering delicious food, fascinating history, impressionist art, refreshing walks by the sea and all in an easy hop across the channel. Who needs to fly?
Have you ever visited Le Havre and if so were you just passing through? Perhaps you’ll be tempted to go back and explore? Do let me know in the comments!
Read more about Le Havre and Brittany
Lines of Escape: A winter sun weekend in Le Havre
Mrs Ayla’s Adventure: A weekend discovering Le Havre
Heather on her travels: A Road trip through Brittany and Normandy
Heather on her travels: Gone fishing for crabs in Brittany
For more information
Plan your ferry to Le Havre with Brittany Ferries who sail from Portsmouth to Le Havre, Caen, St Malo, and from Poole to Cherbourg and from Plymouth to Roscoff and St Malo. Connect on Social Media | Twitter | Facebook| Pinterest | Youtube | Blog
Where to stay in Le Havre
We enjoyed a very comfortable stay at the 4 star Novotel which is a short distance from the ferry port and the train station. The 134 room hotel is modern in style and we had a spacious bedroom on the first floor with an extremely comfortable mattresses. There was a good breakfast buffet and a tram stop close by to reach the centre of town, although we could also have walked. Novtel Le Havre, 20 Cours La Fayette, Quai Colbert, 76600, Le Havre, France. Compare prices and book for hotels in Le Havre here
Getting to le Havre on Brittany Ferries
Heather and Jillian travelled on Brittany Ferries who sail daily to Le Havre as well as a number of other ports in Brittany and Normandy. The ferries from Portsmouth sail daily in winter at 23.15 arriving at 8.00 the next morning and returns from Le Havre at 17.15 or 22.00 with more sailings in high season. Travelling as a foot passenger on the Le Havre Ferry with an en suite cabin both ways would cost around £100 per person or £140 per person if taking the car (based on 2 people sharing).
We sailed on board the Etretat, with a bar, lounge and small cinema as well as a self service restaurant with excellent food. Check the Brittany Ferries website for more information and to book your crossing.
Thanks to le Havre Tourism and Brittany Ferries who hosted Heather and her sister for a weekend break in Le Havre.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
We’re in that lull between the feasting and celebration of Christmas and the fresh starts and new plans of New Year. It’s the quiet time when we can reflect and review the year that’s gone, the time to reminisce and consider what the year brought us: the adventures and challenges, the excitement of visiting new places, the holiday times we enjoyed with loved ones. Here’s a look back to the travels I enjoyed in 2015.
January – A cottage stay and fossil hunting in Devon and Dorset
We started the year with a weekend at Red Doors Farm in Devon through Premier Cottages, a collection of 500 year old thatched cottages, set around a cobbled farmyard. My teenage son and friends made good use of the indoor swimming pool and proved that you’re never too old to feed the goats and chickens. We climbed up to the hill fort near the farm and enjoyed a bracing walk along the beach at Lyme Regis where we spotted fossils on the ammonite pavement that was revealed at low tide.
February – A charity visit to India
In February I flew with Jet Airways to India for a week that was off the tourist map, although I spent a little time exploring Bangalore at the beginning and end of the trip. My purpose was to visit a local charity that I support in Andhra Pradesh and see some of the projects that we had funded. Together with one of the charity trustees I was treated to Bollywood style dances in all the local schools, had endless cups of teas with the nuns who ran them, cut the ribbon on a new water purification plant and presented a womens’ tailoring class with their new sewing machines. It was a week that made me realise more than ever that when you give to those in need, you come away much richer from the experience.
March – A weekend by the sea in St Mawes, Cornwall
We spent a weekend with friends at the magical Dreamcatchers house from St Mawes Retreats with a view over the Fal estuary in Cornwall. From the bedrooms we could see the tankers passing St Anthony’s lighthouse and the St Mawes ferry heading for Falmouth. We’d stayed at another St Mawes Retreats house before (read my review of Stargazers here) so we knew that we could expect gorgeous Designers Guild fabrics and luxurious furnishings, with sea views to die for. This time we wandered around the harbour and took the St Mawes ferry across the estuary for a Cornish pasty and ale pub lunch in the quaint streets of Falmouth.
April – Venice with the family
I was lucky enought to win an apartment stay with Go with Oh through the Passports with Purpose fundraiser and decided to use it for a few days in Venice with my family. Although we visited a few tourist highlights like the Doge’s Palace, we found that the neighbourhoods away from St Mark’s square were much more enjoyable to wander around. We loved the modern art at the Peggy Guggenheim and saw Venice from the water on our boat tour with Walks of Italy when we climbed up the campenile of San Georgio Maggiore for views across the lagoon to San Marco. The only disappointment was the food, but hopefully you’ll do better than me with my tips on How to not eat badly in Venice.
April – A weekend in Wiltshire and a sunrise visit to Stonehenge
I stayed at Sarum College inside the close of Salisbury Cathedral for the Social Travel Britain conference and part of the weekend included a walking tour of the cathedral, a private viewing of Magna Carta and a visit to Edward Heath’s old residence of Arundells. The highlight, though, was a sunrise visit to Stonehenge during which we were allowed to walk within the stone circle. This access is only allowed on special guided tours and most tourists can’t get up close to the stones, so it made the experience much more magical.
May – Lloret de Mar in Costa Brava, Spain
Lloret de Mar is one of those coastal resorts on the Costa Brava coast of Spain that was built up in the 1960s as one of the first places to welcome mass tourism from the UK. I was there as a speaker at the TBEX conference but took some time out to explore the town and discover its history. While the Lloret de Mar of recent years has gained a reputation for 20-somethings looking for nightlife and older couples seeking a retirement in the sun, I enjoyed walking around the older squares and along the rocky coast path on the edge of town.
In the Museu del Mar, I discovered the connections to Cuba where many locals sailed to make their fortunes, returning to build the grand mansions on the seafront. I tasted the Daiquiri cocktails, another import from Cuba and now the favoured drink of Lloret de Mar, and I loved the restful Santa Clothilde gardens, planted in Italian Renaissance style, overlooking the sea.
Read More: Lloret de Mar – sun, sea and so much more…
June – A weekend in Copenhagen with my daughter
I’ve visited Copenhagen many times and in June I returned with my daughter for the opening of the Absalon Hotel which had been newly renovated in Designers Guild furnishings. I was able to interview Tricia Guild, Creative Director of Designers Guild who was there to open the hotel, as well as trying out new restaurants and cocktails with my daughter. We also spent a couple of nights up the coast at the gorgeous spa hotel, Kurhotel Skodsborg where we wafted around the pools and jumped off the jetty to cool off after our sauna.
June – Alpine Sports Week in Wilder Kaiser, Austria
I love being in the mountains in summer so I jumped at the chance when I was invited to try out some of the outdoor activities on offer during Alpine Sports Week in the Wilder Kaiser region of Austria. During this week different mountain sports are on offer, from high rope walking to canyoning, mountain-biking to Via Ferrata and all for the knockdown price of €99 for 5 days of activities with expert guides. It was the perfect opportunity to try something different, since I’m a keen hiker but was able to test myself with the mountain-biking and high wire climbing in the Hornpark tree forest.
July – A week with the family in Zakynthos, Greece
In July we made our annual visit to Zakynthos in Greece to visit my sister who runs two hotels there with her husband. We spent the week visiting different beaches, swimming, eating, sunbathing and catching up on family news. This summer my niece had returned to the island after training with a leading hotel group and had decided to get involved in the family business, opening a new Mediterranean restaurant in an idyllic setting by the sea. Anadalis, as it is called, is named after the old estate on which the hotel is built which once belonged to an aristocratic family with a house just a little way up the shore, but you’ll have to read to article to find out why the locals thought the old ruined mansion was haunted. If you visit Zakynthos I highly recommend that you book a table for dinner as the sun goes down over the bay.
August – Our Azamara Greek Island Cruise
Later in August we were back to the Greek islands again for a cruise with Azamara Club Cruises which took us from Athens to Santorini, Mykonos, Patmos, Kusadasi and finally to Istanbul where we ended our cruise. We absolutely loved the luxurious small ship cruise experience with Azamara Club Cruises where the spotlight is firmly on the destinations you visit, creating unique experiences like our magical evening concert among the ancient ruins of Ephesus as the sun went down.
September – A walking holiday in Austria with Headwater Holidays
September saw me back in Austria for a few days walking with Headwater Holidays who specialise in relaxing walking and cycling holidays. I was accompanied by my friend Julia for our annual walking trip which has become our tradition since we walked the Tour de Mont Blanc together. On the first day on the high slopes of the Gaistal valley I fell down a slope and hurt my ankle but using the Headwater walking guides we chose the less strenuous walks on subsequent days and enjoyed the rest of the holiday. We watched a rifleman’s parade in Seefeld and walked along a Mental Power trail, walked through the wild Leutasch Gorge and round the lakes above the picturesque town of Mittenwald with its painted houses. Each day brought different mountain scenery and things to see, confirming my love of the mountains in summer.
September – A gourmet visit to Luxembourg
In September we spent a few days in Luxembourg, a city and tiny country that’s full of surprises. While Luxembourg is known as a centre for international business, we found a charming and easily walkable city with great food, museums and a fascinating history, making it an ideal weekend break location. We also spent some time touring the Moselle wine region where the Moselle river forms the border with Germany, with many wineries to taste the delicious white wines the sparkling Cremant which was my favourite.
November – The Christmas Markets of Heidelberg, Germany
At the end of November we spent a few day in Heidelberg, Germany to see the Christmas Markets and generally get into the festive spirit. We’d visited Heidelberg previously on a day trip from our Rhine River Cruise and were pleased that we could have more time to explore this picturesque and romantic town at our leisure. We took the river boat down to the Neurberg Abbey Christmas Market, climbed up to the castle, learned the history of the ancient university and student fraternities and ate plenty of hearty German food, delicious cakes and chocolates as well as drinking quite a few mugs of hot Glühwein.
Read More: A Food Lover’s Guide to Heidelberg, Germany
December – A weekend in Le Havre, France
My final trip of this year was a hop over the channel to le Havre with Brittany Ferries to discover what this channel port would offer for a weekend break. Most Brits drive through Le Havre on their way to their holidays in France but I discovered that there are many fascinating things to see here that make it worth stopping to visit the city and surrounding area. The city was reconstructed after heavy bombing in WW2 and the architecture of the new town (now a UNESCO World Heritage site) represents the modern designs of the 1950s. We visited a 1950s show flat which would have been allocated to those who lost their own houses in the bombing, as well as a gorgeous 18th century ship owner’s mansion. Another highlight was the MUMA modern art museum, a light and airy glass building with the largest collection of Impressionist paintings outside Paris, since painters such as Monet loved this part of the Normandy coast. I’ll be writing about my weekend in Le Havre very soon so stay tuned.
Reviewing the year was a fun way to remind myself of all the fun I had on my travels in 2015. There’s much more to come in 2016 and I wish you Happy Travels for the year to come.
Please note that many of the trips were hosted by the companies mentioned and you can find more details in the articles from each trip.
You’ll also find our sister blog with tips on how to build a successful travel blog at My Blogging Journey
We’d done the whole Tour de Mont Blanc together, sharing the views from the high mountain passes, sheltering from the odd summer shower. We’d walked the dry stone route in Mallorca although admittedly most of the time was spent at the bottom of my rucksack. But now, after years of hiking adventures together, my waterproof jacket was looking a bit tired. All good things come to an end and as my old jacket headed off with my daughter on her travels, it was time to find a new lightweight rain jacket for my next hiking trip to Austria.
With all outdoor clothing, I like to have a good look around a specialist store like my local Ellis Brigham in Bristol, where I can try on plenty of different styles and pick the brains of the knowledgeable staff. Over the years I’ve learned there are a few things to consider when choosing the best waterproof jacket for your hiking holiday. When you’re caught up the mountain in a downpour, you’ll be glad you took the time to make the right choice so here are a few things to consider;
How does the jacket fit?
Call me vain but I do appreciate a jacket that fits well, for both comfort and good looks. It’s worth trying on a few different womens waterproof jackets in the store as different companies may fit you better than others and since I’m no longer a stick insect I’m always looking for a flattering fit. If you anticipate the extremes of heat and cold that you get when hiking at altitude, you’ll want to allow room to layer t-shirts and fleece under your jacket. On the other hand a jacket that is oversized or flaps around is not a great look. I also like a jacket that is not too short and falls around my hips, so I won’t be revealing any flesh when I bend over to lace up my boots. I’ve noticed that the better quality (and therefore more expensive) jackets may offer a more tapered fit that is more flattering.
Those little design features
Look out for additional features in your jacket that might be worth paying a little more for. For example most quality hiking jackets will have zips under the arms that you can open for ventilation, if you get a hot and sweaty, without having to take off the jacket. You may also notice a breast or sleeve pocket which could be useful for storing small items such as your phone, tissues or lipsalve. The hoods on a more expensive jacket may have extra features like a visor or adjustable elastic drawstrings to keep the rain from dripping onto your face. Other useful features to look out for are a hood that zips away into the collar and 2 way zips that open from the bottom and the top.
How light is your jacket?
Depending on the time of year that you plan to do most of your walking, you should consider the best weight for your waterproof jacket. My annual hiking trips with my friend Julia have mostly been in August and September when the weather is sunny and warm. This means that my jacket needs to pack up small, since most of the time it stays in my rucksack, only coming out on chilly mornings, at higher altitudes or during the occasional shower. I know I can always layer my lightweight waterproof jacket with a long sleeved t-shirt or fleece for extra warmth if the weather closes in.
If you are hiking in Europe in the spring and autumn however, you’ll probably be wearing your jacket most of the time, at least at the beginning and end of the day, until the sunshine and walking warms you up. In this case I might look for a jacket that has a bit more substance, or perhaps one that has a removable lining for extra versatility.
The waterproof fabric
The fabric that’s used in your jacket is a big factor in the price you pay and depending on your hiking requirement you may need a higher technical performance. At the entry level you often find cheaper waterproof fabrics that are combined with a mesh lining. These jackets are perfectly waterproof but they may not be as breathable as the higher priced technical fabrics. The inside layer may feel clammy against the skin once you get walking and work up a sweat, so these are better for situations where you’ll be wearing another layer under the jacket.
As you move up the price scale you’ll see branded fabrics, the best known of which is GORE-TEX. These fabrics offer much greater breathability, so you don’t get that clammy, sweaty feeling as you heat up or cool down. The standard GORE-TEX jackets are durable, waterproof and windproof for everyday wear. They also offer an Active range designed for higher intensity sport offering a lighter fabric with greater breathability, and a Pro range which is more durable for skiers and mountaineers. Some manufacturers have their own proprietary breathable, waterproof fabrics that do a similar job to GORE-TEX – there’s a useful guide on the Ellis Brigham website. Because there are a wide range of different options in terms of weight and breathability, and the technical performance comes at a price, it’s worth calling on the expertise of the shop staff to explain these options to you.
My choice of waterproof jacket
So what did I choose? After trying on plenty of different jackets I settled on the Patagonia Torrentshell from Ellis Brigham which cost £109. Surprise Surprise it’s practically the same as my old jacket!
Although I tried on a lot of brightly coloured jackets I concluded that neutral white would work with more of my wardrobe and so I’d be able to wear the jacket around Bristol as well as on my hiking trips. I was also impressed by the Ellis Brigham Service, since they were able to order a few different jackets from their catalogue so that I could try them in my local store at no extra charge.
My new waterproof jacket is very light and packs up small. Although it’s not the most expensive of the range in terms of fabric, it was perfect for my walking holiday in Austria where I wore it occasionally on the cool mornings or when we got to a highpoint like Seefelder Spitz which was cooler and a little windy.
Have fun choosing your waterproof jacket and even more fun on your next hiking trip!
Thanks to Ellis Brigham who provided me with my Patagonia Torrentshell Jacket for the purposes of this article. Heather travelled to Austria with Headwater Holidays – you can read about her adventures here.
More hiking gear info:
What equipment do you need for hiking in Europe?
How my Leki Micro Vario walking poles saved my legs on the Tour de Mont Blanc
How to choose the perfect hiking boots for the Tour de Mont Blanc (and other mountain trails)
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