A chance to explore Dorset and the green, lush valleys of Normandy's Manche region, followed by a brief flirt with Brittany's bays and beaches. The itinerary on the Petit Tour de Manche, a new 428km cross-channel cycle route, looked tantalising. There was just one hitch: I'm your average weekend cyclist, the sort who shuns geek cycle gear and only pedals when the sun shines. So how, I wondered, would I cope on two wheels for a full nine days?
The epic adventure – launched last summer – is the brainchild of Cycle West. This is an Anglo-French project, with a budget of €8m, which aims to promote the channel regions as a European cycling destination.
Cycle West has devised three itineraries: the Petit Tour de Manche; a section of the 1,400km Vélodyssée Atlantic route from Ilfracombe to Nantes; and the 1,200km Tour de Manche. They can be tackled in their entirety, or reduced to sample bite-sized sections.
Four-fifths of the Petit Tour de Manche is traffic-free, with distinctive signage to help cyclists. Cycle West's website offers detailed maps and itineraries, complete with listings of attractions and accommodation tips. Cycling tour operators on either side of the Channel also offer self-guided and guided trips, staying in B&Bs and small hotels, with luggage support.
Having no one to pedal with, no idea of how to change a tyre and no sense of direction, I am delighted to have a guide on my trip. Even more so when, early on, Sebastien explains that the root of my knee problem is too low a seat position.
On the first day, we set off from the Westham Bridge in Weymouth and head to Wareham, on Sustrans National Cycle Network cycle paths (part of existing Routes 26 and 2). The landscapes are so pretty and restful that I vow to retire here one day. East of Dorchester, we cycle through the Frome Valley, past woodlands, trout-filled streams and rolling hills.
A detour down a spur off the route takes us to Thomas Hardy's birthplace. Nearby is Max Gate, where Hardy entertained T E Lawrence (whose grave we pass later in Moreton) and Virginia Woolf. Apparently Hardy was a keen cyclist, too. How, I wonder would he have tackled the gentle hills on this 42km stretch? Surely not as slowly as I did. The trick I learn is to shift into the lowest gear, ignore your (faster) cycling companion and pedal at your own pace. All that exercise definitely works up an appetite; that first meal of home-made fish fingers and cake at the Moreton Tea Rooms tastes magical.
I spend the night at the Red Lion Hotel in Wareham. Next day, we head to Poole, graced by blue skies. The route takes us through the heathland of the Isle of Purbeck to pretty Studland Bay via the ruins of Corfe Castle. The sand is pristine and white – and too tempting to ignore. After a lazy break, we put our bikes on the chain ferry across to Poole and cycle off, ogling the Art-Deco follies of Sandbanks as we make our way past the Sunseeker yacht factory to our spotless guesthouse, the Mariner.
After two days of cycling, I'm neither sore nor stiff, but I am hankering after a lie-in. It's not to be: bleary-eyed, at 5.30am the next day, we pedal over to the ferry terminal, bound for Cherbourg.
Four hours later, we're cycling into the Normandy countryside. We head south, past the 16th-century Chateau des Râvalet, with its moat and elegant gardens. Next, there's a steady 22km uphill section on country roads followed by a blessedly flat stretch on a voie verte – a cycle, horse and pedestrian only "green way" that was once a railway line.
After a night in St-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, we continue to the Cotentin Peninsula, known locally as the Marais. The wetland area is home to around 200 species of bird. Come winter, the marshes flood, but in summer, they're dry and meadow-like. However, it's when we get beyond the small town of Carentan that the Normandy leg of the Petit Tour de Manche explodes into glorious life.
From here, it's a bewitching and easy 37km cycle through the Vire Valley to the town of St-Lô, on winding country lanes and cycle paths. The tall grasses are flecked with wildflowers – orchids, forget-me-nots and foxgloves. The smell of lavender wafts up my nostrils, as we meander past apple orchards, grazing cattle and sleepy hamlets, dominated by church spires.
As we reach the Vire canal, near the Port des Planques bridge, we stop for a picnic. The simple fare turns out to be a brief interlude in what proves to be an endless array of rich gastronomic delights in Normandy. The locals have a taste for cream, butter, apple tarts, calvados, andouille (smoked pork sausage), oysters, galettes and Camembert. Whether we're in a brasserie, a three-star restaurant, or a modest café de routier, I find myself in raptures.
In St-Lô, for example, we dine at Le Goût Sauvage, a gem of a Slow Food restaurant. The menu is small and creative; my vichyssoise even contains Dorset Blue Vinny cheese – a pleasingly apt cross-channel offering.
Is the accommodation as "wow"-worthy as the food? Well, the small hotels and B&Bs we stayed at were all comfortable and friendly. However, none can beat the homestay after a 30km ride along the Vire river.
Clos Minotte is a stone house outside the village of Tessy-sur-Vire. Our huge rooms are elegant, spotless and overlook the gardens. Hosts Didier and Marie-Claire welcome us with mugs of Pommeau, a local drink made of calvados, cider and apple juice, and a home-cooked dinner: andouille on a blini with camembert; apple sorbet with calvados; beef and carrot stew; rhubarb cake and rice pudding. The couple join us for dinner and, as the Calvados flows, I lose track of time.
So, it is one sleepy, hungover cyclist who takes to her bike the next day. Pedalling 70km, uphill, in the rain, with a sore head is no fun, no matter how restful the views. But, with the aid of Sebastien, a dose of ibuprofen and a hot flask of tea, I chug along to Mortain, home to twin waterfalls – the Grande and Petite Cascade.
At the end of the day, I am spent. But my respite will prove brief. Travelling 62km westward to Mont St-Michel? Pas de problème! I may cycle like a tortoise, but I get there in the end. From a cycle path along the Sélune River, I catch my first glimpse of the medieval Benedictine Abbey and steepled church which rises like a mirage on an isolated granite rock jutting out of the Channel. Magical.
From there on, we go coastal to St-Malo. The last day is spent crossing the Couesnon River, breezing past poppy fields and along the Route de la Baie. We stop for moules marinière at the Café du Jardin in St-Benoît-des-Ondes, then sweep inland along flower-framed lanes.
Finally, we linger over a flask of tea on a windswept beach where a few hardy souls are digging for oysters. The air is salty, the breeze stiff – and I raise my mug to l'amitié Anglo-Française and the humble bicycle.
Getting there and getting around
Cycling tour operator Bikecation (01435 884368; bikecation.co.uk) offers self-guided tours on the Petit Tour de Manche from £965pp, with 10 nights' B&B, luggage transfers and five dinners. Bike hire, ferry tickets and flights are extra. For more detail on Cycle West visit: cycle-west.com
South West Trains (0845 6000 650; southwesttrains.co.uk) operates from London to Poole and Weymouth.
Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; brittanyferries.com) sails from Portsmouth and Poole to Cherbourg. Single fares for cyclists start at £30.
Condor Ferries (0845 609 1024; condorferries.com) sails between Weymouth and St Malo via Jersey or Guernsey. Foot passengers £32.50 single; bicycles free.
More information A guidebook to the Petit Tour de Manche, by Mark Porter, is available from Bay Tree Press; £11.99 (baytreepress.com).