Beaches of Brittany
The lure of the seaside
For a long time the British have been drawn across the English Channel by the alluring siren calls of Brittany. This distinctive region offers much; it’s a land of myths and legends, grey granite villages, cider and seafood. But it’s the spectacular 1700 miles of coastline that create such a fabulous holiday destination.
For centuries Brittany was a staunchly independent entity, with a reputation for a doughty, inward looking populace. After all, this was the ‘petite Bretagne’, the smaller neighbour of Grande Bretagne across the water.
This steely character had been forged by near isolation. For centuries it was remote from the rest of the known world with dense forests and a rugged coastline forming an impenetrable barrier. Think of Astérix and Obélix, the wonderful characters created by Goscinny and Underzo: cartoon nonsense, yes, but firmly rooted in fact. The feisty Gauls were a self contained people with their own fierce identity and traditions.
The late Victorian era saw English holiday makers venturing to Brittany, staying in elegant villas and seaside hotels. Resorts like Carantec, Locquirec and Perros-Guirec sprang up; tourism possibilities suddenly gave sweeping, sandy bays a new commercial value. Genteel Dinard lies across the Rance estuary from St Malo and, with its Belle Epoque architecture, has carved out a reputation as the ‘Cannes of the north’. The subject of Picasso’s ‘Baigneuses sur la Plage’, to this day it still draws a crowd.
Life’s a beach – but what’s the appeal?
Brittany’s sublime beaches have long been a popular holiday destination for those who hanker for holidays with a timeless appeal. Brittany remains seemingly untouched by much of modern life and evocatively old fashioned – in a good way.
Around every bend in the road you’ll come across little fishing ports and jauntily painted fishing boats. Gaze out to sea and you’ll spot azure blue waters speckled with white sailed boats that seem to hang motionless in the distance.
Take some time out and spend a lazy afternoon toying with some fruits de mer – life’s simpler pleasures can easily become its luxuries. With bracing cliff walks, secluded sandy coves, swooping seagulls, sleepy villages and the occasional ice cream, Brittany’s beaches conjure up an image of seaside holidays like they always used to be.
The Celtic connection
Brittany’s Celtic past is obvious. Indeed the Breton language closely resembles both Welsh and Cornish. Settlers flocked here from Britain, fleeing the Roman invaders and carving out their own identity. The Arthurian myths and legends were transported by the ex-pat Celts and re-born with a Breton twist. The dark, misty Forest of Brocéliande, west of Rennes at today’s Paimpont, was the perfect setting for the stories of Merlin and King Arthur.
The north coast is renowned for its rugged cliffs and jagged inlets. The Emerald Coast in the Côtes d’Armor département is particularly beautiful, named after the colours of the waters which range from turquoise to emerald depending on the time of day and the weather.
There are smugglers’ trails galore, running along the cliffs and places like Erquy and Val André are home to tempting little eateries of all shapes and sizes, as well as plenty of old world charm.
The Pink Granite Coast is distinctive, so called for the rose tinted hues that the soft evening light exaggerates in the bizarre, weathered shapes of the granite outcrops. The stretch between Perros-Guirec and Trebeurden is iconic - look out for the Witch’s Hat and the Rabbit.
Just north of Perros-Guirec, the sheltered little beach of St Guirec is a real gem, a pristine sandy sweep complete with a small castle set on the pink granite rocks.
The Crozon peninsular, on the very tip of Finistère, juts out into the Atlantic like a dragon’s tongue. The Pointe du Raz is Brittany’s answer to Land’s End – a wild, craggy spot with heather topped cliffs and brooding granite villages. It’s fantastic for epic seascapes and blustery coastal walks, as well as picturesque harbours and picture postcard villages like Locronan, Camaret and Le Faou.
Popular with holiday makers for over 100 years, this is a long sandy expanse on the southern side of the Crozon peninsular and sheltered from the buffeting waves of the Atlantic. Slightly off the beaten track, it attracts activity lovers who stay a while and indulge in sailing, walking and cycling.
Southern Brittany is generally accepted as a gentler landscape and more forgiving climate, bathed by the Gulf Stream and with various micro-climates along the coast. The soft, sandy beaches and intriguing tidal pools are what childhood was invented for.
The beaches at Beg Meil and around Concarneau are safe and shelve gently into the Atlantic waters. Further south on the Quiberon peninsula there is an almost sub-tropical feel with palm trees and little sandy islands speckled across the Golfe de Morbihan, bathed by the Gulf Stream.
A hardy perennial among beach loving Francophiles, this has long been one of France’s most popular beach resorts. It successfully combines a superb sandy beach with all the options of a bustling resort, including boat trips up the river Odet to Quimper and out to the Isles de Glénan.
Beach life and a classic coast aside, there a few things not to miss while spending time in Brittany. This is our Top Three of unmissable (and un-beachy) Breton highlights which guarantee not to get your feet wet.
Whether you opt for sweet crêpes or savoury buckwheat galettes, you’ll find them irresistible. Charming little crêperies bedecked in gingham only serve to enhance the feeling of times past.
There are countless prehistoric standing stone alignments sprinkled across Brittany, dating from Neolithic times around 5,000 BC. Some of these are vast, comprised of hundreds of large stones arranged in huge lines or circles. As a tangible link to times long ago and little understood they are mysterious and in the warm golden evening sun they can be atmospheric. Those outside Carnac are most extensive and among the most famous, with over 3,000 stones dominating the heathland.
Pass through disconcertingly deserted villages, past lush orchards of apples and look out for cider sold at the gate of innumerable farms and smallholdings. A perfect souvenir!
Toast the coast
Brittany has an undisputed maritime history and beaches to tempt everyone. So, as the toast goes, ‘Be Breizh!’ – celebrate all that is Breton and embrace its individuality.
Hop over the border to Normandy, a region featured in Lonely Planet's Best in Travel 2019 Top Regions list. Normandy is a fascinating blend of art, history and maritime culture. Home to The Bayeux Tapestry and the beaches of the D-Day Landings, the region also has a reputation for its fresh seafood, cider and, of course, crêpes!
Prestige Emerald Coast Cycling
Quiet coves, elegant seaside towns and Belle Epoque hotels
Featured in the Telegraph's 10 best cycling holidays for 2016, this easy cycle takes in the beautiful Brittany coastline and verdant countryside, following and criss-crossing the River Rance. Visit Belle Epoque towns and bustling fishing...