10 beautiful French islands to visit and explore
Off the coast of France there are hundreds of stunning islands, ranging from wild and windswept to mild and laidback. Karen Tait picks out her 10 favourite to visit
1 Île de Bréhat
Starting at the ‘top’ of France, in the English Channel, or La Manche, Île de Bréhat is situated just off the Côtes-d’Armor coast of Brittany, accessed by ferry from the Pointe de l’Arcouest, north of Paimpol. With a population of around 400, Bréhat is just 3km² in size. Although considered a single island, it is actually an archipelago composed of two main islands, separated only at high tide, and many smaller ones. It is famous for its pink granite rocks and Mediterranean vegetation, thanks to the mild microclimate caused by the warm Gulf Stream coming from the Atlantic. Known as the Island of Flowers, it has palm trees, eucalyptus, fig trees and mimosa, as well as more common species like hydrangeas. Cars aren’t allowed on the island, so the best way to explore is by bike or on foot – there are many coastal paths. There are a small handful of hotels and a campsite. The island is popular with daytrippers visiting historic sites such as the Paon lighthouse, St-Michel chapel, Birlot windmill and Verreries artisan glassworks in the old Vauban fort, as well as beaches, the best of which is widely considered to be Guerzido.
2 Île de Batz
Also off the Brittany coast, but this time the Finistère department further west, Île de Batz is the same size as Bréhat (3km²), reached by ferry from Roscoff, and with slightly more inhabitants at around 550. At low tide it looks as if you could walk across the sand banks to Batz but this is extremely dangerous as the tide rises quickly. The island is known for its white sandy beaches and dunes, small harbours and exotic plants, as like Bréhat, it has a mild climate. Market gardening is carried out on the island’s 30 or so farms, which specialise in early vegetables, while the Jardin Georges Delaselle showcases over 2,000 exotic plant species. The car-free island has a magnificent 44m-high lighthouse, offering panoramic views.
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3 Île d’Ouessant
At 20km off the Finistère coast (via ferry from Le Conquet), Ouessant is the farthest from the mainland of all the Breton islands, situated at France’s most western point. A wild and rocky island some 15.6km² in size, it has a population of around 850 and is popular for pony trekking, hiking, cycling, and museum and lighthouse visits. Ouessant is the only place in Brittany which has a separate name in English: Ushant. It is home to the Ouessant sheep, a breed that was widespread in northern Europe until Roman times but which now survives in only a few remote places, or as a heritage breed. The archipelago of Ouessant and Molène is composed of seven islands and 10 islets, classified by UNESCO as a biosphere reserve. Molène, just 1.2km long and 800m wide, is very flat with sandy beaches. The dangerous approaches to the islands are the subject of folklore – “He who sees Molène sees suffering, he who sees Ouessant sees his blood” – and the lighthouses protecting the reefs (Jument, Stiff, Créac’h) are renowned.
4 Ile de Groix
Still in Brittany but now in the Atlantic, off the Morbihan coast, the Île de Groix is 15km² in size, reached by ferry from Lorient, and with a more significant year-round population of 2,300. Groix has a few small towns, with high cliffs on its north coast, and sandy beaches and secluded coves on the south coast. A few hotels line the harbour at Port-Tudy but the heart of the island is just up the hill in Le Bourg, a small square of cafés and shops, with a church whose spire is topped with a sculpture of a tuna – at the start of the 20th century the island had one of the largest tuna fishing ports in France. The island is easily explored by bike and offers marine activities, nature walks and fishing, although it is mainly known for its sandy beaches, especially Les Grands Sables. The geology of Groix is distinct from that of the mainland, containing over 60 minerals, and the east and south coasts form a mineral nature reserve.
Belle-Île is the largest of Brittany’s islands (84km²), 15km off the Morbihan coast by ferry from Quiberon and Lorient, with a population of 5,000. The island offers spectacular beaches and cliffs, quaint towns, pastel-coloured houses, peaceful countryside and plenty of hotels, restaurants, museums and activities. Belle-Île hosts the largest opera festival in western France (Lyrique en Mer: Festival de Belle-Île). The mild climate supports an array of Mediterranean plants. As with other Breton islands, it is best explored on foot or by bike (bicycle hire is available on most of the islands). The island’s beauty has always inspired artists, including Matisse and Monet, who painted many of his works here, as well as authors such as Flaubert and Dumas
6 Île de Noirmoutier
Moving south down the Atlantic coast into the Vendée department in Pays de la Loire, Noirmoutier is 49km² in size, with a population of 9,600. Unlike the Breton islands, Noirmoutier has been connected to the mainland by a road bridge since 1971. Some people don’t even consider Noirmoutier as an island as it is accessible by land for a few hours each day when the water recedes from Le Gois, a cobblestone causeway. The effect of bridge access can be seen in the housing developments along the marshy stretches between the bridge and the town, with campsites strung along the sunny beaches. Restaurants abound, including around the 12th-century castle, and many of the houses have been in the same families for generations. The island divides into the communes of Barbâtre, l’Épine, la Guérinière and Noirmoutier-en-l’Île. The latter gave its name to the island and is known for its fine sea salt or fleur de sel. Noirmoutier is also known for La Bonnotte potatoes, which are the most expensive in the world. Parts of the island have been reclaimed from the sea.
7 Île d’Yeu
Also off the Vendée coast, reached by ferry from Fromentine and from St Gilles Croix de Vie, Île d’Yeu is 23km² in size with a population of around 5,000. The island is home to low, whitewashed houses, complemented by hydrangeas, and dramatic rocky cliffs, tiny inlets and occasional stretches of sand, with coastal footpaths. There are two main harbours, Port-Joinville and La Meule, with the usual bike rentals, tourist shops, hotels and campsites. They are known for tuna and lobster fishing, and fishermen offload their catches in front of the portside cafés. The island also has a castle, several churches and a concentration of megalithic dolmens and menhirs. Since the 19th century, Île d’Yeu has attracted many artists, including Jean Rigaud, official painter to the French Navy, who owned a house here, and Jean Dufy who produced about 20 paintings of the island during several summer stays there in the 1920s.
8 Île de Ré
Off the Charente-Maritime, Poitou-Charentes, coast, this large island (85km²) is connected to La Rochelle on the mainland by a 2.9km-long bridge. Ile de Ré is one of France’s most highly populated islands (18,000) and is probably the best known by British holidaymakers and house-hunters, thanks in part to Ryanair flights to La Rochelle. The population can increase to as much as 220,000 in summer but thankfully there is enough space for it not to feel too crowded. Île de Ré includes two cantons, St-Martin-de-Ré eastwards and Ars-en-Ré westwards, and divides into 10 communes: Rivedoux-la-Plage, La Flotte, Ste-Marie-de-Ré, St-Martin-de-Ré, Le Bois-Plage-en-Ré, La Couarde-sur-Mer, Loix, Ars-en-Ré, St-Clément-des-Baleines and Les Portes-en-Ré. St-Martin is the unoffical capital of the Ile de Ré. The towns are characterised by their low white houses with colourful hollyhocks growing through the cobblestones. Although still laidback, the vibe on Ile de Ré is quite different to other islands, as it attracts rich Parisians on holiday along with many of France’s captains of industry, government ministers and celebrities. The island enjoys approximately the same amount of annual sunshine hours as the Mediterranean coast but with a light breeze and a cooler water temperature.
9 Île d’Oléron
The largest French island (174km²) after Corsica, with a population of 22,000, Oléron has been connected to the mainland by a road bridge since 1966 (toll-free since 1991). Some 3km in length, it was the longest bridge in France when it was built; it now sits in third place after St-Nazaire and Île de Ré bridges. The fertile and well-cultivated island enjoys a mild climate with sufficient but not excessive rainfall. It is a popular holiday hotspot with great beaches, horse-riding, old buildings, hotels, campsites and restaurants specialising in seafood, especially the local oysters. Boat trips operate from the town of Boyardville to the nearby Île d’Aix and past Fort Boyard. The island divides into eight communes: La Brée-les-Bains, Le Château-d’Oléron, Dolus-d’Oléron, Le Grand-Village-Plage, St-Denis-d’Oléron, St-Georges-d’Oléron, St-Pierre-d’Oléron and St-Trojan-les-Bains. In around 1152 to 1160 Eleanor of Aquitaine introduced the Rôles d’Oléron, the first formal statement of ‘maritime’ or ‘admiralty’ laws in north-west Europe.
10 Îles d’Hyères
Crossing to the Mediterranean coast of France, to the Var department in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, we come to the Îles d’Hyères, reached by ferry from the port of Giens. Situated opposite the town of Hyères, there are three islands: Porquerolles (12.5km2, population 200), Port Cros (7km², population 80) and Levant (9km2, population 100). Porquerolles, an extension of the Giens peninsula, is the most westerly of the islands. It has small hills, and a south coast lined with cliffs, while the north coast is home to the port and beaches. In 1912 the entire island was bought by Francois Joseph Fournier as a wedding present for his wife. He also planted 200 hectares of vines, producing a wine that was among the first to be classified as vin des Côtes de Provence. Much of the island is now part of the Port-Cros national park and nature conservation area. It is the most mountainous of the islands, noted for its rare flora and as a bird refuge. In 1931, doctors Gaston and André Durville established Héliopolis, Europe’s first village dedicated to naturism, on the island. It has a small school, town hall, police station, food shop and a few clothing shops offering varieties of ‘le minimum’, the local dress code. There are a number of hotels, B&Bs and restaurants, all catering for naturists, along with beaches where nudity is obligatory
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