There’s a host of little gems sitting just off the coast of France. PHILIP FAIERS explores 20 magical isles full of surprises…
There’s something calming about islands, something that slows you down and relaxes the mind. Perhaps it is the sound of gentle waves lapping against the rocks or the seduction of an unexpected shore. Maybe it’s the thought of being surrounded by nothing but water, or of being marooned. For me, I’m sure that a childhood of reading books like Swallows and Amazons, Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels awoke the explorer in me, so I always find islands magical.
It may come as a surprise to know that France has scores of islands – not including overseas dependencies or territories. Nor do I include the hundreds of tiny islets or even big beauties like Corsica. No, metropolitan France has more than 50 islands waiting to be explored. And some are simply stunning. Here’s a guide to 20 secret’ islands off mainland France that are full of their own surprises.
Off the coast of BrittanyEach of the islands off the coast of Brittany is a little world of its own. These solitary outposts are all different, but the islanders that inhabit them are in many ways all the same – they all live by the rhythm of the tides. Starting at the pink granite coast near Paimpol and working anti-clockwise to the Quiberon bay here is a string of Breton pearls worthy of admiration.
Garden isle�le de Br�hat is like a Mediterranean isle dropped into the sea off the north Brittany coast. Its gentle microclimate, the changing beauty of the landscape and the opulence of its flowers cannot fail to seduce. Try to arrive at high tide, as the island always looks best without its muddy petticoats showing. Br�hat is really two islands joined by a bridge and surrounded by an archipelago of tiny islets. The southernmost of the two parts of Br�hat is the lusher and more floral, and that is where most Br�hatins live. The northern part is more tranquil, but also more barren. There is a lighthouse where for many years a mother and daughter have been the lighthouse keepers.
Ferries go from la Pointe de l’Arcouest just to the north of Paimpol. Try the beautifully positioned la Potini�re for a relaxed seafood meal.
Walkers’ paradiseA few of the many small islands draped around the Breton coast like a rosary, have an unusual distinction – you can walk to them at low tide. One of the prettiest with its ten tiny beaches is �le Callot (pronounced Callotte) in the Baie de Morlaix. A causeway known as la passe aux moutons is revealed at low tide and joins the island to the pretty port of Carantec. There are plenty of pleasant walks on Callot and the panoramic views from the northern end of the island are superb. Take careful note of the tide times displayed at Carantec and allow half an hour to walk the causeway before the rising tide turns Callot into a true island once more.
Market garden isleNowhere on the �le de Batz (pronounced B�) are you more than 500 yards from the sea, and yet you often feel as though you are in the middle of lush countryside. The Batziens have always been seaweed harvesters. This ready resource, rich in phosphates, is used to fertilise smallholdings that grow many vegetables as well as helping the island’s many pretty gardens to flourish. Two ferry companies ply between Roscoff harbour and �le de Batz and the crossing takes 15 minutes.
Nature’s treasure islandAn ancient saying among sailors is Qui voit Mol�ne voit sa peine’ – who sees �le Mol�ne will see sorrow. This is perhaps less to do with the island and more because of the minefield of jagged reefs and rocks around it. Although Mol�ne is an island, UNESCO classifies it as a precious archipelago – just like the Galapagos. The vast field of islets and reefs off Finist�re is the richest area for seaweed in all of Europe and supports an exceptional amount of wildlife, which naturalists explore from Mol�ne. Dolphins, sea otters and grey seals live in abundance and there are hundreds of species of birds that make the archipelago their home. A ferry service operates from Le Conquet, France’s most westerly port.
Wild islandThe same saying that warns of Mol�ne says that those who set eyes on �le d’Oeussant (Ushant) will shed blood. Fear not, the saying dates back to the times of sailing ships when many were wrecked on rocks around Oeussant and Mol�ne. Thanks to regular battering by Atlantic gales Oeussant is virtually treeless – even grass grows in the direction of the prevailing wind. The north of the island is spectacular while the south is much quieter. An ancient granite house, Maison du Niou Uhella, was turned into an �comus�e in 1968. Around 700 people live on the island and there are a variety of simple hotels – all in Lampaul. Ferry services operate from Brest and Camaret.
Castaway charmerThe appeal of low-lying and barren �le de Sein is its spellbinding atmosphere. Steeped in myth and legend it was allegedly once home to the Senes – nine virgin priestesses with supernatural powers. The island was engulfed by the sea on several occasions, most recently 90 years ago. Back in the 18th century a huge tidal wave swept across the island after which the Duke of Brittany offered to pay the S�nans to leave their dangerous island. They refused. This character showed itself again during World War II when more than 100 S�nans sailed to England to join de Gaulle. Ferries from Audierne take about an hour. Scented isleThe �le de Groix should be called Happiness-sur-Mer. As soon as you arrive for the first time you wonder why you didn’t visit sooner. It is a marvel. The rose-coloured beach of Grand Sables, the bright facades and friendly faces of Port-Tudy, the ancient lavoirs and the summer scent of honeysuckle make this one of France’s best-kept secrets. It is an island full of surprises. Surprises like the miniature harbour at Port-Lay and the unusual weathervane on top of the church. Instead of a cockerel there’s a giant metal tuna fish impaled on a spike. Made all the more realistic by bird droppings, it gleams in the sunshine as a reminder that the islanders gained their wealth from tuna fishing. If you only visit one of these 20 islands, make it Groix – qui voit Groix voit sa joie!Ferries leave Lorient for Groix and the journey time is about 45 minutes.
Wild beautyThe name says it all. Belle by name belle by nature. From head to toe Belle-�le-en-Mer is, as its name implies, beautiful. From la Pointe des Poulains in the north, so beloved of famed French actress Sarah Bernhardt, to the southern c�te sauvage that inspired Monet, Belle-�le-en-Mer is a little paradise. At 20 kilometres long and up to 10 kilometres wide, the island is big enough to have a wealth of countryside, some beautiful beaches, charming little hamlets, characterful granite houses and animated ports. With an average of more than five hours of sunshine every day and almost the mildest climate in France, it comes as a surprise to discover that when the wind really blows, the shoreline resembles a scene from Dante’s Inferno with waves and spume crashing over the jagged coastline. Ferries from Quiberon take about 40 minutes.
Fountain of youthEven in the height of summer the �le de Houat is a haven of peace. This is surprising given that the island boasts one of France’s best beaches – the long, curving Tr�ac’h Er Goured. Last time I was on Houat (pronounced what’) the tranquillity was enhanced by the lack of any mobile phone signal, and unlike Belle-�le there are no cars. There’s a superb little hotel behind the soft sands of Tr�ac’h Er Goured, Hotel Ezenn, where a short stay is a zen-like and rejuvenating experience. Ferries leave from Quiberon and the journey takes about an hour.
The friendly isle�le de Ho�dic is Houat’s little sister, and at only two kilometres by one kilometre, one can easily walk around the island. An old fort has been converted into g�tes and at either La Trinquette or the Caf� des Yackman one can feel part of the daily life of this friendly little island. Ferries leave from Quiberon and come via Houat.
Off the West Coast
Napol�on’s islandThe tiny island of Aix is serviced by a navette from the beautiful Pointe de la Fum�e (20 minutes) northwest of Rochefort or, for a longer boat journey (one hour), from La Rochelle. The croissant-shaped island is a mere 320 acres but is famed as the last place in France where Napol�on stayed before his exile to Saint Helena. This is an island for strolling through woods and along tamarisk-hemmed beaches and for exploring isolated rocky inlets. With no cars, it is perfect for cycling or walking and don’t miss the Maison de l’Empereur – a museum in honour of Napol�on.
Wild and mildAt some 30 kilometres long, �le d’Ol�ron is metropolitan France’s second largest island after Corsica. The island is joined to the mainland by an immense umbilical viaduct—itself more than three kilometres long. An exceptional climate encourages oranges and olives to thrive on this lush, green floating farmland. A dozen pretty villages, forests, soft sandy dunes, beautiful beaches, salt flats, oyster beds and thousands of green fields make up Ol�ron. Best discovered on bicycle, it could nevertheless be explored by car. The best place to stay is Saint-Trojan, the best beach is Grande Plage and the best quayside dining is at La Cotini�re.
Mimosa-scented isle With no hills and no cliffs, �le de Noirmoutier looks like a heavily laden barge wallowing offshore. From the mainland a flat olive-green horizon is broken here and there by windmills, roofs and spires. At low tide a Turneresque landscape of shiny mudflats is dotted with marooned boats keeled at crazy angles. Noirmoutier is joined to the mainland not only by a road bridge, but also by an ancient causeway revealed at low tide. Now classed as an historic monument, le passage du Gois is steeped in myth and legend. The best beaches on Noirmoutier are to the northeast.
God’s islandOf all the islands off the Atlantic coast, �le d’Yeu is the farthest from the mainland. The boat trip takes a little more than an hour and drops you in a truly isolated little world. The name allegedly comes from l’�le Dieu – God’s island. Just as on mainland France where roof styles change south of the Loire, so too, with the offshore islands. The slate roofs of islands around the Brittany coast give way on �le d’Yeu to warm red canal tiles. Sitting atop bright lime-washed houses with blue shutters, the island’s houses paint a patriotic picture. The main harbour of Port Joinville is bustling and there are plenty of good quayside restaurants to explore. The best beaches are to the south and there’s a superb little restaurant at Port-de-la-Meule. Ferries ply between Port Joinville and Croix.
Inland islandsNot all of France’s islands are at sea, some are inland. One of my favourite inland islands is in the river Loire near Angers. Then there are the islands in the magical Golfe du Morbihan in southern Brittany – an inland sea. Most of the 40 or so islands in this gorgeous gulf are privately owned, but the two largest make great day visits.
Cultured pearlThe name, Isle of Monks, implies austerity, but the reality is totally different. �le aux Moines is a pearl in a clam-shaped inland sea to the south of Vannes. The name has nothing to do with any austere religious order, but comes from a megalith shaped like a monk. This little Breton paradise is a five-minute boat ride from Port Blanc. Charming cottages and ancient houses of sea-faring captains are reflected in the still waters of the anse du Gu�ric and moored offshore are half a dozen traditional two-masted Crial�is. These beautiful and speedy sailing boats with their rectangular rose-coloured canvas are a joy to behold as they tack back to shore at twilight – red sails in the sunset.
Captains’ isleSea-faring heroes used to set sail from l’�le d’Arz for far-flung shores. A few centuries ago the people of the Orient and South America knew more about this little island than Paris, thanks to the number of maritime adventurers based on the island. Merchant sailors’ names are engraved on granite stones in the graveyard and local history books show that at one time there were 245 islanders at sea among a total population of 820. Today the island may have lost its embarking heroes but they have been replaced by those that disembark to discover the island’s peacefulness, countryside walks and sandy beaches. Navettes ply here from Vannes.
River islandB�huard is a secretive little island that sits amid the mighty Loire near the Corniche Angevin in a broad sweep of the river south of Angers. There are many river islands along this stretch of the Loire, but relatively few house villages as the islands have traditionally been prone to winter flooding. One exception is the pretty village of B�huard, though it has had its fare share of flooding judging by the engraved slate near the church. Flood levels are also marked on several of the village houses all of which can at one time or another claim to have had their pieds dans l’eau.
Off the Mediterranean coast
Island of surprisesLe Levant is a five-mile rocky ridge just off the coast of Le Lavandou. The island is a bizarre mix of navy and nudists. The French navy has long occupied about three quarters of this pretty island for testing aircraft engines and rockets. At the western end of the island is the little village of H�liopolis, which has been the base for a celebrated nudist colony for 75 years. But you don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a naturist to enjoy Levant, because the village of H�liopolis has a rule that nudists must cover up in public places. Two beaches are designated as non-textile’ areas, but apart from these, visitors can wander round as they please. Navettes depart from Le Lavandou and Cavalaire-sur-Mer in the summer season.
Cannes’ offshore gardenFrom the quai Laubeuf in the old port of Cannes it is a mere 15 minutes by navette to reach �le Sainte-Marguerite, but it is also a step back in time. The tranquillity of the island is in sharp contrast to the razzmatazz of ritzy Cannes, but there is another odd juxtaposition on the island itself. Amid the serenity is severity in the shape of a fortress prison where, during the 17th century one of France’s most celebrated prisoners, the Man in the Iron Mask, was interred. A walk around the island takes about two hours and there is a well-marked nature trail to follow. There is a beachside restaurant – L’Escale – where views of Cannes bay and Cap d’Antibes are the best possible accompaniment to a seafood platter.
Provencal paradiseIt’s a quick and pleasant crossing from La Ciotat to the wooded little paradise of l’�le Verte – just 500 yards as the corbeau flies. The landing stage is a simple wooden pontoon and just behind is Chez Louisette, the only building on the island and a restaurant that is something of an institution. There are no fancy embellishments here, just simple fare cooked on a wood fire – try the pizzas, grilled steak or sardines.
The island is not much more than a large tree-clad rock in the blue Mediterranean waters, a mini-Eden of little more than 30 acres, all discoverable on foot. Several footpaths melt into the pine forest leading past long-abandoned military posts to various tiny beaches at the head of rocky inlets. Along the way you are bound to see what locals call le gabian – a yellow-legged gull – a protected species that colonise the island.By PHILIP FAIERS.