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Exploring Hidden French Islands

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Photo: Matthieu Salvaing

Belle-Île-en-Mer

Location: 101 miles west of Nantes
Distance from mainland: 9.3 miles
Surface: 32.4 square miles (number of times Belle-Île fits into Manhattan: 0.7)
Year-round population: 5,000
High-season population (excluding tourists): 15,000
Hotel beds: 20,000

The history of Belle-Île is inseparable from the history of water worship in France. The island saw its first real tourists in about 1850. Mystified by the new fashion for bathing in the ocean in Brittany, locals referred to the intruders uncomprehendingly (why would anyone actually choose to get wet?) as “foreigners.” The earliest cabanas were designed to be quickly lifted away in the event of an invasion. The English had seized the island’s citadel, also by Vauban, the century before, and the memory was still fresh.

Belle-Île is for those who find Île de Ré too “Marie-Chantal” (snobby), Bendor too limiting, and Ouessant too wild and isolated (read on). The island is monopolized by normal, regular French people of average means in the normal, regular business of being on holiday: riding bikes, picnicking, swimming (even though the water never averages more than 64 degrees), buying honey at the market, wearing out the plastic café furniture. I’m sure I should have been paying attention to other things, but stepping onto the wharf at the main port of Le Palais, a 20-minute ride on the fast boat from Quiberon on the mainland, I couldn’t help noticing how the island rejects all the usual and corny tools of maritime seduction. With 5,000-year-old Celtic menhirs, a druidical forest, moors knotted with heather, and needlelike rock formations along the coast, Belle-Île is plenty picturesque. But it draws the line at pretty and cute. No gay blue-and-white tearooms with waitresses in sailor tops. You could never get away with marketing a place as sublimely ordinary, in the sense of it being natural, authentic, unselfconscious. But it’s an interesting idea.

The good news is that the citadel, poised on a cliff edge 130 feet above the Atlantic, is now a surprising hotel, the mâchicoulis serving as terraces leading off many of the 65 guest rooms. Water views as promised by websites are almost always deficient; not these. Still, Belle-Île could do with more and better lodgings. The only alternative to La Citadelle Vauban is Château Bordénéo, an inland maison d’hôtes of good intentions and some allure. Among hotels, the big one to avoid is the offensively expensive Castel Clara. It has a huge thalassotherapy center, and you know what that means: taking breakfast with shuffling curists in graying terry bathrobes.

When train service was inaugurated between the Gare Montparnasse in Paris and Quiberon in 1882, the trip took 12 hours (as against 4 1/2 today). Belle-Île was a destination on the verge. Four years later, Flaubert published his bored impressions of the island and Monet arrived to paint. The book, and a joint show with Rodin in Paris of some of Monet’s works, greatly increased awareness of Belle-Île. One or both must have influenced the choice of the island as a place for Colette to convalesce in 1894 after an illness brought on by her marriage to the monstrous Willy. (Sarah Bernhardt, who summered here for three decades, disembarked for the first time the same year.) All of 21, and poised to begin the first volume in the Claudine series, Colette sat on the beach in leg-of-mutton sleeves and a pussycat bow at a telling moment in Belle-Île’s tourism evolution. The first real guide concerned solely with the island had come out three years before; the first postcards were four years off. Butter, the only souvenir, was about to be challenged by vases stuck with colorfast seaweed.

Having never laid eyes on the sea before, and impassioned as she was by the natural world, Colette was helped in her recovery by the thrilling discovery of new flora and fauna (“I’m swimming in waves of joy.”) Belle-Île’s sardine industry was at full throttle, and it is impossible that she, a future famous gourmande, left without sampling a dozen or three. Among today’s tourists the most popular souvenir is a half-dozen cans of prized millimisée sardines (they’re dated, like wine) from La Belle-Îloise boutique, on the Place de la République. Despite its name, the company is in Quiberon, the last fish cannery on the island having closed in 1975. The sardines are so good you can almost forgive the deception.

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