In Photos: Discovering France's Idyllic Belle Île En Mer
Belle Île residents always say that when you leave the island, you’re going back to France. When I first heard the expression, I assumed I had misunderstood—or that my French was just terrible. I happened to have stumbled upon the lesser-known French island of Belle Île En Mer when I was looking for a hotel in Brittany. My family has always preferred vacations to places that are a bit remote, and so we decided that Belle Île en Mer, translated in English as “the beautiful island in the sea,” would be perfect for our annual trip. The island is not close to Paris or any of the country’s major airports, but the six-hour car ride to the port town of Quiberon, followed by a 30-minute ferry, is well worth it.
We arrived to Quiberon just in time to make the last ferry, at dusk. Just as my sleepless body was about to dissolve into a catatonic stupor, Belle Île came into view: white cottages on a jagged coastline, sailboats rocking by their moorings, and two twinkling harbor lights beckoning the ferry to port.
It wasn't until after spending four days discovering Belle Île that I understood that local saying. I could understand why the locals saw it as its own simple, almost mystical nation.
During high season, ferries run almost every hour from Quiberon to Le Palais. Many of the hotels close in the winter months so the shoulder seasons or summer are the best time to visit.
Transportation on the Island:
Either bring your own car (book a space for it on the ferry) or rent a small one from Castel Clara. Taxis are expensive and the drivers can be a bit reckless.
Brush Up on Your French:
Since mostly French, Belgian, and German tourists frequent the island, English is seldom spoken. Most of the hotel staff speaks a fair amount of English but you won’t find any signs or menus in town that have the English translation.
A Saltwater Spa Hotel and Coastal Views
You won’t find many luxury resorts on the island. Most visitors opt for a small B&B or a picturesque white cottage with blue shutters (one of the allures of the French hideaway). For those determined to have a hotel experience, there's Castel Clara, a Relais & Châteaux property on a cliff overlooking a small cove. All the guestrooms are decorated with cool, soft tones that reflect the grey-blue waters, and the lobby is appropriately nautical, with beautiful black-and-white photographs of sailboats from the 1920s. The seafood, served even at breakfast, is locally sourced and the thalasso saltwater spa is also not to be missed.
Lunch on the Cliffside Terrace
For lunch, the hotel’s casual restaurant, Café Clara, serves up a mouthwatering spread of seafood delicacies like traditional langoustines, prawns, and cockles.
Exploring the Wild Coast
The most spectacular spot on the wild coast is Cote Sauvage. The cliff drops straight down into deep ravine, proving the unfailing power of water and wind. Even in the summer, when not a cloud is in sight, the area is hauntingly romantic. It’s here that Claude Monet captured the untamed beauty of Belle Île. Two of the paintings composed here are on permanent display at Paris’s Musee d’Orsay.
Bright Buildings and Fresh Food in Le Palais
The biggest port town, Le Palais, is a lovely place for an afternoon stroll—particularly perfect after devouring a buckwheat crepe at the popular harbor-side spot, La Touline. Every street is lined with pastel-colored pastry shops, boutiques, and cafes serving up fresh pots of moules frites.
Fish Market Finds and Harbor Views
From the early hours of the morning until 1 p.m., one of the island's squares turns into a bustling fish market. Tourists who opt for a cottage rental often stop by the stalls to grab dinner fixings like salmon, sea bass or more peculiar offerings like percebes (commonly known as gooseneck barnacles). The very best pastime, however, is sitting by the harbor with your feet dangling over the ledge and breaking the flaky crust of a hot croissant.
The Fluid Workshop
Founded in 2008, Fluid is one of Belle Île’s first glassblowing studios. The company focuses on modern glass design and produces everything from water glasses to chandeliers. Fluid also brings in renowned glassblowers to teach classes and give lectures. Plus, because the studio is in the same open space as the showroom, you get to observe the artists in action.
A Beach for Surfers and Explorers
Bikes may take a few wrong turns while en route to Plage Donnant, but once the salmon-hued sands and dunes come into view, the journey becomes well worth it. The enclave is a haven to surfers as it’s one of the only beaches that experiences giant swells. It’s also a great area to explore. You can hike up the jagged rocks that surround the beach or when it’s low tide, small pathways between towering black shale rocks open up and are filled with tide pools. In addition to Donnant, Belle Île boasts more than sixty beaches and there are still many other smaller shorelines to be found.
A Hidden Gem in Sauzon
On a tiny street in the island’s other harbor town, Sauzon, lies the restaurant Roz Avel. Don’t let the country house décor and 12-table dining room fool you into thinking this place is anything less than spectacular. The restaurant serves classic French like tornado beef and foie gras, but the beef is wrapped with juicy bacon and the pâté is served with roasted pistachios, sesame bread, and rhubarb chutney. In the summer, it’s all about tender lobster medallions with heirloom tomatoes and for dessert, a chocolate moelleux with a passion fruit filling and piña colada ice cream.
The Crooked Lighthouse
Belle Île’s most famous resident was actress Sarah Bernhardt, who frequented the island a few times a year. She ended up purchasing a small house by the rugged Pointe des Poulains on the north side, which is now open to the public as a museum. Nearby stands a crooked lighthouse perched on the highest tip of the peninsula, which turns into its own small island during high tide.
It's difficult to drive without seeing sheep grazing on the side of a hill or cows in a field. Thanks to the Gulf Stream bringing in temperate weather throughout the year, the area has maintained a robust agribusiness. At right: burgeoning fuchsia hydrangeas that spill over weathered fences.
Drinks at Sunset
One of Castel Clara’s most enticing features is the outdoor terrace that overlooks Goulphar Bay. The space is part of the hotel’s bar and a perfect spot to sip on an aperitif while watching the small fishing boats return to their moorings.
An Amuse Bouche at Le 180°
On the terrace, you can sample the latest amuse bouche from the hotel’s culinary crème de la crème, Le 180˚. One of the restaurant's signature menus is the five-course lobster tasting, which includes an appetizer of blue lobster lightly smoked with an herb vinaigrette. Be sure to get the apple three ways for dessert.
Perched on a hill overlooking Le Palais, Citadel Vauban, an 11th-century fortress, dominates the harbor’s skyline. The grounds still have the original buildings, some of which have been turned into an upscale restaurant and hotel, as well as a giant naval room filled with antiques.
Goodbye for Now
One of the best ways to explore the crevices and caves of the coastline is by sailboat. If there’s sun and a breeze, the main sails go up and a moored boat is scarcely seen. When finally leaving Belle Île en Mer, you’ll keep spotting the small ice cream shop by the creperie that you wish you’d popped into, or the tiny beach that’d be perfect to drift off to sleep on. But, hey, there's always next time.