This Beautiful Region of France Is Best Seen From the Sea

The Brittany coastline offers plenty of empty beaches and characterful harbors. Sailing between them offers a new perspective.

This Beautiful Region of France Is Best Seen From the Sea

Le Palais is the main point of entry to Belle-Île.

Photo by JP Chretien / Shutterstock

This essay is part of a series on “happy places”—destinations we return to, again and again, even if it’s just in our mind. You can read some of the other stories here and here.

If you look up Brittany in an atlas, it’s set in the far left part of France, the western point of the country’s famous hexagon that essentially divides the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay. In my more vivid mental map, however, the region is a jagged coastline of deserted inlets and lovely little harbors, shaded in with memories of lazy days sailing, bracing autumnal swims, and long conversations on gentle tides.

It’s here, along the region’s southern stretch, that I embarked on several boating trips with my dad and two of his friends from work some years ago. Each time, the four of us would take an overnight ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff, drive to a tiny marina in Fouesnant, and cast off in a southerly direction in his six-berth Beneteau yacht. We’d then tack southeast and southwest, taking in the largely uninhabited archipelago of the Îles de Glénan, the huge natural harbor of the Gulf of Morbihan, and the cobbled streets of tiny Piriac-sur-Mer further south.

To drive between Fouesnant and Piriac would take around two hours, but by boat, you could investigate for a lifetime. Part of the fun was how impromptu our daily explorations were. Each morning we’d wake in a different harbor, or anchored offshore somewhere, unfurl a chart and plot our route according to the tides, the winds, and our whims. We’d cover maybe a dozen nautical miles and end up in a new, undiscovered spot around late afternoon in time for sundowners and exploring.

Along the way, we discovered several historic treasures. We roamed around a 16th-century fort in Le Palais on the island of Belle-Île, an impressive structure that was given additional ramparts by King Louis XIV’s military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban many years later; it is now a stunning hotel. We slowly drifted past the imposing concrete boxes of a former German U-boat base at the port of L’Orient, a relic that survived hundreds of Allied bombs and is now open for tours.

Our adventures were fueled by lots of seafood and crêpes, washed down with plenty of cidre, all of which trigger Proustian recollections—fitting, as the writer had spent time in this area more than a century earlier. (He said of Beg-Meil, next to Fouesnant: “The apple trees come down to the sea, and the smell of cider mingles with that of seaweed. The mixture of poetry and sensuality is just about right for me.”)

The Îles de Glénan are about 10 miles off the coast of France.

The Îles de Glénan are about 10 miles off the coast of France.

Photo by Jef Wodniack / Shutterstock

Thinking back on these trips now unlocks more memories. Like the time we woke up in L’Orient to find the boat grounded on the mud and had to wait for the tide to release us back into the water, praying that the keel wasn’t damaged. Or the evening we covered up the ship’s radar screen and navigated by the stars, as though we were seafarers of yore. Or the day the boat’s engine broke and left us drifting at speed toward a solid seawall, and we fended off the approaching bricks with metal poles that duly bent.

They weren’t all Swallows and Amazons-esque escapades. The trips were full of simple joys, too, like switching the motor off and enjoying the silence as the wind filled the sails and we harnessed nature’s natural rhythms to keep us on our way. Most days, we’d end up bobbing up and down at a handful of knots, chatting about nothing in particular while waiting for a stretch of land to come into view.

I knew back then that it was a precious opportunity to have uninterrupted time with my father, and looking back 10 years later, with life moving on swiftly and fleeting moments appearing even briefer in hindsight, that’s much clearer. The boat didn’t have a TV and I don’t recall anyone on their phones. I fondly remember waking up one morning to my dad leaving a cup of tea in my berth and tousling my hair like I was eight again.

Now, I live in Los Angeles, 5,000 miles from my family in England’s west country, with three kids under five of my own. I can’t just nip across the channel on Brittany Ferries on a whim. My dad usually makes the epic flight to our part of the world instead, although he does still sail in France every summer.

I’m looking forward to showing my own boys the region soon. But in the meantime, I’ll remember things past, closing my eyes and conjuring the saline air, the chorus of halyards dinging against masts, and someone passing up a sunset beer from the galley.

>> Next: A Love Letter to the Mountain I Grew Up With

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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