back to map >

La Crème de la Mer
French Coastline

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Whether you love surfing or sunbathing, or prefer pebbles to sand, the French coastline has a beach to suit everyone, says Sarah Shuckburgh.

As you read this, roads all over France will be busy as millions of French and other holidaymakers set off for les grandes vacances. Many are heading for the seaside, two thousand miles of infinite variety, with beaches for families or lovers, for surfers or sand-yachters, for gastronomes or junkfood addicts, for naturists or the warmly-clad.

France's beaches are crowded and deserted, expensive and free, windy and sheltered, cool and hot, unspoilt or built up, with every amenity or with none. Waves, currents and tides can be treacherous or insignificant. Cliffs loom white, grey, black, red or pink, above expanses of sand, shingle, pebbles or rocks.

Its unique shoreline is divided into romantically named sections, conjuring images of precious stones, light, flowers, mountains and creeks. Each is briefly described below, along with the best beaches and resorts, plus places to stay and suggestions for getting there from the UK. Prices are for a double room, unless stated. The phone code for France is 0033.

Côte d'Opale

From the Belgian border to the Somme estuary, Picardy's Opal Coast has uncrowded sandy beaches and dunes. To get there use Le Shuttle-Eurotunnel, the Folkestone-Boulogne ferry or Dover-Calais Hoverspeed and P&O services. Le Touquet is a stately art-deco resort, built in the 1890s as a rival to Deauville, and has long been popular with Britons for golf and adulterous weekends. Stay in 1930s splendour at the Hôtel Westminster (321 054848; doubles from £112). Berck-sur-Mer's vast sandy beach is good for windsurfers, sand-yachters and families. Stay at the Hôtel Neptune (321 092121; from £37), a modest two-star.

Côte d'Albâtre

Looking like the white cliffs of Dover, the chalky "Alabaster Coast" stretches from Le Tréport to Le Havre. These Normandy beaches are pebbly, with sand only at low tide. Turner, Delacroix, Vernet, Monet, Corot, Gauguin, Sickert and many other painters have been attracted by the coast's ethereal light. Get there on the Transmanche Newhaven-Dieppe ferry or P&O from Portsmouth to Le Havre.

Perched high above Varengeville beach is the 12th-century church where Braques is buried. The beach, which is out of sight of the village, is completely unspoilt. At high tide, chalk cliffs tower above pinkish pebbles, but at low tide, vast expanses of sand and rock pools appear. Stay at La Terrasse, Varengeville (235 851254;; from £31), a small cliff-top hotel with sea views.

Etretat has a shingle beach, backed by a curving esplanade, and flanked by two windswept chalk headlands. Maupassant famously compared one promontory to an elephant dipping its trunk in the sea. The town has many seafood restaurants, serving lobster, crab, Coquilles St Jacques and towering triple-decker seafood platters. Dormy House, Etretat (235 270788;; from £35), is the place to stay, with views of the sea and the cliffs.

Côte Fleurie

Normandy's "Coast of Flowers" includes the once-classy seaside resorts of Deauville and Trouville, and, farther west, the D-Day landing beaches. Travel here with P&O or Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to Caen or P&O from Portsmouth to Le Havre.

Built for mid-19th-century aristocratic recreation, Deauville is elegant and glamorous. Strolls along the sandy beach and the belle-époque boardwalk cost nothing, but other attractions require serious money: the casino, racecourse, designer shops, bars and hotels. The Normandy (231 986622;; from £250) is the grandest hotel.

Omaha, wild, desolate and dramatic, was the scene of appalling casualties during Operation Overlord in June 1944. The rugged shore is still dotted with pillboxes, and from a high viewing table the coastal panorama is sombre and beautiful. Stay at the Château de Sully (231 222948;; from £73), with a Michelin-starred restaurant, inland from Omaha; or the Hôtel de France (231 220033;; from £31) at Isigny-sur-Mer, which has excellent food.

Côte de Nacre

The west side of Normandy's Cotentin peninsula is known as the Mother-of-Pearl Coast, with vast, empty sandy beaches, rolling dunes, wild, windblown headlands and huge skies, reminiscent of Norfolk, only generally warmer. Travel here with P&O (Portsmouth-Cherbourg) or Brittany Ferries (Poole-Cherbourg). St-Germain-sur-Ay is a huge, empty, unspoilt beach that's perfect for family picnics. It's a designated naturist beach, but few people strip off. Stay at La Marine (233 538331; from £56) in Barneville-Carteret, with a Michelin-starred restaurant and harbour views.

Côte d'Emeraude

The Emerald Coast straddles the Normandy-Brittany border, from Mont-St-Michel, with its spectacular racing tides, to the yachting and windsurfing centre of St-Malo. Get here with Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth to St Malo or fly to Dinard with Ryanair. Rothéneuf, just outside St-Malo, is a picturesque port with a beach of golden sand. The small scale of this wooded cove makes it a peaceful refuge. Stay in St-Malo at the Hôtel Elizabeth (299 562498; from £58). The building dates from 1558, the year Elizabeth I became Queen.

Côte de Granit Rose

The "Pink Granite Coast" of northern Brittany is wild and beautiful, with rocky outcrops and coves of sand or shingle. Local restaurants serve excellent crèpes and robust cider. To get here, fly to Brest or take Brittany Ferries from Plymouth to Roscoff.

Trégastel, a small village near Perros-Guirec, has a safe, sandy beach that is heaven for families with young children. Stay at St-Guirec et de la Plage (296 914089;; from £27), a simple hotel overlooking the sea near Trégastel.

Côte des Légendes

The Coast of Legends has ancient links with Cornwall and, like Cornwall, this western tip of Brittany has a jagged coastline of headlands and inlets, with strong Atlantic waves on west-facing beaches and calm seas in sheltered coves and bays. Get here by ferry from Plymouth to Roscoff (Brittany Ferries), by air (the nearest airports are Brest, Quimper and Lorient) or by TGV from Paris to Brest or Vannes.

Goulien, near Camaret, is a long, unspoilt sandy beach in the Bay of Dinan. Out towards the Pointe de Penhir, scramble down to a pebbly cove for a picnic. Stay at the Hôtel Thalassa (298 278644; from £40) in Camaret.

Quiberon is a narrow peninsula with a popular, sheltered beach on the Bay of Morbihan. Don't bathe on the west side of the peninsula - la côte sauvage has drowned countless swimmers. Stay at the Hôtel-Restaurant au Bon Accueil (297 500792; from £30) on the Port-Maria seafront in Quiberon.

Côte de Jade

Along the Jade Coast, golden beaches are fringed with pine woods and dunes. The best-known resorts are La Baule, with its eight-mile crescent of sand, and La Rochelle, which has safe bathing beaches, but August attracts crowds all along this coast. One option to get here is to fly to La Rochelle with Ryanair.

Ile de Noirmoutier claims to have the best micro-climate in France, with Mediterranean-type vegetation including figs, rosemary and mimosa. Renoir loved this island of windmills, dykes and salt marshes. The vast Plage de Barbâtre has windswept dunes and fine sand. The Hôtel Fleur de Sel (251 390907; half board from £122) in Noirmoutier-en-Ile in the island capital.

Les Sables d'Olonne, a popular resort on the Atlantic Côte de Lumière (Coast of Light), boasts two miles of sand, with every amenity. Stay at the Hôtel Atlantic (251 953771; half board from £110), on the promenade looking across the bay.

Ile de Ré is a charming, unspoilt island of sandy beaches, linked to the mainland by a bridge west of La Rochelle. It is full of upmarket seafood restaurants, especially in fashionable St Martin de Ré. Stay at Domaine de la Baronnie (546 092129; from £122) in St-Martin-de-Ré, a deluxe b&b.

Côte d'Argent

Stretching from the Gironde estuary to Biarritz, the Silver Coast is one vast 175-mile sandy beach. There are a few bleak resorts in the Landes, south of Arcachon, but otherwise just miles of rolling waves and pristine sand, reached by tracks through the pine forests and dunes - wonderful for a dip, but without shade or amenities. To get here, fly or take the TGV to Bordeaux.

Arcachon is a sophisticated, chic resort, built on a lagoon west of Bordeaux. Its fine, sandy beach is bordered by a tamarisk-shaded promenade, with views across to the quieter beaches of Cap Ferret. Stay at the Hôtel Les Mimosas (556 834586; from £37) in Arcachon, which is modest, cool and clean, or the Hôtel des Pins in Cap-Ferret (556 606011; from £50), an early 20th-century house with veranda.

Côte Basque

The rocky Basque Coast in France is dominated by Biarritz, where Le Grand Plage has high cliffs, alarmingly huge waves, a sweep of fine sand, and a fashionable promenade. Cooler and breezier than Mediterranean resorts, Biarritz attracts both the well-coiffed rich and tousled surfers, and has its own airport. Stay at the Hôtel Atalaye (559 240676; from £34), in an imposing fin-de-siècle villa, or the Hôtel Florida (559 240176; from £56), a stately three-star with views of the ocean.

Côte Vermeille

Until recently, the western shore of the Mediterranean Golfe du Lion was a dreary desert of brackish shallow lakes, red rocks and hot, empty sand. But in the last 40 years, the Vermilion Coast has become built up, with holiday homes, campsites and boating. Picasso, Dufy and Matisse painted here. To get there, fly to Perpignan with Ryanair. Argelès-Plage is a family resort, with elegant 19th-century villas, and safe bathing on its five miles of flat, sandy beach. Stay at the civilised Hôtel Le Cottage (468 816733; from £72), or the Hôtel l'Auberge du Roua (468 958585; from £58), an attractive old farmhouse.

Côte d'Amethiste

The Amethyst Coast skirts the Camargue, a strange delta epitomised by the beach at Piémanson near Port-St-Louis, a wild, desolate stretch of sand surrounded by salt flats and lagoons, with no amenities nor shade. Ryanair flies to Nîmes. For accommodation, try the comfortable Hôtel Nord-Pinus (490 934444; from £90) in Arles.

Côte des Calanques

The Coast of Rocky Creeks, between Marseille and Toulon, has beautiful little coves, some accessible only by boat or on foot. Cassis has chalky cliffs, a sandy beach, a little harbour full of brightly coloured fishing boats, and beach restaurants offering fresh fish and sea urchins. Calanque d'En Vau is a secluded beach in a rocky cove, a 90-minute walk from Cassis. The nearest airports are Marseille or Toulon-Hyères; or take Eurostar from London to Lille, then the TGV to Marseille. Stay at the three-star Hôtel de la Plage (442 010570; from £66), in Le Mahogany, with lovely sea views.

Côte des Maures

This coast and the Massif des Maures beyond are named after the medieval Moorish pirates who raided this shore. The nearest airport is Toulon-Hyères

Ile de Porquerolles has pale sand, clear water - and no cars. The island is a wildlife reserve, with footpaths through the trees to cliffs and coves. Take the ferry from Toulon or Giens - or arrive by yacht. Stay at the Hôtel le Mas du Langoustier (494 583009; doubles from £156), which has an excellent restaurant.

Most of the three-mile Pamplelonne beach at St-Tropez is divided into private clubs, packed with super-rich, beautiful people. Yachts moor nearby. The young and hip party at Nikki Beach, with loud music. La Voile Rouge attracts an older Champagne crowd. Club Cinquante-Cinq, with its faux-rustic tablecloths and beach cabanas, is one of the longest-established, and a favourite of glamorous film stars. Patrons of Tahiti beach are topless or completely naked. For real luxury, stay at the Résidence de la Pinède (494 559100; from £388).

Côte d'Azur

This famous crowded coast has its charms, but rarely are they beaches. Easyjet and other airlines fly to Nice, though Toulon-Hyères and Marseille are other airport options. Catching the TGV is also possible.

La Garoupe, in a picturesque inlet of the Cap d'Antibes, is a fashionable beach full of bronzed French men and women talking into hands-free headsets. At night the lights of Nice and San Remo sparkle across the bay. Stay at the small and luxurious Hôtel de la Baie Dorée, in La Garoupe, Antibes (493 673067;; half board, £280-£312).

Tour operators

The following is a selection of operators offering villas or other holidays in some or all of the main French coastal regions. Prices are for high season.

- Bowhills (01489 872727 A two-bedroom apartment at Les Sables d'Olonne (sleeps four) costs £1,167. In Arcachon, a three-bedroom villa (sleeps six) costs £1,536. A two-bedroom villa in Antibes (sleeps five) costs £1,134, and a five-bedroom villa (sleeps 12) is £2,282. Prices include ferry crossing.
- Brittany Ferries (0870 3661280 can arrange five nights' b&b for a family of four near Rothéneuf beach for £844, Trégastel (£660) and Quiberon (£824). Five nights' b&b near Goulien beach costs £546 for two. Prices include ferry crossing.
- Carisma (01923 287337 has campsite mobile homes on the beach at Les Sables d'Olonne, Biarritz and Arcachon. Prices from £999 for two weeks for two adults and up to three children, including ferries.
- French Affair (020 7381 8519; offers a 19th-century village house on Ile de Ré (sleeps nine) for £3,375 per week. A second Ile de Ré villa at Rivedoux Plage, sleeping 10, has a pool, and costs £3,832 per week. In a pretty hamlet on Cap Ferret, a villa which sleeps eight, with a pool, costs £3,832 per week. Just outside Cassis, a villa (sleeps 8) with pool costs £2,050 per week.
- French Expressions (020 7431 1312; offers seven nights at the Hôtel Normandy in Deauville for £1,059, including ferry. Prices for seven nights' fly-drive, including St-Tropez, start at £895 per person, Cassis £1,127pp, Antibes £880pp and Biarritz £1,745pp.
- France Nord (0121 353 6457 has gîtes sleeping four in Le Touquet or Berck-sur-Mer from £550 per week, including ferry crossings.
- French Travel Service (0870 241 4243; offers four nights' b&b in Antibes for £428pp, including travel by Eurostar and TGV.
- Quality Villas (01442 870055; has villas ranging from the Villa du Cap at Antibes (sleeping 10) at £5,760 per week to the ultra-modern Villa Pamplelonne at St-Tropez (sleeping 11) at £76,000.
- VFB (01242 240 310 offers two nights' half board in a three-star hotel in Bayeux, near Omaha beach, for £240pp, and two nights' half board in a three-star hotel near Trégastel for £329pp.


Brittany Ferries (0870 366 1280; Hoverspeed (0870 524 0241; P&O Ferries (0870 600 9009; Seafrance (0870 571 1711; Transmanche (0800 917 1201;


Le Shuttle-Eurotunnel (08705 353535). Eurostar (0870 518 6186; TGV ( Rail Europe (0870 584 8848;


Air France (0845 084 5111; British Airways (0870 850 9850; Easyjet (0870 600 0000; Ryanair (0871 246 0000;

First published by the Telegraph

back to map >