La Crème de la Mer
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
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
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.
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.
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;
www.hotel-restaurant-la-terrasse.com; 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; www.dormy-house.com; from £35), is the place to
stay, with views of the sea and the cliffs.
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;
www.lucienbarriere.com; 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;
www.chateauhotels.com/sully; from £73), with a
Michelin-starred restaurant, inland from Omaha; or the Hôtel
de France (231 220033; www.hotel-france-isigny.com; 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.
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
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;
www.hotelsaint-guirec.com; 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 www.residencepinede.com; from £388).
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; www.baiedoree.com; half board, £280-£312).
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 www.bowhills.co.uk). 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 www.brittany-ferries.com)
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 www.carisma.co.uk) 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; www.frenchaffair.com) 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;
www.expressionsholidays.co.uk) 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 www.francenord.co.uk) has gîtes
sleeping four in Le Touquet or Berck-sur-Mer from £550 per
week, including ferry crossings.
- French Travel Service (0870 241 4243;
www.frenchtravelservice.co.uk) offers four nights' b&b in
Antibes for £428pp, including travel by Eurostar and TGV.
- Quality Villas (01442 870055; www.quality-villas.co.uk)
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 www.vfbholidays.co.uk) 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; www.brittany-ferries.co.uk).
Hoverspeed (0870 524 0241; www.hoverspeed.co.uk). P&O
Ferries (0870 600 9009; www.poferries.com). Seafrance (0870
571 1711; www.seafrance.com). Transmanche (0800 917 1201;
Le Shuttle-Eurotunnel (08705 353535). Eurostar (0870 518
6186; www.eurostar.com). TGV (www.sncf.fr). Rail Europe
(0870 584 8848;
Air France (0845 084 5111; www.airfrance.com). British
Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). Easyjet (0870 600 0000;
www.easyjet.com). Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com).
First published by the Telegraph