The islands of France stretch from the north coast of Normandy, around the dramatic coast of Brittany, down the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some have long sandy beaches looking out to sea; others are small, rocky and rugged outcrops. You’ll find castles built to defend the country against the enemy (invariably the English), and lighthouses to keep sailors safely clear of treacherous rocks. There are sleepy villages, regional delicacies, salt pans used since medieval times and grim prisons. It’s all there in the varied and glorious islands of France.
Islands of France: Normandy
Most of Normandy’s coastline consists of long sandy beaches. Normandy’s islands start north of Utah Beach, and thereby hangs a tale….
The Îles Saint-Marcouf are two small uninhabited islands. Île de Terre is an ornithological reserve; Île du Large houses a 19th-century fort. Both are inaccessible so you’ll only get to see them by boat.
World War II
Important during all the wars between France and England then particularly during World War II, the islands were the first territory in France taken by the D-Day Landing forces. The Allies believed the Germans had placed an observation post or a control post in the 19th-century fort on Île du Large. Its purpose was to set off underwater mines in the Bay de Seine near Utah Beach. It was vital to reconnoitre and if necessary destroy any German defences near the D-Day landing zones.
On Jun 6 before 4.30am, four US soldiers swam ashore, followed by 132 soldiers of the US 4th Cavalry Group. They met no resistance but they did encounter the mines. 19 American soldiers were killed or wounded.
Further north just off Saint Vaast-la-Hougue lies the small island of Tatihou. At low tide walk from the coast through a road in the oyster beds; otherwise take an amphibious vehicle. Come to look for migrating birds from the common shelduck to the little egret, eider and yellow-legged gull in the nature reserve.
You can visit the 17th-century UNESCO-listed tower built by Vauban to protect what he called ‘the safest harbour in the kingdom’, and the Maritime Museum. You’ll get an idea of naval architecture and history but for the Brits, it’s the objects recovered after the Battle of La Hougue in 1692 showing life on board that are the draw.
Les Îles Chausey
Les Îles Chausey lie just 18 kms from Granville on the Cotentin peninsula. Only one of the islands, La Grande Île, is inhabited and then only with around 30 or so inhabitants in winter. Geographically part of the Channel Islands, it became French after the inevitable territorial squabbles between the French and the English centuries ago.
At low tide, this is Europe’s largest archipelago (probably). Huge tidal ranges, up to 15 metres during a spring tide, reveal 365 islets, some of which you can walk between with a guide. At high tide there are just 52.
From Granville the ferry ride takes an hour to Grande Île. At 2kms/1mile long and 700 metres/2,297 ft, the island is small but it has attractions aplenty. Walk the coastal path for stunning views, past pretty cottages, a fort built by Napoleon III and a vital lighthouse whose beam carries 45 kms/28 miles. Watch out for birds on land and dolphins on the sea.
Once a source of granite for some of France’s great buildings (including Mont Saint-Michel), today it’s one of the most fascinating small islands of France to visit.
If you want to stay overnight, book into the delightful Hotel du Fort et des îles overlooking the sea. Bought in 1928 by Lucien Ernout, a seagoing adventurer with help from his friend, Louis Renault, the car manufacturer, it’s still in the same family. Expect simple, charmingly decorated rooms, with no TVs, minibars or safes. The final treat is excellent locally caught seafood like lobster, shrimp, bass and mullet in the restaurant.
Just off the coast and reached by a causeway or shuttle bus, this is one of the great sacred sites of France. It’s hugely popular, so pick your visiting time.
It’s one of the great sacred sites of France.
The Islands of France: Brittany
Brittany has a rugged shore, its hundreds of little inlets punctuating the land giving it an extraordinary 2720 kms/1700 miles of coastline. Off this lies a collection of islands, 32 of them. They may be in the Atlantic but many are washed by the warm Gulf Stream bringing a tropical breeze to the gardens and landscape. Others are windswept, surrounded by rocks and currents that have always presented a constant danger to shipping.
Brittany’s islands offer everything from chic little fishing ports to solitary walks, where only the gannets, cormorants, puffins and seagulls keep you company.
I’ve written an article about Brittany’s islands and still haven’t covered all of them. But here’s a very quick overall view of the most interesting islands.
Some of Brittany’s islands
The Île de Bréhat is one of Brittany’s prettiest islands. Land at Port-Clos, hire a bicycle and cycle past beautiful gardens, stop at the old fort and watch the Birlot tidal mill working.
Sept Îles is the largest natural reserve of marine birds in France.
Île Grande is one of the many islands inhabited from 2500 BC to 200AD by peoples who built those extraordinary megalithic stone structures.
The Île de Batz feels more like the tropics; its balmy climate inspired Georges Delasalle to plant one of the most beautiful tropical gardens.
Ushant (Ouessant) is known for its treacherous waters…and its collection of lighthouses including Créac’h. Its light extends to 32 nautical miles, making it one of the two most powerful beams in the world. (The other one is in South Africa).
Belle-île, Brittany’s largest island, is as beautiful as it claims to be with white sandy beaches. It attracted Sarah Bernhardt, the great French actress, who bought an old fort in 1894 at Pointes des Poulains.
The Gulf of Morbihan is beautiful, a glorious stretch of water dotted with 42 islands, most of which are privately owned and which you can only glimpse on a boat trip. But you can visit the main islands of Île aux Moines and Île d’Arz, where small hotels, restaurants serving local fresh fish and spectacular views are on offer.
Getting to Brittany
Islands of France: The French Atlantic Coast
Noirmoutier off the Marais Breton of the Vendée department lives up to its reputation as the Island of mimosas thanks to its balmy climate. Cross the passageway from the mainland when the tide is low to find pretty towns, salt marshes criss-crossed by canals, shady woods and beaches that attracted the likes of the painter Renoir. It’s a large island with sports to keep the family happy and delicacies like the famous bonnottes potatoes, harvested by hand and on sale for one week in May.
With its Côte Sauvage on the south side of the island, Île d’Yeu is a little like Belle-île in Brittany. It has its own mystique and was, according to legend (which is never particularly reliable), the place for a religious settlement that trained Druidesses. It also has its later dark side: Pétain, head of Vichy (collaborationist) France was imprisoned and died here.
The island, also known as the Corsica of the Atlantic, is 15 miles off the French coast. Île d’Yeu is one of France’s most important tuna fishing islands, its fishing boats and trawlers bobbing up and down in Port-Joinville.
The island attracts walkers with its great view out over the Atlantic. It’s wilder than Île de Ré with dramatic cliffs and small inlets on the Atlantic side and lovely beaches facing the mainland for swimmers.
Île de Ré
Chic, charming and a delightful place to visit, Île de Ré is writer Fiona Quinn’s favorite island off the Atlantic coast. There’s plenty to do here, from strolling around the pretty villages to watching the salt makers at work, from riding a donkey in pyjamas to sipping a cocktail or a coffee in St Martin de Ré and watching the yachts slip in and out of the harbour.
Add in some great accommodation and it’s easy to see why the island is so popular.
You might overlook tiny Île d’Aix, sitting in the sea between the mainland and Oléron. But try to make it there.
I love its peace, its lack of traffic (you can’t take your car on the ferry there), its shabby chic hotel (only one of them), its cycle paths and its old fortifications where seagulls are your only companions, sweeping overhead as you walk along the old ramparts.
And don’t forget Île d’Aix’s unexpected place in French history. Strategically important as the island in the Charentais archipelago which helped protect the great French navy ports of La Rochelle and Rochefort, it was also the place where Napoleon enjoyed his last, brief time of freedom. On July 15, 1815, after three days spent in the house he had renovated in 1808 for the governor, he was shipped off to his final exile on St Helena.
More about Île d’Aix which I hope will persuade you to visit.
France’s second largest island after Corsica, Île d’Oléron offers just about everything. It has wonderful sandy beaches where you can surf, sail, kayak and sand yacht. Bird watchers make it to the two natural wildlife reserves where migrating birds make their temporary homes. And of course there’s a château, part of the defences along the coast. Le Château d’Oléron was started by Cardinal Richelieu and completed by Vauban as part of Colbert’s plan to protect the Royal Arsenal of Rochefort.
Fort Louvois was built on a rock in the sea (connected to the mainland at low tide) so that canons fired from the two sites would stop enemy ships passing and reaching the French coastal port. In 1758 the English attacked the island, prompting the French to reinforce the defences of Île d’Aix.
So there’s plenty for history buffs here. There’s also plenty for cyclists with forest paths, marshlands and small vineyards to explore. Or just chill out at one of the brightly coloured shacks with a snack of fresh seafood. Don’t miss the seafood market at La Cotinière, and don’t neglect the oysters cultivated along this part of the Atlantic coast; the island is one of the biggest oyster producers in Europe. Find out more, and sample them at La Cité de L’huitre (00 33 5 4636 7898).
Avoid the high season as it’s particularly popular with campervans.
Get to Île d’Oléron by public transport; drive over the toll free bridge from Bourcefranc-leChapus or take a ferry.
For more information on Région Poitou-Charentes including La Rochelle, Rochefort & the ship Hermione, Île d’Aix and Île de Re, please visit the Poitou-Charentes website.
Islands of France: The Mediterranean
The Mediterranean is one of France’s most popular spots, and so are its islands. There are two main groups on the eastern side of the coast, and just off Marseille, the Îles du Frioul. They’re in the protected Calanques National Park.
Îles du Frioul
A short boat ride takes you from Marseille out to the Îles du Frioul. The archipelago of four islands earned their place in French history. Strategically important, they protected the southern French coast from attack.
Pomègues is rugged, the place for a walk along the coastal trail where signposts describe the surroundings, the geology, abundant plant life and views. You pass the 17th-century port, used as a quarantine port after Marseille’s great plague of 1720 then in the 19th century when yellow fever, typhus and cholera became the main killers. The 19th-century Batterie de Cavaux was fortified by the Germans in World War II. It was heavily bombed in August 1944 when Marseille was liberated.
A walkway connects Pomègues to Ratonneau. It has a gentler landscape with places ideal for family swims, particularly from the Saint Estève beach. There’s a small chapel built like an antique temple for sailors from quarantined boats, and the Maison des Pilotes (Pilots’ House) built like the bow of a large ship where three pilots are permanently stationed. They’re there to take yachts and ships safely into Marseille.
It’s the Île d’If which attracts most of the day visitors from Marseille. And the reason? The Count of Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas made the island the setting for the imprisonment of Edmond Dantès and his companion Father Faria who escaped after 14 years and set about his revenge.
The Château d’If was built by King François I between 1527 and 1529. Surrounded by high ramparts on lamd and by dangerous currents on the sea, it made the perfect escape-proof prison like Alcatraz in California. For 400 years it housed political and religious detainees. 3,500 Hugenots were sent here, along with Jean-Baptiste Chataud accused of bringing the plague to Marseille in 1720, and the leader of the Paris Commune, rebelling against the government. He was shot here in 1871. Count Mirabeau and the notorious Marquis de Sade were also prisoners here. Nobody (except the fictional Count) ever escaped. The last prisoners left in 1914. In World War II the Germany army occupied the island.
Even on a hot sunny day it’s a chilling place. High ramparts surround the castle perched on a small rocky outcrop. Inside you walk through different sized and shaped cells. The lowest windowless cells under the castle were for the poor. The ones higher up (pistoles) had windows and a fireplace and were only for the wealthy. For those rich enough to pay, the sight of Marseille just 1.5kms/0.9 miles away must have been cruelly tantalising.
You might recognise the fortress; it was used in The French Connection crime film made in 1971. Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) meets Devereaux (Frédéric de Pasquale) to finalise the shipment of drugs to the USA.
You get to the Frioul islands on a regular ferry. You can visit the château daily from May to September and daily except Mondays from October to March. It is closed in bad weather.
Three islands make up the Îles d’Hyères. Just off the coast of Provence, they are a delightful and slightly quieter alternative to the Îles de Lerins further around the coast off Cannes.
Porquerolles, the largest of the three, is a short 20-minute boat ride from the tip of the Giens peninsula. It was bought by François Joseph Fournier as a wedding present for his wife in 1912. Today it’s in public ownership with much of the island being part of the Port-Cros National Park and a nature conservation area.
To the north, sandy beaches are backed by pine and oak trees and gently sloping dunes. After landing at the main village, hire a bicycle and take a map or walk the many trails that lead you past the forts that defended Porquerolles. On 15 August 1944 the Allied commandos (called the Devil’s Brigade) attacked the German garrison of 150 men and captured the island two days later.
Go to the southern end of the island for dramatic cliffs and pounding seas.
Île de Port Cros
The traffic-free Île de Port Cros is at the heart of the Port Cros National Park. It’s a place for walking along three well-marked main trails. The clear turquoise waters invite divers. You can stay here at one of the modest hotels in the harbour.
Get to Port Cros on ferries from Saint-Pierre Marina, Hyeres. Or take the ferry from La Lande, taking 45 mins.
Île du Levant
The Île du Levant is the place chosen by naturists who first came here when the first dedicated naturist centre opened in 1931. Today you can go naked everywhere except in certain public places like the port and the main village square. But if you want to visit the Grottes beach, you have to be prepared to bare all!
Îles de Lérins
Get away from the glitz of Cannes on the Îles de Lérins wnere two little islands offer a peaceful day out.
Île Ste Marguerite
Île Ste Marguerite has its own intriguing history, along with beautiful views and places to picnic among pine trees looking out over the water. The Fort Royal, built by Cardinal Richelieu then remodelled by Vauban, was the place where the ‘man in the iron mask’ was imprisoned.
There are wonderful walks along the coastal path, a nature reserve where migratory birds make temporary homes in the spring and autumn. There are a couple of good restaurants as well.
Île Saint Honorat
Île Saint Honorat is right behind its larger sister island. You can’t get between the two, so you need to take a separate ferry from the mainland. It’s an island inhabited by Cistercian monks whose fortified monastery has stood guard over the southern shore for centuries. The abbey has its own vineyard, lavender beds and herb gardens, all tended by the black-and-white cassocked Brothers. Taste then buy the wine; it’s remarkably good.
Take a picnic, or eat at one of the two restaurants.
Here’s how to get to the Îles de Lérins.
The Islands of France: Corsica
France’s largest island sits off the Cote d’Azur coast, 145 miles southeast of Nice and north of Sardinia in Italy. Corsica is a beautiful island with high alpine mountains at the centre, a natural regional park, forests, a wonderful coastline with natural harbours for passing yachts, sandy beaches and fishing villages. Its towns have old buildings, medieval lanes and defensive citadels.
Corsica has been inhabited since prehistory. At the heart of the Mediterranean’s major western trading routes, it was always something of a strategic prize. It was ruled by the nearby Genoese for nearly 500 years from 1284 to 1755; it was annexed by France in 1769.
Corsica is a fascinating mix of French and Italian, of old civilisations and edgy modern politics.
Corsica’s cuisine is as varied as its landscape. Wild boar plays a big part and the sea yields a rich harvest of fish. Famous cheeses include brocciu which is like ricotta, and the distinctly different casgiu merzu (‘rotten cheese’) made from goat or sheep milk. Chestnut trees grow everywhere and for centuries were the main staple of the island after the Genoese governor in 1548 ordered all landowners to plant one chestnut tree. Used in bread and cakes, chestnuts are also eaten by animals which gives a particular individual taste to much of Corsican cuisine. And don’t neglect the wine.
Getting to Corsica
Four international airports give access from all European counties and capitals.
Or take the ferry from France and Italy
More about the Coast and Geography of France
The Islands of France Overseas
The French overseas Departments and Territories make up a landmass almost as big as France with a population of 2,691,000 people. Some are large and well known, but there are a large number of small islands with small populations. They make surprising statistics.
South America: French Guiana is the largest French overseas Department
Northern America (North Atlantic Ocean): Grand Colombier, Langlade, L’Île-aux-Marin, Miquelon, Île aux Pigeons, Saint Pierre Island, Île aux Vainqueurs, Green Island (Fortune), Newfoundland and Labrador (“Île Verte”) (uncertain sovereignty between France and Canada)
French West Indies: Martinique, Guadeloupe, Saint Barthélemy; Saint Martin
Indian Ocean: Réunion, Mayotte in the Comoros Islands and Scattered Islands (Isles Eparsées)
North Pacific Ocean: Clipperton Island
In French Polynesia (South Pacific Ocean): 118 islands lie in the five archipelagos: Society islands include Tahiti in the Windward Islands; the Leeward Islands include Bora Bora; the Marquesas islands, the Tuamotus and Gambier Islands; Austral Islands
Western Pacific: In New Caledonia: Loyalty Islands, Isle of Pines, Chesterfield, Huon, Wallis and Futuna
Antarctic: Saint Pierre and Mioquelon
Southern Hemisphere: Amsterdam, St Paul, Crozet and Kerguelen archipelagos