The 32 dramatic islands of Brittany lie off its rugged shoreline which with its hundreds of little inlets is an extraordinary 2720 kms/1700 miles long. Some islands are uninhabited, feeling as if they are on the edge of the world. Some are private islands with one grand house. Many offer a wonderful change of scene, with chic little towns and old fishermen’s cottages to stay in. Others give you a real get-away-from-it-all vacation, particularly in the off season. Here are a few of the great and dramatic islands of Brittany.
The Gulf Stream sweeps in from the west, warming this part of France. A fertile land first brought people who built those extaordinary megalith structures. Then came the Celts, many fleeing from Cornwall, Devon and Wales after the collapse of the Roman Empire. The links still exist.
Lighthouses dot the islands, grim reminders of the dangers to sailors around these shores. Small churches are full of models of ships and plaques to the drowned…an eternal memorial to those who did not survive.
Here are 13 top islands of Brittany for a great vacation.
Islands of Brittany – Start with Île de Bréhat
A 10-minute boat ride from Pointe de l’Arcouest takes you to Île de Bréhat where exotic flowers and eucalyptus flourish in the Mediterranean-style climate of the warm Gulf Stream. Pretty stone cottages dot the countryside; the only town Le Bourg is full of hotels, cafés and restaurants. The old fort has been converted into a glassblowing business where you can see the artisans at work, and give it a try yourself. There’s a tidal mill that grinds corn twice a day as the tide goes out. And great beaches to chill out on. It’s a good idea to rent a bike to see more of the traffic-free island.
Île de Bréhat is the centre of a small group of islets; you get to the second accessible island to the north by a bridge. Here it’s wilder, a great place for bracing walks and for those wonderful sea views you get from the two lighthouses: Paon in the north east and Rosédo in the north west.
The archipelago of Les Sept-Îles has seven uninhabited islands. They make up the largest natural reserve of marine birds in France with rare species nesting here. But it’s the puffins who are the star attraction. The threat of them being hunted to near extinction was the spur for the creation of the Ligue pour la Protection des Oiseaux (the LPO or French Protection of Birds Society) in 1912.
Take a boat trip around the uninhabited islands to get a good sailor’s eye view of the extraordinary bird life.
Cross the bridge from Penvern to Île Grande whose granite was used for buildings in London. A megalithic passage tomb is a reminder of ancient civilisation. The Station Ornithologique shows the different bird species here and on the nearby Sept-Îles. There’s also another excellent sailing school.
Joseph Conrad stayed on the island from April to August 1896 on his honeymoon, writing his novel The Rescue and a short story, The Idiots. His wife wrote “much of our Île-Grande life is in that short story…. The stone-cutters are in it, our landlady is in it, and the feeling of our surroundings, perhaps a little more sombrely than the reality”.
Île de Batz
15 minutes by boat from Roscoff and you’re on the (almost) traffic-free Île de Batz where the coastal path and the 20 or so beaches beckon. A Welsh monk, Paul Aurélien, founded a monastic community here in the 6th century but the island remained poor despite growing and harvesting the widely used flax, hemp and later seaweed.
Real prosperity came in the 19th century with the arrival of ships’ captains who made their fortunes on the oceans and built solid stone houses.
There’s a lighthouse to climb for its views, white sandy beaches for sandy beach-type fun, and the Georges Delasalle tropical garden to visit for its 2,000 different plants. Even if tropical plants are not your thing, do go; this is one of the best islands of Brittany to see them. You feel as if you’re half way around the world in Tahiti or some such exotic destination rather than an island in Brittany.
Ushant marks the entrance to the English Channel where countless ships have passed over the centuries. Countless ships have also come to grief here in the treacherous seas, including the oil tanker Amoco Cadiz in 1978 which was one of the world’s largest oil spills.
Six lighthouses on the island protect the coast. The light from Créac’h reaches for 32 nautical miles making it one of the two most powerful beams in the world. Discover more at the Musée des phares et balises which explains the history of lighthouses and how they work. I am no tech fan but it was a fascinating visit and gave me even more respect for lighthouses and their keepers.
The Pointe de Pern is mainland France’s most westerly site, and now a protected site. Even the rocks are protected, with one painted white to help sailors get their bearings. From 1885 to 1900 a steam-powered foghorn was housed in the Villa des Tempêtes, its booming melancholy sound orientating ships lost in the mists.
Ignore Ushat’s somewhat gloomy history; it’s a beautiful place. Enjoy the beaches where rockpools give children endless fun, and visit the church at Lampaul where unknown sailors lie in their graves.
Île de Sein
Dangerous seas swirl around the Point de Raz on the Île de Sein just 8 kms/5 miles off Finistère. A vast stretch of 30 miles of reefs runs in the Chaussée de Sein that surrounds the island. Vital lighthouses illuminate the path of ships on the southern English Channel route. The Phare d’Ar, essential to warn shipping of the hidden dangers, took 14 years to build and opened in 1881.
It’s a strange island, treeless and bleakly flat. Low lying, it has twice been submerged beneath the sea – but that was in 1868 and 1896 so don’t worry about that.
As with many remote places where myths and legends are so easily born, it had a murky reputation. The women of the island in their black headdresses were accused of enticing sailors onto the rocks by witchcraft. Perhaps it was just a convenient fiction; in reality there were plenty of ship wreckers and looters living on the island.
During World War II Île de Sein was occupied by the Germans who found only women, children, old men, the mayor and the priest living there. All the able-bodied men had answered General de Gaulle’s appeal for Free French Forces on June 18, 1940 and embarked for England. In 1946 de Gaulle came to bestow the Liberation Cross to the island. Follow the heroic story in the Musée de la Liberation.
A small port shelters small sailing boats and pleasure craft. Whitewashed cottages line the streets; there’s a small church, two menhirs and a dolmen.
Get here from Audierne, Brest or Camaret.
Îles de Glénan
Just 16 kms/10 miles off the south coast of Finistère, the Îles de Glénan is an archipelago of nine islands and islets.
Arrive at the main island of Saint Nicolas from Loctudy, Bénodet, Concarneau and Beg-Meil for the day. If you come here in April make your way to France’s smallest nature reserve. It was founded in 1974 to protect the Glenan Narcissus which flowers so valiantly, and so briefly, in Spring.
The islands are known for the international sailing school which operates on four of the islands (lessons are in French and English). Les Glénans is a charity founded by former Resistance fighters after World War II. Now the biggest sailing school in Europe, it takes around 13,000 trainees a year teaching them sailing and navigating – from small dingies in the bay to trans-Atlantic sailing.
At low tide, thin paths of white sand appear so you can walk from Saint-Nicolas to Bananec island. Penfret has a lighthouse; Île Cigogne’s fort was built in 1756 to stop English pirates entering the lagoon. Both islands are rented by the sailing school. Halfway between the archipelago and the coast, the Île aux Moutons has an automated lighthouse and is a known nesting ground for two types of sterns.
Like many of the islands of Brittany, power is supplied by wind turbines and solar panels.
Île de Groix
Île de Groix is Brittany’s second largest island. It’s known for its beautiful beaches; don’t miss the Plage des Grandes Sables with its garnet and white sand in the east. Once a significant tuna fishing centre, today the island is full of visitors hiring bicycles for its 40 kms/25 miles of cycle paths and walking in the nature reserve.
You get to the Island, a mass of schist rock, on a 45-minute ferry crossing from Lorient. Arrive at Port Tudy where the Ecomusée de l’Ile de Groix will fill you in on the island’s story. Learn about the island and if you’re lucky, take part in one of the events they organise. You might end up digging for shellfish or learning how sailing boats work from the experts.
The largest of the islands of Brittany, Belle-Île (Beautiful Island) doesn’t disappoint. Arrive by ferry from Quiberon, Vannes or La Turballe to a place with a great history and an enticing landscape.
The main town of Le Palais is dominated by the imposing star-shaped citadel designed by Louis XIV’s military architect, Vauban. But it didn’t stop the island from being occupied by British soldiers from 1761 to 1763. The French only got the Brittany island back by exchanging it for Menorca.
Make for Pointes des Poulains for its lighthouse and a more unusual attraction. In 1894 the actress Sarah Bernhardt bought the old fort to live in. Follow the life of the most famous actress of her day in the small museum here.
A steep path takes you down to Plage de Donnant where the dramatic horseshoe-shaped beach is surrounded by rocks and the pounding surf.
Sauzon, the second largest town, is a pretty fishing village where the ferries arrive from Lorient. Fishing boats that specialise in catching lobster and langoustines bob up and down beside the yachts and pleasure boats in the marina.
Islands around Belle-Île
Two little islands lie to the east of Belle-Île. You can get to Houat and Hoëdic from Quiberon.
On Houat, lovely beaches, the fishing harbor of St-Gildas (called after the British monk who lived in Brittany in the 6th century), and spectacular hikes attract visitors.
Go south east from Houat and you arrive at Hoëdic which is even smaller. It offers a fort, guided tours and two Neolithic sites which date back to 5000 BC. The small church of Notre Dame La Blanche is a typical sailors’ church where memorials and models of ships are reminders of the perils of the sea.
Islands of Brittany – In the Gulf of Morbihan
The Gulf of Morbihan is beautiful, a glorious stretch of water dotted with 42 islands, many of which are private 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.
Once home to the monks of Redon Abbey, you get to this 6-km long, 5km wide island from Port-Blanc. The largest island in the Golfe, Île-aux-Moines is a plant lovers’ paradise with over 350 different species from mimosas to orange trees. Hire a bike at the jetty when you arrive and cycle from the old village of fishermens’ houses past megalithic dolmens to the edge of the island.
Take the 20-minute crossing from Conleau Point out to the archipelago of nine islands making up Île d’Arz. Come out of season if you can (there are only 260 permanent residents living here but it rises to as many as 2,500 during the summer season). The walk around the island along the coastal paths is spectacular. when you’ve done with walking, visit the 16th-century Berno tidal mill, still in working order. One last treat is in the centre of the village where the Musée Marins et Capitaines (Sailors and Captains Museum) fills in the story of those who went to sea.
If I haven’t managed to convince you to visit some of the glorious islands of Brittany, I don’t know what will!
Getting to Brittany
More about the Coast of France
The glorious Islands of France from Normandy to the Mediterranean
Discover chic Ile de Ré
Explore the glorious Vendée department
The Iles de Lérin off Cannes on the Côte d’Azur