Atlantic France and beyond

By | Category: Travel destinations

Recent atrocities in Nice and Paris have made some people anxious about travelling to France in the near future, but the wild western coast of France and northern Spain couldn’t be further away from the hustle and bustle of these big cities. There are literally hundreds of amazing beaches, forests and islands waiting to be discovered.

From the longest beach in Western Europe to its largest sand-dune, the largest forest to the most Michelin starred restaurants. This dramatic coast has more than enough to keep you coming back year after year. By utilising the extensive Brittany Ferries network,  you can explore the best the coast has to offer by travelling from Caen in northern France to Bilbao in Northern Spain in anywhere between a week and a fortnight.
Here are some of the highlights following the coast from Normandy to northern Spain…

D-Day beaches
Most of the D-Day beaches are wide and sandy – no doubt one of the reasons the allies chose them to land on. They’re also relatively quiet compared to British beaches across the channel, even on the sunniest days. Sword Beach is the easiest to reach, just a few minutes’ walk from the ferry port at Ouistream – sold as Caen by Brittany Ferries. The British landed at here with a number of French commandos, who were given the honour of being in the first wave of the attack. The wide expanses of sand always have quiet spots and the water shelves gently so you can safely dip your toes to cool off.
Mont St Michel
The second most visited attraction in France after the Eiffel Tower, and rightly so. Even from a distance it is a truly spectacular sight, floating like a mirage on the sea (or mudflats). The abbey began as a humble little monastery sitting on a rocky outcrop. Over the years medieval buildings sprung up around what would eventually become the most recognisable abbey in the country. Make sure you stay in a hotel nearby so that you can enjoy the atmosphere at night when the crowds are all gone and the streets truly feel like you’re in a bygone age.
Gulf of Morbihan
A real gem and one of the most beautiful bays in Europe. There are around 42 islands, depending on the tides. Many of these stunning islands are privately owned, but two of the largest are easily accessible by a regular ferry service. Île aux Moines and Île d’Arz both boast scenic coastal walks that take in tiny beaches, secluded coves and Neolithic standing stones. Because the bay is sheltered from the open Atlantic the waters are calm and relatively warm.
Glenan Islands
Think Caribbean beach but with colder (okay, much colder) water. No exaggeration, the islands boast some of the most beautiful beaches in Europe and there’ll only be a few yachties and day trippers sharing it with you. run day trips in the warmer months from Bénodet, an hour north of the gulf, which take around an hour to reach the islands.
The Medoc
Most famous for its wines and vineyards, the Medoc also boasts mile upon mile of deserted white beaches backed by huge sand dunes and pine forests that are very flat and perfect for exploring by bicycle. Soulac sur Mer is particularly nice and even in high season you’re sure to find acres of virgin sands just south of the centre, it’s also a great place for surfing with the Atlantic providing a never ending stream of waves to glide down. Be sure to use the ferry service between Royan and Le Verdon Sur Mer to avoid the long drive if you’re arriving from Brittany.
Dune du Pilat
The tallest sand dune in Europe measures 2.7km in length, 500m in width and 110m in height. It’s a tremendous sight and wouldn’t look out of place in Oman or Saudi Arabia. The dune itself and the surrounding forests and lakes are great for hiking- or if you’re feeling more energetic, sand-boarding down.
It’s easy to forget that you’re in France as you walk along the sea-front seeing nothing but surfers for the two miles or so along Plage de la Cote des Basques that runs toward neighbouring Spain, indeed the whole vibe here is more Californian than virtually anywhere else in Europe. There’s a vibrant nightlife too with something to suit all tastes and a famous casino for those of you feeling lucky.
San Sebastián
Regularly voted as having the best city beaches in Europe. Once you’ve had enough of the beach head up Mount Ulia by Funicular or in your car for stupendous views that are not dissimilar to images of Rio de Janeiro. The beaches below are stunning and there’s even a statue of Christ on nearby Urgill Hill and though you won’t find Sugarloaf Mountain anywhere, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the Pyrenees instead.

Gaztelugatze (Bermeo)
Imagine a section of the Great wall of China thrusting toward a 14th century chapel on an islet in the Bay of Biscay and you might just start to imagine how spectacular Gaztelugatze actually is. What’s even more amazing is that there aren’t more visitors, but perhaps they’re out off by the mile or so hike between the road and the chapel.
Bilbao is surrounded by mountains and is very close to the sea. Visual highlights include the famous transporter bridge, Mount Artxanda – which can be accessed by funicular- and the Gugenheim Museum. The museum also has some interesting- and free- oddities outside, such as a giant spider and a massive floral West Highland Terrier.
Brittany Ferries operate up to three ferries a day from Portsmouth to Caen (Ouistream). One of these is an overnight service that allows you to maximise your time in France. Sailings start at £79 for a car and two adult passengers.
Brittany Ferries also operate overnight cruise ferries on five days each week from Bilbao or Santander in northern Spain to Portsmouth in the UK. One way fares, including cabin start at around £280 for a car and two adults.
Cruise ferries on both routes feature plenty of onboard bars, casinos and entertainment to keep you occupied, they also have a team of wildlife spotters giving talks and looking out for whales and dolphins that inhabit the Bay of Biscay.

Words and pictures: Paul Wojnicki

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