A few miles off the Breton coast, Belle Île has been a popular destination with French travellers since the Impressionists depicted its charms more than a century ago
The first postcards of Belle Île en Mer were paintings by the Impressionist Claude Monet. His pink and blue oils of the needle-shaped rocks at Port Coton helped attract visitors from Paris and beyond. Henri Matisse and sculptor Auguste Rodin followed him for inspiration, along with French writer, Gustave Flaubert, who described the island as ‘sublime’ while actress Sandra Bernhard also fell for the island’s scenery and bought a house. Today’s summer scene is more bourgeois than bohemian, with a large number of French second home owners and visiting yachts. While it is possible to visit Belle Ile on a day trip if holidaying in Brittany; you need a few days to make the most of the beaches and enjoy an evening in Le Palais.
Settled since Neolithic times, the island has strong Celtic roots, with monks from Wales establishing a monastery on the west coast at Bangor more than 1,000 years ago. Attacked by pirates during the middle ages, Belle Île was fortified by Vauban under Louis XIV. The star shaped citadel dominates the harbour of Le Palais, the main town and after 40 years of renovations, now contains an art and history museum and is open all year (tickets €6.5; www.citadellevauban.com).
Although just 10 miles by five, Belle Ile displays a wide variety of beautiful scenery from the unspoilt west coast with its heather covered cliffs and dramatic rocks, to sheltered beaches with fine golden sand. Inland the countryside is a green bedspread of fields while villages like Sauzon are just as picturesque with pastel coloured fishermen’s houses and a harbour full of small boats.
What to do
In summer the island lends itself to low-key activities like cycling to beaches, shopping for a picnic in Le Palais market, or sitting outside a café wondering whether you can carry off the blue and white striped t-shirt as well at home. Shops are perfect for gifts or just enjoying the delectable displays of children’s clothes, wooden toys, bonbons, art work or even the prettiest cans of tuna. At night watch the sun set over an aperitif by the port, before a seafood dinner or a delicious crêpe in one of the many quayside restaurants.
Where to stay
Set on the cliffs at Port Goulphar, Castel Clara is a luxurious hotel with extensive facilities including a nine-hole golf course, a thalassotherapy centre, indoor and outdoor pools and a gastronomic seafood restaurant. A member of the Relais & Chateaux group, past guests include former French president Francois Mitterrand. If you're not desperate for a seaview, superior landside rooms, decorated in soft shades of brown and blue, offer the best value. Doubles from €210 a night.
Hotel La Desirade
With its pale pink walls and blue shutters, Hotel la Desirade is one of the island’s prettiest hotels. In the countryside, about four miles from Le Palais, your own transport is advisable. Bedrooms are charming with wooden boards and views of the gardens and heated outdoor pool. Facilities include a restaurant and small spa. Doubles from €125, breakfast €15.50.
Hotel le Clos Fleuri
On the outskirts of Le Palais, Hotel le Clos Fleuri is walking distance from the port and its shops and restaurants. Rooms are decorated in floral tones and look out onto the pretty garden. Breakfast (€10) usually includes Far Breton, a local tart and home-made jams. Rooms from €85 a night.
Where to eat
Its name means the seagull, but thankfully they keep away from this elegant restaurant in Le Palais port. With wonderful views of the Vauban fort, the first floor restaurant and terrace trump the darker downstairs brasserie. There is an abundance of salads and fresh fish such as locally caught tuna cooked on the char grill, although the Belle Ile lamb is also worth sampling. Tel: +33 2 97 31 81 26.
Le Roz Avel
In the village of Sauzon, this gastronomic restaurant serves a range of seafood, fish and meat dishes making the most of local produce. Eat on the terrace under white awnings, or inside the traditional dining room with its black and white floor and Breton Oak furniture. Closed Wednesdays. Tel: +33 220.127.116.11.48.
How to get there
Ferries run all year between Quiberon and Belle Île with the car ferry taking up to 45 minutes and foot passenger only services 20 minutes. Reserve well in advance if you are bringing a vehicle as space is limited. Adult return €30, cars from €148. Tel: +33 2 97 35 02 00; www.compagnie-oceane.fr
Quiberon is 90 miles (two and a half hours' drive) from Nantes and Rennes. Fly direct to Nantes from Leeds and East Midlands with Ryanair from £35, www.ryanair.com; or with City Jet from London City from £144, www.cityjet.com.
Flybe run a direct service from Southampton, Exeter, Manchester and Newcastle to Rennes from £75, www.flybe.com.
The TGV from Paris-Montparnasse to Quimper (www.voyages-sncf.com) takes three hours to Auray, where you can get a bus to Quiberon (www.morbihan.fr).
If you are staying out of town, you can hire a car from €40 a day. Popular options include bright coloured open tops and traditional 2CV models. See www.belle-ile-auto.fr; www.lmt-carbike.com or www.locatourisle.com.