This summer, skip the classic French beach destinations and opt for one of the country’s more underrated spots – you might never look back. Provence, Normandy and Brittany are some of the best regions to find the feted trio of sun, sea and sand combined with a more rustic and relaxed feel, but there are also gems in Languedoc and on the islands of Île d’Oléron and Île de Ré .
From the thinking person’s Riviera to an overlooked Atlantic island, there really are plenty of under-the-radar options in France for discerning British sun-seekers. Here are 10 of the best, chosen by our experts, each with a charming place to stay. Think boutique hotels, beach hotels and family-friendly campsites.
1. Menton, Provence
Menton is the thinking person’s Côte-d’Azur. As needed, it has the lazy glow of sunshine, two huge beaches of sand and gravel, unmistakable light and the Alps falling directly to the sea – but without the airhead’s assumptions of more ring-a-ding spots further west. Wintering British nobles long ago set the tone, establishing gardens, good manners and Belle-Epoque elegance. These flourish on Mediterranean roots. The labyrinthine, Latin old town climbs steeply up the hill around baroque churches. Italy is at the end of prom. Thus, we have the best of all worlds – and art in the Jean Cocteau museum, if sand, sun and sea do not present an aesthetic challenge.
Hôtel Napoléon is an English-owned boutique hotel on the beach in Menton that impresses guests with fantastic service and crisp, white and blue rooms. Fly to Nice.
2. Gruissan, Languedoc
South of Narbonne, the flat, rugged Languedoc coast suddenly sprouts into the cliffs of the Clape massif. This is a very welcome development. Hidden beneath the massif is the small town of Gruissan, which has a really old centre, which spirals out from the castle. In addition, more modern coastal needs (bars, boats, dolphins) give way to a jumble of lagoons, marshes and outstanding beaches. Nearby you’ll find other more secluded sandy beaches at Serignan and Portiragnes, plus great walking and wine among the ridges and smoky pines of the Clape Hills.
The best wine of all comes from Château Le Bouis. Here, just back from Gruissan, is a 300-year-old vineyard with a view over vines and sea, where – isn’t life well planned? – you can also live in what was the winemaker’s manor. The old stones also have a restaurant. Fly to Perpignan.
3. Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Provence
Cavalaire-sur-Mer is as close to St Tropez as anyone needs to be, yet terribly different. The place has the same sea, sun and discomfort, but without the exclusivity of the A-list or prices that challenge billionaires. Here, families are at the fore, with a safe main beach you can’t see the end of, and every maritime activity known to man, bar buccaneering. Diving is particularly rewarding. A little further along are creeks, more discreet beaches and a dramatic coastal walk to Cap Lardier, which emphasizes that the Riviera can still be wild and elemental. Just behind, the Maures mountains take you away from the seaside to tougher times in a hairpin twist.
Hotel du Parc is outside the center but close to the beach (go for the second or third floor for the best ocean views), while Le Clos des Sept Palmiers is a colonial-looking chambres-d’hôtes, inches from the beach on Bonporteau Creek. The best option for the family may be a campsite, and the best is Camping de la Baie. Run by the same family for 60 years, it is, unusually, bang on in the center (although you’d never guess once inside). Fly to Toulon.
4. Conche des Baleines, Île de Ré
This elegant little island on France’s west coast is a popular retreat for wealthy French families who have shunned the glitz of St. Tropez for its vast pine-lined beaches, bathed in brilliant Atlantic light. It’s a great place for teenage kids looking for a bit of independence, as they can cycle safely around miles of car-free cycle routes. For the most memorable beaches, head all the way west – to the Conche des Baleines, a large crescent of golden sand, and the lesser-known but more sheltered Trousse-Chemise. Both are surrounded by pine forests that are ideal picnic spots. Miles of sand dunes with beaches offering good bodyboarding along the south coast – Le Bois-Plage en Re is particularly popular.
Stay at Hotel de Toiras, a meticulously renovated 17th-century shipowner’s residence in St Martin de Re, the island’s attractive and bustling capital. Guests can use the pool at sister hotel Villa Clarisse, just up the road, which is more suitable for families. Otherwise, Hotel L’Ocean has a great location, just off the main square of Le Bois Plage, with its spectacular beach and excellent market. A path leads through the small garden with olive, fig and palm trees to the swimming pool, around which are the largest and newest rooms. Fly to La Rochelle.
5. Urville-Nacqueville, Normandy
A short drive or cycle ride from Cherbourg quickly brings you to idyllic coastal scenery and sweeping expanses of fine sand.
Just west of Urville-Nacqueville, even 10 km west of the ferry dock and a popular bathing station a century ago, the veteran Hôtel Landemer offers bright, updated rooms with polished oak floors overlooking the canal, and you can dine outside on a covered terrace. There is surfing, windsurfing, sailing and diving nearby, as well as horse riding, and the long hiking trail GR223 passes the hotel as it circles the Cotentin Peninsula. Take the ferry to Cherbourg.
6. Sainte-Marine, Brittany
Best accessed by a five-minute ferry ride across the river Odet from better-known Bénodet, the small port of Sainte-Marine cradles a lovely crescent of fine sand.
The hundred-year-old Villa Tri Men is set among pretty lawns above the pier and surveys what has been called the most beautiful river in France. It is now a sumptuous hotel, with bright, spacious bedrooms, many with balconies, plus a superb restaurant; there are also private cabins on the property. Ten minutes’ walk south, using sheltered coves tucked into the river bank, you reach the mouth of the Odet, where a superbly unspoilt beach, Plage du Teven, stretches west for four long kilometres. Take the ferry to St Malo or fly to Nantes.
7. Étretat, Normandy
Quirky little Étretat, the most scenic spot on Normandy’s chalky northern coastline, is sandwiched between spectacularly eroded cliffs. With its gingerbread architecture and stately promenade, it oozes Belle-Époque charm; you half expect to find horse-drawn beach huts on the gravel beach, although it actually offers 21st-century activities like paddleboarding.
Choose between two contrasting hotels: at Domaine Saint-Clair, a lavish Anglo-Norman château, rooms named after the likes of Marcel Proust and Sarah Bernhardt are swathed in rich drapery, while at the cheaper, eco-friendly Détective Hotel in the city, they pay humorous homage to various fictional detectives, from Hercule Poirot to Inspector Clouseau and even Charlie’s Angels. Take the ferry to Dieppe.
8. Trégastel, Brittany
Côte de Granit Rose is an irresistible playground for family holidays. Dotted with golden sandy beaches, interspersed with headlands of tangled forests and heather, it is adorned with glistening pink granite boulders, eroded into strange shapes and stacked in gravity-defying disorder. Tiny Trégastel centers on one of the largest and most beautiful beaches, beautifully lit every evening by the sunset.
Located on the seafront, Hôtel Beau Séjour offers affordable rooms with great seafront decor, including an excellent family suite with a large roof terrace, plus a good restaurant and crêperie. Best of all, the owners also run a bakery; the breakfast buffet with fresh breads and pastries has to be seen to be believed. Take the ferry to St Malo or Roscoff.
9. Plage de Gatseau, Île d’Oléron
Île d’Oléron is off the radar of most British holidaymakers, despite much of the coastline of France’s second largest island featuring undeveloped sandy beaches backed by dunes and pine forests. Miles of beach stretch along the southwest coast, with acres of space for ball games at low tide, and often good surf for bodyboarding. But Oléron’s most beautiful beach is the more intimate Plage de Gatseau near St-Trojan-les-Bains: overlooking the channel between the island and the mainland, its soft sand is strewn with shells.
Camping Huttopia Oléron Les Pins is a wonderful natural area in a pine forest, 10 minutes by bike (rental available) from Plage de Gatseau. Fly to La Rochelle.
10. Argeles-sur-Mer, Languedoc
With around 50 campsites and a tenfold population of 9,000 people in the summer months, Argelès is a lively place for a seaside holiday. The beach is five miles long, and wide enough to accommodate all of Europe’s towels. Beauty is built in; we are at the exact point where the flat Languedoc coast rises to the dying sigh of the Pyrenees. So if your teenagers can’t find happiness at the beach, sea and beach clubs, you can send them to the mountains for hiking, biking or horseback riding.
The village is as merry and cheeky as a summer resort should be, and surrounded by many campsites. These include the five-star La Sirène, less a traditional campsite, more leafy suburbs full of cabins, amenities, the biggest and most interesting water park I’ve ever seen, bars, restaurants, surprisingly good evening entertainment and a happy sense of holiday fun well arranged. Fly to Perpignan.
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