Understated and charmingly elegant, from Languedoc to Archachon, Provence to a mere Eurotunnel hop across the Channel to Normandy and the Cote-de-Opale, France is full of beautiful, quiet – and still relatively undiscovered – coastal towns and villages, perfect for relaxing at a slower pace in local life.
Whether you meander through old cobbled alleys, stop in sun-drenched squares or watch fishermen unload crates of truly local catch, observing everyday life in these picturesque harbors makes for a cozy holiday. Here are 10 seaside paradises that offer everything you need for a truly charming holiday.
The typical charming coastal town. The Stone Tower is said to be where Joan of Arc was arrested, and gardeners will appreciate the herbarium established by nuns, now used by local chefs, while the less green-fingered can admire the now chi-chi fisherman’s cottages with colorful shutters. There are plenty of craft shops and delicatessens to peruse too, including one dedicated to the most beautifully packaged tinned fish. Be sure to try a brioche-like Gateau Battu from the hipster Watterlot patisserie, then head to Relais de Guillaume by the water to enjoy Paté Picard made with samphire and Ficelle Picarde, a crepe dish made with ham, mushrooms and cream.
During the 19th century, Saint-Valery was particularly popular with artists and writers: Stroll along the seaside promenade to see where Jules Verne, Sisley and Degas all lived in the most beautiful Belle-Epoque villas. However, it’s important to note that swimming in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme is considered too dangerous due to the shifting sands, so it’s best to head to Cayeux-sur-Mer for a beach day instead.
Where you will live: Velocipede is a veggie-centric restaurant/cafe with appealing boho spaces and an art gallery, plus bike hire. (Doubles from £106; 00 33 3 22 60 57 42; auvelocipede.fr).
La Belle Ile, Brittany
Sauzon is composed of white houses with multicolored shutters that match the wooden sailing ships bobbing in the harbor. Jean Epstein filmed here and actress Sarah Bernherdt settled on Le Belle Ile. It is also something of a gastronomic institution, with special mention going to Restaurant Roz Avel, which specializes in local lobster and langoustines.
Where you will live: Hotel Le Cardinal is a modern hotel with contemporary rooms that are praised for their ultra-comfortable beds and soothing sea views. (Doubles from £180; 00 33 1 40 16 30 00; lecardinal.fr).
Pink granite boulders are stacked all the way down the coast, casting a rosy glow on the untamed, extravagantly indented shore. Ploumanc’h is a small and perfectly designed fishing port with a sandy beach in the Côtes d’Armor in Brittany. Originally a place of prayer – in Breton “plou” means parish and “manac’h” means monk – Ploumanac’h has a medieval chapel, and a partially submerged rock right on the beach is topped by an ancient shrine. Pack your walking shoes for a hike around the coastal path that winds past the dusty Men Ruz lighthouse at the entrance to the canal. Enjoy fried lobster and grilled squid in a restaurant by the sea.
Where you will live: Hôtel St-Guirec et de la Plage is a traditional seaside hotel facing the beach, where some of the rooms have large private terraces. (Doubles from £75; 00 33 2 96 91 40 89; hotelsaint-guirec.com).
With its craggy chalk cliffs, including three monumental natural arches and a pointed formation called the Needle that rises 70 meters above the gin-clear sea, this is known as the Alabaster Coast. The extraordinary luminescence makes Étretat fascinating. No wonder its beauty was much admired by impressionist painters. On the small beach, the pebbles are smooth and soft on the feet, making a dip possible for hardier souls.
Besides a beautiful seafront, the town has plenty of medieval character and a long seafront. Monpassant spent his childhood here and it inspired several stories. There is a good selection of art galleries, seafood restaurants and creperies serving local cider.
Where you will live: Set in a 19th-century building on the seafront, Hotel Le Rayon Vert even offers rooms with sea-view jacuzzis. (Doubles from £104; 00 33 2 35 10 38 90; hotelrayonvertetretat.com).
The smallest village on Thau D’Etang, Bouzigues, has been important in the production of oysters and mussels since the ancient Greeks were here. For those curious to know more, there is the Museum de Thau Etang, which is dedicated to the history and farming of oysters and mussels, both ultra-sustainable as they filter water. Bouzigues has a lovely church from the 15th century, a long sandy beach and – despite the hustle and bustle of the city center – it always has a quiet calm about it somehow.
Where you will live: La Côte Bleue is a 1970s hotel with sea views, an outdoor pool and a beautiful terrace. (Double rooms from £100; 00 33 4 67 78 31 42; la-cote-bleue.fr).
La Flotte En Re
The whole of Ile-de-Ré is absurdly pretty: French coastal chic at its best. No wonder it’s a favorite holiday destination for Parisians, especially those who enjoy civilized cycling along the mostly flat 100 km of cycle paths that connect all the villages. The sandy beach is a magnet for early morning cockle pickers when the tide is out, while holidaymakers prefer a leisurely coffee while enjoying the scene at one of the elegantly weathered cafes and admiring the roses trémières – shocking pink hollyhocks, a flower that grows in luxuriant abundance across the island .
Exploring La Flotte’s enchanting market is a real treat, with stalls set up under medieval porticoes selling an incredible range of fresh fish and shellfish, fragrant frais du bois and local honey. Pass by La Flotte on your way to St Martin to visit one of the cottages on the coast where families grow oysters on a small scale and serve them at picnic tables outside small cottages.
Where you will live: Hotel La Galiote en Re is a short walk from the harbor with lovely, simple modern rooms and a nautical theme. (Doubles from £85; 00 33 5 46 09 50 95; hotellagaliote.com).
Andernos Les Bains remains a pleasant old-fashioned village, complete with brightly painted fishing huts, an exceptionally long pier and fragrant flower-filled alleys leading to the jewel of the village: the 16th-century Saint-Éloiwith church with its magnificent ceiling frieze. Seafood lovers are spoiled for choice: run by an Arcachon native, L’Esquirey prides itself on impeccable local oysters, clams cooked with garlic and chilli and whole grilled fish, so local it practically finds its own way straight from sea to plate.
Where you will live: L’Anderenis is a new small luxury hotel designed around a half-timbered courtyard with a tempting pool and fascinating sea views. (Double rooms from from £260; 00 33 5 24 18 00 49; landerenis.com).
Glimpsed from a bend in the coast road, Villefranche – with its faded apricot and lemon-coloured houses perched on a picturesque curve of corniche with the sparkling Med below – still feels like an authentic seaside town. Have an aperitif at the dockside Welcome Hotel, where Jean Cocteau once lived. The old town of Villefranche is truly charming and, dating from the 13th century, tailor-made for aimless meandering. It’s a citadel for history buffs, galleries and some pretty good linen shops, perfect for a seaside holiday when days of sunbathing on the sandy beach, eating and sleeping are exactly the point of life.
Where you will live: Overlooking the bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer and the Saint Jean Cap Ferrat peninsula, Hotel La Fiancée du Pirate offers spectacular sea views from the breakfast terrace. (Doubles from £160; 00 33 4 93 76 67 40; fianceedupirate.com).
Built like an amphitheater by the sea, Cassis is one of the most beautiful coastal towns in the south of France, but at the same time curiously under the radar. Pastel colored houses line the Quai des Baux, where fishermen moor their traditional pointu fishing boats to supply the local restaurants. Be sure to admire the 9th-century château, now home to an elegant B&B, and make time for the twice-weekly farmers’ markets before heading to the gloriously empty Plage du Corton or Plage de l’Arene, to the east of the port. But don’t expect to find crème de cassis for sale here – it’s actually from Burgundy. Instead, be sure to look for some of the city’s renowned white and rosé wines from the local vineyard planted by the ancient Greeks.
Where you will live: The Address Cassis is an ultra-smart boutique guest house with just four huge suites, each with its own terrace, and renowned for its friendly Cassidian welcome, superb breakfasts and stunning surroundings. (Doubles from £220; 00 33 7 49 58 30 30; theaddress-cassis.com).
The first of the creeks or calanques in the national park is along the Chemin des Goudes, which leads to this gem of a village beaming with colorful beach houses and fragrant pittosporum flowers. It has a small secluded beach with many more rugged coves accessible by boat, making it the perfect quiet retreat when Marseille feels too busy. It is this tranquility that gave rise to the French expression “va te jeter aux Goudes” (roughly translated as “get lost in the Goudes”) – referring to the feeling of being at the end of the world.
Nevertheless, there are many bars and several good restaurants serving beautiful fish, including squid carpaccio and Bouillabaisse. Be sure to order this spectacular fish feast served as a soup and fish course 48 hours ahead. For the more intrepid, there are hiking trails that start from the village.
Where you will live: Whether in Marseille or rent a self-catering cottage – there’s a good selection on Vrbo (vrbo.com), with prices starting from £120 per night.
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