Understated and quaintly chic, from Languedoc to Archachon, Provence to a mere Eurotunnel hop across the channel to Normandy and Cote-de-Opale, France is awash with pretty, tranquil – and still relatively undiscovered – coastal towns and villages, perfect for easing into a slower pace of local living.
Whether meandering through ancient cobbled alleyways, stopping in sun-dappled squares or watching fishermen unload crates of truly local catch, observing everyday life in these picturesque ports makes for a halcyon holiday.
For foodies, these sleepy seaside spots provide platters of oysters and great pots of steamed clams, served with little fanfare but somehow always perfect – particularly when enjoyed alongside a crisp glass of rosé. Keen walkers can make tracks for craggy white cliffs and there’s likely to be a medieval chapel or castle to explore.
So for your next break, look beyond the obvious and opt for one of these 10 seaside havens which offer everything you need for a truly charming break.
The quintessential quaint coastal town. Its stone tower is reputedly where Jeanne d’Arc was detained, 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 colourful shutters. There are plenty of craft shops and delis to browse too, including one dedicated to the most gorgeously packaged tinned fish. Be sure to try a brioche-like Gateau Battu from hipster Watterlot pâtisserie, then head for waterfront Relais de Guillaume to indulge in 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 coastside boardwalk to see where Jules Verne, Sisley and Degas all stayed in the loveliest Belle-Epoque villas. Important to note, however, that it’s considered too dangerous to swim in Saint-Valery-sur-Somme on account of the shifting sands, so best to head to Cayeux-sur-Mer for your beach day instead.
Where to stay: The Velocipede is a veg-centric restaurant/café with pleasingly boho rooms and an art gallery, plus bike rental. (Double rooms from £106; 00 33 3 22 60 57 42; auvelocipede.fr).
La Belle Ile, Brittany
Sauzon is composed of white houses with multi-coloured shutters that match the wooden sailing vessels bobbing in the port. Jean Epstein filmed here and actress Sarah Bernherdt settled on Le Belle Ile. It’s something of a gastronomic institution, too, with special mention going to Restaurant Roz Avel, specialising in local lobster and langoustines.
Where to stay: Hotel Le Cardinal is a modern hotel with contemporary rooms praised for its ultra comfortable beds and soothing sea views. (Doubles from £180; 00 33 1 40 16 30 00; lecardinal.fr).
Pink granite boulders are piled helter-skelter along the shore, casting a rosy glow on the untamed, extravagantly indented coast. Ploumanc’h is a small and perfectly formed fishing port with a sandy crescent shaped beach on Brittany’s Côtes d’Armor. Originally a place of prayer – in Breton, “plou” means parish and “manac’h” means monk – Ploumanac’h has a medieval chapel, and a part-submerged rock right on the beach is topped by an ancient shrine. Pack your walking shoes for a hike around the coastal footpath that winds its way past the dusty-rose Men Ruz lighthouse at the entrance to the Channel. Feast on roast lobster and grilled octopus in a seafront restaurant.
Where to stay: Hôtel St-Guirec et de la Plage is a beach-facing traditional seaside hotel where some rooms have large private terraces. (Double rooms 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 which rises 70 metres above the gin-clear sea, this is known as the Alabaster Coast. The extraordinary luminescence makes Étretat mesmerising. 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 pretty seafront, the town has plenty of medieval character and a long boardwalk. Maupassant spent his childhood here and it inspired several stories. There’s a good choice of art galleries, seafood eateries and creperies serving local cider.
Where to stay: Hotel Le Rayon Vert is housed in a 19th century building on the seafront, and even offers rooms with sea-view hot tubs. (Double rooms 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’s the Museum de Thau Etang, which is devoted to the history and farming of oysters and mussels, both ultra-sustainable as they filter water. Bouzigues has a gorgeous 15th century church, a long sandy beach, and – despite there being plenty of buzz in the centre – always somehow has an unhurried calm about it.
Where to stay: La Côte Bleue is a 1970s hotel overlooking the sea with an outdoor pool and beautiful terrace. (Doubles 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 seaside chic at its best. No wonder it is a favourite holiday destination for Parisians, especially those who enjoy civilised cycling along the mostly flat 100km of bike paths connecting all the villages. The sandy beach is a magnet for early-morning cockle pickers when the tide is out, while holiday idlers prefer a leisurely coffee soaking up the scene at one of the elegantly weathered cafes and admiring the roses trémières – shocking-pink hollyhocks, a flower that grows in exuberant profusion all over the island.
Exploring La Flotte’s enchanting market is a real treat, with stalls set up under medieval porticoes and selling an incredible choice of fresh fish and shellfish, fragrant frais du bois and local honey. Peddle beyond La Flotte en route to St Martin to visit one of the coast-front cabanes where families cultivate oysters on a tiny scale and serve them at picnic tables outside little shacks.
Where to stay: Hotel La Galiote en Re is a short walk from the harbour with lovely, simple contemporary rooms and a seaside theme. (Double rooms from £85; 00 33 5 46 09 50 95; hotellagaliote.com).
Andernos Les Bains remains a pleasingly old-fashioned village, complete with brightly painted fishing cabins, an exceptionally long pier and fragrant flower-festooned alleyways leading to the jewel of the village: the 16th century church of Saint-Éloiwith with its magnificent ceiling frieze. Seafood lovers are spoilt for choice: L’Esquirey run by an Arcachon native prides itself on impeccable local oysters, clams cooked with garlic and chilli and whole grilled fish, so local it virtually finds its own way straight from sea to plate.
Where to stay: L’Anderenis is a new-ish small luxury hotel designed around a half timbered courtyard with a tantalising pool and mesmerising views to the sea. (Double rooms from from £260; 00 33 5 24 18 00 49; landerenis.com).
Glimpsed from a bend on the coastal road, Villefranche – with its faded apricot- and lemon-coloured houses poised at a painterly curve of the corniche with the shimmering Med below – still feels like an authentic seaside town. Quaff an aperitif at the quayside Welcome Hotel, where Jean Cocteau once resided. Villefranche old town is truly quaint and, dating from the 13th century, tailor-made for aimless meandering. There’s a citadel for history lovers, galleries and some rather good shops for linen clothes, perfect for seaside holidaying when days spent sunbathing on the sandy beach, eating and sleeping are exactly the point of life.
Where to stay: Hotel La Fiancée du Pirate overlooks the Villefranche-sur-Mer bay and Saint Jean Cap Ferrat peninsula and offers a spectacular sea view from the breakfast terrace. (Double rooms from £160; 00 33 4 93 76 67 40; fianceedupirate.com).
Built like an amphitheatre by the sea, Cassis is one of the loveliest coastal towns in the South of France, yet curiously under the radar. Pastel-hued houses line the Quai des Baux where fishermen moor their traditional pointu fishing boats to supply the local restaurants. Be sure to admire the 8th century castle, now home to a posh B&B, and make time for the twice-weekly farmer’s markets, before heading to the gloriously empty Plage du Corton or Plage de l’Arene, situated to the east of the Port. But don’t expect to find crème de Cassis for sale here – it is, in fact, from Burgundy. Instead, be sure to look for some of the town’s acclaimed white and rosé wines from the local vineyard planted by the Ancient Greeks.
Where to stay: 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 setting. (Doubles from £220; 00 33 7 49 58 30 30; theaddress-cassis.com).
The first of the creeks or calanques of the national park are located along the Chemin des Goudes, leading to this gem of a village resplendent with colourful beach houses and fragrant pittosporum flowers. It has a small secluded beach with plenty more craggy coves accessible by boat, making it the perfect quiet escape when Marseille feels too busy. It’s this tranquillity that led to the French expression “va te jeter aux Goudes” (roughly translated as “get lost in Goudes”) – referring to the feeling of being at the end of the world.
Yet there are plenty of bars and several good restaurants serving beautiful fish including octopus 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 starting from the village.
Where to stay: Either in Marseille or rent a self-catering cabane – there’s a good selection on Vrbo (vrbo.com), with prices starting at £120 per night.
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