The 10 best beach holidays in France for discerning British sunseekers
From the thinking person’s Riviera to an overlooked Atlantic island, there are plenty of under-the-radar options in France for discerning British sunseekers. Here are 10 of the best, chosen by our experts.
1. Menton, Provence
Menton is the thinking person’s Côte-d’Azur. As required, it has the lazy sunshine zest, two vast beaches of sand and shingle, unambiguous light and Alps dropping direct to the sea – but without the airhead assumptions of more ring-a-ding spots farther west. Wintering British nobles long ago set a tone, establishing gardens, good manners and Belle-Epoque elegance. These flourish on Mediterranean roots. The labyrinthine Latin old town climbs around Baroque churches steeply up its hill. Italy’s at the end of the Prom. Thus we have the best of all worlds – and art in the Jean Cocteau Museum, should the sand, sun and sea fail to supply an aesthetic challenge.
Hôtel Napoléon is an English-owned boutique hotel by the beach in Menton which dazzles guests with sterling service and crisp, white-and-blue rooms. Fly to Nice.
2. Gruissan, Languedoc
To the south of Narbonne, the flat, unkempt Languedoc littoral suddenly sprouts the rocks of the Clape Massif. This is a most welcome development. Tucked in below the massif is the little town of Gruissan which has a proper old centre, spiralling out from its castle. Beyond, more modern seaside requisites (bars, boats, blow-up dolphins) give way to a tangle of lagoons, marshland and outstanding beaches. Nearby are other, more remote, sands 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 winery looking out over vines and sea, where – isn’t life well-planned? – one may also stay in what was the wine-maker’s manor house. The old stones also host 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 insouciance but with no A-list exclusivity or prices that challenge billionaires. Here families are to the fore, with a safe main beach one cannot see the end of, and every maritime activity known to man, bar buccaneering. Diving is particularly rewarding. Slightly farther along are creeks, more discreet beaches and a dramatic coastal trek to Cap Lardier, which underlines that the Riviera can still be wild and elemental. Directly behind, the Maures mountains whisk you away from sea-sidery to tougher times in the twist of a hairpin.
Hotel du Parc is off-centre, but near the beach (go for the second or third floor for best sea views), while Le Clos des Sept Palmiers is a colonial-looking chambres-d’hôtes inches from the beach at Bonporteau creek. Best bet for the family may be a campsite, and the best is the Camping de la Baie. Run by the same family for 60 years, it is, unusually, bang in the town centre (though you’d never guess once you’re in). Fly to Toulon.
4. Conche des Baleines, Île de Ré
This chic little island on France’s west coast is a popular bolthole for affluent French families who have shunned the glitz of St Tropez for Re’s vast pine-backed beaches, bathed in luminous Atlantic light. It’s a great place for teenage children seeking a bit of independence as they can safely cycle around on the miles of car-free cycle routes. For the most memorable beaches, head to the far west – to Conche des Baleines, a vast crescent of golden sand, and the less known but more protected Trousse-Chemise. Both are fringed by pine woods that make ideal picnic spots. Miles of dune-backed beaches offering good bodyboarding run along the south coast – Le Bois-Plage en Re is particularly popular.
Stay at Hotel de Toiras, a meticulously renovated 17th-century ship-owner’s residence in St Martin de Re, the island’s attractive and bustling main town. Guests can use the pool at sister hotel Villa Clarisse, just up the road, which is more suitable for families. Otherwise, Hotel L’Ocean is in 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 of olive, fig and palm trees to the swimming pool, around which are sited the largest and newest rooms. Fly to La Rochelle.
5. Urville-Nacqueville, Normandy
A short drive or cycle from Cherbourg brings you swiftly to idyllic coastal countryside and sweeping expanses of fine sand.
Just west of Urville-Nacqueville, itself 10km west of the ferry port and a popular bathing station a century ago, the veteran Hôtel Landemer offers bright, up-to-the-minute rooms with polished-oak floors looking out over the Channel, and you can dine outside on a decked terrace. There’s surfing, windsurfing, sailing and diving nearby, as well as horse riding, and the long-distance GR223 footpath 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 little port of Sainte-Marine cradles a lovely crescent of fine sand.
Perched amid neat lawns above the jetty, the century-old Villa Tri Men surveys what’s been called the prettiest river in France. It’s now a sumptuous hotel, with bright, spacious bedrooms, many with balconies, plus a superb restaurant; there are also private cottages in the grounds. Ten minutes’ walk south, by way of sheltered coves tucked into the riverbank, brings you to the mouth of the Odet, where a supremely unspoiled beach, the 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 bathing huts on its shingle beach, though in fact it offers 21st-century activities such as paddleboarding.
Choose from two contrasting hotels: at the Domaine Saint-Clair, an opulent Anglo-Norman castle, rooms named after the likes of Marcel Proust and Sarah Bernhardt are swathed in rich draperies, while those at the cheaper, eco-friendly Détective Hotel in town pay humorous tribute to assorted fictional investigators, 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. Peppered with golden-sand beaches, interspersed with headlands of tangled woods and heather, it’s adorned throughout with glistening pink-granite boulders, eroded into strange shapes and stacked in gravity-defying disarray. Tiny Trégastel centres on one of its largest and prettiest beaches, beautifully illuminated each evening by the setting sun.
The seafront Hôtel Beau Séjour offers great-value rooms with jaunty seaside décor, including an excellent family suite with a large rooftop deck, plus a good restaurant and crêperie. Best of all, the owners also run a bakery; the breakfast buffet spread of fresh-baked 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
The Île d’Oléron is off the radar of most British holidaymakers, despite the fact that much of the coastline of France’s second-largest island has undeveloped sandy beaches backed by dunes and pine woods. Miles of beach extend along the south-west coast, with acres of space for ball games at low tide, and often good surf for body boarding. But Oléron’s prettiest strand is the more intimate Plage de Gatseau near St-Trojan-les-Bains: overlooking the channel between the island and mainland, its soft sand is spattered with shells.
Camping Huttopia Oléron Les Pins is a delightful, back-to-nature site set in a pine forest, 10 minutes by bike (rentals available) from Plage de Gatseau. Fly to La Rochelle.
10. Argeles-sur-Mer, Languedoc
With around 50 campsites and a tenfold increase in the 9,000-strong population in the summer months, Argelès is a lively place for a seaside break. 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 sighs of the Pyrenees. So, if your teenagers can’t find happiness with the beach, sea and beach clubs, you might send them into the mountains for hiking, biking or horsing.
The village is as jolly and brazen as a summer resort should be, and surrounded by scores of campsites. These include the five-star La Sirène, less a trad campsite, more leafy suburbia studded with chalets, facilities, the biggest and most interesting water park I’ve ever seen, bars, restaurants, surprisingly good night-time entertainment and a happy sense of holiday fun well-marshalled. Fly to Perpignan.