There’s a mellow vibe on the coast that runs from Roscoff to St Malo, in Brittany. The Cotentin Peninsula shelters this part of north-west France. Warm air brought in by sea currents means that exotic plants, like palm trees and eucalyptus, grow freely. Cormorants, puffins and gulls nest on protected islands, and colonies of dolphins and seals swim in the waves.
Over millenia, the sea has thrown up huge boulders of granite. This granite, coloured a warm shade of dusky pink, is seen glowing in the walls of houses, in coastal fortifications, and as fine sand on the pretty beaches.
Roscoff to St Malo is a spectacular part of France, and one that Brittany Tourism invited us to explore. We spent four days driving between the two ferry ports, stopping off at Perros-Guirec and calling in to Cancale before swinging back round to St Malo.
Although we stayed overnight in more than one location, the area is small enough to just park yourselves in one base, then make excursions to the different attractions. It’s an easy place to visit with kids. It’s well set-up for visitors, with strong transport links to the UK via the cross-channel ferry. As you’ll see in this feature, despite packing in as much as we could with a six- and eight-year old in tow, four days isn’t long to explore the area. I’ve flagged up some highlights we missed, that would tempt us into returning.
Plymouth to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries UK
The quickest route from the south coast of England to this part of Brittany is on the ferry to France, from Plymouth to Roscoff. We sailed with Brittany Ferries, who always seem to provide a reliably entertainment-filled crossing. The company run overnight crossings as well as the daytime sailing that we took.
Our six hours on board the car ferry whizzed by, via shows from children’s entertainer Mister Colomondo, including balloon animal-making, and a magic performance. If we’d wanted to, we could have watched The Incredibles 2 or Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom in the ferry’s cinema. Instead, we opted to relax in our cabin, reading books or using the ship’s intermittent wi-fi to cach up on social media. The meals on board were reasonably priced, with a two-course adult’s meal, including a drink, for £10.50, a margharita pizza with Ben & Jerry’s ice cream for £6.80, and a kids’ lunch, complete with a little bag of treats, for £5.65.
I’ve written more extensively here about a similar Brittany Ferries crossing we took:
Find out more about timetables and pricing on the Brittany Ferries website.
We’d like to return for: Roscoff Fish Market and the town’s Tropical Garden, which has over 3k plant species overlooking the bay.
Where to stay in Brittany: Yelloh! Village Les Mouettes, in Carantec
Yelloh! Village hosted us in their seaside holiday park Les Mouettes, in a cabin overlooking Morlaix Bay. Yelloh! Village France are so much more than a camping provider. Although our two-bedroom cabin was compact, the light, airy interior, with floor-to-ceiling windows opening out onto the terrace, made it feel larger. The sea view was a real treat.
Yelloh’s cabins are all self-catering, with home comforts. The kitchen included a dishwasher, large fridge-freezer and a microwave. Our beds were already made up when we arrived, and in the bathroom were some nice toiletries. The welcome pack was delectable. Salted caramels are a local delicacy, and the pack included not one, but two boxes of these melt-in-the mouth goodies. They sat next to jars of tapenade made with aubergine and summer vegetables, and a bar of marine blue soap. This all felt deliciously luxurious – and then we noticed the bottle of crisp Breton cider, which had been left in the fridge for us. A warm welcome indeed.
The morning after our late arrival at the holiday park we had the nicest time out on the terrace. We ate a breakfast of croissants bought from the well-stocked shop, smothered in Granny’s Scottish tayberry jam that we’d brought from home. We spent the rest of the morning stocking up on groceries in Carantec, recovering from the journey in Les Mouette’s lazy river, zipping down the waterslides (one was a vertical drop – eek!) and, for me, relaxing in the poolside sauna.
You can find out more about Yelloh! Village Les Mouettes on the Yelloh! Village website.
Read about our stay at another Yelloh! Village holiday park, this time in France’s Loire Valley, in this post on Parc du Val de Loire.
Morlaix Bay and the Château du Taureau
In the nineteenth century, Carantec, a fifteen-minute walk from our base at Les Mouettes, was the haunt of writers, artists and poets. Tintin creator Hergé stayed there. Scrolling back even further in time to the 17th century, Morlaix was a seat of great wealth, due to the locally produced flax. The inhabitants were keen to protect their wealth from English marauders. They commissioned Marshal Vaubon to build the Château du Taureau, an imposing granite fortification out in the Baie de Morlaix.
Like Fort Boyard on France’s west coast, Château du Taureau became a prison once the need to protect the coast lessened. Unlike Fort Boyard, though, visitors can now take one of the popular boat trips out from Carantec or Plougasnou, and alight to explore the fortress.
We took the boat from Carantec beach. Our journey to the Château took around twenty minutes, past protected rocks where black cormorants bred, and a lighthouse-hotel that’s booked up until 2020. Visitors have around an hour and a half to explore the fortress before a clanging bell sounds, and it’s time to get back on the boat for the return crossing. Guided tours in French run daily throughout the spring-summer season, but for people whose French isn’t up to the job, signs in both languages help explain the history of the building.
The children enjoyed peering out across the splendid view, checking out which birds they could spot. And they loved the games set out in the former prison cells. The kids pounced on the giant sets of jenga, dominoes and chess – and we even had a father-daughter face-off.
We’d like to return for: a meal in the Michelin-starred Patrick Jeffroy restaurant in L’Hôtel de Carantec, overlooking Plage de Kélenn. A visit to the nearby Cairn de Barnenez, the biggest megalithic mausoleum in Europe, older than Egypt’s pyramids.
You can read more about Château du Taureau on the Brittany Tourism website. The French-language Château du Taureau website, with information on crossing times and prices, is here.
Perros-Guirec, Ploumanac’h and the Pink Granite Coast
Granite can be a cold, harsh-looking stone, but on the shoreline by Perros-Guirec and Ploumanac’h, the rock is coloured a warm pink. This pink granite was formed millennia ago in the sea, and it seems to change colour in different lights. Sometimes the boulders and bricks appear a dusty rose, and other times they wink out with almost baby-pink candour.
Perros-Guirec is a medium-sized town that lies east of Roscoff. The coastline here’s a smuggler’s playground, with lots of hidden coves and beaches. The pink granite has shaped itself into rocks as large as 20m high. Like clouds, the rocks take on meaning depending on who’s watching. Napoleon’s hat, the witch and the rabbit are among the most popular shapes described by people who’ve seen the boulders.
Off the shore, the Sept Îsles (Seven Isles) archipelago lurks like a school of hump-backed whales. Brittany’s oldest and largest bird sanctuary can be found there. Boats regularly take passengers out from Perros-Guirec to see puffins, gannets and guillemots. Some of the islands are completely out-of-bounds to human visitors, although Heart of Darkness writer Joseph Conrad did briefly stay on l’Île Grande, one of the larger islands.
Perros Guirec itself is a charming, well-kept town with a range of excellent restaurants. Of the couple we ate at, Capizzone, an unassuming but top-notch Italian, was our favourite.
We’d like to return for: a walk along the Breton coast, between Perros-Guirec and the small port of Ploumanac’h. This is where you can see many of the best pink granite formations. A two-hour round trip of four miles, beginning at Trestraou Beach, is suitable for younger children. On our visit, we decided not to brave the rain, and instead looked out onto the beautiful shoreline from the windows of Villa Les Hydrangéas.
You can read more about the Pink Granite Coast on the Brittany Tourism website.
Where to stay in Brittany: Villa Les Hydrangéas, Perros Guirec
Our two nights at Villa les Hydrangéas left us in no doubt that it is one of the best family-friendly hotels in France. It’s been recognised as such. Despite only being open under its new ownership since 2016, Tripadvisor ranked it no. 14 in the ‘Traveller’s Choice’ listing for the whole of France.
Hotels in Perros-Guirec are plentiful, but Villa les Hydrangéas managed to achieve that rare thing: a stylish boutique hotel that’s family-focused. Our two enjoyed playing with the games, arts and crafts in the relaxed public spaces, while D and I leafed through the glossy coffee-table publications showing lavish images from the area. The bright, airy sitting rooms were perfect for lounging.
We stayed in a spacious family suite with a private bathroom. Handwritten notes on the beds welcomed the children by name. They were very excited to find little gifts including plush puffins, and a Coq en Pâte bucket-and-spade set, made from Breton seaweed rather than plastic.
The hotel dining room looked out onto the Sept Îles, and was all nautical chic, with soothing taupe and slate grey decor to complement the coastal setting. We tucked in to the gourmet breakfast “created with love” by our hosts Coralie and Eric, who cooked us eggs laid by local hens, on bread smothered in Breton salt butter. A gorgeous buffet of cakes, fruit, pastries, cheese and cured meats made us glad we’d slept well, and woken to raging appetites. My son’s favourite was the pistachio and raspberry cake. I adored my fresh fruit infused with verbena from the garden, sprinkled with a few Perigord walnuts. D enjoyed some pungent tomme cheese from the Savoie, and our daughter sipped creamy hot chocolate made with local organic milk. It really was the breakfast of kings.
We’d like to return for: a massage in Villa Les Hydrangéas’ ‘Beauté Voyageuse’ treatment booth in the garden, overlooking the sea.
You can see prices and availability at Villa Les Hydrangéas on their website.
Here’s a little video I took of our family suite, the sitting room and dining room.
La Roche Jagu
Around half an hour’s drive from Perros-Guirec was La Roche Jagu. This pink granite building was the last of ten fifteenth-century fortresses that once stood on the banks of the Trieux River. Like Château du Taureau, it was built to scare people off rather than as a base for doing battle. The Trieux River was an important shipping route, and the presence of these grand, towering buildings, high above the water, put off anyone wanting to try to invade Brittany for its riches.
We spent a good couple of hours, climbing up and down the fortress’s steep staircases, admiring the views from the top floor, and learning about the history of the spice trade in a sensory exhibition staged over three of La Roche Jagu’s floors. Exhibitions have run here since 1968, and they change each year. Past topics included knights, and art from a resident painter, who ran family workshops.
We’d like to return for: La Roche Jagu’s famed gardens include a Medieval area, a silver rock pathway, and an oriental garden. A leisurely day could be lost here, just strolling in the 30-hectare grounds.
Parc du Radome at Pleumeur Bodou
The French know how to put together a quirky theme park. Le Village Gaulois at Parc du Radome took people back in time, to the days when Roman invaders fought the Gauls, the Celtic people living in this part of France in the 1st century BC. All the rides and games were hand-powered. Think chuggy boats, and a coconut shy where instead of coconuts, you had to knock down Romans. And, in the lake, Gaulish boats with paddles, and water cannons to shoot ‘Romans’ walking along the shore.
Cheers and shouts rang out around the earthen floor of the park’s centre – not least when an occasional tug-of war session saw the losers soaked by water from a bucket suspended on top of a trebuchet. Despite the miltary overtones, it all felt very wholesome, and safe. Scouts staffed a lot of the rides. We felt no qualms about leaving our bags in a heap with these trustworthy-looking people while we took our turn on a Gaulish boat. And we ate THE most delicious galettes for lunch, cooked in front of us in the restaurant/cafe. Like crepes, galettes are served with delicious (usually savoury) fillings, but they’re made with buckwheat flour, with an earthy, more savoury flavour. If you’re in Brittany, they’re something you need to try.
We’d like to return for: Telecoms City, and the Brittany Planetarium, two other attractions at Parc du Radome. The children enjoyed Le Village Gaulois so much we ended up staying there for hours. Telecoms City was an enormous, golf-ball like structure. The emphasis was on learning, with a large range of optical illusions to try out. And under the 360° dome of the Brittany Planetarium, visitors could see around the night sky.
Dolphin-spotting at Cancale with the Al Lark Association
In heading to Cancale, we overshot our target of St Malo. But if we hadn’t travelled there to see the colony of bottle-nosed dolphins in Mont St Michel Bay, we’d have missed one of the most magical experiences of this trip.
The Al Lark Association is a group of conservationists, who look after the marine mammals in this stretch of sea. Their main role is counting and protecting the 300+ dolphins that live in the bay. But every day they run a trip out on rigid-hulled inflatable (RHIB) boats, so that visitors can observe dolphins swimming in the wild. It’s strictly an eco-friendly tour, so there’s no swimming with the animals. Estelle asked us to keep our noise down, to avoid disturbing the creatures. Only 70% of people are lucky enough to catch sight of the dolphins on one of these trips, but our guide Estelle went out of her way to make sure we saw them.
At a tip-off from her colleague, Estelle told us to hold onto the sides of boat. We sped out to sea from the shore of Cancale, with the wind whipping through our hair. The kids’ faces beamed with delight, and there was a rumble of excitement around the other people in our boat.
After fifteen minutes we arrived, and the engine deadened. Estelle pointed out what we’d come to see: dolphins, as silhouettes in the distance, curving, arcing, and leaping into the air. There were around thirty or forty in total, in small groups of three, four, five or six. The sea would go quiet for a moment, and then we’d spot another group. Some looked as though they were leaping with joy. Others slapped their tails on the water, like rabbits thumping their hind legs in alarm. Estelle told us this was to warn off onlookers: a couple of sailing boats were veering quite close to the animals, to get a closer look. We kept our distance, and let the dolphins approach us voluntarily, which they did, a couple of times. One even swam right under our boat.
The trip took three hours, all of which were spent in the boat. Children over four are allowed to join, so long as their parents feel able to keep them under control and happy for that length of time on a small boat. It was thrilling stuff, and an experience our family will treasure.
Here’s a video which, although shaky, I hope captures a little of the magic of that afternoon.
St Malo to Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries
Journeys home after a family trip can sometimes be a bit miserable. Not so on our return crossing, from St Malo to Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries. It was Panto time! The eight-hour long crossing included a staging of Aladdin, complete with a sassy dame and lashings of slapstick. The other entertainment was well thought-through, with an escape room challenge, a family quiz and even wine tasting for the adults. We arrived back in Portsmouth at teatime after having eaten well on board, spent some time chilling out in our cabin, taking the sea air on deck, and merrily whiling away the hours with the help of the onboard entertainment team.
Find out more about pricing and timetables on the Brittany Ferries website.
Read more about Brittany in these posts:
Brittany Tourism and partners hosted our trip to north Brittany. All views are my own.
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