Could you hazard a guess as to where in the world this beach is?
You may be surprised to hear it’s part of Brittany: the Glénan Islands, in northern France. I took this shot on St Nicolas, in the Glénan Archipelago which lies around ten nautical miles off the west coast of France. This part of the country is Finistère, the craggy corner of the country that reaches out into the Atlantic Ocean. The French islands are known as Les Glénans in the native language.
How to get to the Glénan Islands
Brittany Tourism and Les Vedettes de l’Odet invited us to take a boat day trip to discover more about the Glénan islands. After driving to the port of Bénodet from our base at Siblu Domaine de Kerlann, we set sail on one of the Vedettes’ small ferries, which run a few times a day over the Summer. Bénodet was a quaint, quiet port strewn with sailing boats; as we voyaged further into the Atlantic, the briny wind seemed to whisk away the grey morning clouds of the mainland, and by the afternoon we were left with a sky worthy of a Caribbean summer.
The most photographed part of the archipelago is Guiriden (above), a narrow stretch of water that’s completely submerged at high tide, but when visible looks like a long swathe of vanilla ice-cream set atop an aquamarine pool. The destination for our three-hour stopover, however, was St Nicolas Island, the Archipelago’s capital and the only island with a port.
There are only 100 or so people living on the Glénan Archipelago, so most of the people to be seen on St Nicolas are day trippers. There are two small restaurant/cafés, with a smattering of beachside apartments for those who want to stay longer.
The islands are too far from the mainland to benefit from mains electricity or water. Electricity for the entire Archipelago is generated solar panels, and Saint Nicolas’ wind turbine (above). Rain water is gathered and purified, for drinking water and showers. Despite the rudimentary facilities, the Archipelago bustles with visitors, around St Nicolas’s port area and in the waters themselves, where students at the world-renowned Glénans Nautical Centre sail, canoe, kayak, widsurf and kitesurf their way around the islands.
The islands are well-established; people have been living on them since the 1800s (although remains of settlers from Neolithic times have been found), and the sailing school was set up all the way back in 1947. Because of the potentially heavy footfall there’s a strong commitment to conservation, with certains parts of the islands being off-limits to visitors. Everyone’s encouraged to take home their litter with them (there are very few bins). The conservation effort’s for good reason: the islands are home to the rare, yellow narcissi des Glénan, as well as rare birds like cormorants and terns. In the shallow waters it’s possible to see cuttlefish, seahorses and a calcified red seaweed called marl, which gives the water a mottled effect in some places.
What is there to do on the Glénan Islands?
Once we’d arrived a St Nicolas island, our fellow day-trippers thronged to the beach and, despite the blustery weather, stripped down to bikinis and bathers and headed into the shallow blue. With only 2-3 hours before the ferry journey home, people made the most of the sunshine, taking out picnics of bread, camembert and wine; or scrambling up the rocks to get a better view of the glistening sea.
Les Vedettes de l’Odet’s guided tour then took us round the rest of the Archipelago, with a running commentary in English and French. Along the way we passed the Corentin, a reconstructed Breton sailing ship used for tours over some weekends in the Summer; and a fortress, originally built in the 18th Century to protect the islands from Cornish pirates, and later used as the archipelago’s prison.
The children became a little frisky on the journey back. The sail to St Nicolas had been direct, and an hour long; on the way home we stopped to let passengers off at Concarneau, Loctudy, Pors-la-Forêt and Beg Meil, so it was around half an hour longer. Even so I’d recommend this trip to anyone visiting this part of Brittany, with or without children. In just that short time on the boat, it felt as though we’d been transported to a different continent, where all there was to do was relax and enjoy the Ocean’s treasures.
What to take to the Glénan Islands
- swimwear and a towel. Even on a cool day, the Atlantic sunshine warms up the shallow sea around the islands.
- a beach tent or parasol. It can get windy.
- suncream. Even if it’s overcast on the mainland, the weather can change dramatically when you reach the islands. The Atlantic sunshine is fearsome and strong.
- binoculars. There are many wild birds and marine animals to see. It’s sometimes even possible to spot wild dolphins swimming alongside the ferry.
- snorkelling gear.
- a picnic and snacks. The eateries on St Nicolas island are always full, with long queues. It took us at least fifteen minutes to reach the counter when we wanted to buy some frites. If you want a sit-down meal at the restaurant, you’ll need to book ahead.
And finally: make sure you don’t leave it till the last minute to visit the loo. There are only a couple on the island (and they’re not particularly nice). Be prepared for a long wait.
A guided tour of the Glénan Archipelago with Les Vedettes de l’Odet, including a stop at Saint Nicolas island, is €44 per adult, €22 for children aged 4-12, and €7 for children under 4.
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This trip was arranged in collaboration with Brittany Tourism. We travelled from the UK via ferry to Brittany. Brittany Ferries and hosted us. We’d like to thank Les Vedettes de l’Odet for what was possibly our favourite day during our stay in the region.
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