Word of Mouth: Belle-Île-en-Mer, Brittany

Ferry away to idyllic port cities, breathtaking cliffside hikes and secluded sandy beaches

Distill the essence of a seaside vacation destination. You may find a vision of quaint cottages settled along sandy coves. Perhaps it’s a series of small, colorful towns dotted by restaurants serving local cuisine beside shops with regional wares. Maybe it’s simply a salty breeze, a walk through a shaded garden or a moment of quiet under the sun. After a 45-minute ferry ride into the Atlantic—from a peninsula extending off of Brittany, France—all of this lays in wait on an island known as Belle-Île-en-Mer. It’s a destination of quiet yet extraordinary beauty. It can be traversed entirely by bike or walked in its entirety by a trail that rises and falls along severe cliffs. Creperies pop up in stretches between the four main cities, little oases among fields of wheat that billow in an ever-present breeze. And there’s nary an American in site, even in the ravine-protected beaches. Belle-Île feels like a Breton-striped secret that people outside of France (and Belgium and the Netherlands) simply don’t know much about. But its natural beauty rivals that of any other French island, and the availability of quality experiences truly abounds.

Citadelle Vauban

No monument demonstrates Belle-Île’s history like Citadelle Vauban. Today, the 10-hectare fortress happens to house a new hotel and museum—but its past, which predates French military engineer Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban’s involvement in 1683, is storied. Visible from the town of Le Palais, the primary port city on the island (where most will arrive), Citadelle Vauban can be explored by anyone who wants to hike up its winding inner ramparts.

Kaerilis Distillery + Shop

There are many treasures within Le Palais, from charming port-side hotels and restaurants to pottery stores and gift shops selling authentically local items. Surprisingly, in town, one will also find the Kaerilis Distillery + Shop. Inside Kaerilis, Fabien Mueller distills whiskey grown from wheat on the island. (He also makes his own rum.) The store allows guests to view the still and even sample some of his products. He’s the only distiller on the island and the Kaerilis-branded products are undeniably superb, with more than a touch of Atlantic sea breeze on the tongue.

Castel Clara Thalasso + Spa

Nested above a boat-laden ocean ravine in the town of Bangor, Castel Clara Thalasso & Spa offers picturesque views of the Côte Sauvage (wild, Atlantic Ocean-facing coast) from all angles—perhaps most impressively from its outside lounge, dining area and salt water pool. The two buildings comprising the Relais & Châteaux property, with 64-rooms total, reference the off-white cottages, found all over the island, in a gentle but grand way. And the hotel’s placement on the island offers superb isolation, though access to the Aiguiles de Port Coton—rock spires that have been made famous in the paintings of Monet. Despite the overwhelming sense of quiet at the facility, there are enough amenities—including a top-tier bar, an indoor pool and spa—that everyone will feels at home.

Jardin La Boulaye

Each step in the Jardin La Boulaye shifts the sensory perception of guests. Experiencing the private gardens, open to all by appointment only, is more than just observing a change in flora—it’s also about the wildly aromatic developments as one passes from tree to bush and flower. The vision of Veronique de Laboulaye, a full-time resident of the island who personally leads the garden tours, the landscape varies from wild to sculpted along the Côte Sauvage toward the town of Locmaria (but actually in the village of Le Grand Cosquet). De Laboulaye has worked with and against nature to imagine an escape of uninterrupted beauty—finding numerous bodies of water and historic stone walls in the process. From cypress trees to hydrangea and stone sculptures to a waterfall, there’s plenty of compelling diversity.

Café de la Cale

A row of buildings wraps around the port of Sauzon, another (albeit tinier) scenic port city on Belle-Île. Among these historic homes, hotels and businesses, one finds

the restaurant Café de la Cale. Food on the menu is fresh and delicious. Outdoor seating allows guests to watch boats arriving and departing. Nearby Les Embruns provides another excellent dining option but a stroll through town presents far more than just places for lunch or dinner.

Phare des Poulains

Beyond Sauzon, the Phare des Poulains rises at one remote end of the island. Still a working lighthouse, though no longer staffed, the ground floor of the structure also houses a small museum dedicated to the area. One must hike to Phare des Poulains, and in the process pass along a slender but magnificent beach and the Espace Muséographique Sarah Bernhardt. The latter was once the home of the iconic French actress. Now it stands as a castle-like homage to her vision of isolation and peace.

Citadel Belle-Île image courtesy of the venue, all other images by David Graver