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How to spend a weekend on Brittany's Emerald Coast

The French region’s Emerald Coast is a treasure trove of stylish resort towns, seafaring history and rugged headland walks with spectacular views.

By Carolyn Boyd
Published 9 Feb 2022, 06:00 GMT, Updated 11 Feb 2022, 12:39 GMT
The view from Pointe du Grouin, near Cancale.

The view from Pointe du Grouin, near Cancale.

Photograph by AWL Images

Emerald by name, emerald by nature. It’s not hard to see how Brittany’s Côte d’Émeraude got its name: one glance at the startlingly green sea from Cancale to Cap Fréhel and all becomes clear. In fact, the coast dominates much of life in this corner of northwest France, with its hub, Saint-Malo, boasting a long history of seafaring and exploration. It’s a place to learn about corsairs and other pirates of the 18th century. Meanwhile, across the Rance river, the towns of Dinard and Saint-Lunaire hint at what came next: a period when the area became popular for its elegant beach resorts. Their superb golden-crescent beaches are overlooked by handsome villas, and even today these towns make for a chic getaway, full of smart boutiques and top-notch restaurants. Peel away from the area’s genteel charms, and its wilder side reveals itself. Easily accessed by ferry from the UK, the coastline is frayed with headlands that jut into the Channel, offering heart-soaring views from high above the sea. Travel west — leaving the busier resorts behind — and the Emerald Coast becomes wilder still, its beaches quieter, its headlands more windswept, home to little more than lighthouses and colonies of seabirds. 

Day one: cobbles and crepes

Start in Saint-Malo, rolling off the ferry in time for breakfast in the walled old town, a few minutes’ drive from the ferry port. Park on the Quai Saint-Vincent, before wandering through the 18th-century gateway to Place Chateaubriand for coffee and croissants. Explore the ramparts of the old town; the views from atop these historic walls take in the surrounding islets that appear at low tide then get swallowed by the waves when the tide turns. At the ramparts’ widest point, there are statues of the town’s seafaring heroes: characters who wrote Saint-Malo’s history of exploration. Among them is Jacques Cartier, the first European to map Canada’s Saint Lawrence River. After you’ve worked up an appetite, head back into the old town for lunch. 

Order of the day here is the galette bretonne, a buckwheat crepe filled with a variety of local produce. Café Breizh is the place to sample it, washed down with a glass of traditional Breton cider. Head off afterwards to browse the other gourmet food shops in the Rue de l’Orme, including La Maison du Beurre, with its top-quality butters, cheeses and charcuterie. There’s also La Maison du Sarrasin, home to a range of buckwheat products, and Le Bar à Babas, which stocks various kinds of rum baba in jars. From there, wander over to the incredible Épices Roellinger, a spice emporium created by former chef Olivier Roellinger. Stock up here on a cornucopia of peppers, spices and condiments from around the world. 

Take a sunset stroll out along Saint-Malo’s seafront and past the seafront belle époque villas. When the tide is out, Plage de la Hoguette beach is a favourite spot to try ‘sand yachting’ across the shore. At high tide, however, the sea laps up against the sea wall concealing the beach entirely. Settle in for the evening at Hotel Les Charmettes, set within two villas and with a restaurant that looks out over the beach. Grab a window seat if you can — or, if it’s warm, sit out on the front deck — and tuck into dishes from a varied menu that embraces Indian, Italian and Thai cuisines. Consider staying the night, too, and bed down in rooms with bold feature wallpapers and views of the sea or courtyard garden. 

Day two: seafood and sunsets

Head east to Cancale, 30 minutes along the coast, for a coffee on its bustling seafront. The town is famous for its oysters — the farmers’ tractors trundle through town before and after each harvest. A great place to see the operation is from the Pointe du Hock viewpoint, perched above the port. If the tide is out, you’ll be able to  see the frames on which the oysters grow stretching for a mile out to sea. Head down to the Cancale Oyster Market to buy a plate of fresh bivalves from one of the stalls. Eat them with a squeeze of lemon, then toss the shells on the beach as you pick out the silhouette of Mont Saint-Michel on the horizon. To learn more about this fascinating industry, book a tour of the oyster beds with local outfit Ostreika.

Cut across the Rance River estuary to Dinard, which hosts the annual Dinard Festival of British Film. It’s not the town’s only connection to the silver screen: Alfred Hitchcock used stately Villa Les Roche Brunes — perched above the beach here — as the model for the creepy Bates Motel in his 1960 film Psycho. The villa is now a far-from-sinister art gallery that can be reached by a pleasant stroll taking in views of elegant houses and the stunning coastline. The town’s connections with the Master of Suspense are further celebrated on Plage de l’Écluse, where there’s a statue of Hitchcock communing with some birds — a nod to another of his iconic films, The Birds. Stay for a dip in the sea, but if the tide’s far out, head to the other end of the beach to the tidal swimming pool.

For an early-evening aperitif, try Le Sunset Bar, a low-key affair set in a cabin overlooking the tidal pool. Go for a kir breton: crème de cassis, calvados and cider. From here, follow the path that runs around the rocks of the Pointe du Moulinet, with the sea thrashing below you. It circles back into the town centre, where you’ll find Ombelle. Chef Alexandre Frin is at the helm of this superb restaurant and his dishes bring together produce from the best local farms and fishermen. Stay at the historic Castelbrac, a five-star hotel and spa that was originally a natural history museum. There are photos on the walls here of scientist Jean-Baptiste Charcot, who did research here before leading a French Antarctic expedition in the early 1900s.

Top three: coastal walks

Part of the GR34 walking trail, which runs along all 1,700 miles of Brittany’s shoreline, the Emerald Coast takes in numerous scenic headlands. Try these rambles for some exceptional views.

1. Cap Fréhel to Fort La Latte 
Strike out along the wilder stretch of the Emerald Coast to its westernmost headland, Cap Fréhel. Start at the car park in the north and walk over heather-speckled moorland to the Phare de Cap Fréhel lighthouse, dating from 1950, and then on to the original, 17th-century lighthouse, which has a more precipitous setting, overlooking a raucous seabird colony. From here, take the path south through the bracken towards Fort la Latte, a medieval castle that clings to the cliffs, complete with a drawbridge, turreted tower and portcullis. The circular walk takes around two hours, but allow extra time to explore the fort.

2. Saint-Lunaire to Pointe de la Garde-Guérin 
The beach at Saint-Lunaire is popular with families and surfers, but hikers will love the sinuous route out to Pointe de la Garde-Guérin, which shelters the pretty Plage de la Garde beach to the west. In spring, the pastures along the way to the headland brim with gorse and bluebells and, once you get over the headland, the drama of the coastline unfurls. Enjoy a picnic while admiring the views west over Plage de la Garde and Plage du Port Hue. As the tide comes in, the golden beaches, strewn with seaweed, are engulfed by green sea. The walk takes around 45 minutes.  

3. Saint-Briac-sur-Mer to Plage du Port Hue
Taking roughly an hour, this walk leads you through the former fishing village of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, with its white-shuttered stone cottages and floral gardens. Eventually you’ll reach the Plage du Port Hue, a tight crescent of sand sheltered by rocks. From there, follow the path out to the Pointe de la Haye and over to the pretty Plage du Perron. If it’s low tide, you can walk around the sand and rocks back to Plage de la Salinette, backed by striking white beach huts. From there, it’s on past the stately Hôtel Le Nessay and on to the Plage du Bechet, where the bay is filled with small boats.  

Five of the best beaches in Brittany

Plage de Bon-Secours
Accessed via the ramparts of Saint-Malo’s old town, this popular beach has a tidal swimming pool so you can have a dip even when the tide is way out. If it is, walk out to the island of Grand-Bé to admire its fort. 

Plage du Prieuré
With its striped beach tents, Dinard’s main beach can get crowded. Its second beach is a quieter as it’s a little further from town. Here, you’ll find a tidal pool and a brilliant view of Saint-Malo across the bay. 

Plage de Longchamp
This broad, golden-sand beach outside Saint-Lunaire has medium-sized waves, making it a great spot for novice surfers. Book lessons with Emeraude Surf School.  

Grande plage
The sleepy seaside town of Saint-Cast-le-Guildo’s calling card is this vast swathe of sand, offering ample space to spread out on and enjoy the peaceful setting. Make sure to bring your own picnic. 

Anse du Croc 
Seek out this quiet little beach on the north coast of Cap Fréhel. It’s a favourite for paddling and pêche à pied (‘fishing on foot’), so you’ll see locals cutting mussels and razor clams from the rocks at low tide. 

Published in the March 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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