The Complete Guide To: French beaches

It's a shore thing - from Calais to Nice, France's coastline offers a superb and diverse range of beaches. Mick Webb and Simon Calder slap on the suntan lotion
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The Independent Travel

ABROAD BEGINS AT CALAIS - BUT DO THE BEACHES?

Yes. As soon as you cross the Channel, beach life improves. Mainland France may be blessed with only one-fifth of the coastline that Britain enjoys, but a good proportion of the 2,000km-plus of shore comprises superb and very diverse beaches - which start almost as soon as you leave the ferry port at Calais. You can sail there from Dover on P&O Ferries (08706 009 009; www.poferries.com) or SeaFrance (08705 711 711; www.seafrance.com), or tunnel across from Folkestone on Eurotunnel (08705 353535; www.eurotunnel.com).

The town itself has a fine arc of sand, backed by a parallel curve of excellent fish restaurants. But make your way a short way west and then south through the gentle scenery of the Pas de Calais and you find a couple of excellent beaches ridiculously close to Britain: you can see the white cliffs, and your mobile phone may not even bother roaming.

The first is Wissant; the main part of this pretty little town is set away from the sea, making it feel less commercial than many resorts. An excellent place to stay is the Hôtel le Vivier on the place de l'Eglise (00 33 3 21 35 93 61; www.levivier.com). The car parks beside the wide beach are often filled with battered camper vans, since this is one of the top windsurfing spots in Europe - not to mention kite-surfing and sand-yachting.

Wimereux, beyond Cap Griz-Nez, is quite a contrast: a refined resort, with classic seaside restaurants overlooking a spread of inviting sand, that gently shelves and is ideal for a family holiday - especially since it is also very easy to reach: either with a car on SpeedFerries (0870 220 0570; www.speedferries.com) from Dover to Boulogne, or by train from London Waterloo on Eurostar (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com), connecting at Calais Fréthun for Wimereux.

SHALL WE FIGHT THEM ON THE BEACHES?

Not any more, thank goodness, although the coast of Normandy will forever be associated with 6 June 1944, when the Allied forces landed on five vast beaches and began the task of recapturing occupied France. In fact, there's a lot more to the Norman coastline than the landing beaches. From Dieppe to Le Havre stretches a line of chalk cliffs, known as the Alabaster Coast, cut by narrow valleys at the end of which are a number of small beaches and resorts. However, the star turn of this stretch of coastline is, without doubt, Etretat.

Impressionist painters such as Monet were drawn to Etretat's spectacular cliff formations, particularly the Falaise d'Amont, which we mere mortals can photograph from the pretty town's sweeping shingly beach and see if we agree with the writer Maupassant's description of it as an elephant dipping its trunk into the ocean. You could stay at the three-star Dormy House (00 33 2 35 27 07 88; www.dormy-house.com), a cliff-top hotel offering unbeatable sea views , a terrace bar and restaurant. Rates begin at €110 (£82) for a double without breakfast.

Beyond the river Orne, the Mother-of-Pearl coast takes over though the names of its little resorts like Lion-sur-Mer are submerged by the evocative code names of the the invasion beaches; Sword, Juno and Gold, flat and broad, give way to Omaha more desolate and backed with cliffs, but everywhere the concrete pillboxes and gun emplacements remain vivid reminders of the Second World War.

At the Musée de Débarquement in Arromanches (00 33 2 31 22 34 3; www.normandy1944.com), you can see what remains of the artificial Mulberry Harbour created by the Allies during the D-Day landings. Summer hours (May to August) are 9am-7pm daily, admission €6.50 (£4.70).

The last of the landing beaches - Juno - takes you on to the Cotentin peninsula, with its own rural character and microclimate. The best beaches on the east-facing coast are around the village of Réville, just above the little port of St Vaast-la-Hougue, although the most interesting ones are on the island of Tatihou, which you can walk to at low tide through the oyster beds.

As you get closer to the spa resort of Granville the beaches become more crowded but with more facilities. Past Granville, St-Pair-sur-Mer has a good safe family beach while the one at Carolles is backed by cliffs which offer a stunning view of the whole area, including Le Mont-St-Michel - marking the border with Brittany.

WHERE'S BEST FOR BRETON BATHING?

The Emerald Coast. Rothéneuf near St-Malo, is a tiny port in a picturesque and wooded bay. St-Malo itself has some beaches perched beneath the city walls, and a handy ferry link from Portsmouth with Brittany Ferries (08705 360 360; www.brittanyferries.co.uk). Elegant Dinard, accessible from Stansted on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) boasts some lovely, if often crowded town beaches; you could stay at the Hôtel le Roche Corneille (00 33 2 99 46 14 47; www.dinard-hotel-roche-corneille.com), a small chateau on the Official Historic Monuments register, in the centre of Dinard. Doubles start at €120 (£84) with breakfast for an extra €13 (£9).

The Bay of Erquy has something for everyone amongst its nine beaches: the accessible plage de Carousal being good for families, while the wilder Lourtoais repays the walk through the pine woods and gorse to reach it.

You certainly know when you've reached the pink granite coast, though the dryly descriptive name hardly does justice to the extraordinary formations of pink rock which fringe or divide the coves. Low tide reveals any number of beaches and a paradise of rock pools but the permanent beaches are relatively few in number: Trestel, Perros-Guirec, Ploumanac'h and Trébeurden have fine, safe and sandy beaches while amongst the natural rock sculptures you can admire on Trégastel-Plage is the culturally appropriate tas de crêpes - pile of crêpes. Brittany Ferries' link from Plymouth to Roscoff is easiest for this part of the shore.

If it still feels too much like Cornwall, then seek out the less familiar beaches of south Brittany. Some swear that the water that washes the southern portion of the coast, from Brest around to the Loire Estuary, is warmer. An excellent base is Carnac Plage, just south of the megalithic sites, where you can combine bathing with pre-history - standing stones that date back seven millennia. And this summer access becomes easier, with links from Cardiff and Luton to the fine city of Lorient on Aer Arann (0800 587 2324; www.aerarann.com).

I WANT TO GET ACTIVE

From St-Nazaire as far as the Spanish frontier, it's sand, sand, sand, and plenty of sun, sun, sun; the standard is set by La Baule, one of France's smartest resorts with nine kilometres of fine sand beach around a sheltered bay. As you travel south, the even longer beaches of the Vendeé attract huge numbers of holidaymakers in July and August to the towns of St-Jean-de-Mont, Les Sables-d'Olonne and La Tranche-sur-Mer, whose beaches face south so are more protected from the Atlantic breakers.

Offshore, the Ile d'Yeu and the Ile de Noirmoutier provide a more varied coastline, pretty Mediterranean-style villages of whitewashed cottages with blue-painted shutters and also a chance to escape the crowds.

Below the Vendée is the attractive and popular town of La Rochelle, linked by air with Stansted by Ryanair, from Bristol on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) and from Birmingham and Southampton on FlyBe (0871 700 0123; www.flybe.com). It is also linked by road bridge to the Ile de Ré with its beguiling blend of sandy beaches and seafood restaurants.

South of this point the well-groomed and well-organised beaches give way to a wilder and less manicured shoreline. The beaches of the Côte Sauvage (north of Royan) attract bodyboarders and surfers: at the very edge of Gironde Estuary, La Palmyre has a five-kilometre stretch of undeveloped, unspoilt sand, while round La Pointe de la Coubre, within the estuary itself are the Michelin-rated fine sandy beach at Royan and La Plage des Vergnes with the bonus of caves and rock pools.

I NEED A GOOD, LONG BEACH

They don't come any longer (or straighter) than the Côte d'Argent, which starts on the southern side of the Gironde estuary and runs for 230km, backed by dunes and by western Europe's largest forest. Seen from a plane, on a clear sunny day, it shows up as a ribbon of silvery yellow and blue, divided by a white lace of breakers. It's no surprise that many of these beaches are virtually deserted, even at the height of summer.

An exception is Arcachon, famed for its oysters, whose lovely white beaches around a lagoon are a favourite weekend destination for the citizens of nearby Bordeaux (which you can reach from the UK on a range of airlines). An added attraction, if you haven't had enough sand by now, is the Dune du Pilat, which rises to 100m in height and holds the title of Europe's tallest dune.

The rest of the Silver Coast is punctuated by resorts whose central stretches of organised beach are keenly controlled by lifeguards, emphasizing the potential dangers of the Atlantic's powerful currents.

I WANT TO LIVE LIKE ROYALTY

Then aim for Biarritz. For the final stretch before Spain, the western coast undergoes a sea-change, with rocky bays and cliffs making an appearance. Biarritz is the queen of the Côte Basque with its fashionable promenade and dramatic beaches that attract an interesting mix of the smart and the surfing sets, some of them flying in from Stansted on Ryanair, others travelling by train via Lille or Paris on Eurostar. Visit the extravagant redbrick Hôtel du Palais (00 33 5 59 41 64 00; www.hotel-du-palais.com; doubles from €420/£300, breakfast €23/£16 per person), which was an imperial palace, built as a summer residence for the Empress Eugénie.

More sheltered beaches can be found further down the coast at St-Jean-de-Luz and Socoa, while Hendaye-Plage, with its views across the bay to nearby Spain provides a pleasant finale to this sandiest of shorelines.

I CRAVE THE MED

On your way across to the Mediterranean, you could call in at Toulouse-Plage, which opened for the summer yesterday on the Garonne river, and continues to 15 August; see www.ot-toulouse.fr for more details. Or you could walk across, on the GR10 long-distance footpath that winds from the beach at Hendaye to its mirror image at the lovely resort of Banyuls. The official end (or beginning) of the GR10 is a tiled panel on the side of the Mairie, and conveniently across the road is the Mediterranean. This crescent of sand, perched just north of the Spanish border, has the additional attraction of a hilly hinterland where the grapes for the eponymous fortified wine are grown.

The whole string of resorts here is accessible from Perpignan airport, with services from the UK on Ryanair and FlyBE, and Montpellier (another Ryanair destination) serves the long, flat beaches that stretch all the way from le Cap d'Agde to the Rhône Delta.

GIVE ME GLAMOUR

Go east and hit the Côte d'Azur, and in particular St-Tropez - accessible from Toulon (with Ryanair once more), and also a port of call for easyCruiseOne (bookable at www.easyCruise.com or through 0906 292 9000). Trendy in the 1950s, tacky in the 1990s and now fashionable again, this fishing village turned champagne-popper's playground promises sun, sand and showing off. The best beaches are sandy Tahiti, 4km south-east of town, and adjacent Pampelonne, backed picturesquely by vineyards. A good place to stay is Le Bailli de Suffren (00 33 4 98 04 47 00; www.lebaillidesuffren.com; high-season doubles from €320/£230 without breakfast), set on the beach at Le Rayol-Canadol below the beautiful globally themed gardens of the Domaine du Rayol. The modern-Provençal chic hotel has hire boats to explore the St-Tropez peninsula without the traffic jams. Further east, Cannes is a picturesque port on the cruise circuit (including easyCruise), but most of the sand is off-limits to those not staying in the Croisette's swish hotels. Nice is far more democratic; even though the shingle beach itself is unappealing, like Brighton the shoreline buzzes with activity in summer. You can fly in on a wide range of airlines from many UK cities, and the airport is conveniently at the western end of the Promenade des Anglais. And while you're strolling along the prom, you could listen to The Independent's latest travel podcast, on Nice; download it for free from www.independent.co.uk/passportor iTunes.

MORE INFORMATION

French Travel Centre, 178 Piccadilly, London W1J 9AL (09068 244 123, 60p per minute; www.uk.franceguide.com)

Mick Webb is editor of www.bbc.co.uk/languages; a new broadband video French course, 'Ma France', has just been launched.

ESSENTIAL LINGO FOR THE VISITOR

Finding out

Is it a sand or shingle beach? C'est une plage de sable ou de galets?

Is it public (free) / supervised? Elle est publique/surveillée?

Is there any shade? Il y a des coins ombragés?

Is the tide going in or coming out? Est'ce que la marée est montante ou descendante?

When's the latest I should come back? A quelle heure je dois revenir?

Is it OK to fish/surf/swim/park/sleep/camp/bodyboard here? Est ce qu'on peut pêcher/surfer/se baigner/se garer/dormir/camper/faire du body ici?

Where can I find/ some good rock pools/a seafood restaurant/a nudist beach? Où est-ce que je peux trouver des mares/un restaurant de fruits de mer/ une plage naturiste?

Where can I buy an ice-cream/some sun cream/rent a winsurfer? Ou est-ce que je peux acheter une glace/de la crème solaire/louer une planche à voile?

Is it safe to swim? Est ce que c'est dangéreux de se baigner?

How's the water? Is it warm? Elle est comment? Elle est chaude?

Things to watch out for

Mind out, mind out for...! Attention/ faites attention!

The storm l'orage

The flags les drapeaux (red = very dangerous; orange = be very careful )

The buoys les bouées

Weeverfish (they burrow in the sand and have poisonous spines) les vives

Sandyachts (more dangerous than weevers) les chars à voile

Jellyfish les méduses

Currents les courants, tides contre-courant riptide

Undertow les lames de fond

Swimming forbidden baignade interdite

Swimming zone zone de baignade

Additional research by Andy Sharman

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