An hour after first setting foot on Belle-Ile-en-Mer in August 1894, Sarah Bernhardt had bought an abandoned fort on the cliff top at la Pointe des Poulins. It was the start of a love affair that lasted 30 years. "I love Belle-Ile," the actress told the London Telegraph in 1904. "For its solitude, its silence, its wildness, its fisherfolk, its transparent grey-green sea, its sky, now blue, now black ... for the dreams, the ideals, and the beauty that I find there."
Stepping off the ferry after the 45-minute crossing from Quiberon, itself dangling from the southern side of Brittany, I could see the draw: pastel houses with contrasting shutters, a pretty little port with visitors lunching in their moored launches, seafood restaurants and small shops selling Breton biscuits, local goats' cheese and beautifully packaged tinned tuna. Warmed by the Gulf Stream, Belle-Ile has a sunnier disposition than mainland Brittany, only 15km away. The 5,000 inhabitants and 50,000 summer visitors have 58 beaches to enjoy and 100km of coastal paths to explore.
But the island is not all sweetness and light. The brutal beauty of the north-west coast is savage and inspiring. Rocky plateaux drop sharply into deep ravines, barnacles grip the sides of rockpools, sea-spray fountains up the cliffs. As red-billed choughs wheel overhead, the sea and the wind carve rocks into jagged needles. This is the scenery that Claude Monet painted in the 1880s, a local Bellilois holding down his canvas to prevent the wind plucking it from his easel and hurling it into the sea. The island is a well-kept secret by the French: I've made several trips to Brittany but Belle-Ile has never been on my radar. This first visit was prompted by the recommendation of a friend from north-east France, and it proved to be a revelation.
Most of the ferries dock in Le Palais, the main town. A short walk through its back streets took me to L'Acadian hotel. Recently renovated, the guesthouse is in a secluded spot and yet close to the restaurants and nightlife. That evening I dined on freshly caught tuna at Le Goéland, a restaurant specialising in chargrilled fish, with a terrace overlooking the harbour. The local cuisine has much in common with the mainland: delicate lacy crêpes, moules frites and the traditional Far Breton – a dense, raisin-filled flan resembling a custard tart.
It's possible to drive round Belle-Ile in a day, and the varied terrain makes it an adventure for explorers on foot, bike and horseback. Kayaks and motorboats allow access to hidden coves and tiny beaches, while sailboats tack lazily round the coast. Another route to relaxation is a visit to Castel Clara, a cliff-top hotel and spa with an inviting list of treatments. As I sipped my aperitif on the sun-drenched terrace, I could trace the path I had walked earlier that day from the spiky rocky outcrops known as the Aiguilles de Port Coton to the peaceful harbour below the hotel terrace.
Attacking the steep coastal paths and meandering through the gorse and tamarisk, I imagined Sarah Bernhardt taking her morning walk, a shrimping net over her shoulder. Infused with a sense of violence and danger – sheer drops, tempestuous tides – the landscape must have awed and inspired her, as well as providing a much-needed escape from the trappings of worldwide fame.
The next morning I visited Sauzon, a fishing port located on an inlet on the north coast and arguably the most picturesque village of the island. Stopping for crêpes at La Mère Michèle gave me the opportunity to appreciate the views of the bay from the restaurant's outdoor terrace and watch the weather change from overcast to brilliant sunshine in a few short minutes. Later, I visited the Brasserie La Morgat, a short distance from Bordardoué beach. The brewery produces an amber ale sold all over the island, and there are free tours followed by beer tastings (Monday to Saturday at 6pm, extra tours at 7pm in July and August).
Before I sailed back to the mainland, I spent a couple of hours exploring Sarah Bernhardt's old haunts. The "Villa Lysiane", named after her granddaughter, and the "Villa des Cinq Parties du Monde" were built for her entourage, which she called her "menagerie". These stone buildings have since opened as exhibition rooms, and an audio guide led me through Bernhardt's extraordinary career: from humble beginnings through roles as Joan of Arc, Cleopatra, Phèdre and even Hamlet, to being awarded the Légion d'honneur.
Back outside, I followed a path through the gorse down to the imposing, square, pinkish-grey stone fort that was Bernhardt's former home. As I entered the cool interior, I took advantage of the peace and quiet to picture her holding court among her friends, working on a new sculpture or reading quietly on her chaise longue. Her love affair with Belle-Ile is one that many visitors will share.
Travel essentials: Belle-Ile-en-Mer
* Ferries from Quiberon are operated by Compagnie Océane (00 33 2 97 35 02 00; compagnie-oceane.fr ). Early booking is strongly advised if taking a car. Returns €29.65; from €148.30 for a car.
* Eurostar trains to nearby Lorient or Vannes on the mainland require a change at Paris, from the Gare du Nord to Montparnasse (08432 186 186; eurostar.com ).
* L'Acadien Hotel, 36 rue Joseph Le Brix, Le Palais (00 33 2 97 31 84 86; hotel-acadien.com ). Doubles start at €38, room only.
* Citadel Vauban, Le Palais (00 33 2 97 31 84 17; citadellevauban.com ). Open May to October; doubles start at €125, room only.
* Castel Clara, Goulphar, Bangor (00 33 2 97 31 84 21; castel-clara.com ). Doubles start at €210, room only. Getting around
* LMT Car Bike (00 33 2 97 31 46 46; lmt-carbike.com ) rents cars, motorbikes and boats from €44 per day.
* Locatourisle (00 33 2 97 31 83 56; locatourisle.com ) rents two-seater buggies from €56 per day.
* Roue Libre (00 33 2 97 31 49 81; belle-ile-evasion.com ) hires bikes from €22 per day.
* Tourist office: 00 33 2 97 31 81 93; belle-ile.com .