Trail Of The Unexpected: Brutal beauty in Belle-Ile-en-Mer

This enchanting island has won over actresses, painters and tourists alike says Michelle Hodgson

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

Getting there

* 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 ).

Staying there

* 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.

More information

* Tourist office: 00 33 2 97 31 81 93; belle-ile.com .

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - Franchised Main Dealer

    £30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a great opportunity for...

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Guru Careers: Email Marketing Specialist

    £26 - 35k (DOE): Guru Careers: An Email Marketing Specialist is needed to join...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Day In a Page

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links