I was talking to someone recently about wanting to visit the Atlantic coast of France--particularly the historic Normandy beaches and Mont Saint-Michel. She was lamenting the fact that many of the itineraries she had been looking at seemed to skip Mont Saint-Michel entirely. I looked into it a bit and discovered a few itineraries that included the gorgeous fortified abbey on a rocky tidal island, but I then decided to start looking into the area a little more deeply.
That naturally led me to chatting with my dear friend, Ian Wood. Ian is an architect, originally from the US, but who now splits his time between a cozy apartment in Paris (just behind Montmartre), and an old farmhouse in Normandy that he's been renovating over the past few years. Ian's spent quite a bit of time visiting the beautiful islands off of the Atlantic coast of France, and he had lots of great suggestions for anyone who might be inclined to visit.
Ian says that there are basically three types of Atlantic islands. The activities are comparable, no matter which kind of island you visit, but the feel of the place is very different, depending on where you choose to go. Naturally, each island has its own unique qualities, but most, if not all will have beaches, cycling paths, and beautiful scenery.
The first is like the Île de Ré - it's an island, but there's a bridge to it. This makes access easy, but also makes it feel less like an island somehow. And there are lots of cars. Ian warns that it can be a little touristy, but there are certainly ways to avoid the tourist traps. The entire town of Saint-Martin-de-Ré is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. "It may not be hidden--at least not from French tourists," said Ian, "but it's definitely a 'gem'." On Île de Ré, you could wander around the historic towns, stopping into cute shops, or grabbing a bite to eat at a quaint bistro. Or, you could go biking along one of the island's cycling paths, looking for a little oyster shack where you could get a fresh snack with maybe a glass of wine. Horseback riding is an option, too.
The second type, though, are islands like Belle-Île (also known as Belle-Île-en-Mer). There's no bridge, so you'll need to take a boat there. There are cars on the island, but it's expensive as hell to take a car across. You could also rent a car on the island, which might not be a bad idea, seeing as how Belle-Île is huge and hilly and bikes could exhaust you. On Belle-Île, Ian rattled off a list of incredible things to do: "visit the Citadelle, get to the Côte Sauvage (windward side of the island, big waves, strange rocks, painted by Monet), relax on the leeward side beaches, visit Sauzon for a drink/dinner (small, cute fishing village), go to the lighthouse and Sarah Bernhardt museum at Les Poulains, or hang out at the nude beach, Docho." Ian suggested staying in Le Palais, because there are tons of good restaurants.
The third kind of island would be like the Île d'Aix, where no cars are allowed--your only option is to travel on foot, by bike, or in a horse-drawn carriage. These really feel like you're on an island, and they're very walkable, according to Ian.
For visits to any of these islands, Ian raved about the coastal town of Saint-Malo. "It's a walled city, so it feels like an island," he said. There are loads and loads of islands nearby that are easily accessible for day trips, using Saint-Malo as a base. "And Saint Malo is a pirate city. Well, Corsaires. These were pirates who had the right to plunder any and all non-French boats they came across."
These all sound like a really incredible and fascinating place to visit! I'll definitely be looking for opportunities to include them on future itineraries!