Coasting through summer in Brittany

The Krog E Barz , a traditional Breton sailing boat, heads for the island of Houat
The Krog E Barz , a traditional Breton sailing boat, heads for the island of Houat
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Jerome, skin the colour of mahogany from years of sun and sea spray, sprints the deck, nimble as a goat.

He’s tying ropes, loosening ropes, throwing ravelled coils into corners at such a pace, his deck shoes are squealing on the polished wood.

He needs to be swift. As the early morning sun splutters through cloud, the Krog E Barz strains at her leash.

The waves are tugging her towards her destination, the Isle of Houat, a tiny jewel of paradise ringed by a band of pure, golden sand a two-hour sail from Port Navalo, the most southerly tip of land that curves its way around Brittany’s gorgeous Gulf of Morbihan.

Jerome, the owner of this traditional Bretton sailing ship, has his captain Olivier at the huge curve of a wooden tiller - and ten of us passengers as stand-by sailors.

We’re called on to man that creaking tiller and hurriedly hoist the jib and the sun-bleached mainsail just in time to catch the winds that will power us forward.

Out on a choppy sea, waves rise, swell, crash; rise,swell, crash in a rhythm shaded deepest blue and white. It’s a wild, rough; wonderful two hours before the island looms before us and we’re clambering into a tiny dingy to putter into Houat’s dinky working harbour.

The island is just three miles long and the Hoatais number just 335. Their isolation must be trying at times, but their isle looks idyllic to us. A short uphill walk takes us to the cluster of white cottages that cluster around a tiny church with sea-facing tomb stones, a bracing downhill one to a dune-fringed stretch of pale golden sand, where only a scattering of locals and wild birds hunt for razor clams and mussels.

A cormorant calmly dries its wings two feet of us as we feast on a classy packed lunch prepared by our hotel, the elegant centuries-old Lesage in Sarzeau, and marvel, for the umpteenth time, at the tranquility and unspoilt natural beauty of Southern Brittany.

It has everything the South of France has, but without the crowds and the snobbery.

A two-hour drive from the picturesque ferry port of St Malo, where we awoke after a luxurious buffet dinner and good night’s sleep aboard a Brittany Ferry, boasts a stunning and dramatic Atlantic coastline studded with classy yet unshowy marinas, quaint seaside villages, incredible seafood restaurants serving fruits fresh from the ocean - stretches of perfect beach at every twist and turn of the coastal roads.

The sea, a daily presence, provided both a sense of calm and one of wonder. The antithesis of those tranquil beaches that relax the soul are the rugged stretches of coastline along the Quiberon Peninsula. Jutting out into the sea for nine miles and just 72ft wide at its narrowest point, this tourist destination par excellence is a photographer’s dream. We parked up and walked the cliff-tops, discovering secluded beachy coves along the way and the occasional sleepy fishing village.

We returned to the waves for another adventure - a trip out to an oyster farm in the gulf.

Oysters are big business here and are cultivated on raised wooden beds in an area of the gulf accessible at low tide.

Fifth generation oyster farmer Ivan Selo, of Au Rythme des Marees in Baden, steers us out there on his electric barge early one morning.

As we reach the Ile Longue, my husband clambers into rubber trousers and wades to the beds to lend a hand to the men who tend the netted bags in which the baby oysters thrive every day. It’s important to break the edge of the shells and slow their growth lengthwise, so they will grow thicker grow more thickly.

Once back on the boat, glass of Muscadet in hand, we dine on the sea fruits of Ivan’s labour; the freshest shucked oysters you’ll ever get. Plump and lush, they taste of something indescribably good; the very essence of Morbihan.

AWAY FROM THE SHORE:

Tear yourself away from the sea, travel just a few miles inland and Morbihan is a place of history, charm and intrigue.

The city of Auray, with picture-perfect St-Goustan port at its heart, was once one of the busiest in Brittany. Benjamin Franklin arrived here under cover for a secret meeting with the King of France in 1776. It is now one of the most popular sites in Morbihan. Stay at the simple, clean and friendly Celtic Hotel and stroll down to the port via art galleries, antique shops and craft workshops to find a harbour rimmed with pavement cafes and seafood restaurants. The prettiest place for dinner is a twist of cobbled alleys away on rue St Sauveur; the Crêperie St Sauveur, decked out in red gingham like a ski chalet. The traditional menu, crepes, crepes and more crepes and local cider, is destination dining for the locals.

The standing stones of Carnac are also a must-see. No one has yet fathomed how and why, in 4,000 B.C. men felt the need to hack hunks of granite from the earth and stand 3,000 of them in 11 perfect rows that stretch for miles.To symbolise the power of man over nature, perhaps? As a warning to invaders from the sea, or as a means of worship? The largest such site in the world, and a phenomenon made famous by the Asterisk the Gaul comic books, It’s a megalithic mystery that makes Stonehenge look piddly in comparison.

The timbered, medieval buildings of nearby Vannes, each painted in different authentic colourways, look pretty enough to have been created by Disney set-builders. The walled town is one of Brittany’s most attractive sights.

We wandered through the main gate to window-shop in the well-preserved medieval streets and weave our way though the bustling Saturday market at Place des Lices, where jousting tournaments were once held.

By the harbour, which comes right up to the city walls, kids are skateboarding and roller-blading while their parents join the cafe society set.

We stayed at La Villa Catherine on the edge of town, a century-old home run as a five-bedroom eco B&S. Rooms are full of character and the hostess provides a totally organic breakfast with home-made breads, jams and crepes.

Vannes boasts an abundance of seafood restaurants and several Michelin-starred establishments. But for an innovative and inexpensive taste of local produce, the Restaurant Terroirs on Rue de la Fontaine is a good choice. It’s run by a husband and wife team who previously worked for Heston Blumenthal; Emmanuel Derever was sommelier at the Fat duck in Bray so it goes without saying his choice of wines is impeccable.

FACT FILE

PLACES TO STAY: We stayed at four hotels on our trip, the best being Hotel Le Gavrinis in Baden - though it had not been love at first sight. The hotel seems to be set in the middle of a roundabout. but as you walk through the garden, you instantly forget the setting.

The interior is a beachy blend of pale blue and blond, with driftwood features, and the food in its acclaimed Restaurant Au Terroirs is wonderful; we savoured pressed ox cheek, sweet loin of cod with artichoke puree and lavender-infused creme brulee.

Hôtel Celtic

38 rue Georges Clémenceau

56400 Auray

Tél : +33 (0)2 97 24 05 37

Hôtel le Gavrinis

1 Rue de l’Île Gavrinis

56870 Baden

Tél : +33 (0) 97 57 0000

Hôtel Lesage

3, place de la Duchesse Anne

56370 Sarzeau

Tel : +33 (0)2 97 41 77 29

Guest House La Villa Catherine

89, avenue Edouard Herriot

56000 Vannes

Tel : +33 (0)6 79 24 36 88

Oyster-tasting at sea:

29 euros per person

www.Aurythmedesmarees.fr

Tel: +33 (0)6 04 59 68 28

Sail to Houat:

49 euros per person

www.Krog-e-barz.com

+ 33 (0)6 86 40 71 52

Brittany Tourist Board: www.brittanytourism.com

Brittany experiences: www.brittanytourism.com/ideas/brittany-experiences

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GETTING THERE:

We travelled overnight from Portsmouth to St Malo and back on one Brittany Ferries’ nine modern ships, with an en-suite cabin. Fares start from £124 one way for a car plus two passengers. Onboard shops, bars and lounges are classily-done and being a French company,Brittany Ferries takes great pride in its restaurant cuisine. Its 25E buffet is a veritable feast.

Book online at www.brittanyferries.com or call 0871 244 1400.

Ferry-plus-accommodation packages include cottages, hotels and campsites throughout France and Spain are also available.