Looking to explore French countryside without the crowds of Provence and the Riviera? Consider the islands off the Atlantic coast, especially if you enjoy biking through picturesque villages, sampling succulent seafood, and relaxing on miles of sandy beaches—sandier than most you’ll find on the French Riviera. Here is your guide to choosing the right French island for you.
Best for Those Who Want it All: Île de Ré
Ile de Ré has scenic ports, whitewashed houses with colorful shutters, expansive beaches, famous oysters, even vineyards. The one drawback is that because the island is now on the tourism map, it’s attracting 160,000 vacationers per year, making it the most expensive of the islands. You can evade the worst of the crowds by coming slightly off-season, in June or September, or by spending time in one of the island’s smaller, quieter towns, such as La Flotte. “La Flotte has a great daily morning market selling local specialties like fleur de sel and homemade soaps,” points out Trusted Travel Expert Paul Bennett. “And there are excellent restaurants overlooking the port, such as L’Ecailler, where you can enjoy the best of the day’s catches with a glass of the island’s crisp white wine.”
Best for Budget Beachcombers: Île d’Yeu
Ile d’Yeu has the natural beauty of Ile de Ré without the hype. South of the city of Nantes and accessible by ferry from Fromentine, this small island has a wide variety of charming vacation rentals and is easy to get around only by bike. You can wander the narrow passageways of its main town, Port Joinville, before trekking out to the 14th-century fortress le Vieux-Château. Along the way, breeze by traditional fisherman huts and tall lighthouses perched on steep cliffs. Get digging on the beach and you can have a tasty free clambake for dinner.
Best for Adventurous Romantics: Belle-Île
This beautiful island off the coast of Brittany has almost-tropical aquamarine waters, 60 pristine beaches, and quaint villages. Outdoorsy types can kayak, windsurf, scuba dive, or hike to the island’s famous rocky “needles,” Les Aiguilles de Port-Coton. Culture lovers are in for a treat too: They’ll recognize that rock formation from Claude Monet paintings. When dinnertime calls, make your way to the fishing village of Sauzon to feast on fresh-off-the-boat lobster. Then get a well-deserved good night’s sleep at the Citadelle Vauban hotel, in a 17th-century fortress (that also has a good restaurant and local museum), or pamper yourself at the Castel Clara, whose seawater spa faces the wild coast.
Best for Getting Away From It All: Île d’Ouessant
If you’re after tranquility and natural beauty, sail over to this offbeat island, the north-westernmost point of France. You can bike along the coast, through green fields dotted with sheep, and past deserted beaches beckoning you to lay down your towel. Discover what daily life was like on the island pre-WWII at the Niou Huella Eco-Museum, or wave toward North America or Great Britain at Créac’h lighthouse, marking where the Atlantic Ocean turns into the English Channel.
Best for Families: Île aux Moines
Few foreign visitors join savvy French families on the short boat ride from Vannes to l’Île aux Moines, one of the Atlantic coast’s best-kept secrets. “With no cars and amazing sandy beaches, it’s perfect for kids,” notes Trusted Travel Expert Jack Dancy. “Plus there are great hiking and biking trails, excellent sailing opportunities, and many family-friendly holiday rentals.” The streets of the main town, Port Blanc, are lined with quaint traditional stone houses, shops, and crêperies. A wander into the center of the island will take you to France’s own Stonehenge, Cromlech de Kergonan, a megalithic site featuring 24 standing stones. While you’re in the area, Jack also suggests visiting the walled city of Vannes, especially for its fish market in the 19th-century Les Halles market building. Watch as local fishmongers try to out-hawk one another with their selection of sea bass, haddock, and prawns hauled into port that very morning.
Since there’s so much to discover on these islands and along France’s Atlantic coast, consider a multi-day sailing trip—something Jack can arrange.