A guide to cruising around France: where to go, what to see
Interested in cruising around France? Not-for-profit organisation Cruising Association shares insights on how to do so.
Cruising on a sailing or motorboat has to be viewed as one of the safest and most practical social distancing sports/hobbies and holidays there is, and more and more people are taking to the water. The sense of freedom and sheer pleasure of being on a lake, river, canal or on the sea, has huge mental and physical benefits.
Judith Grimwade, a past President of the Cruising Association, and her husband Mark, have cruised extensively in their yacht Wizard of Paget. The Grimwades bought Wizard of Paget in 1994 in a poor state and spent until her launch in 2002 rebuilding her in their garden. The couple have been cruising the coast of Western France since 2003.
Reasons for cruising in Atlantic France
France really knows how to celebrate its maritime heritage. Not only do the French hold large festivals in Brest, Douarnenez and Le Semaine du Golfe, but there are also Fêtes de Mer, Fêtes de Sardines, Langoustines etc, chants de marins and other celebratory activities.
All French marinas are owned by the state and are seen as an important contribution to the economy of the local community. The costs of cruising are fair as are the rates for annual contracts to all parties. The Passeport Escale offers free berthing for two-night stays in most of the marinas on the Atlantic coast of France. Crews tend to go to sea regularly, thus spending money in a variety of stopovers and it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. High season is restricted to July and August.
People who sail/cruise in small boats are liked, respected and seen as valued customers.
Most marinas have a visitors’ area, encouraging a lively social life, and the towns organise events to entice visitors. For example, on Midsummer’s Day and Bastille Day there are concerts and firework displays which are usually free to enjoy.
The French way of life is a huge attraction with their markets and the joys of eating ‘al fresco’, having a drink while people-watching. Then you get to eat great food in good restaurants and at sensible prices e.g. Jardin d’Olivier at Pornic, a much-loved seaside resort.
The stunning scenery really is best appreciated from the sea and, as you cruise southwards you become aware of the regional differences. For example, Brittany is well known for its slate roofs and stone-built houses in lush countryside. Then there’s the butter, cheese, seafood, and of course the famous sea salt.
Amongst the highlights in the Vendée are red roofs, sandy beaches, potatoes from Ile Noirmoutier and salt vines, whilst the Charente-Maritime celebrates a rich history in La Rochelle and Richelieu, great fishing and seafood.
Aquitaine has Eleanor, one of the most powerful and influential figures of the Middle Ages (1137-1152) as well as superb medieval architecture and simple churches. The oysters in Arcachon Bay and the Ile de Ré potatoes are truly scrumptious.
Heading into Basque country you experience yet another type of cuisine with meats and fish grilled over hot coals, marmitako and lamb stews, cod and bean dishes. Then there are the strange ball games played against a wall (la pélote basque) and plenty of fishing.
The Islands also each have their own unique character; some are even too small for motorised transport. French beaches are very quiet, no radios or loud voices unless there are English people telling their children not to go in the water and there’s no litter! The Markets provide great food and the family run restaurants offer Menu Ouvrier – the hearty lunch special; Buffet Hors d’oeuvres plat, fromage and dessert. Try and make sure you arrive at midday to get the best choice.
When it comes to the rivers, apart from the Gironde and the Loire, few rivers on this coast have much commercial traffic apart from tourist vedettes, or the occasional coaster. Vessels with masts can navigate as far inland on the river Vilaine to Redon where there are marinas and Haltes Nautiques for overnight stays, or places to anchor on the Aulne, Odet and Blavet.
Places to visit
- Les Iles de Glénans for wonderful beaches.
- Ushant for its memories of the silence and peace.
- St-Denis on the Ile d’Oléron, one of the best marinas on the coast.
- Quiberon Bay and the islands of Houat and Hoëdic. You can walk around these islands in a couple of hours. Again the beaches are stunning and the traditional architecture is lovely.
- Anchoring in the Golfe du Morbihan, just beautiful.
- Ile d’Yeu is far enough from the mainland to have retained its own traditions. White houses with painted shutters. We enjoy cycling to beaches like the Anse de Sous.
- St-Martin-de-Ré, boasts one of the most beautiful harbours in France. Classical architecture with not a stone or wrongly painted shutter. The marina is tucked into the defences built to protect the island from attack, usually by Britain!
- Piriac for its stone houses, narrow streets and ancient church.
- La Turballe is a ‘gutsy’ fishing harbour with a great beach to its south. It’s not pretentious but fun.
- Vannes - The marina is at the entrance to the medieval, historic centre. There’s always street theatre and entertainment to enjoy and wonderful parades to celebrate Bastille Day.
- Rochefort – Here the marina is close to the double formed dry docks established centuries ago for the building of ships for her Navy. The marina is in the historic basins. Before entering the marina, one sails past the Corderie, the longest rope-making building in Europe. In the town there is a myriad of fascinating museums and 17th and 18th century buildings.
Sign up to our free weekly e-newsletter
Subscribe to access all our online articles and receive our printed monthly newspaper The Connexion at your home. News analysis, features and practical help for English-speakers in France