Belle-Île-en-Mer, A Jewel on the French Atlantic Coast

Belle-Île-en-Mer is a French island about 15 kilometres south of Quiberon in the département of Morbihan. It has four administrative communes, Bangor, Le Palais, Locmaria, and Sauzon. The island is 7 km long and 9 km wide. Around the island are tiny harbours and pretty beaches connected to sheltered coves and cliffs.  Belle-Île-en-Mer is the biggest island in Bretagne on the French Atlantic coast.

The island is a holiday resort for many French locals who have their second house there. On the other hand, it is also a photographers’ paradise. Many spots offer great views, from the lighthouse to the Port-Coton Needles, where Monet had made many famous paintings.

View of Le Palais in Le Palais in the sunrise taken from the ferry
View of citadel in Le Palais in the sunrise taken from the ferry

Ferry crossing from Quiberon to Belle-Île-en-Mer

Considering one hour of driving from our house in Sarzeau to Quiberon, we left very early on that day to catch the 8:15 ferry. When we approached the Quiberon peninsula, a slow-moving truck appeared in front of us. We could not overtake the vehicle nor drive via any other road to catch the time. Luckily, we arrived there 10 minutes before the departure. As we purchased the tickets at the Quiberon ferry terminal, the lady at the ticket booth called the captain to wait for “three late sleepers” while printing out our tickets.

About 40 minutes later, in the glory of the morning sunlight, the stone walls of the Citadelle de Vauban and the tiny harbor of Le Palais came into sight. As planned, we rented an electric car to drive around, up to 100 km without charging. Given the size of the island, an electric auto is a perfect option for a day trip. 

Starting from Le Palais, we explored the following sites on Belle Île en Mer:

  • Les aiguilles de Port Caton (The Port Coton Needles)
  • Pointe des Poulans
  • Port de Sauzon
  • Le Palais

Les aiguilles de Port Caton (The Port Coton Needles)

Following the county road D190, we ended in a parking lot near Les Aiguilles de Port Caton (The Needles of Cotton Port). The name refers to the spray of the waves lapping up on the jagged rocks in heavy weather, which resemble the appearance of cotton. And the remarkable tall pinnacles of rock standing among the waves have inspired many painters, such as Claude Monet, who produced many famous paintings.

The walking paths around the site are well-maintained and flat. We roamed here and there along the coast without any specific route and took as many pictures as possible. Some locals chose to make a loop walk around the Goulphar Lighthouse. 

Les aiguilles de Port Caton (The Port Coton Needles) on Belle-Île-en-Mer
Coastal walk on Belle-Île-en-Mer

Pointe des Poulans

Our next stop was Pointe des Poulans, a hiking trail from Fort Sarah Bernhardt to the Poulains Lighthouse. The site offers a panoramic view. On a clear day, the view from the lighthouse extends to the Isle de Croix, Lorient, and the Bay of Quiberon. 

The actress Sarah Bernhardt, an international idol and a 19th-century superstar spent nearly every summer on Belle-Ile after in a converted fort on the Pointe des Poulains.  

After a walk along the cliffs, we headed towards the lighthouse and were surprised to see a tiny beach that separates la Pointe des Poulains from the rest of the island. What a secluded place! I could imagine making my way down to the hidden beach if it were in the summertime. 

Pointe des Poulans, a hiking trail from Fort Sarah Bernhardt to the Poulains Lighthouse.
Pointe des Poulans coast view, a hiking trail from Fort Sarah Bernhardt to the Poulains Lighthouse.

Port de Sauzon

Port de Sauzon is a small fishing port located northwest of Belle-Île-en-Mer, where ferries arrive from Lorient. The tiny port hosted fish canneries in 1843. Today, some still operate but mainly produce lobsters and langoustines products. 

It was in the middle of October. The autumn sunlight brings out the pastel hue of the houses with coloured shutters. The particular charm of this fishing village fascinates painters and photographers. 

Along the quay are lined with restaurants, shops, and creperies. When we arrived there, Creperie Les Embruns was just open. It offers an immense variety of galletes, in sweet and salty versions. Gallete is a typical Breton food. The fresh-cooked gallete is crusty outside and filled in a rustic way. They are super delicious!

Port de Sauzon on Belle-Île-en-Mer, Brittany France
Port de Sauzon, a fishing village on Belle-Île-en-Mer, Brittany France

Le Palais

The citadel overlooks the port of Palais, symbolises 1000 years of history. In 1683, the architect Vauban improved and strengthened the fortification. Inside the complex, the informative museum presents the history of the island’s defensive system and Belle-île-en-Mer. There’s also a hotel and a restaurant. It is worth spending an hour visiting the citadel. 

Citadel in Le Palais, Belle Île en Mer
Port de Sauzon is a small fishing port
Entrance to the Citadel in Le Palais, Belle Île en Mer

Tips for exploring Belle-Île-en-Mer

Spend a couple of days on the island

It could take days to explore Belle-Île-en-Mer. If we would go there again, we plan to stay a couple of days. For example, the coastal walk near Port-Coton Needles could take a day or two. In addition, it is easy to spend one day on any beach. If you are a photographer, then you might need more days to capture the variety of landscapes.

There are a handful of accommodations there, located in the four communes. The island does not have mass hotel buildings like in the Côte d’Azur area, and therefore, in the peak seasons, the accommodations can be are booked out in a short period. 

How to get there

Visitors can reach Belle Ile en Mer from the Quiberon ferry terminal throughout the year.  It takes 45 minutes from Quiberon to the island. The ferry company “La Compagnie Oceane” provides daily connections for passengers and vehicles from several towns. Prices differ in different seasons and weekdays. During the off-seasons, the ferry to the island is less frequent. For vehicles, it is suggested to book in advance, especially in high seasons. 

How to explore Belle Île en Mer

The tourist buses on the island run only during the peak seasons. If you have enough time, the island is the perfect size for cycling. Or you can rent an electric car or a scooter to drive around. 

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