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

Belle-Île-en-Mer lives up to its name, as it is truly a beautiful French island located approximately 15 kilometres south of Quiberon in the Morbihan department. With its four administrative communes – Bangor, Le Palais, Locmaria, and Sauzon – the island stretches 7 km in length and 9 km in width. The coastline features quaint harbours, charming beaches that connect to sheltered coves, and striking cliffs.

As the largest island in Bretagne on the French Atlantic coast, Belle-Île-en-Mer serves as a favoured holiday destination for many French residents, some of whom have second homes on the island. Additionally, it is a haven for photographers, offering breathtaking views from the iconic lighthouse to the renowned Port-Coton Needles, a location immortalized in many of Monet’s 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 the one-hour drive from our house in Sarzeau to Quiberon, we set out early to catch the 8:15 ferry. As we approached the Quiberon peninsula, a slow-moving truck appeared in front of us, and we couldn’t overtake it or take an alternative route to save time. Fortunately, we arrived just 10 minutes before the ferry departure. Purchasing tickets at the Quiberon ferry terminal, the lady at the ticket booth called the captain to wait for us, three late risers, while printing out our tickets.

About 40 minutes later, bathed in the morning sunlight, the stone walls of the Citadelle de Vauban and the quaint harbor of Le Palais came into view. As planned, we rented an electric car to explore the island, covering up to 100 km without needing to charge. Given the island’s size, an electric vehicle proved to be an ideal choice for our day trip.

Beginning our excursion from Le Palais, we ventured through the following attractions 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)

Travelling along county road D190, we reached a parking lot near Les Aiguilles de Port Caton (The Needles of Cotton Port). The name is derived from the splashing waves on the rugged rocks during stormy weather, resembling the appearance of cotton. The impressive tall rock pinnacles rising amidst the waves have been a muse for artists, including Claude Monet, who created several renowned paintings.

The pathways surrounding the site are well-maintained and level. We wandered freely along the coastline, capturing numerous photos without following a specific route.

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 destination was Pointe des Poulains, a hiking trail stretching from Fort Sarah Bernhardt to the Poulains Lighthouse. The site offers panoramic views. On a clear day, the lighthouse provides a vista that extends to the Isle de Croix, Lorient, and the Bay of Quiberon.

The renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt, a 19th-century superstar and international idol, spent almost every summer on Belle-Île, residing in a converted fort on the Pointe des Poulains.

Following a stroll along the cliffs, we made our way towards the lighthouse and were pleasantly surprised by the presence of a small beach that separates la Pointe des Poulains from the rest of the island. What a hidden gem! I could easily envision descending to the secluded beach, especially during 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, a charming fishing port nestled in the northwest of Belle-Île-en-Mer, serves as a gateway for ferries arriving from Lorient. Dating back to 1843, this small port was once home to fish canneries, and though some continue to operate, their focus has shifted to lobster and langoustine products.

During our visit in mid-October, the autumn sunlight beautifully illuminated the pastel-colored houses adorned with vibrant shutters. The unique charm of this fishing village has attracted both painters and photographers.

Lining the quay are an array of restaurants, shops, and creperies. Upon our arrival, Creperie Les Embruns had just opened its doors. The creperie offers an extensive variety of galettes, both sweet and savory. Galette, a typical Breton delight, boasts a crispy exterior and a rustic, flavorful filling. They are undeniably 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

After returning the rental car, we found ourselves with some time to spare before the next ferry departure. We decided to explore the Citadel, a historic site that offers views of the port of Palais and symbolizes a millennium of history. In 1683, the architect Vauban undertook enhancements to fortify this significant structure. Within the complex, an informative museum provides insights into the island’s defensive system and the rich history of Belle-Île-en-Mer. Additionally, there is a hotel and a restaurant within the premises. Spending an hour at the Citadel is truly worthwhile.

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

Exploring Belle-Île-en-Mer thoroughly could easily span across several days. If we were to visit again, we’d consider staying for a couple of days to fully explore its beauty. The coastal walk around Port-Coton Needles alone could occupy a day or two, not to mention spending a day on one of its charming beaches. For avid photographers, capturing the diverse landscapes might warrant even more time.

Accommodations on the island are limited but charming, scattered across the four communes. Unlike the mass hotel buildings in the Côte d’Azur area, Belle-Île-en-Mer offers a more intimate experience. As a result, during peak seasons, accommodations tend to fill up quickly.

How to get there 

Travelers can access Belle-Île-en-Mer from the Quiberon ferry terminal year-round. The journey from Quiberon to the island takes approximately 45 minutes. “La Compagnie Oceane” ferry company offers daily connections for both passengers and vehicles from various towns. Ticket prices vary depending on the season and the day of the week. It’s worth noting that ferry frequency may decrease during off-peak seasons. If bringing a vehicle, it’s advisable to book in advance, particularly during high-demand seasons.

How to explore Belle Île en Mer

The island’s tourist buses operate exclusively during peak seasons. If you have sufficient time, Belle-Île-en-Mer is an ideal size for cycling. Alternatively, you can opt to rent an electric car or a scooter for convenient exploration.

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