Flung like a defiant forearm against the Atlantic, Brittany is as near to New England – literally and figuratively – as France gets. Its vast, wind-bitten littoral is the province of old salts and a magnet for nature lovers, and is mostly unsuited for the sorts of gentrified seaside resorts one finds up the coast in Normandy. Brittany is all cliffs and wide, deserted beaches, villages with sturdy granite houses, and fractured coasts of pink granite.
To get a sense of the social texture of the region, one only has to consider its name in French, Bretagne – suggesting its connection to la Grande Bretagne across the English Channel. The conflation of Anglo and Gallic history goes back to the days when Celts peopled the peninsula; it endures in places like the forest of Paimpont, said to be the original forest of the wizard Merlin, and in place-names like Cornouaille (think Cornwall). Road signs are in French and Breton, linguistically much closer to Gaelic than French. With nearly 800 meandering miles of coast alone, Brittany is much larger than one might expect, making it best discovered in segments instead of in one fell swoop.
Petrified at the thought of driving in Paris, I took a bullet train from the capital to Rennes ($59 in second class and just over two hours’ travel time), and there rented a car. Less than an hour’s drive up route N137 put me just outside of Jacques Cartier’s hometown of St.-Malo, and I was well-positioned to begin my exploration of Brittany’s breezy northern fringe.
The 14th-century fortress Fort la Latte is the coolest castle I have ever seen, and not just be cause the 1957 swashbuckler flick “The Vikings,” starring Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas, was filmed there. Its cylindrical keep is perched on a rocky promontory surrounded by a swirling blue-green sea, and to access it you have to cross two drawbridges. As one might expect from such a dramatic location, the history here is a rowdy one: The castle has undergone medieval sieges, served as a coastal defense site under Louis XIV, and as a prison during the French Revolution. The effect is Arthurian with a hint of the Caribbean, and if the fort is a lonely place, it retains a palpable aura of thrust and parry.
Beyond the fort is the Cape Frehel, which, with its reddish-black cliffs plunging nearly 300 feet to the luminous ocean, is one of the most spectacular stretches of the Breton coastline. The bracing air and views are best appreciated by taking a half-hour walk along the cliff top paths. Though it was too foggy for me to see it, on a clear day you can see 30 miles west to the Ile de Brehat, which I had intended as my next stop.
As I made my way up route D786, the allure of the sea was too strong to resist, however, and just beyond the village of Plouha, I made a stop at a bluff overlooking the pristine expanse of Bonaparte Beach. Though you would hardly have an inkling of it today, the beach was the site of clandestine Allied naval operations from 1942 to 1944. A plaque and stele commemorate them.
As small as it is gorgeous, Ile de Brehat is like Nantucket, the coast of Maine around Bar Harbor, and a fantasy vision of pastoral Ireland, all rolled into one. No cars are allowed on the island (there are parking lots at the port of Arcouest, from where a ferry makes regular 15-minute crossings), leaving one free to amble around the patchwork of sinuous little lanes. Everywhere are green fields and roses and hydrangeas of every hue, interrupted only by the occasional tractor or renovated medieval manor that some lucky Parisian calls a second home. There is a hotel on the island, but a day is all it takes to explore Brehat.
The best thing is to rent a bicycle ($12 for a half-day) from one of the bike shacks at Port-Clos where the ferry comes in. Follow the signs to the Phare du Paon (Peacock Lighthouse) at the pink-granite-covered northern tip of the island. At this site, the color of the granite changes according to the light and is at its most ethereal at twilight, which arrives around 10 p.m. in June. The lighthouse is also made of luminous soft pink granite, but it’s worth noting that the Germans blew up the first one in 1944.
Brehat’s history is a microcosm of Brittany’s. In 1409, marauding Englishmen hanged many of the islanders from a windmill because, well, they weren’t English. And a legend holds that a local fellow named Coatanlem tipped Christopher Columbus off to the existence of the New World in 1484, nine years before its official discovery, by showing him the route taken by Newfoundland-bound fisherman.
I could have lingered in Brehat for a week, but then I wouldn’t have had time to stroll the Sentier des Douaniers, a pathway of ravishing beauty about 25 miles west at Ploumanac’h, the heart of Brittany’s Pink Granite Coast. Against a backdrop of deep-green umbrella pines, smooth pink boulders in all sorts of fantastical shapes tumble down to the ocean. The coastal path takes about three hours to walk up and down.
The magic of Brittany’s coast does not generally extend to its accommodations, but there are exceptions. One of them, the Manoir de Lan Kerellec, is a 15-minute drive from Ploumanac’h in the village of Trebeurden (011-33-2961-50000 or 800-735-2478,www.lankerellec.com; $205-$495). Every guestroom at this Relais & Chateaux property has ocean views that sweep out to the verdant Pointe de Bihit and, on a clear day, far beyond. Its gourmet restaurant offers seafood dishes like roast lobster with salt butter, artichokes, and spiced grapefruit and rouget with red pepper and creme de chorizo, and desserts such as an opaline of raspberries with a warm pecan brownie and a hibiscus flower granita. This is a welcome break from Brittany’s ubiquitous crepes, which seem more often to whet the appetite than to satiate it.
Leaving Trebeurden, one soon regains the corniche road tracing the coast west to St.-Jean-du-Doigt, or St.-Jean of the Finger, so named for the index finger of St. John the Baptist said to have found its way to the 15th-century church here. I looked everywhere for the sacred phalange but couldn’t find it, prompting me to ask a local greengrocer, who said it had been moved to a bank for temporary safekeeping. I satisfied myself with a tray of locally grown sweet strawberries – practically a religious experience in itself.