I first fell in love with Brittany many years ago, back in the days when it took nearly seven hours to travel by train from Paris to Quimper, a charming town in Finistère, the remotest corner of this shaggy green Atlantic province. What first exhilarated me about Brittany was the breathtaking beauty of its indented coastline. I also liked its peaceful countryside, the simple solid architecture of its tidy villages, the doorways and windows of the white houses bordered with granite, the churches with steeples sharp enough to rally a conscience, the superb seafood and the friendly and well-mannered Bretons themselves.
I’ve been back many times since, but my most recent visit was perhaps the most enjoyable trip of all. Of late, Brittany has become discreetly sophisticated in ways that don’t mar its down-to-earth charm. There is now a range of excellent small hotels, plus outstanding and affordable restaurants. Indeed, with all due respect to Alsace, Burgundy and Provence, I think you eat better in Brittany today than you do anywhere else in France. The province has a constellation of talented young chefs creating light, healthy contemporary cuisine. Most of France’s fish is landed in Breton ports; many of its best oysters come from Brittany; and the quality of the butter, fowl, beef and vegetables produced in its interior is second to none.
In the Breton language, the phrase l’Armor et l’Argoat, “the coast and the hinterland,” explains the yin and yang of this Celtic region. The Bretons are both attached to, and wary of, the sea. Like many Celtic peoples, they did not traditionally eat fish, much less shellfish, which they shunned from a fear that it might have fed on drowned sailors. It was the advent of tourism that created a boom in seafood cookery and caused many Bretons to sample the riches of their own waters. Today, Brittany’s fishing ports send out a fleet of small boats, and their catch is, arguably, the best in the world.
Safe, clean and unspoiled, Brittany is an ideal destination for a relaxing vacation that combines the pleasures of the table with the experience of an ancient culture. Last May, I made a delightful 10-day driving trip — the best seasons here are May-June and September-October, since Brittany gets very busy during the summer — that began after a 50-minute flight from Paris’s Orly Airport to Quimper and concluded in the fine old port town of Saint-Malo.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the 20-room Villa Tri Men hotel, a handsome structure dating from 1913, located about 12 miles south of Quimper and surrounded by gardens filled with blue hydrangeas, junipers and century-old cedars of Lebanon. The villa is set at the edge of the sailboat-dotted estuary of the Odet River, which separates the towns of Sainte-Marine and Bénodet. As soon as we stepped through the door, a friendly young woman at the front desk suggested we enjoy tea and cake in the garden. Over the water, we could see Bénodet, one of the prettiest port towns in Brittany, and the beginning of its long crescent-shaped sandy beach. Listening to the seagulls and the sound of the rigging on nearby sailboats was a perfect way to begin our journey.
As we settled in, it was easy to understand why this comfortable and easygoing hotel receives so many repeat visitors from Paris and elsewhere in France, as well as England, Belgium and Switzerland, since it has the calm atmosphere of a well-run and well-loved property that is continuously kept up to date in the ways that really matter. Like many of the best hotels in Brittany, it eschews pointless fanciness and fussiness.
Our moderately sized room came with an appropriate blue-and-white nautical décor, teak parquet floors and a comfortable sofa covered with white cotton and heaped with pillows. The walls were hung with modern oil paintings on Breton themes. The bath had a yacht-like interior, with a single sink in a teak counter, a combination tub and shower, French-made NUXE toiletries, voile curtains on a dormer window and pleasing views of the local lighthouse.
Villa Tri Men has two restaurants, Le Bistrot du Bac, a casual shore-side seafood bistro, and the more gastronomically ambitious Les Trois Rochers in the main villa. There, we enjoyed a fine meal of langoustines dressed with spice powder and chopped pousse-pied seaweed, followed by sea bass with oyster tartare in an artichoke cream sauce with a side of crispy potato millefeuille, and finally a strawberry dessert with caramelized wafers and pistachio sponge cake. The wine list was excellent and featured several white Beaujolais that make for pleasant summer drinking, as well as lesser-known, good-value Loire wines like the Coteaux du Giennois and Menetou-Salon. After dinner, we enjoyed a nightcap of Brittany’s Armorik single-malt whiskey, which is distilled in the town of Lannion.
The lovely setting; the warm well-mannered hospitality; the excellent restaurants.
The nondescript bath products.
Be sure to ask for a room with a view of the lighthouse in Bénodet.
We left the Villa Tri Men the following day after an excellent breakfast. A beautiful sunny morning proved ideal for a visit to Locronan, a historic village of Renaissance stone houses that thrived during the 15th and 16th centuries by weaving the sailcloth for Breton schooners. Afterward we drove around the Presqu’île de Crozon, a peninsula of neatly tended farms and snug villages with spectacular views of the sea. At lunchtime, we stopped for a plateau de fruits de mer of oysters, mussels, langoustines, shrimp, winkles and a crab at the charming Hostellerie de la Mer, overlooking the harbor in the village of Le Fret.
From Le Fret, it is a 40-minute drive to Plomodiern, the native village of Michelin two-star chef Olivier Bellin, today widely considered to be the best young cook in Brittany. La Maison des Glazicks is a modern eight-room hotel attached to his restaurant. The latter is housed within his family’s simple granite auberge, where his mother once worked as the cook. The rooms occupy three weathered cedar-sided houses that would fit in just as well in Big Sur as they do in Finistère. They are large and sunny, and come with color schemes of cream, sand, coffee and chocolate, plus large baths designed by the young brothers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, who are starting to make a name for themselves in design circles in North America. Sachets of locally made Breton salted-butter caramels made a nice detail.
Although we didn’t care for the odd design of Bellin’s dining room, and the service was irritatingly slow at times, his cooking proved to be passionate and inventive. It spins on the ancient Breton axis of “l’armor” and “l’argoat,” a representative dish being one of langoustines with white peaches, fresh almonds, cured pork tongue and girolle mushrooms.
The friendly staff; the spacious, well-designed rooms; the outstanding restaurant.
The absence of a swimming pool; occasional road noise.
The best nearby beach is at Sainte-Anne-la-Palud.
After a walk on the magnificent Atlantic beach at nearby Sainte-Anne-la-Palud, a place we know well from previous stays at my recommended Hôtel de la Plage, we set off for Roscoff, about an hour’s drive away. Located at the tip of a fertile peninsula planted with artichokes, cauliflowers and broccoli, as well as the famous local red onions, the town is one of the busiest fishing ports in France and a well-known center for thalassotherapy (seawater spa treatments). The best hotel in this enchanting little port is 23-room Le Brittany, which occupies a solid granite mansion with a slate roof, set in a park overlooking the sea at the edge of town.
Le Brittany offers a strong sense of place and a relaxed and intimate atmosphere. There is a terrace out front where drinks are served in good weather, a delightful bar with a big stone fireplace, and a small spa with a saltwater swimming pool. Hardier types may be tempted to cross the street to take a dip in the Atlantic. The time of the following day’s high tide is indicated on a card that is left in your bedroom at turndown.
The accommodations are all decorated in a beach-house style with color schemes of sand, celadon and pale blue, complemented by antiqued wooden furniture. Our suite, #112, was spacious and sunny, and came with a snug crow’s nest of a sitting room with three granite-lined windows that offered constantly changing postcard views of the harbor. The bedroom also had a window overlooking the sea, and a door that opened directly into the hotel’s attractive small garden. The large bath was equipped with an oversized soaking tub and separate jet shower, excellent lighting and Breton seaweed-based toiletries.
The hotel’s restaurant is superb. At a table with fine views over the harbor, we enjoyed small, sweet, scarlet-colored shrimp with sea salt and homemade mayonnaise, and dressed crab with andouille sausage, buckwheat and baby vegetables. These were followed by a pan-roasted sea bass garnished with kumquats and pea shoots, accompanied by a beurre blanc sauce and a side of fluffy buckwheat stuffing with chopped green beans. Melted chocolate cake with caramel sauce and black-cherry sorbet concluded one of the best meals I’ve eaten in recent years.
Happily, we’d booked at Le Brittany for two nights. The following day, we took the 15-minute ferry ride from Roscoff to the Ile de Batz. This is a great place for an easy seaside hike, a highlight of which is the Jardin Georges Delaselle, a lush garden of tropical plants that was created by a Paris businessman between 1897 and 1937 that survives here due to the climate-tempering effect of the Gulf Stream.
Attractive rooms with views over the harbor of Roscoff; the excellent Michelin one-star restaurant.
The lack of a pool.
It is impossible to park in Roscoff in summer, so leave your car at the hotel and take the free municipal shuttle bus into town.
Whenever possible on this trip, we chose the backcountry roads known as “départementales,” which are indicated on maps with a “D” before the route number. So driving from Roscoff to Morlaix, we took the D768, a quiet and pretty road that hugs the coast to the resort town of Trébeurden. There, handsome turn-of-the-century clifftop villas tell the tale of how Brittany became popular with the prosperous French bourgeoisie as the railway system expanded during the 19th century.
Trébeurden is in the middle of a 25-mile stretch of Brittany’s northern coast known as La Côte de Granit Rose (the Pink Granite Coast). Set on a bluff with views over the sea and dozens of little islands, the 19-room Manoir de Lan Kerellec has been run by the same family, the Daubés, since 1925. This explains its rather clubby atmosphere. We liked our old-fashioned butter-yellow room with a porthole window and French doors leading to a small balcony. The nautically themed bath came with a whirlpool tub.
Gallic formality prevailed in the wood-paneled dining room, but the food was good, and included langoustine maki made with buckwheat crêpes and served with wasabi-seasoned buttermilk, and a perfect sole meunière for two. Ultimately, however, the Manoir de Lan Kerellec is a pleasant overnight stop rather than a destination hotel.
Spectacular views over the sea; the fine restaurant.
Not having direct access to the beach.
The Sentier des Douaniers (path of the customs officials), a nearby coastal footpath, provides a wonderful walk.
The next day, after a stop in Tréguier to see the cathedral of Saint-Tugdual, we stopped in Saint-Brieuc for lunch at Youpala Bistrot. There, young chef Jean-Marie Baudic has won a Michelin star for his contemporary cooking, despite the fact that his restaurant occupies a simple stone auberge in a quiet residential neighborhood. Though the place had been highly recommended by friends, we didn’t know quite what to expect. However, we enjoyed an exceptionally good meal of crabmeat dressed with piquillo peppers and baby vegetables, brill with veal jus and a thatch of salad, and pain perdu with apricots, black currants and buttermilk ice cream. What I especially enjoy about eating in Brittany is that the food is usually just as healthy as it is delicious.
The resort town of Dinard expanded in the mid-19th century when a number of British aristocrats began building fanciful summer villas on the hills overlooking its beaches and coves. One of the grandest of them was constructed by the Faber family in 1865 on a site across the bay from the walled port of Saint-Malo. It was expanded and remodeled by subsequent owners, one of whom named it the Villa Bric-à-Brac, because it had become such a motley mix of architectural styles. Mostly recently, it was a French National Scientific Research Institute specializing in marine biology, with an impressive art deco aquarium. Last spring, it reopened as Castelbrac, a 25-room hotel.
Parisian decorator Sandra Benhamou has created lively art deco-inspired interiors for much of the hotel, while respecting the sepia-toned charm of several rooms. Our junior suite had a large private terrace with views over the Bay of Saint-Malo. The interior was done in a restful scheme of sand and ivory, with pastel accent colors. The bath came with a spacious stall shower that doubled as a steam room.
During our two-night stay, we kept discovering new nooks and crannies. The old aquarium has been turned into a bar, while other amenities include a library, a seafood restaurant, a spa suite and an outdoor lap pool with a small sun terrace. The hotel’s stunning wooden motor boat is available for private excursions to Saint-Malo, the Channel Islands and Mont-Saint-Michel. Castelbrac is a perfect example of the stylish small hotels that are transforming Brittany for sophisticated American travelers.
Attractive décor; idiosyncratic design; friendly service.
The lack of a tub in our suite; the exorbitant €24 daily charge for parking.
The restaurant at the Hotel de la Vallée, a five-minute walk away along a paved path, is a perfect choice for lunch or dinner when you don’t want to drive.
Our last stop was the new 83-room Le Nouveau Monde hotel, situated just outside of the old citadel of Saint-Malo. Despite being one of the most popular destinations in Brittany, Saint-Malo has never been distinguished by its hotels. For many years, the best address was, by default, the Grand Hôtel des Thermes, but because most guests tend to be curists at the thalassotherapy center, its atmosphere is vaguely medicinal. Le Nouveau Monde is housed within a contemporary building that nods at Belle Epoque seaside architecture with gables and a slate roof. Located on a quiet narrow road that runs along the seafront, the best rooms are those that overlook the island-speckled bay and the ramparts of Saint-Malo. Because it’s one of the great natural harbors of France, the Nazis made the town one of their major Atlantic naval bases, which explains the continuing presence of nearly indestructible block houses along the nearby coastline.
We stayed in a Junior Suite — other room categories can be small — which was light, comfortable and well-equipped. The best feature was the large private terrace with two sun loungers that was reached through French doors. A large bath came with both a tub and shower. The hotel’s indoor spa pool with air jets and massage seats was located just down the hall. The excellent restaurant specializes in local seafood, including dishes like crab with coriander and cumin, and pollock with artichoke mousseline.
The best way to spend an evening in Saint-Malo is to walk around the ramparts of the city at sunset, followed by a glass of wine on a café terrace, and then dinner at Bistro Autour du Beurre (7 rue de l’Orme), a restaurant run by local dairy star Jean-Yves Bordier, whose superb hand-churned butter graces many of the best tables in France.
Long favored by beachcombers and history buffs, Brittany is now a perfect destination for demanding gourmets, as well as devotees of smaller hideaway hotels.
The spectacular views from our private terrace; the excellent seafood restaurant.
The lack of a private parking area for guests.
It takes approximately 15 minutes to walk from the hotel to the citadel of Saint-Malo.