Half a million people visit Belle-Île-en-Mer every year, notes its mayor, Frédéric Le Gars, and if you count the cruise ships making their pit stops at the largest island off the coast of Brittany, a grand total of 200 of them are American. And even that paltry sum is a bit inflated. Many of these Americans are imported for the music festival held every August. And still more aren’t typical tourists. Randal Hoder of Stowe, Vermont, who summers here, married a Frenchwoman (in Belle-Île). Opera soprano Jazmin Black Grollemund met Le Gars’s deputy while performing in the festival and married him soon after.
English is seldom heard here. The recorded tours at French actress Sarah Bernhardt’s old house, and the programs for the concert series, officially known as the Festival Lyrique International de Belle-Île-en-Mer, are only in French—and no one’s complaining.
For anyone savoring a homogenizing world’s surviving differences, especially those who love everything French, Belle-Île should be the place to go. So why isn’t it? Partly it’s a lack of imagination and initiative. For most Americans, France means Paris or Versailles or St.-Tropez. There’s also Belle-Île’s relative remoteness. From Paris, one has to take two trains, or fly southwest to Nantes and taxi (the fare will run around $300) to the coast to Quiberon to catch the ferry for the ten-mile crossing to Le Palais, Belle-Île’s principal port. (An early flight to Nantes puts you on the island by midafternoon.) Most Americans fall off somewhere along the way.
Even for many Frenchmen, there’s something secluded about Belle-Île, which is but 12 miles long and, at its maximum girth, six miles wide. When Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, France’s president from 1974 to 1981, came—our recent summer visits coincided—it was his first stay ever. (He’s “more a château type,” was how the head of the music festival, a longtime Paris anchorwoman turned Belliloise named Geneviève Guicheney, put it.) But if the past is any guide, he’ll return. Those who get here invariably do.
Beginning at age 49, for instance, Bernhardt spent her next 29 summers here, at a remote outpost on the island’s northernmost tip, Pointe des Poulains, that is now a museum. (“A haven, a paradise, a refuge,” she called her home.) Another French president, François Mitterrand, returned seven times in his final five years; with its peculiar combination of serenity and turbulent surf, Belle-Île offered him an equilibrium he’d found nowhere else.
The 40,000 or so visitors who come to Belle-Île not aboard a cruise ship each summer (the season is June to August) are predominantly from Paris—intellectual types who’ve been vacationing here for years. Judging from the crowd, the wonderful Mozart recital I heard during the festival could just as easily have been held in Paris’s Salle Pleyel. Instead, it took place in the citadel built in the late 17th century by Louis XIV’s foremost military engineer, which greets visitors after the 45-minute ferry ride. (It now holds a museum and a hotel.)
The invading summertime elites invite facile comparisons to Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket, but in fact France’s power brokers and plutocrats generally stay away, as do the boldfaced names. Johnny Depp once coveted a mansion here, but there aren’t many—development, particularly on prime sites on the water, is rigidly controlled—and he’s since abandoned the idea. Asked to name his most famous guest, Johan Dubourdieu, who with his wife, Stephanie, manages the island’s fanciest hotel, the Castel Clara, cited the queen of Belgium—and struggled to name a runner-up. If there’s shopping on Belle-Île, it’s to buy fresh butter from Martine, in the village of Kerdavid, or organic vegetables from Amandine, at Le Palais’s morning market.
On the Riviera one torpid summer morning a few years back, the CEO of Air France, Frédéric Gagey, realized he was doing nothing all day but sipping rosé and feeling lethargic. But in the bracing coastal air of Belle-Île, he rides horses, jogs, swims, sails. Locals say the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who was born in France, bought a summer house on Belle-Île after being told that for the children of billionaires, no place in France was as safe.
For them and everyone else, Belle-Île at least pays lip service to the égalité part of the French credo. Its considerable wealth is largely confined to the insides of some of its almost unbearably adorable but largely indistinguishable houses, clustered in the dozens of villages (many named after Celtic saints) sprinkled amid the island’s still-copious farmlands and fields. The houses are built in the uniformly simple Breton style: white chalk (and occasionally stone) trimmed with the slate blue of Brittany or the playful shades of apricot or raspberry sorbet and mint-green crème glacée, surrounded in many cases by gardens of hydrangeas.
While Belle-Île’s tiny landing strip accommodates private planes from the Continent, few come. Any paparazzo unfortunate enough to be assigned here might be tempted to jump off the austere and perilous cliffs of the Côte Sauvage, the rocky southwestern coastline immortalized by Claude Monet in the nearly 40 paintings he made here in the fall of 1886. Surveying what he called the “tangle of extraordinary coves, spikes, and needles” along or near the shore—the wisps of foam crashing off the rocks gave it the name Port Coton—he’d had to anchor his easel with cords and stones to protect it from the winds.
Apart from the music festival, which is perpetually strapped for funds, there's little cultural life here, whether in Le Palais, Sauzon, or the island’s two other, much sleepier but charming municipalities, Locmaria and Bangor. One settles, instead, for more intimate pleasures: the aroma of fresh bread and raspberry jam at the Boulangerie de l’Epeautre, in Locmaria; the curry-like scent of wild fennel along the roadsides; the ubiquitous wild blackberries, which provide hikers with a constant source of confiture. To Elisabeth Thiry, who cooks at Belle-Île’s most talked-about restaurant, Villa Simone, in Sauzon, there’s the distinctive flavor of the island’s lamb, nourished on its salty grasses.
Unless one is from Portland—Maine or Oregon, it doesn’t much matter—the water off Belle-Île will seem a bit chilly, at least for the first few dips. The late Richard Cowan, an American opera singer who created the music festival, was once a high school swimmer, but in his last two decades on Belle-Île, he told me, he’d gone in only twice. (Anyone similarly reluctant might now want to reconsider: Water temperatures here, as everywhere else, have risen.) The seawater is clear and refreshing. The air is bright, fresh, even medicinal—high in iodine, the mayor insists.
If getting to Belle-Île can be difficult, attaching to it can also take time. Ideally, one would start at a hotel or bed-and-breakfast, just to get a feel for the place. A point to begin might be Castel Clara, in Bangor, known locally as l’hotel de Mitterrand because he favored the place and it’s the only one on the island with four stars. (It also offers thalassotherapy, or treatment by seawater, which is both soothing and a bit superfluous on an island that offers, by one count, nearly 60 different beaches: big and small, accessible and remote, rocky and sandy, tempestuous—some are for surfers—and serene, nude and clad, straight and gay, busy and almost entirely deserted, but all of them public. Even people who’ve been here 30 years keep finding new ones, or can’t find the old ones.)
Then you can graduate to a house rental and settle into the local routines: hiking (it takes several days to cover the 51-mile path around the island) or cycling or moped riding or driving (there are rentals for all in Le Palais). And eating fruits de mer and Breton crepes. And taste testing the island’s various boulangeries. My ritual quickly devolved to visiting the market each morning, then setting the breakfast table with my bounty, then going for a swim (amid the sailing students of the école de voile) along the beach at Les Grands Sables, then sitting down for fresh fruit, croissants, artisanal bread with local butter and jams, soft-boiled local eggs, and pots of strong espresso.
Needless to say, the island, whose population shrinks to 5,249 in the off-season, has changed profoundly over the years. To see how much, visit the comically misnamed hamlet of Grand Village on the island’s southwest side. Longtime resident Corinne Jamet Vierny showed me marvelous photographs of Belle-Île from the 1930s to the ’60s taken by her late father, the French singer Pierre Jamet. They depict a community of fishermen and farmers and local personalities, the types Millet or Van Gogh might have painted. There’s hardly a tourist in sight.
But the sardines have since swum on, and with them have gone most of those who caught or canned them. Still, even to veterans of the place, Belle-Île looks and feels unchanged. Because its many new houses must be annexed to existing villages, the growth has been well camouflaged. The only road with a line down the middle is the one that bisects the island. The rest are country lanes. Belle-Île still has no traffic lights, though it could use a few, especially with SUVs barging in now where all the Deux Chevaux—Citroën’s famous 2CVs—once roamed. Litter and car horns are nonexistent.
Near the end of my stay, I returned for the closing night of the festival, which featured an operatic twin bill of Pagliacci and Gianni Schicchi at the Salle Arletty, named for the famous French actress (Les Enfants du Paradis) who also had a house on the island. (It was she who, imprisoned briefly after World War II for a liaison with a Luftwaffe officer, is said to have proclaimed, “My heart is French, but my ass is international.”) Though I’d been in Belle-Île but a few days, I already felt at home: The hall was dotted with the people I’d managed to meet. (Giscard d’Estaing was there, too, but the Bellilois are respectful enough to leave their few celebrities alone.) The performances were splendid—the local Pagliacci even featured a bonus suicide, and judging from the rapturous applause that followed, I came to believe that the troubled festival would surely return the following summer (it did) and for many a summer to come. And so, too—should my good luck hold—will I.
Belle-Île is best enjoyed by finding a lovely place to stay, savoring the wonderfully tasty and healthful local fare, and then finding a way to burn at least some of it off by heading to a few of its beaches.
Castel Clara: The island’s premier hostelry. Come for the views, the seafood bar, and the famous thalassotherapy (rooms from $205; Goulphar, Bangor; 33-2/97-31-84-21; castel-clara.com).
Citadelle Vauban: Situated in a beautiful ancient fortress, the rooms have the size and feel of the barracks they once were (rooms from $165; Le Palais; 33-2/97-31-84-17; citadellevauban.com).
La Désirade: Quiet and intimate, with nicely appointed bungalows (rooms from $110; Petit Cosquet, Bangor; 33-2/97- 31-70-70; hotel-la-desirade.com).
The Belle-Île-en-Mer Tourist Office lists nearly 200 house rentals (belleileenmer.co.uk).
Restaurants and Shops
Villa Simone: A new and homey place serving classic French cuisine and run by the family of the executive chef at L’Hermès in Paris (Allée des Peupliers, Sauzon; 33-2/97-29-11-28; restaurant-villasimone.com).
Le Café de la Cale: Local seafood—mussels, oysters, sea bass—unpretentiously served in a Belle-Île fixture overlooking the harbor (Quai Guerveur, Sauzon; 33-2/97-31-65-74; cafedelacale.fr).
Le Petit Baigneur: More heaps of fruits de mer, on a charming side street (Rue Rampe des Glycines, Sauzon; 33-2/97-31-67-74).
Creperie les Embruns: The best crepes on the island, aficionados say (Quai Joseph Naudin, Bangor; 33-2/97-31-64-78; creperielesembruns-sauzon.fr).
Le Fourn’isle en Mer: Try the baguette campaillou: crusty and delicious and dark (Rue Joseph le Brix, Le Palais; 33-2/97-31-82-07).
La Ferme de Keroulep: The farm shop keeps strange hours—generally from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.—but the goats and what becomes of their milk speak for themselves (Locmaria; 33-2/97-31-76-28).
La Ferme de Kerdavid: Enhancing the local croissants and baguettes may seem impossible, but the impeccably fresh butter from this farm does just that (Bangor; 33-2/97-31-72-78).
Éric Le Goué: More than any other farmer, Le Goué knows how to coax the tastiest fruit and vegetables from the salty soil (Parlevent, Bangor; 33-2/97-31-34-27).
Les Délices de Sauzon: This small store is the local outlet for the exceptional jams made in nearby Quiberon (Quai Naudin, Sauzon; 33-6/21-24-79-39).
MOPEDS AND BICYCLES
Rent them at Au Cheval de Fer (1 Bis Quai Gambetta, Le Palais; 33-2/97-31-50-70; auchevaldefer.fr) or Locmaria Cycles (Rue des Acadiens, Locmaria; 33-2/97-31-72-90).