Once it’s been used on the first day of the holiday to scout for beaches, the best fate for a hire car on Belle-Île-en-Mer is a sweet-smelling grave under a grove of pines. On this small island, just a 45-minute ferry ride off Brittany’s Morbihan coast, it is better to use a bike to burn off the formidable gourmet fare on offer: oysters at Le Café de la Cale on Sauzon’s pier, buttery galettes at nearby Crêperie Les Embruns, or a chateaubriand of Charolais beef thrown over the open fire at Le Goéland in the island’s main port, Le Palais. The combination of good food, Breton cider and Belle-Île’s languorous pace suits two wheels – bikes or mopeds, both of which can be easily hired.
Hiking works, too. The island is easily circumnavigated in four days on an 82km-long path, carrying a light rucksack and an Opinel knife to prize mussels from the jagged rocks. Locals harvest pouces-pieds – curiously phallic-looking gooseneck barnacles that are collected from the tangled black cliffs on the western côte sauvage. Even in summer, a swim in the sea is bracing, but in winter the Atlantic waters around Belle-Île are fierce. The arched trunks and gnarled gorse in the Jardin La Boulaye – a world-class private garden created 24 years ago out of three hectares of salt-whipped heath and hidden brooks – are testament to the power of the storms.
There’s excellent sailing, diving and surfing to be had; Belle-Île, like Cornwall’s Scilly Isles, works for teenagers, too, and a new surf school, Belle-Île Surf Club, has opened on Donnant Beach. Locals potter about with their boards in summer, trying to hitch lifts from those kindly visitors who can’t quite give up their keys to the Hertz.
Many of the regulars have learnt to leave their cars behind. The tiny smattering of high-profile visitors, who have included François Mitterrand, arrive by plane; there’s a landing strip for light aircraft. But most of the seasonal influx comes on the train from Paris – a 3.5-hour journey to Auray, followed by a bus to Quiberon port for the ferry. This fiddly route protects Belle-Île from the more fashionable footfall on Île de Ré, its southerly, better-known – and more expensive – neighbour.
Belle-Île also has fewer smart homes to rent than Île de Ré. In the inland hamlets there are numerous terraced cottages like Ker Lulu in Bangor; tiny, quaint, with thick white-chalk walls and coloured window shutters. Most elegant of all is the light-drenched two-bedroom loft above the publisher and second-hand bookshop, Liber & Co, in Le Palais. One of the better hotels, Hôtel le Grand Large, tends towards unremarkable rooms, but even with its dramatic location atop the south-west cliffs, it is reasonably priced. The restaurant is very good indeed, with the slow-cooked lamb raised on the island’s salt meadows a home-grown highlight.
Not that everything on Belle-Île is native. It was the last place I expected to find a rare yellowing flower from Nubia in Sudan – but there it was, in a garden brimming with exotic specimens that Michel Damblant has nurtured over 30 years in Belle-Île’s benign Gulf Stream temperatures. Nor did I expect to stumble across a chambre d’hôte made of cardboard (A l’Îlot Carton), presided over by an ex-policeman from Paris.
But then Belle-Île isn’t trying to be en pointe. It hasn’t been fashionable since the late 19th century, when it was France’s Martha’s Vineyard. In 1886, Monet spent three months living in the village of Kervilahouen, during which time he painted nearly 40 canvases – the red-shuttered house he took for his sojourn is still available to rent, from £64 a night. Flaubert came, too, and Matisse, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt, who spent her last 30 summers on the island in an 1859 fort on the dramatic Pointe des Poulains cape, which is now a museum.
Bernhardt lived out her final days in Belle-Île with just one leg and was carried about in a sedan chair. But then, like the abandoned hire car under the pines, Bernhardt’s means of transport fitted with the enduring spirit of Belle-Île. It is a place where the going is slow.
Le Café de la Cale (+33 2 97 31 65 74)
Crêperie Les Embruns (+33 2 97 31 64 78)
Restaurant Le Goeland (+33 2 97318126)
Jardin La Boulaye can be visited on a private tour with the owner, Véronique de Laboulaye (email@example.com). An appointment also needs to be made to see Michel Damblant’s garden, Eden du Voyageur, (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Belle-Île Surf Club (belleilesurfclub.fr; +33 6 77 12 37 80).
Monet’s House and Ker Lulu, as well as other house rentals, can be found through the island’s tourism office, belle-ile.com. The loft at Liber & Co (liberandco.com; from €110 a night). Hôtel le Grand Large (hotelgrandlarge.com;
+33 2 97 31 80 92; doubles from €78). A l’Îlot Carton (alilotcarton.fr; B&B from €90 based on two sharing).