Belle-Ile, the 'beautiful isle'
Brittany’s largest island is a magnet for tourists thanks to its temperate climate, magnificent coastline, 60 gorgeous beaches and renowned opera festival.
Belle-Île, 9 miles (15km) off the coast of the Gulf of Morbihan, is Brittany’s largest island. After a turbulent past, which included occupation by the British, the ‘beautiful isle’ is now a magnet for tourists thanks to its temperate climate, magnificent coastline, 60 gorgeous beaches and renowned opera festival.
Exchange is no robbery
The island’s main town is Le Palais, which is where you’ll arrive if you come by ferry from Quiberon, Vannes or La Turballe. The first thing you’ll notice is the star-shaped Citadelle Vauban, which was built by the famous military engineer in the 18th century. The fort now houses a luxury hotel-restaurant and a museum where you’ll find out about the island’s history; Belle-Île was occupied by British troops from 1761-63 before being handed back to France in exchange for Menorca.
Fishing port to pleasure port
In the northwest, the attractive fishing village of Sauzon is Belle-Île’s second largest town and where ferries arrive from Lorient; it was here that the island’s first fish canneries opened in 1843. While some fishing still continues (mainly lobsters and langoustines), Sauzon’s main function these days is as a marina for pleasure boats.
The northernmost tip of Belle-Île is the remote Pointe des Poulains, which has a small solar-powered lighthouse and great views over the continent but is best known for its fort. The structure was bought by the actress Sarah Bernhardt in 1894 and her living quarters now house a permanent exhibition on her life.
In the south west of the island is the Côte Sauvage (wild coast), which is very popular with walkers. Start in Bangor, known for its luxury thalassotherapy centre. The first site you’ll encounter is the ‘grand lighthouse’, which is often open to visitors in July and August giving spectacular views across the island and the Aiguilles de Port-Coton – pointy rocks that jut out of the sea. About a mile north of here is the attractive beach of Donnant.
Opera for all
During recent years, opera buffs have been heading to Belle-Ile in August for the Festival Lyrique en Mer, an internationally renowned festival featuring some of the world’s best emerging singers.
Did you know?
Many of Belle-Île’s residents are descended from the 78-French Canadian families who settled on the island in 1765.