Tom Richmond enjoys a relaxing break in Brittany – and finds much in common with Yorkshire.
IT was a “working” lunch that I will never forget – French-style.
We’ve been at sea for an hour aboard the An Durzunel, a traditional open fishing boat to enjoy the spectacular views off the Brittany coast from the inlet town of Cancale.
It’s been relatively plain sailing – considering how a French skipper Jerome had been teamed up with an English-speaking crew, and on the very same day when the footballers from the two countries would clash in 2012.
We built up a leisurely rate of knots once we’d got to grips with the three sails and rigging as the breathtaking Pointe du Grouin came into view on the horizon.
And then two unmistakable sounds that I’ll never forget – the dropping of the boat’s anchor into the English Channel moments before the first bottle of Muscadet was opened, to be washed down with some oysters that had only been caught at dawn.
It’s amazing how the French improvise when it comes to their cuisine and particularly at lunchtime – our skipper had come with an array of spices, bread and coffee that were wonderfully laid out on one of the benches. This special day was then eclipsed by an exhilarating afternoon sail back to Cancale and an unexpected chance to take the helm (with, I’m pleased to report, another glass of chilled Muscadet in hand).
Never, in my wildest dreams, did I imagine that I’d be sailing in the sun – while reports reached the boat of more floods back in Britain. Or that we’d witness young French schoolchildren enjoying a yachting lesson as part of their school curriciulum. Imagine what Health and Safety would say back here. As the sun glistened on still waters of the English Channel, two thoughts came to mind – the heroism of all those who crossed these seas at times of war when the weather was far less kind, and just why I had I never previously considered Brittany as a holiday destination.
To many, Brittany – and its 1,700 miles of idyllic coastline and hidden coves – is regarded as the French equivalent of Cornwall.
I disagree. Apart from the relatively flat terrain, there was a certain Yorkshire charm about France’s north-western peninsula – the warm welcome, the local delicacies and the Breton spirit illustrated by the black and white striped flag. It’s certainly quicker to travel to Brittany from this region than it is to drive to England’s South West; the one-hour Ryanair flight from Leeds Bradford Airport afforded stunning views of the walled city of St Malo as it came in to land at Dinard, a quaint town on the mouth of the river Rance and comparable, in many respects, to the gentle charm of Scarborough.
There’s another significant advantage too – the roads are much quieter too and, yes, the satnav on the French hire car used miles rather than kilometres.
Our trip was magnificently organised by Brittany Tourism which is looking to promote the region as the family destination for family holidays – whether it be coastline walks, tours of preserved medieval towns like Dinan or the very best of French cuisine.
First, it took us west to Le Prest, home to a family-run cider farm now passed to its fourth generation – Cidrerie Benoît et Bouvier. Time the visit right and you can see a working farm in action as apples from the orchard are turned into many different ciders – the Cidre du Prest Doux was a personal favourite – while adjacent buildings is used to milk a dairy herd.
The farm experience, the peacefulness of the land and the gentle chit chat over a glass of cider and some salted butter caramel, another local speciality, just showed how oppressive the health and safety culture has become back here. One could only admire the common sense approach of the French.
The contrast could not be greater, however, with the Spa Marin Thalasso Resort hotel on the nearby coast at Pléneuf-Val-André. It’s pure four-star luxury, an ultra-modern health spa that is the perfect location for professionals, or the retired, to recharge their batteries – or, as David Cameron puts it, to chillax.
Few days are any better when they begin with a soothing massage as fresh ocean water gently falls onto your back before you move slowly into a pool that has built-in reclining chairs so you can even read while the rush from a Jacuzzi jet keeps the muscles relaxed. As a keen swimmer, it was also an experience to swim in a pool that enables you to feel the sensation of competing against the strength of the tide as you try to complete a length.
Pléneuf-Val-André is also blessed with enchanting sea views, although the Emerland Coast’s finest views are to the east on the windswept Cap Fréhel peninsula.
This is where the coastline surpasses the East Coast – the elegant charm of a historic lighthouse at the heart of a must-see destination that offers the best of the French outdoors. Stunning scenery, bracing walks, steep rock faces and, on a clear day, the Channel Islands on the horizon.
It was the perfect place to find peace, solitude and pose for photos with friends, the gentle warmth of the wind another reminder that the best of Brittany is little more than an hour away.
Don’t worry if you choose, instead, to travel eastwards after landing at Dinard – the Pointe du Grouin, overlooking Cancale, offers comparable views. And, for the energetic looking to leave the car at home or who are perhaps inspired by the Tour de France, it is within cycling distance of the ferry terminal at St Malo.
Yet no trip to Brittany would be complete without visits to Dinan and St Malo.
The former, slightly inland, is famous for cobbled streets, imposing ramparts and the view from the old town to the harbour several hundred feet below. It’s also the perfect place to enjoy mouth-watering crepes.
Even more impressive is St Malo, charmingly rebuilt after the Second World War with water on all sides, islands off the coast that can be accessible at low tides and a rich history illustrated by St Vincent’s Cathedral.
This is a city proud of its links with Canada, but one that is also pet-friendly – the Hotel France et Chateaubriand, virtually on the sea wall, appeared to make dogs as welcome as their owners.
I’ve always enjoyed holidays to some of Europe’s great historic cities. But Brittany also allowed this to be combined with the great outdoors – exquisite food and drink with activities for all – and little more than an hour from Yorkshire. I can’t wait to go back to further hone my sailing and linguistic skills. Oh, and to enjoy another glass or two out at sea. Bravo Brittany.
Tom Richmond travelled to France courtesy of Ryanair and one of its seasonal flights to Dinard from Leeds Bradford Airport.
The trip was organised by Brittany Tourism which organises a series of leisure-themed activities that can be tailor-made to your needs.
Further details about the Brittany Experiences, including the chance to sail, can be found at the website www.brittanytourism.com
Details of the Spa Marin Thalasso can be found at www.thalasso-resort-bretagne.com.
If you’re looking to stay in St Malo, log on at www.hotel-fr-chateaubriand.com