From the thinking person’s Riviera to an overlooked Atlantic island, there are plenty of hidden options in France for discerning British sun worshipers. Here are 10 of the best, chosen by our experts.
1. Menton, Provence
Menton is the Côte d’Azur of the thinking person. As required, it has the zest of a lazy sun, two expansive sand and pebble beaches, unmistakable light, and the Alps falling straight into the sea, but without the airheaded assumptions of more turbulent spots further west. Wintery British nobles set the standard long ago, establishing gardens, good manners and Belle-Epoque elegance. These flourish on Mediterranean roots. The labyrinthine old Latin town climbs steeply up the hill around the baroque churches. Italy is at the end of the prom. So we have the best of all worlds, and the art at the Jean Cocteau Museum, in case sand, sun and sea aren’t an aesthetic challenge.
Hôtel Napoléon is an English-owned boutique hotel by Menton beach that dazzles guests with excellent service and crisp white-and-blue rooms. Fly to Nice.
2. Gruissan, Languedoc
South of Narbonne, on the flat and neglected coastline of the Languedoc, the rocks of the Clape massif suddenly sprout. This is a very welcome development. Hidden beneath the massif is the small town of Gruissan, which has a proper old center, spiraling out of its castle. Beyond, the most modern coastal requirements (bars, boats, inflatable dolphins) give way to a tangle of lagoons, mudflats and exceptional beaches. Nearby are other more remote arenas at Serignan and Portiragnes, plus great walks and wine among the ridges and smoky pines of the Clape Hills.
The best wine of all comes from Château Le Bouis. Here, just back from Gruissan, is a 300-year-old winery overlooking vineyards and the sea, where… isn’t life well planned? – You can also stay in what was the manor house of the winemaker. The old stones also house a restaurant. Fly to Perpignan.
3. Cavalaire-sur-Mer, Provence
Cavalaire-sur-Mer is as close to St Tropez as anyone needs to be, but terribly different. The place has the same sea, sun and carefree but without top-notch exclusivities or prices that defy billionaires. Here families are at the forefront, with a safe main beach with no end in sight, and every maritime activity known to man except buccaneers. Diving is particularly rewarding. A little further on there are coves, more discreet beaches and a spectacular coastal walk to Cap Lardier, underlining that the Riviera can still be wild and elemental. Directly behind, the Maures Mountains whisk you away from the sea to harder times in a hairpin turn.
The Hotel du Parc is outside the center but close to the beach (go to the second or third floor for the best sea views), while Le Clos des Sept Palmiers is a colonial-looking chambres-d’hôtes a few steps inches from the beach at Bonporteau Creek. The best bet for the family may be a campsite, and the best is Camping de la Baie. Run by the same family for 60 years, it’s unusually smack bang in the center of town (although you’d never guess once you’re there). Fly to Toulon.
4. Conche des Baleines, Ile de Ré
This posh little island off the west coast of France is a popular getaway for wealthy French families who have avoided the glitter of St Tropez for the vast beaches of Re, bathed in the luminous light of the Atlantic. It’s a great place for teenage kids looking for a bit of independence, as they can ride their bikes safely on the miles of car-free bike paths. For the most memorable beaches, head to the far west: to the Conche des Baleines, a great crescent of golden sand, and the lesser-known but more protected Trousse-Chemise. Both are bordered by pine forests that are ideal places for a picnic. Miles of dune-lined beaches offering good bodyboard runs along the south coast: Le Bois-Plage en Re is particularly popular.
Stay at the Hotel de Toiras, a meticulously renovated 17th-century shipowners’ residence in St Martin de Re, the island’s bustling and attractive main town. Guests can use the swimming pool at the sister hotel Villa Clarisse, just down the road, which is more suitable for families. Otherwise, the Hotel L’Ocean is in a great location, just off the main square of Le Bois Plage, with its spectacular beach and excellent market. A path leads through the small garden of olive, fig and palm trees to the pool, around which the larger and newer rooms are located. Fly to La Rochelle.
5. Urville-Nacqueville, Normandy
A short drive or bike ride from Cherbourg will quickly take you to idyllic coastal countryside and wide expanses of fine sand.
Just west of Urville-Nacqueville, 10km west of the ferry port and a popular bathing resort a century ago, the veteran Hôtel Landemer offers bright, modern rooms with polished oak floors overlooking the Canal, and you can dine outdoors on a covered terrace. Surfing, windsurfing, sailing and diving, as well as horse riding, can be enjoyed nearby, and the GR223 long-distance footpath runs past the hotel as it circles the Cotentin Peninsula. Take the ferry to Cherbourg.
6. Sainte-Marine, Brittany
Best accessed via a five-minute ferry ride across the Odet River from the better-known Bénodet, the small port of Sainte-Marine cradles a beautiful crescent of fine sand.
Perched amid manicured gardens above the jetty, the century-old Villa Tri Men surveys what has been called the most beautiful river in France. It is now a sumptuous hotel, with light and airy rooms, many with balconies, plus an excellent restaurant; there are also private cabins on the grounds. A ten-minute walk south, through sheltered coves tucked away on the riverbank, brings you to the mouth of the Odet, where a supremely unspoilt beach, the Plage du Teven, stretches west for four long kilometers. Take the ferry to St Malo or fly to Nantes.
7. Etretat, Normandy
Quirky little Étretat, the most picturesque spot on Normandy’s limestone north coast, sits between spectacularly eroded cliffs. With its gingerbread architecture and majestic waterfront, it oozes Belle-Époque charm; you almost expect to find horse-drawn bathing huts on its pebbly beach, though it does offer 21st-century activities like paddleboarding.
Choose between two contrasting hotels: At the Domaine Saint-Clair, an opulent Anglo-Norman castle, rooms named after Marcel Proust and Sarah Bernhardt are draped in luxurious curtains, while those at the cheaper, greener Detective Hotel are around town pay humorous homage to a variety of fictional investigators, from Hercule Poirot to Inspector Clouseau and even Charlie’s Angels. Take the ferry to Dieppe.
8. Tregastel, Brittany
Côte de Granit Rose is an irresistible playground for family holidays. Dotted with golden sandy beaches, interspersed with headlands of tangled woodland and heather, it is adorned with gleaming pink granite boulders, eroded into bizarre shapes and stacked in gravity-defying disorder. Tiny Trégastel is centered on one of its largest and prettiest beaches, beautifully illuminated each afternoon by the setting sun.
The seafront Hôtel Beau Séjour offers great-value rooms with cheerful seaside décor, including an excellent family suite with a large rooftop terrace, plus a fine restaurant and creperie. Best of all, the owners also have a bakery; Must be seen to be believed. Take the ferry to St Malo or Roscoff.
9. Gatseau Beach, Oleron Island
The Île d’Oléron is off the radar of most British tourists, despite the fact that much of France’s second-largest island’s coastline has undeveloped sandy beaches fringed with dunes and pine forests. Miles of beach stretch along the southwest coast, with acres of space for ball games at low tide and often good waves for body boarding. But Oléron’s prettiest beach is the more intimate Plage de Gatseau near St-Trojan-les-Bains: overlooking the channel between the island and the mainland, its soft sand is dotted with shells.
Camping Huttopia Oléron Les Pins is a charming, back-to-nature site nestled in a pine forest, a 10-minute bike ride (rentals available) from Plage de Gatseau. Fly to La Rochelle.
10. Argeles-sur-Mer, Languedoc
With around 50 campsites and a population of 9,000 inhabitants that has increased tenfold in the summer months, Argelès is a lively place for a seaside getaway. The beach is five miles long and wide enough to accommodate all the towels in Europe. Beauty is built in; we are at the exact point where the flat coast of Languedoc rises towards the dying sighs of the Pyrenees. So, if your teens can’t find happiness in the beach, ocean, and beach clubs, you can send them to the mountains for hiking, biking, or horseback riding.
The town is as lively and cheeky as a summer resort should be, and it’s surrounded by dozens of campsites. These include five-star La Sirène, less of a traditional campsite, leafier suburbs dotted with chalets, facilities, the biggest and most interesting water park I’ve ever seen, bars, restaurants, surprisingly good nightly entertainment, and a happy sense. of well-organized Christmas fun. Fly to Perpignan.