Winning tip: As seen from a train window, Côte d’Azur
We spotted the beach at Èze-sur-Mer on the train back to Nice after a hot sweaty day trip to Monaco – we couldn’t resist jumping off the train and heading down for a dip in the clear water we saw. A long wide bay, framed by mountains felt a million miles away from the crowded beaches in Nice – and as an added bonus for anyone who has almost broken their ankles on the rocks at Nice, this beach is of small smooth pebbles. A small slice of paradise on the busiest section of the Côte d’Azur.
Pining for the Vendee
The island of Noirmoutier, off the Vendée coast, is a cyclist’s and beach-lover’s paradise. The Noirmoutier Bridge is toll-free, spectacular and has a bike lane. Time your journey right and you can also cross via the beautiful Passage du Gois causeway. Once on the island there is a variety of beaches to choose from. Our favorite is the seven-kilometre-long Barbȃtre beach. It has a long stretch of fine golden sand, backed by pine forests, and you can find solitude and relaxation, or take part in activities including sand-yachting and windsurfing. The nearby nature reserve, Sébastopol Polder, offers great birdwatching.
Hive of activities, Nouvelle-Aquitaine
With a modest hipster, surfer presence but retaining the quaint qualities of the French coast, Contis-Plage, in the Landes department about 110km south of Bordeaux, is simply a great beach. With a large but rather upmarket camping, a relatively swanky hotel and lots of rentals, Contis caters to all. As well as surf and two superb beaches (the main one and the slightly more remote Contis Sud) it offers a calm river for paddleboarding and a pine forest to cycle in..
Plonk yourself in a calanque, near Marseille
Tucked away in the sheltered bays between Marseille and Cassis are Les Calanques (defined as narrow steep sided coves) and my favorite beach: Calanque d’en Vau. The hour hike from Cassis along cliff tops on pine-perfumed paths offers a heavenly reward – a descent down steps cut into limestone cliffs to a celestial cove of pebbles and sand and clear turquoise waters. It’s like being enticed through the gates of heaven. Take plenty of water and a good book and sink into the sand for the rest of the day, enjoying the views of the jagged cliffs, the lush vegetation and the air.
Untamed and glittering, Provence
East of Toulon is Île de Porquerolles, largest of the Îles d’Hyères. A remote stretch of sand separates the untamed trees from the glittering sea – Plage Notre-Dame. Stepping off the €24 ferry from Hyères the only way to reach the beach is on foot or by bicycle; there are no cars allowed on the island. This makes for a peaceful journey through a pine forest, easily traversed in trainers or flip-flops. As you approach the beach from the cliffs above there is a breathtaking view of the unspoiled sand. It’s also a very safe beach – shallow water caused by a sandbank means you can walk out to sea for about 300 meters.
Fauvism and sand, Côte Vermeille
Imagine St Ives but on the stunning Côte de Vermeille, on the Med near the border with Spain. Galleries, cafes and restaurants line car-free shady alleys. Collioure wraps itself around the perfect arc of the bay and brightly colored houses hang on hillssides. You can wander in the footsteps of Matisse and Derain, who invented fauvism here. Take a coffee in one of the portside cafes and then feel the warm sand between your toes and paddle on one of the four beaches. But if the bustle is too much, my secret tip is a 30-minute hike north-east over the cliffs to sand-and-pebble Plage de l’Ouille. No roads come to this enchanted spot.
Oysters and cider, Carantec, west Brittany
There are countless fabulous near-deserted beaches all over Brittany but our family’s favorite is the beautiful Plage du Kelenn in Carantec. It has everything youngsters could possibly need. Golden sand but with a scattering of rock pools, a bit of surf but not too rough and a cracking diving board. For the grownups I can heartily recommend the oysters and Breton cider at the friendly Paradiso Plage restaurant.
Beach of my dreams, Dinard, east Brittany
I found the idyllic beach of my dreams at Prieuré, just south of Dinard on the Côte d’Émeraude. It’s easy to get to: just catch a ferry to Saint-Malo from Portsmouth then cross the Rance estuary by ferry in 20 minutes, or drive round (also 20 minutes). Plage du Prieuré is a super sandy crescent with a gently sloping shore, a flowery promenade, rock pools to the west, foodie delights to the east, and even beachcombing treasures.
Hulot’s harbour, south Brittany
When the great French film director Jacques Tati was looking for the perfect beach setting for the adventures of his endearing clown, Monsieur Hulot, he was thrilled to find Saint-Marc-sur-Mer. On Brittany’s Atlantic Coast and easy to get to from Nantes, the beach itself is the star. Not a lot has changed since 1951. We stayed in the hotel that served as the film’s backdrop, walked along the accessible clifftops to adjacent beaches suitable for solo travellers, families and even nudists, and paused for selfies with the lifesize statue of Hulot, still casting a quizzical eye over this magical spot.
Family affair, Normandy
A family favorite beach in Normandy is Plage de Carolles, in the bay of Mont Saint-Michel near Granville (which provides an excellent back-up in wet weather). With excellent sandy stretches and rock pools overlooked by cliffs and the occasional hang glider, we’ve spent many happy days on holiday here searching for cockles, mussels and other shellfish before eating moules-frites at its cafes or picnicking with fresh baguettes and salad before driving back to a cottage in the beautiful Normandy countryside, sun-baked and sandy.