France, for many, begins and ends with the museums and monuments of Paris. More adventurous travelers may lay on a beach in the south along the Mediterranean, or even find a retreat in the countryside that looks like it was plucked from the pages of a magazine. But for the French, weekend getaways and summer vacations are had on quiet and breathtaking islands like Corsica and Ile de Re. Many of these offshore destinations can be easily done in a day, but French locals will spend weeks unplugged here. Below, check out our list of the most stunning French islands to visit, then start planning your getaway.
About 90 minutes from Paris by plane and halfway between France and Italy, Corsica is still a bit of a mystery to many European travelers. Napoleon was born there, yet there’s plenty more to the lineage of this island. Once ruled by the Republic of Genoa, Corsica later became an independent country and was then given to Louis XV as a way to pay off debts. Today, the population’s culture is a hodgepodge of its neighboring countries. History buffs will also find much to uncover in its narrow byways and ancient structures such as the Genoese towers (built as fortifications in the 16th century by Genoese rulers) and Maison Bonaparte (Napoleon’s family home). With more than 200 beaches and summer highs in the 80s, Corsica offers sunbathers a perfect setting to toast in. For more active travelers, the ABC Roberto Canyon has rappelling and climbing.
Corsica Hotel Pick:
Ile de Noirmoutier
Only a half-mile off of Vendee, Ile de Noirmoutier is much more accessible than most French islands. A three-mile cobblestone causeway enables vacationers to walk to Noirmoutier, but only when high tide recedes to allow passage. A bridge built in 1971 makes it possible to drive to the island, which has been inhabited since at least Roman times. Tourists come to walk on the pristine beaches, explore the hidden coves, and stroll through the narrow paths in villages that date back hundreds of years. The island also has a list of historic landmarks, including the 12th-century Chateau de Noirmoutier and the 18th-century L’Hotel Jacobsen, the largest building on the island. More modern adventures can be found at the Oceanile water park and the local discos. Plus, there’s L’Ile aux Papillons (the largest glass house for butterflies in France), Maison de l’Ane donkey farm, and handpicked La Bonnotte potatoes, the most expensive potatoes in the world (up to $400 a pound).
Ile de Brehat
The rustic beauty of Ile de Brehat inspired at least one great artist, Marc Chagall, to paint its countryside. In his 1920s work “La fenêtre sur l’île de Bréhat,” Chagall translates the wavy green pastures and humble chapels he saw from his vacation room window into cloudy, beautiful brushstrokes. Located about a mile off the northern coast of Brittany, Ile de Brehat is primarily two islands that are only separated at high tide, though there are many smaller ones that technically make the destination an archipelago. Thanks to its location near a warm gulf stream, Ile de Brehat has a temperate microclimate and plenty of Mediterranean vegetation. Hydrangeas and eucalyptuses as well as fig trees and mimosas dot the island. Cars aren’t allowed on the island, so it’s best to take in the “island of flowers” by walking on one of its numerous coastal paths that wind by its famous pink granite.
Ile de Batz
Located in Brittany, Ile de Batz is also car-free and has a mild climate influenced by its gulf stream. Families come to play and tan on the shimmering white beaches here. Because the island has relatively little development, it exudes a small-town vibe and is safe for vacationers, who can get to most places by biking or walking. Sleeping options include a hotel as well as a campsite. Fans of flora will want to stop by the Jardin Georges Delaselle, created by an insurance salesman in the early 20th century. The collection of 2,000 plants deteriorated over several decades before new investments were made in the 1990s. Currently, two-thirds of the plant collection is from the Southern Hemisphere, including palms, cacti, and succulents from Chile, South Africa and Australia. For those who dream of strolling through a French market, picking fresh vegetables, Ile de Batz’s 30 or so farms offer a cornucopia of local choices.
Ile d’Ouessant (Ushant)
The westernmost point in Brittany, Ile d’Ouessant (also known as Ushant in English) is in the Celtic Sea and almost touches the English Channel. Several navy battles between Britain and France have been fought near Ouessant, which is about six square miles. Stories by C.S. Forester, Bernhard Kellermann, and Patrick O’Brian reference the island, which has an organization that hands out literary prizes each year. Panoramic views of the sea are a regular sight from this western vantage point and Ouessant’s lighthouses enable greater visibility over the rippling blue water. For animal lovers, the rare Ouessant sheep is a short-haired breed that was once found throughout Europe during Roman times, but now survives in just a few places. In October, the island’s windy coastline is an excellent perch to view bird migration. Accessible by both sea and land (it has a small airstrip), Ile d’Ouessant is a great locale for a quiet, contemplative respite. But don’t pop up unannounced expecting to find accommodations. Hotel rooms are limited, so be sure to book in advance.
Once home to an influential artists’ colony, Belle-Ile-en-Mer has inspired numerous artists and writers. Claude Monet painted a series of works that celebrated the island’s blue-gray sea stacks and dark aqua waters. Charles Baudelaire described the craggy rock formations as a “portal open to infinity.” Unlike the tony beaches in the south of France, Belle-Ile-en-Mer caters to a crowd who likes to spend their vacation days biking and picnicking along the sharp cliffs and smooth beaches. The temperate climate (the average high is about 70 degrees Fahrenheit) and relatively small amount of rainfall make for excellent vacation weather. Plus, Belle-Ile-en-Mer’s strategic location off the coast of Brittany has also made for an interesting history. After the Seven Years’ War, the island was held by the British between 1761 and 1763 before being returned to France in a treaty. The island’s popularity also means it has a decent amount of hotel offerings, including the Citadelle Vauban, a former 16th-century fortification that now houses 65 rooms and a restaurant.
Ile de Re is to Parisians what the Hamptons are to New Yorkers — a nearby sunny weekend getaway. The island’s winter population of 20,000 swells to 220,000 in the summer. Vacationers are lured by a warm climate and gentle breeze. Another great appeal of the island is that it’s geared toward cyclists, with over 60 miles of car-free bike paths. Explorers can go off the beaten path and amble through the island’s dunes, cornfields, marshes, and pine forests. The sparkling blue waters around the island help supply the numerous fish restaurants and day markets. They’re also perfect for water sports such as kayaking and paddle boarding.
Ile de Re Hotel Pick:
Visitors have been coming to Ile d’Yeu since at least the Neolithic period, when the island, which is off the western coast of Vendee, was still attached to the mainland. Engravings were left behind from that time period, as well as a fort that dates back to the Iron Age. Today, island hoppers come to see the granite cliffs, sandy coves, and bocage greenery. French painters such as Jean Rigaud, Maurice Boitel, and Jean Dufy were inspired by Ile d’Yeu’s fishing community and dramatic scenery. The Musee de la Peche displays some of the gear and tales of the island’s maritime history. The Vieux-chateau de l’Ile d’Yeu, a castle that dates back to at least the 16th century, was erected to defend the locals from pirates and other invaders. It remains an impressive structure to scout. The countryside’s numerous cottages remain picturesque for any painters who want to capture the landscape in oils.
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