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Everyone's heard of Cannes, Mont Saint-Michel, and Saint-Tropez, but few foreign tourists get off the beaten path to discover France's best seaside getaways.
A small fishing town on the Mediterranean coast just east of Marseille, Cassis is flanked by outstanding natural beauty. To the east rises the mighty Cap Canaille, one of the tallest seaside cliffs in Europe. To the west, breathtaking coves of turquoise blue water (known as the "calanques") hide between imposing limestone cliffs dotted with green umbrella pines. When you're done enjoying a cafe in Cassis' colourful port, you can visit the calanques by boat, or - better yet - on foot, giving you plenty of time to swim and relax in these havens of tranquility.
An island off the coast of Brittany in northwest France, Belle-Ile-en-Mer is actually comprised of four small towns: Le Palais, Sauzon, Bangor, and Locmaria. It would be impossible, however, to choose just one on this spectacular island (literally meaning "Beautiful Island in the Sea"). Dotted with gleefully painted pastel cottages, rolling pastures, and bicycle lanes shared with plenty of friendly wildlife, this idyllic getaway is really about the seaside. A hiking trail encircling the island allows you to see some of the most spectacular coastal scenery in France, with behemoth cliffs and rock formations interrupted by wide, sandy beaches that are too big to ever get crowded.
Located on the southern tip of Corsica, a stone's throw away from Sardinia, the village of Bonifacio enjoys one of the most unique and breathtaking locations in France. Perched high on a peninsula surrounded by steep cliffs, Bonifacio's old town seems to grow organically out of the white rock beset by bright blue Mediterranean waters. Bonifacio is worlds away from Paris and a great place to discover the hidden gems of France's least densely populated region.
In the early 20th century, the vibrant and diverse colours of Collioure were an inspiration to artists such as Picasso and Matisse. Located on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border, Collioure offers much of the charm and beauty of the nearby Riviera without the over-development or touristiness. After all, this sleepy town is perhaps more Catalan than French. Visitors can enjoy a siesta beneath palm trees on the beach or meander between brightly-painted artist studios in the town's narrow streets. Best of all, you can wake to a view of Collioure's port from your hotel room without breaking the bank.
Hyeres (pronounced ee-AIR) is an attractive town located along an often overlooked stretch of the Riviera, just east of Toulon. The historic centre, situated on a prominent hill, is a maze of Medieval streets that ultimately lead visitors to hidden castle ruins or labyrinthal Mediterranean gardens. Outside the old city gates, colourful markets fill the town squares and Belle Epoque villas grace the palm-lined boulevards. But the town centre of Hyeres is actually set back a few miles from the coast, so to really appreciate this seaside resort you must head down to the spectacular peninsula of Giens. Shaped like an upside-down "T," Giens is connected to the mainland by a spit of sand and salt marshes that is extremely popular with windsurfers. The rugged southern part of the peninsula is best experienced along its hiking trails, which afford access to breathtaking inlets of green-blue water along the rocky coast.
From Giens, boats carry travelers to the three "Iles d'Hyeres" (Islands of Hyeres): Porquerolles, Port Cros, and the Ile du Levant. Almost entirely devoid of motor vehicles, these wonderfully pristine, green islands can be explored by bike or on foot. While Porquerolles is known for its numerous immaculate beaches, Port Cros (a national park) is renowned for its underwater sea life and snorkeling. The more distant Ile du Levant is a nudist retreat. For budget travelers coming from the UK, Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Toulon-Hyeres airport three times a week.
Officially classified as one of the most beautiful villages in France, the hamlet of Piana (population 444) on Corsica's wild western coast enjoys one of the most awe-inspiring settings in the country (and perhaps even the continent). The green vegetation of this largely undeveloped area is juxtaposed against the red granite of the mountains that tumble into the blue sea. Piana is authentically Coriscan and less touristy than those towns on the island with safe ports for cruise ships; the coastline here is marked by steep, narrow coves ("calanques") and much of the land is protected from development. From nearby Porto, visitors can board small tour boats to visit the Scandola Nature Reserve, known for its remarkable marine biodiversity.
Bormes-les-Mimosas derives its name from the mimosa, a flowering tree that colours the town yellow during late January and early February. As an award-winning "ville fleurie" (or "city in bloom"), Bormes has a wonderful amount of greenery. The dwellings of the Medieval old town are stacked on a hillside overlooking the Mediterranean, and the alleyways between them are replete with shady vegetation and bright flowers growing on stone walls. As a quiet and upscale seaside getaway, Bormes is the ideal location for the Fort de Bregancon, the French President's official summer residence.
With expansive Mediterranean pine forests interrupted only by a couple of chateaux and their surrounding vineyards, the coastline in Bormes-les-Mimosas is one of the least developed and most pristine along the French Riviera. The legendary Estagnol Beach is famed for its tall umbrella pines, soft white sands, and crystal-clear waters that evoke the Caribbean. While it may be a madhouse during the summer months, swimmers and sunbathers who come in the spring or fall can enjoy this mesmerizing place in peace and quiet.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz is located on France's Atlantic coast, at the foot of the Pyrenees and adjacent to the border with Spain. Often overshadowed by the larger, more chic resort town of Biarritz nearby, Saint-Jean-de-Luz compensates with a tremendous amount of character and authenticity. The town is comprised almost entirely of traditional Basque architecture. The Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church, with its dark wood balconies and ornate altarpiece, was the site of Louis XIV's wedding with Maria Theresa of Spain. The town also offers a long sandy beach and great waves for surfing.
Tourists departing Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy can easily cross the border into Brittany and visit Saint-Malo, one of the most unique and interesting coastal towns in France. Once a fortified island, Saint-Malo is now partially connected to the mainland but is still surrounded by its imposing Medieval walls. From a distance, the monolithic granite architecture and church steeples rising over the sea are a sight to behold. Although much of the city was reconstructed after bombing damage during World War II and the town's economy seems primarily geared towards tourism, what Saint-Malo lacks in authenticity it makes up for with its excellent location. Saint-Malo is an ideal base for exploring Brittany's Emerald Coast and charming frozen-in-time Breton towns like nearby Dinan.
While all the hubbub is about the Riviera, many French insist that the best coast in France is the southwestern coast, where the vast Landes pine forest meets the Atlantic Ocean. Arcachon is the gateway to this region, only a short drive or train ride from Bordeaux. The Landes is the largest maritime pine forest in Europe, and since these trees are about the only thing that grows in the sandy soil here, little land has ever been cleared for agriculture or widespread development. The area around Arcachon is a place of flip-flops and wooden bungalows built in the Basque style beneath the shady pines. Emerging from the forest, one discovers the widest and longest stretches of sandy beach in France (and the best waves for surfers). A highlight of the region is the 350 ft. Great Dune of Pyla, the tallest sand dune in Europe.
About halfway between St-Tropez and Cannes, the relatively unknown St-Raphael has a lot to offer in its own right. This small city has all the trappings of a typical Riviera resort, while the adjacent city of Frejus offers historical value with its numerous Roman ruins (it was established by Julius Caesar). Hikers can explore the vast eastern stretches of Saint-Raphael that lie within the Esterel Massif, the largest part of the Cote d'Azur that is completely protected from development. Here, forest trails lead to the summits of mountains formed from volcanic rhyolite rock. The red mountains and blue sea make for a truly beautiful sight.
Pronounced EZZ, Eze is a small Medieval village perched dramatically high on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean. Visitors approaching Eze from Nice or Monaco along the winding coastal mountain roads are awarded with amazing views. The best views, however, are from the castle ruins at the top of Eze's exotic gardens, which are well worth the entrance fee. The maze-like passageways of the ancient village meander between dwellings that look like they were carved right out of the mountaintop, and almost seem more appropriate for hobbits than humans. Although its atmosphere is decidedly tourist-oriented, travelers looking for something a little different can descend a steep trail from the village to the beach at Eze-sur-Mer, where the waves crashing against the pebbles can lull anyone into an afternoon nap.
Tourists who travel beyond Saint-Malo to Finistere, the westernmost department of Brittany, discover the real Brittany; a place where Breton culture and traditions are alive and well. Camaret-sur-Mer is a typical Breton village on the western tip of the Crozon Peninsula, located within a natural park region. It is home to one of Brittany's neolithic stone formations (almost like a miniature Stonehenge that you can actually touch) in addition to the 17th century Tour Doree ("Golden Tower"), a fort built by the legendary French military engineer Vauban. The biggest draw of Camaret-sur-Mer is the Pointe de Pen-Hir, easily the most incredible coastline in all of Brittany. Those with a fear of heights should avoid the epic cliffs that fall 230 feet into the Atlantic. As an alternative, tourists can visit the adjacent beaches whose clear blue waters might make you think you're actually on the Riviera.
Anyone approaching Calvi from the sea can't fail to see why Corsica is the most mountainous island in the Mediterranean; the island's daunting peaks, often covered with snow, tower over this small coastal town. If you're not up to tackling France's most legendary hiking trails, simply hike up to the summit of Calvi's impressive citadel. With an economy primarily based on summer tourism, off-season visitors will discover that sense of tranquility and laid-back life that makes Corsica such a special place.
La Rochelle, found in the Poitou-Charentes region along France's west coast, enjoys one of the sunniest climates in France outside of the Mediterranean coast, particularly in spring and summer. But while sunshine and sandy beaches may be a selling point, the real draw here is the incredible history. During the Middle Ages, La Rochelle changed hands numerous times between the French and the English as they warred over its strategic location. Later on, the city became a haven for French Protestants during the Wars of Religion, leading to numerous bloody conflicts with the Catholic monarchy.
This sense of history is imbued into every stone in La Rochelle, including the three Medieval towers that guard the old port from the open Atlantic. One of these towers, the Gothic lighthouse known as the "Tower of the Lantern," was later used as a prison and still displays chilling 300-year-old graffiti written by the prisoners themselves. Venturing beyond these tourist attractions to the unique white stone architecture of the city centre and its arcades, one discovers a city that is surprisingly youthful and vibrant.
The white limestone cliffs of Etretat echo those of Dover on the other side of the English Channel, and, in fact, they share the same geological origins. The fascinating natural formations along the coast here, like the famous "Elephant Cliff" once painted by Monet, attract visitors from far and wide. A hiking trail follows the edge of the cliffs, which reach up to 275 feet in height. After a bit of walking, relax at a cafe in town, with its typical Norman brick architecture.
This extremely unique location on the northern coast of Brittany is part seaside resort, part natural wonderland. Situated along the so-called Pink Granite Coast, Perros-Guirec includes some of the most interesting rock formations in the country. A coastal walking trail allows tourists to marvel at the massively-sized pink boulders from the Ploumanac'h Lighthouse. More adventurous travelers, however, can ramble over the rocks for hours of entertainment. This is truly the best way to appreciate the amazing shapes created by the forces of nature.
Despite its nickname as the "Pearl of France," Menton has, for most of its history, belonged to rulers from Italy or Monaco. This city on the Italian border combines the colour and flair of the Italian Riviera with the cleanliness and sophistication of the French Riviera. The tall pastel buildings of the old town clump together around the Baroque basilica of Saint-Michel-Archange, which towers over the yacht-filled port and chic seaside restaurants. Arguably the biggest attraction in Menton is its numerous gardens, replete with colours and scents from the Mediterranean and more exotic locales.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer has a small population but one of the largest land areas of any town in France. Its territory occupies much of the Camargue Natural Park, one of the most unique landscapes in the country. The Camargue is a vast area of wetlands around the delta of the Rhone River, famous as a habitat for flamingos and wild white Camargue horses. Saintes-Maries lies deep within this protected wilderness, wedged between salt marshes and the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to its beaches and bike trails allowing visitors to explore the Camargue, Saintes-Maries is also known as an artistic retreat, visited by Picasso and Hemingway, among others. The town is a good base for exploring nearby historic sites like Arles and Aigues-Mortes.
At the mouth of the Seine River along the English Channel, Honfleur's beautiful port has been an inspiration to many, including the early Impressionist painters. Tall, narrow buildings reminiscent of Flanders line the port, and their slate-covered facades reflect gentle hues in the water. The town's Sainte-Catherine church is the largest wooden church in France. A short drive from Paris, Honfleur is a must-do for anyone visiting Normandy.