We’re sitting on an empty beach, a wide sweep of white sand overlooking the emerald sea, and we can’t quite believe we have it all to ourselves. Had we flown to far-flung shores and taken a boat to a remote island, it would be understandable, but all we’ve done is disembark from the ferry at Saint-Malo and driven west for an hour.
“Where is everybody?” wonders my husband, digging his toes into fine sand.
“Looking for ice-cream, I expect,” I reply quietly, so as not to draw the kids’ attention to the fact that here at Saint-Cast-le-Guildo, there isn’t a kiosk, souvenir shop or arcade to be seen on the sleepy seafront – just a line of elegant grey stone villas with a sensational view. Our two children don’t seem to have noticed, thankfully; we’ve got a kite, buckets and spades, a picnic and our very own beach.
This is Brittany’s Emerald Coast – so close to the UK, yet it feels a world away. Its chic belle époque resorts provide a sophisticated seaside vibe, while further west the sweeping beaches and heather-strewn headlands offer a place to get closer to nature and admire the green water that gives this stretch of coastline its name. At Mont Saint-Michel, 50 miles to the east, the famously strong tides mean the sea retreats for huge distances and the same is true here. The spot in which I’d paddled hours earlier is now just ripples of sand dotted with cockle shells, while the sea is fast disappearing towards the horizon.
Taking this as our cue to explore, we wend our way up through timber-framed and turreted villas to Pointe de la Garde, the headland that juts out at the southern end of the beach. As we teeter along the narrow paths to a rocky outcrop, a superb panorama spreads out before us: to the northwest, a bird’s eye view of our beach, the vast white sand below us in a soft haze; on the other side, mussel beds, their black poles standing neatly to attention, and more headlands jutting out into the sea – it’s hard to tell if they’re islands or mainland. Beyond are the elegant resorts of Saint-Briac-sur-Mer and Saint-Lunaire.
The next day, we head northwest to Fort la Latte, a mighty medieval castle that clings to the cliffs of Cap Fréhel. The walk there via a winding sandy path is busy with tourists (so this is where they all are) but the sight of the 700-year-old castle is worth sharing. After a few centuries and some starring roles in various wars, the fort fell into disrepair and in the 1930s was bought by the Joüon des Longrais family, whose descendants still own it and live here seven months of the year (retreating to Rennes when the wild winter winds get too much). With its drawbridge, turreted tower and portcullis, it’s the children’s perfect specimen. We duck into the dark tower, then climb the precarious narrow steps up on to its roof. Castle locations don’t come any better, especially if your enemy is English.
On the way back to our hotel near Sables-d’Or-les-Pins, we spot an alluring cove among the pine trees and pull in where a sign points to Plage de l’Anse du Croc. The lowering tide is beginning to reveal tiny islets and rock pools at the far end of the beach, and we walk along the wide curve of red sand for a closer look to discover the rocks are covered in mussels. A retired couple in wellies and peaked caps are diligently cutting them from the rocks – pêche à pied, fishing on foot.
At the other end of the beach, the rock pools are even more fascinating; as the children hop between them looking for stranded fish, I gaze at the rainbow of colours. Grey boulders are festooned with bright green seaweed toupees, blue-black mussels gather in clusters and daubs of yellow lichen look like paint. Pink-white scallop shells are everywhere, bringing further adornment to an already beautiful place.
A local sees us admiring them and tells us the scallops are grown along the coast at Erquy: “They’re very tightly monitored to ensure they’re sustainable.” I ask how, in that case, the shells got here. “People bring them here to eat with picnics, and throw the shells into the rocks.”
While I ponder whether this constitutes litter, he says: “Lovely day, isn’t it? The view is magnifique when it’s not so hazy. On a clear day I can see Guernsey from my house, le paradis fiscal!” He rolls his eyes. “Have fun!”
Three days in and we’re yet to have ice-cream, so we head east to explore the resorts and beaches closer to Dinard and find the large Plage du Longchamp just outside Saint-Lunaire is buzzing. The trendy Le Surf de Joséphine beachside cafe is full so we tuck into lunch at nearby Alizé, serving not only ice-cream but traditional Breton cider, ham baguettes and frites. To walk it all off, we wander out to the headland at Pointe de la Garde Guérin, through bluebells and bright yellow broom flowers. To the west, the low tide has revealed more dark rocks and islets lining up dramatically against the grey-green sea – the view is so breathtaking we sit down to admire it from the grassy, gorse-backed banks of the path.
Later we explore the town of Saint-Lunaire, with its elegant art deco architecture and chic boutiques, and pause to watch sand yachts zip through puddles on the rippled beach. It’s Saturday afternoon and there’s a real holiday atmosphere – it’s great to be somewhere so cheerful after the quiet beaches on the Cap.
The same is true at Saint-Briac-sur-Mer, where we end our afternoon. The main street is buzzing to the soundtrack of an acoustic band playing an early evening set on a bar’s terrace, and we walk past restaurants and vintage bric-a-brac shops towards the Plage du Bechet. Tucked under the hilltop town, the crescent-shaped beach is backed by blue-doored beach huts and overlooks neat lines of small boats resting on the mudflats, while a sinuous creek meanders through the sand past the Chateau de Nessay, a turreted red-stone castle hotel, surrounded by pines on its own little promontory. The late-afternoon haze gives the low-tide coastline an even more ethereal atmosphere and I wish we had more time to wander across the sand to the other side of the bay.
The next morning, at high tide, we head for Saint-Malo to get a flavour of the Emerald Coast from the sea. Boarding the cutter Le Renard, captained by tanned Jean-Claude, we join French families to hoist the sails and cruise along the coast for the morning. The ship, a replica of the 1812 vessel owned by the privateer Robert Surcouf, takes us out in the bay where we can see Saint-Malo’s walled old town gleaming like a silver fortress in the sunshine. The wind is low so we can’t go far, but we pootle around the islets and Napoleonic forts in the bay, waving at fellow sailors on the traditional red-sailed Breton yachts and watching seabirds soar overhead.
On our final evening we walk out to the lighthouse at Cap Fréhel, which perches on the opposite corner of the peninsula to Fort La Latte. It’s past 7pm and the huge car park is almost empty, allowing us to stroll alone along the red stone path past the purple heather-clad rocks to the lighthouse alone. The angular art deco tower is impressive, but the old tower out on the headland has the better view from the cliffs that tower 70 metres above the water. A seabird colony squawks on the rocks below, and the sea is a flat as a crêpe.
As we walk back I gaze upwards at the deep blue sky criss-crossed with feathery plane trails, and wonder how many of those airline passengers are travelling to the other side of the world in search of a coastline with an appealing mix of attractive resorts and natural splendour. If only they knew there was somewhere so enchanting so close by.
• The trip was hosted by Brittany Tourism. The ferry crossing from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo was provided by Brittany Ferries, from £407 return for two adults and a car, including an en suite cabin on the outward overnight sailing. Accommodation was provided by Sawday’s: Hotel le Manoir Saint Michel has doubles from €85 a night and cottages for two from €90 a night, room-only; Hôtel Manoir de Rigourdaine, half an hour south of Saint-Malo, has doubles from €97 room-only. A half-day cruise on Le Renard costs from €37 adult, €22 child