Remote island getaways don't have to be hard to reach. Out in the untamed Atlantic just off Brittany's westernmost coast, visitors will find seafaring heritage, squawking birdlife, and an oasis of calm...
My fellow island-hoppers and I were all mesmerised, as if frozen in time. The bewitching sight in front of us, and the accompanying roar, was the Atlantic. It crashed with such force against a vast shoreline of jagged, sinister brown rocks, that it was hard to believe on that sunny summer's day, with hardly a cloud in the sky, that the sea was at its most gentle.
I was standing at the most westerly point of France, beyond the tip of Finistère, cast out into the wild Atlantic on the island of Ushant (or Ile d'Ouessant in French). Here at its most westerly point, the Pointe de Pern, I sat down on the grass alongside a dozen other visitors to simply take it all in: the deafening rumble, the white waves atop the swirling blue ocean, and the fact that somewhere out there beyond the horizon, the next bit of land is North America.
For more than a century, artists, writers and tourists have been fascinated by the idea of being at this most westerly remote outpost of Brittany's Finistère department. French composer Yann Tiersen (who wrote the music for the 2001 French film Amelie) dedicated a whole album to it after coming to live here. Ask any sailor - British or French - about Ushant, and they'll tell you how vital yet treacherous this shipping lane is. And back in 1815, on his route into exile on Saint Helena, Napoleon Bonaparte stood on deck until the last speck of Ushant disappeared from the horizon – his last ever sight of France.
Finistère means 'the end of earth' - like Cape Finisterre in Spain, and Land's End in Cornwall - and the finally idea of standing on the very edge of the country that I've explored so extensively fascinated me; what would such an island be like when it is so deeply affected by the moods of the sea? And how would Ushant, the starting point on my travels around the Finistère department, differ from its neighbouring islands as well as the coastline around it, especially when Brittany's coast is already so diverse?
So, after boarding the small passenger ferry to cross the lroise Sea, I landed at Ushant harbour, intent on seeing as much as possible by bike before the 5pm ferry back to the mainland. From Ushant I would then be journeying eastwards, visiting the Île Molène, the Côte des Sables and the Île de Batz, near Roscoff; each island and part of the coast offering a completely different character.
Ushant is a one hour, 15 minute ferry trip from the pretty harbour town of Le Conquet and, although I expected a rocky ride, dosing up on seasickness tablets in preparation, it had been a gentle cruise past the other islands.
There are a few cars here, but bike is the best way to get around the 8km island. Near the harbour, I picked up my wheels from the hire stand and pedalled up the hill, breathing in the heather and bracken as I crossed the moorland at the heart of the island. A light drizzle dampened my face but as I reached the top of the hill, a view of the west of the island opened out below and the sun burst out of the clouds. From there it was an easy ride down the other side and into the village of Lampaul.
Freewheeling down to the church at the centre of the village, I passed a few shops and a Breton pub. Though I couldn't see the ocean at first, I could hear it and so I peered over a walled garden brimming with pink hydrangeas, to see waves rushing against yellow rocks in the nearby cove – the sight of palm trees was incongruous with the fearsome sound. From there it was a gentle ride out along the peninsula to Pointe de Pern, the most westerly point, down lanes that passed swaying grassy meadows, memorials to sailors lost at sea and scattered cottages, some whitewashed with powder blue shutters, others long since ruined by the elements..
Overlooking the Pointe de Pern is the most powerful lighthouse in Europe: the black-and-white- striped Phare Créac'h stands at a towering 54m and shines 150km across the Atlantic. It guided me here from the top of the hill, astonishing me with its height from even 5-6km away. The ferocious waves and treacherous currents have claimed hundreds of ships over the centuries, but now they're safely guided by Créac'h and five other lighthouses on or around Ushant. Another is La Jument, 300m offshore, which was made famous by photographer Jean Guichard - his iconic photograph of storms in 1989 captured the lighthouse and its keeper being almost enveloped in a gigantic wave.
But while Ushant felt very wild to me, parts of the island have a gentler nature – or at least on that day they did. As I pedalled back through Lampaul – stopping for moules-frites at the restaurant Le Fromruz – then out towards the north, I passed isolated hamlets with walled gardens and docile ponies dozing in the sunshine. Away from the sea, the silence was interrupted only by birdsong. It must be such days that make the 800 islanders treasure their remote hideaway, where usually the weather is not so much four seasons in one day, but in one hour
A few days later I crossed the lroise Sea again, this time to Île Molène, a smaller island halfway to Ushant, expecting to find the same invigorating atmosphere. But while the sea undoubtedly has its influence here, Molène feels markedly different. Just 900m-long, the island is so small that you can walk around it in 45 minutes; there's no need for a bike and it's much flatter too. As I disembarked the ferry, I followed young weekenders lugging their food and booze supplies up the jetty. As they headed into the village to find their holiday homes, I walked along the narrow coastal path to the north to find empty beaches strewn with grey pebbles and seaweed. I breathed in the confusing scent of sweet bracken and salty sea air.
Though the sea was relatively quiet, I could hear an ominous rumble as it crashed against some exposed rocks in the distance. The currents in the shallower water painted a patchwork of patterns in the blue while overhead, seagulls squawked and swallows swirled, and curlews waded in the foreshore.
Molène calls itself an 'island of rescuers' and, in the village, the semaphore station tells the story of its many shipwrecks and rescues, with flickering black and white film footage showing various launches of the lifeboat in the 1950s and 1960s (though it looks so old-fashioned it could be the 1900s). The worst shipwreck was of the SS Drummond Castle, a luxury steamship whose long 1896 voyage home to London from Cape Town took it between Ushant and Molène. Late at night on 16 June, it struck rocks and sank in just four minutes. Though fishermen were able to rescue three passengers, 242 people drowned.
Inside the semaphore station there are items that were found in the flotsam, such as dinner plates with the ship's motif. As I looked at the reproductions of the advertisements by the ship's owners, Castle Mail Packet Company, which promised 'Weekly sailings for the Gold Fields of South Africa' with stopovers at Saint Helena, Mauritius or Madagascar, I wondered how those booking the trip would have felt; the excitement and the trepidation. Their unnamed graves now occupy the small cemetery next to the church named 'Le Cimetière des Anglais'.
As well as films of the lifeboat launching, the station also has footage of seaweed farming on the island, which shows farmers piling it high onto carts with pitchforks, the heavy brown clumps destined to become fertiliser, fuel and cattle fodder. The quantities seem immense, but when I arrived later at the main harbour, the low tide had revealed the rich pickings; several women or goemoniers (the French word for seaweed collectors) were clambering barefoot over the slippery rocks filling large bags with their cuttings of edible varieties.
Low tide also gives visitors the chance to walk to the islet of Ledenez Vraz and so I too stepped barefoot over the slimy seaweed to reach the island, the bladderwrack – nature's bubblewrap – popped with each step. There's not much to see on the 600m grassy island, just a few sheep and some eco-huts to stay in if you really want to play castaway, and so, nervous of being stranded by the upcoming tide, I made a hasty retreat to Molène and went in search of lunch, wandering through the village, where cottages with stone-walled gardens brim with hydrangeas and agapanthus, lobster pots and life buoys. Instead of cars on drives, there are colourful rowing boats propped up on stilts.
The seaweed plays a part in the local delicacy La Saucisse de Molène; this sausage contains pork that is finely chopped rather than minced and is smoked over seaweed for two hours every day for five days. It's the speciality at the small family-run restaurant Le Vent Des Iles, where I ordered it with chips and sipped on dry cider from a shallow traditional Breton cup. As I waited for the dish to be served, the heady alcohol mixed with the sea air, made me want to doze. The sausage tasted delicious - a salty, earthy flavour that encapsulates the island.
Revived from lunch, I walked the remainder of the island's coastal path passing a football field (surely used by the smallest team in the world?) and out to a headland where I sat for a while surrounded by nature, enjoying the solitude. Although the sea's roar was distant, there was a wildness about Molène, its compact size somehow making it an even more challenging place to carve out an existence than Ushant.
On the ferry back to Le Conquet, there was an excited buzz among the passengers at the back. I peered over their heads to see what they were looking at and noticed dolphins riding the boat's wake, jumping in and out of the wash. I stood up on a bench to get a better look; my face basking in the sunshine. That evening, I gazed west from the balcony of my hotel overlooking the harbour at Le Conquet at sunset. The lighthouses flashed intermittently as if to say hello.
North-east of Le Conquet is the gentler coastline on the Côte des Sables, named after its sandy beaches. Wide swathes of pristine, fine white sand are overlooked by grassy dunes and curious boulders shaped by the wind. Although it was August, you'd never know it from the small numbers of people on the beach at Cléder; a few families played in the sand and in between the pinky-beige rocks that scattered the shoreline, a turquoise sea gently rippled towards me. The tide was out, but it was worth the long walk out to the sea for a paddle.
The water was chilly – no wonder the snorkellers were in wetsuits – and I looked down to see what they might be looking at. Through the crystal-clear water there was an exquisite garden of seaweed, all shapes and colours. Ribbons and frills, laces and cummerbunds all fluttered in the knee-deep water, boulders sported bright green toupees and tiny orange crabs scurried for shelter as my steps swooshed the plants aside. Fish fry darted this way and that, so I cupped my hands to see if l could catch them, but no such luck.
When my journey reached Roscoff further east along the coast, in the Bay of Morlaix, I was in familiar territory. Here, the coastline is more reminiscent of Cornwall; gentler, warmer, a world away from the wild Iroise sea. I have passed through the ferry port dozens of times before, only to dash south, but I'd seen that the friendly harbour town was worth pausing for, with its pretty coves, stone cottages, and delicious local produce.
They also love the Brits; August is peak season in Roscoff not only for visitors from across the Channel who arrive by ferry, but also for its most famous export: delicate pink onions. They were sold by bicycle-pushing 'Onion Johnny' sellers throughout the UK in the 19th and early 20th centuries - making for Roscoff's own entente cordiale and generations of Anglophiles. I was too early for the annual festival this time, but the shops along its cobbled main street were full of racks of them hanging in strings intertwined with dried flowers. I scooped up a bag to take home and visited the tiny but charming museum dedicated to the history of the sellers who spawned a national stereotype of the beret-clad, onion necklace-wearing Frenchman.
It isn't just onions that thrive here though. So do cauliflowers, potatoes and fennel, and fields upon fields of artichokes, too, which looked so alien with their bright purple globes poking out on stalks from their spiky green leaves. They're all grown on the land that's been tamed by the Gulf Stream and made rich from seaweed-based fertiliser. In contrast to the wild and remote islands off Finistère's tip, the climate at Roscoff is so gentle that the town's botanic garden abounds with plants from the southern hemisphere - all spiky palms and fluttering eucalyptus basking in the sun.
My final stop along Finistère's north-west coast was another island, the Île de Batz - only a 15-minute hop from the harbour at Roscoff.
At just over 1.6km long, it's big enough to make hiring a bike worthwhile and so, from the hire stand on the quayside, I rode through the tiny village of blue-shuttered cottages and more gardens filled with agapanthus and hydrangeas and out past rolling farmers' fields. Its rolling landscape is sheltered by the Bay of Morlaix, lending it a gentler climate than the wilds of Ushant and Molène; one last reminder of the diversity that seems to stretch all the way through Finistère and out into the Atlantic.
I was promised a good view from the lighthouse, so I climbed the 198 steps to the top to look out upon a patchwork of fields, and the blue sea scattered with islets and rocks beyond it; in the distance I could see the ferry docking that would take me home. But for the moment, I was enjoying the sense that in Finistère, from its wild west to its gentler north, I was a whole world away.
The author travelled to Roscoff with Brittany Ferries (0330 159 7000) then headed west to visit the islands of Ushant (Ouessant) and Molène as day trips from Le Conquet.
She then travelled to the Cote de Sables near Plouescat and Brignogan-Plages. Book ferries to the islands through Penn Ar Bed. Return tickets to Ushant or Molène start from EUR€30 (£26) per adult.Visit Brittany Ferries
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