Breathtaking natural beauty and enchanting history meet on the Emerald Coast
Brittany’s Emerald Coast, a craggy coastline that pierces the emerald green waters of the English Channel, is home to some of France’s most breathtaking scenery, captivating historical sites, and unforgettable dining experiences.
Stretching from the Cap Fréhel in the east, to the edge of the Mont Saint Michel Bay in the west, this area is home to some of Brittany’s most synonymous sites: the Belle Époque seaside resorts around Dinard; the high tides and medieval fortified port of Saint-Malo; the oyster capital of Brittany, Cancale; and, just outside the Emerald Coast itself, the monastery-topped island, the Mont Saint Michel.
In the shadow of one of France’s most remarkable sights
Before even arriving at the small fishing village of Cancale that marks the beginning of the Emerald Coastline, it’s worth stopping by the iconic Mont Saint Michel, and it’s never been a better time to visit this historic site. A 20-year development project, completed in 2015, has once again turned the ancient pilgrim site into an island, replacing the ugly causeway that once allowed cars and tourist buses to crowd the base of the island’s city walls, with a new 750-metre foot bridge.
Now at high tides, the island and its 43 permanent residents (mostly Benedictine monks, their order having watched over the Abbey here since the 10th Century, when, according to legend, a local Bishop, won approval from the Kings of Normandy to construct a church atop the island following a vision from the archangel Michael), are once again totally surrounded by water. Although there are shuttle buses running the two kilometres from the crowded visitor parking to the city walls, if weather permits, the walk along the new bridge is spectacular.
Being one of the most visited tourist attractions in all of France, the hotels and restaurants here are of dubious quality, are ludicrously over priced, and unlike the location itself, are mostly devoid of charm. For better value and more interesting dining and accommodation options, head direction Cancale. The hour or so drive towards the Emerald Coast is often accompanied by splendid panoramas over the bay and allows for views over the slowly receding Mont Saint Michel.
Cancale, the oyster capital of Brittany
Arriving in the unassuming but picturesque town of Cancale, detour-worthy accommodations are plentiful thanks to the steady trickle of an altogether different kind of pilgrim: the food pilgrim.
Cancale is one of those towns whose name is seared deep into the French psyche as a destination that must be visited once in a lifetime to satisfy some quintessential patriotic notion of having attained an ineffable gastronomic experience.
Here, it is the oysters that keep people making the journey beyond summer (when Cancale now turns into a bustling little resort town) and long into winter. This journey has been going on since at least the ancient era, when Roman soldiers were known to have indulged in the bay’s catch, though to more modern times, when Louis XIV managed to avoid the journey himself, but had horses deliver a fresh haul of his favourite Cancale oysters daily to his palace at Versailles.
Today, you can enjoy Cancale’s exquisite salty oysters fresh from the sea thanks to the year-round oyster market, where the morning’s catch is shucked to order, served with nothing more than a wedge of lemon, and enjoyed by locals on the cement bleachers overlooking the bay replete with a BYO bottle of cider.
And of course, towns like Cancale, which have a reputation for delivering the best of a beloved French ingredient, attract in turn, great chefs. Here, it is native son Olivier Roellinger, whose influence around town is unmistakable.
Although notorious for having “returned” his three Michelin stars with the closure of his Cancale fine dining restaurant a few years ago, Roellinger is renowned for his mastery in marrying local seafood and produce with exotic spices (a nod to the region’s history as the key trading post in France’s booming 18th century spice trade from the East Indies). Today his cooking can be enjoyed in a slightly more relaxed environment at his flagship restaurant Coquillage at the Chateau Richeux, one of several Roellinger-owned properties scattered across town that include a spice shop, cooking school and several boutique luxury lodgings.
Another burgeoning food empire here is Café Breizh, a temple to France’s national comfort food, the humble crêpe, and its savoury cousin, the gallette (a thicker darker crêpe made from the local buckwheat flour).
The Breizh team now has outposts in nearby Saint-Malo, Paris and even Tokyo, but nothing beats a visit to the original, which now also boasts an outstanding Japanese restaurant that has already been recognised with a star from the Michelin inspectors in only its second year, for its inspired fusion of the highest quality local produce with Japanese cooking techniques. Best of all, after a night of indulgence at Breizh, you only have to make your way upstairs to stay the night in one of Breizh Café’s luxurious guestrooms, starting from €118/night.
When rooms are unavailable here, our go-to is Le Querrien, a quaint three star hotel and restaurant, with plum views over the bay, and a large playfully nautical theme restaurant serving hearty Breton seafood fare. The hotel is conveniently located by the restaurants and port, and is a short walk to our favourite pre-dinner aperitif haunt, Le Galliano, a relaxed café with a decent selection of local beers and cider, wine by the glass and simple snacks overlooking the central square.
La Pointe du Grouin
Leaving Cancale by the coastal road to Saint-Malo, you’ll soon spot signs for La Pointe du Grouin, a rocky headland with spectacular views over the Mont Saint Michel Bay on one side, and the bracing cliff facades that mark the way to Saint-Malo on the other. Visitors here walk across this soaring cliff top freely, with multiple viewpoints at the very edge of the precipice, a short walk from the car park.
If you’d rather take in the views sitting down, you can do so with a glass of wine on the terrace of the dramatically perched Hotel Restaurant La Pointe du Grouin, which also serves a simple but good-value lunch menu. There are rooms available, although basic and outdated, for those who prefer a more isolated stay.
Pirates and shipwrecks on the way to Saint Malo
The Pointe attracts many hikers and ramblers, lying squarely on the sentiers des douaniers, a well-known hiking trail that hugs the coastline, and was named after the customs agents who patrolled it in the 18th century. These agents were on the look out for smugglers, when Brittany’s corsairs (pirates turned privateers who terrorised the crews of English, Dutch and Portugese trading fleets with the King of France’s blessing) ruled the seas.
This same trail can be approximately followed by car along the coastal road that passes through the medieval walled city of Saint-Malo that was home to the most notorious of France’s corsairs. The drive is only 30 minutes, brushing the coast as it alternates between broad beaches, sheer granite cliffs, deep coves that local line fishermen use as protection from the crashing waves, and historical curiosities like the once-abandoned 11th century Guesclin Fort which occupies a small island which can be reached at low tide.
Approaching Saint-Malo, you will pass by many of the Corsairs former residences, stately mansions still standing today serving as private homes, visitor attractions and even hotels. It is thanks to this heritage of fearless seafaring that Saint-Malo would become the economic heart of Northern Brittany for hundreds of years. By the 18th century, with a growing demand for the spices from the court of Louis XIV, the fortified port of Saint-Malo became the main trading entrepôt for the spice trade, which extended as far as South America.
Saint-Malo, a medieval wonder
These days the medieval city remains (though a modern city has since sprung up around it) and is one of Brittany’s most visited tourist sites, having been reinvented as a hotel, dining and shopping district. The influence of the spice trade can still be glimpsed, with an outpost of Olivier Roellinger’s spice shop selling featuring an encyclopaedic choice of salts and peppers, numerous unexpected spice blends, and the local speciality, salted caramel.
Perhaps Brittany’s greatest contribution to the pantheon of French gastronomy, however, is its rich, salted churned butter. Saint-Malo is also home to Jean-Yves Bordier, France’s best-known butter artisan (yes, the rank of the celebrity artisan is a thing in France), who hand-kneads cultured butters to be served in restaurants and luxury hotels all over France. Grab a packet to be enjoyed with a crusty baguette, or try one of Bordier’s mixed butters with spice infusions, the likes of Espelette chilli, Sichuan peppers or sweet Madagascar vanilla. And, yes, this butter is absolutely worth the fuss.
Bordier also owns a nearby bistro, Autour du Beurre (Around Butter), where the deeply satisfying earthiness that is distinct in Breton butter-based cooking is showcased in modern dishes. One of the kitchen’s former chefs has opened another Saint-Malo favourite, Texture, a bustling venue that is part modern bistro and part wine bar serving seasonal small plates. If you can’t get a table at this local hotspot, Le Comptoir de Breizh Café is a good alternative.
When in Saint Malo, it’s worth venturing outside the medieval walls, especially to view the magic of Brittany’s renowned big sea tides that can move almost twelve metres in a few hours. When the tide is at its highest, the sandy beach all but disappears and is replaced by crashing waves reaching the top of the boardwalk that stretches three kilometres from the old city walls. On the other side of the boardwalk, the beach is lined with stately bourgeois homes. One of these, formerly a women’s shelter, has now been converted into a charming hotel and cafe, Hotel les Charmettes, recommended for those who can’t resist breakfast by the beach. Service is friendly and casual, and the café serves simple lunch fare and bistro staples in the evening.
Dinard, France’s first famed seaside resort
It is on the other side of the Rance Estuary, however, that the Emerald Coast’s grandest seaside resort has long attracted visitors to its beaches. Long before Europe’s elite flocked south to France’s Mediterranean coast, Dinard’s rugged coast and gentle beaches were fashionable with the American tycoons and the British aristocracy of the late 19th century. The Belle Époque villas they built as seaside homes still stud Dinard’s cliff tops today, standing testament to Dinard’s heyday. The town continued to flourish until the 1930s, when the grand Casino and the resort’s most exclusive grand hotels were built to accommodate a new class of very wealthy visitors.
Lately, Dinard has been enjoying a revival of sorts, with a new generation of French urbanites and jetsetters discovering its genteel charms. In addition to hosting the increasingly popular British Film Festival every October, much of Dinard has been redeveloped and many of the grand Villas are being restored to their former glory, contributing to its old world appeal.
One of the most iconic of these buildings, the Villa Bric a Brac (built in 1865 by the Fabers, one of the first wealthy English families in Dinard, which was most recently a marine research station) reopened in 2015 as Hotel Castelbrac. The superb 25-room redesign – contemporary with deco flourishes – has returned the building to its former charming state and is the place to stay if you want to channel the cool opulence of Dinard’s golden era. The glam 1930s vibes are best captured lounging on the hotel’s private yacht, or sipping Champagne overlooking the bay on the hotel bar’s terrace. The hotel restaurant, Le Pourquoi Pas, is a local hotspot, serving excellent produce in a chic dining room perched above the ocean.
From Dinard to Saint Briac
Grand villas and hotels can be spotted along the coast from Dinard all the way to Saint-Briac. Although the latter at first appears to be an unassuming sleepy port village, it’s actually one of the best-kept secrets of the Emerald coast, and is home to a picturesque port, great beaches, and some of the coast’s best culinary highlights.
Many visitors here miss the village centre altogether as it requires a detour away from the port and coastal road, and if you miss the turnoff, don’t hesitate turning back.
The best known of the village boutiques is La Briacine, long home to the locally renowned patissier Alain Desriac. His shop is hard to miss, set squarely in the centre of the village square, with a bright fuchsia façade, lime green awnings and the occasional queue of well-heeled weekenders snaking out the front door, all hoping to secure one of Desriac’s mind-numbingly satisfying Braicine crumbed apple tarts, or award-winning Breton fars before they sell out.
Saint Briac’s small village square is filled with all the quintessentially typical French stores you could need for a happy holiday: a typically busy sun-filled café terrace, a corner store heaving with carefully selected aged cheese and charcuterie, an oyster and seafood conserves purveyor, and a small wine cellar that’s home to a surprising collection of wines from independent producers (keep an eye out for any tastings during your stay in town).
Saint-Briac is also home to what has become one of the coast’s buzziest dining hotspots. Les Deux Sardines, opened by a small team of young food pros trained in the region’s best restaurants. The semi-open kitchen produces unforgettable dishes – like smoked butter stuffed clams – as part of a daily menu tailored to market availability. Service is warm and friendly, and bookings are essential. In town, there are a couple of great options for a pre-or post dinner drink too with Le Deriveur’s terrace a popular local hangout. Alternatively a few doors down you have the bar at the Hotel de La Houle, which has an extensive collection of whiskeys and rums from around the world, as well as a casual menu of comfort food (think lobster rolls and burgers) and cosy and comfortable rooms available, making it one of our favourite places to stay on the coast.
The road to the Cap Frehel
Saint-Briac also makes a good base for exploring, lying as it does halfway along the coast but also close to some popular destinations off the coast. Take some time to visit Dinan, a perfectly preserved medieval town with a picturesque river port and the regions largest food market.
The Rance estuary is also home to many of the region’s cideries, and some of its most charming villages – with small ports and granite cottages typical of the area – like Saint-Suliac, which was awarded the title of one of the France’s most beautiful villages.
Beyond Saint-Briac, the coastline becomes harder to follow and the one-hour drive to the Cap Fréhel mostly follows national roads. All along, though, there are plenty of lunch-worthy detours, including the seaside resorts of Lancieux, Saint Jacut, Saint Cast le Guildo, all of which afford great views of the coast, which becomes increasingly wilder as you head west.
The best view of the entire coast, though, is to be had at le Cap Fréhel, a rocky headland jutting into the ocean with views over the entire coastline. The cliffs here are dramatically steep, and the nearby medieval Fort de la Latte only adds to the sensation of having stepped into another world. With a view all the way to the Mont Saint Michel, the isolation of the surrounds help elicit a feeling of deep satisfaction of having travelled the entire rugged coast, providing a breathtaking end to this trip.
When to Go
Cancale is worth a visit any time of year. Oysters are available year round, but are best in the winter months. In summer, Cancale transforms into a resort town, and accommodation is harder to find.
How to get there
Cancale is only accessible by road and a 30-minute drive from Saint Malo. From Paris to Saint Malo, there are direct trains daily, or the drive is just over 4 hours. From the UK, there are seasonal ferries from Poole, Weymouth and Portsmouth, and a direct Ryanair flight from London Stansted.
Where to stay
Café Breizh Guest Rooms
Restaurant with guest rooms, doubles from €118
Address: 7 Quai Thomas, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 61 76
3* Hotel Restaurant, doubles from €195
Address: Le Buot, 35260 Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes
Phone: +33 2 99 89 25 25
3* Hotel Restaurant, doubles from €69
Address: 7 Quai Duguay Trouin, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 64 56
Dinard – Castelbrac
5* Hotel Restaurant, doubles from €270
Address: 17 Avenue George V, 35800 Dinard
Phone: +33 2 99 80 30 00
Saint Briac – Hôtel de La Houle
Boutique hotel, doubles from €99
Address: 14 Boulevard de la Houle, 35800 Saint-Briac-sur-Mer
Phone: +33 2 99 88 32 17
Where to eat
Breizh Café, Crêperie & Japanese Restaurant
Crêperie, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Japanese Restaurant, €€ (count €120-200 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 7 Quai Thomas, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 61 76
Au Pied de Cheval
Seafood Bistrot, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 7 Quai Thomas, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 76 95
Gastronomic Restaurant, €€ (count €120-200 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: Le Buot, 35260 Saint-Méloir-des-Ondes
Phone: +33 2 99 89 25 25
Autour du Beurre
Bistrot, € (count up to €120 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 7 Rue de l’Orme, 35400 Saint-Malo
Phone: +33 2 23 18 25 81
Les Deux Sardines – Saint Briac
Bistro, € (count up to €100 for dinner and drinks for two)
Address: 35800 Saint-Briac-sur-Mer
Phone: 09 80 83 44 04
Where to drink
Le Galion, Cancale
Address: 13 Place du Calvaire, Cancale 35260
Phone: +33 2 99 89 65 71
Hotel Restaurant La Pointe du Grouin
Address: Pointe du Grouin, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 60 55
Where to shop
Epices Roellinger, Cancale & Saint Malo
Address: 1 rue Duguesclin, Cancale
Phone: +33 2 23 15 13 91
Address: 12 Rue Saint-Vincent, Saint Malo
Phone: +33 2 23 18 24 12
La Maison du Beurre
Address: 9 rue de l’Orme Intra Muros, Saint Malo
Phone: +33 2 99 40 88 79
Yves Bordier Butter shop – Saint Malo
Address: 6 Avenue du Révérend Père Umbricht, 35400 Saint-Malo
Phone: +33 2 23 18 09 97
What to do
La Cuisine Corsaire – Cooking School
Address: Place Saint-Méen, 35260 Cancale
Phone: +33 2 99 89 63 86