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The perfect day in Brittany: A secret island restaurant and three other magical Breton boat trips

Christopher Wilson-Elmes Profile Image

Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

5 min read

Our copywriter Chris, shares the secret island with a bar, a restaurant and not much else, that made the perfect birthday treat during his Brittany trip. He also shares three more Breton boat trips worth checking out (and one that is not).

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It was one of those times when the stars aligned. My wife Claire and I suddenly realised that we could both take a couple of weeks off with relative ease. It felt like an opportunity that deserved to be marked, so we packed ourselves off to a gîte in Brittany. It just so happened that the trip would coincide with two birthdays – our son Innes’ and my own. He would be one year old, I would be just a little older. 

From day one, Brittany was exactly what we needed. The first year of parenthood had been, exactly as advertised, a tricky climb up a mountain of a learning curve, without oxygen. Innes instantly got to grips with local cuisine and we were soon buying three croissants from the local bakery instead of two. We spent most days at the beach and while I loved being in the water, I was also itching to get out on it and explore the islands off the coast. Then one day, leafing through the local guide left in the gîte by the owners, I noticed a mention of the Iles de Glénan.  

Glénan is a scattering of rocks and sand barely sticking out of the sea an hour’s sail from Concarneau. It’s not on the way anywhere, parts of it submerge with the tide and it gets blasted by some rough weather in winter. So of course, someone has built a restaurant on it. It’s called Les Viviers and was established by the Castric family in the late 60s, as a simple place that sold shellfish to day trip boaters. Many years later, the concept has hardly changed. On the day before your reservation, you’re required to phone and select a main course from a choice of two.  

With the boat trip, the scenic location and the freshness of the seafood, it sounded like a perfect birthday treat. We booked the ferry, made our reservation at Les Viviers and, on the preceding day, phoned ahead, meekly asking if they spoke English before both choosing whole crab. The set menu was around 30 Euros, so even with the price of the boat (30-50 Euros depending on season) it didn’t feel too expensive given the uniqueness of the experience.   

When the day came, it was the peak of a punishing heatwave that was sweeping France. Temperatures were set to commemorate my birthday by reaching an undignified fortysomething and it felt like the perfect time to escape into sea breezes and cool water. Innes loved the boat and we watched the churning wake as the mainland receded behind us. We arrived in Glénan early for lunch but in perfect time for Innes to need a nap, so Claire settled down with a beer at the island’s only other building, a bar called La Boucane, while I trod the boardwalks with the buggy. It was no hardship with those views to look at.  

Innes made it a long nap, of course, and we switched buggy-pushing and beer-drinking duties halfway through. When he finally woke, it was time for lunch and we walked the few steps down from the bar to Les Viviers. Keen to immerse myself in Breton tradition, I ordered Pastis as an aperitif before we moved on to a superb fish soup and then the giant crabs for mains. Around us, experienced locals reduced their crabs to sawdust in a whirl of stainless-steel tools. My own efforts were so poor that at one point I wondered if my crab might wander back to the sea with only a slight headache, but the flavour of what little I managed to extract was exquisite and a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé eased any embarrassment I might have felt at my shelling skills.    

For dessert we went traditional again, with a Far Breton. The simple, flan-like cake was wonderfully light and left us just full enough to feel ready for a short walk and a swim. As we left the shade of Les Viviers’ terrace umbrellas, the heat hit us, even with the fresh sea air to take the edge off. To our right was a thin curve of sand that linked two islands, rapidly disappearing as the tide rose. We carried on, following the boardwalks and a small “plage” sign to a crescent cove washed by the clearest water I have ever seen. There we settled down, with a few hours to spend in paradise before the boat took us home.  

How to do it: Vedettes De L’Odet ferries leave for the Iles des Glénan from various locations along the coast. Bookings at Les Viviers are by phone only and remember to phone the day before to choose your main course  

Other Brittany day trips worth a look (and one that isn’t!) 

1. Belle-Ile 

This is another one we considered for a birthday trip. Just a short hop from Quiberon on a very reasonably priced ferry, you can ditch the car, hire bikes and scoot around for the day taking in the incredible scenery. If you can’t bear to leave, see if the gorgeous Hôtel La Désirade has any space.  

2. Rochefort-en-terre 

Moving inland now, this tiny town north east of Vannes was one of the first to be welcomed into Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, an association established in the 80s to shine a spotlight on France’s beautiful rural places. As well as having many traditional shops and looking a lot like a film set, it also houses a bizarre steampunk/fantasy art gallery and sculpture garden, dedicated to a Breton witch and built in the grounds and catacombs of an old church. 

3. The Josselin medieval fayre 

We saw several signs for this event as we were driving round Brittany and it was only after I played the birthday card that my wife would agree to indulge my not-so-inner nerd and go with me. What we thought might be a slightly shonky setup turned out to involve a huge area of Josselin’s old town being cordoned off to make room for musicians, acrobats and even some live horse archery and jousting. Hundreds of people (and one dog) were in costume and it was a great day out. Plenty of towns hold similar events, so keep your eyes open!  

4. The Gulf of Morbihan sightseeing boat 

The Gulf of Morbihan, just south of Vannes, is a huge natural harbour filled with a ragged collection of islands. The stillness of its shielded waters makes it perfect for paddle boarding and sailing and the surrounding countryside is home to a remarkable number of megalithic sites. We took a couple of lovely day trips to the islands, but also did the sightseeing boat trip, which I probably wouldn’t recommend. You spend a couple of hours chugging between the ports, listening to a recorded commentary as people sailing and swimming have all the fun. A much better idea is to the use ferry to get to Ile d’Arz or Ile aux Moines and splash about on the beaches before getting a crêpe at a harbourside café. 

 

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Christopher Wilson-Elmes

Sawday's Expert

Chris is our in-house copywriter, with a flair for turning rough notes and travel tales into enticing articles. Raised in a tiny Wiltshire village, he was desperate to travel and has backpacked all over the world. Closer to home, he finds himself happiest in the most remote and rural places he can find, preferably with a host of animals to speak to, some waves to be smashed about in and the promise of a good pint somewhere in his future.
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