The Islands of France

  • 01 of 08

    The Islands of France

    Gulf of Morbihan, Brittany
    Getty/ RENAULT Philippe

    All round the coastline of France, small and large islands offer all kinds of different landscapes, from long sandy beaches looking out to the ocean to small rocky inlets. Some have castles built to defend the country against the enemy (mostly the English); others have lighthouses to warn sailors of the treacherous rocks, or sleepy villages of fishermen's cottages, marshes where salt is made in the old traditional way, vineyards producing good wine, or fields producing potatoes. Some were used for prisons built far away from civilisation; all these and more await the curious visitor.

    France also has a large overseas presence, with its Departments and Territories making up almost the same land mass as France itself and holding a population of over 2,691,000 people.

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  • 02 of 08

    Islands off the Normandy coastline

    Swirling tides at Mont St Michel, Normandy
    © L. Helbert CRT Normandie

    The islands off the Normandy coastline begin just north of the D-Day Landing Beaches in the Baie de la Seine and just off the Cotentin Peninsula.

    You’ll find  the two small, uninhabited islands of Saint-Marcouf on the eastern part of the spectacular Cotentin near St Vaast-la-Hougue. Île de Terre is an ornithological reserve; Île du Large is dominated by a 19th-century military fort but is inaccessible to the public. 

    A little further north, Tatihou is a popular island, again ideal for bird watchers. There’s also a shipyard specialising in repairing traditional boats and a summer festival which combines world music and organised walks around the island. You get to Tatihou at high tide and at low tide on a special amphibious boat that floats and also runs on the sand.

    On the east side of the Peninsula you come to the Channel Islands, but they belong to the UK. 

    Take the short 15 km (9.5 miles) crossing from Granville (best known for the Christian Dior Museum in the house where the world famous fashion designer grew up) on the eastern side of the Cotentin Peninsula to Chausey for an archipelago of tiny islands. The largest, the Grande Île has a local community, a hotel and restaurants. Go here for the white sandy beaches.


    One of the most iconic collection of buildings in France, Mont-St-Michel Abbey sits on the tiny rocky outcrop just off the coast of Normandy between the charming seaside town of Avranches and St-Malo. A new bridge connects the UNESCO World Heritage Site with the mainland, replacing the old causeway and allowing the tides once again to swirl around the island. It’s overrun by visitors in summer, so if you can, go off season when its mystery returns.

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  • 03 of 08

    Islands off the Brittany coastline

    The ever-enchanting Belle-Ile-en-Mer island
    Brittany Tourism Office/SPIEGELHALTER Erich

    North Coast of  Brittany

    Brittany has an extraordinary coast line. Looking out to the Atlantic, the islands stand proud against the often raging sea. 

    A 10-minute boat ride takes you from L’Arcouest, near Paimpol to the Île de Bréhat where you can hire a bike and pedal off on this car-free island to the wilder north coast. Other attractions on this island, which is a favorite for Parisians, include glassblowing studios and an old mill.

    Follow the coast west for a whole collection of small islets, then if you’re a bird watcher, take the boat trip around the Sept Îles on the Rose Granite Coast for a glimpse of rare species.

    It’s a 15-minute boat ride from Roscoff to the traffic-free Île de Batz where an exotic garden on the south east of the island shows off over 2,000 species of plants from around the world. The temperate climate from the Gulf Stream makes this a good place for beach life while the inhabitants make their living from fishing and growing potatoes and cauliflowers.

    The above islands make good day trips from Brest, St-Brieuc and St-Malo.

    Brittany and the Atlantic Coast

    When you move around the gorgeous Brittany coastline through the west coast port of Brest and on to Quimper and Concarneau, you get into a gentler countryside. Along this Atlantic stretch of coast you come across collections of beautiful islands with long sandy beaches. Belle-Île is the biggest and best known; if you're in the Gulf of Morbihan, take a trip around the 42 small islands.

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  • 04 of 08

    Islands off the Poitou-Charentes Atlantic Coast

    A. Lamoureux/Noirmoutier

    South from Brittany's Atlantic Coastline into Poitou-Charentes

    Small inlets and the great rollers of the Atlantic sea; old fishing ports that once landed the fish that brought such wealth to France; trade with North America and shipbuilding towns. All this and more is found along this stretch of the French Atlantic coast.

    And it’s as varied a picture as anyone could want. Poitou-Charentes islands run from delightful Noirmoutier which makes a great side trip from the attractive maritime city of Nantes, down past Île d’Yeu. Known as the Corsica of the Atlantic this is still a big tuna fishing island with fishermen’s cottages, long walks and dramatic views out over the ocean.

    le de Ré

    Fashionable Île de Ré is a real mix. The main port of Saint-Martin is very smart with rustic chic style houses and top spa hotels as well as good restaurants. Cafes line the main harborside; self-conscious nautical types walk by in those archetypal Breton sailor striped tops. But outside, the island is delightfully rural with flat salt marshes and vineyards and a great sense of peace and space. 

    •  More about St Martin and Île de Ré 

    Île d'Aix

    Go further south to a little slice of Napoleonic history on the Île d’Aix. Napoleon spent his last 3 nights on French soil here before being sent packing by the English to Elba.

    le d’Oléron is the largest island in France after Corsica and is a great place for camping, visiting the seafood market at La Cotinière and cycling. 

    For visiting all these islands, La Rochelle makes a good starting point, and the small fortified city is a charming place to visit. 

    Getting to La Rochelle

    You can fly to La Rochelle-Île de Ré Airport from London and most major UK airports with EasyJet, Flybe and Ryanair. The airport is 2.5 km (I mile) north west of La Rochelle.

    You can travel by rail from London or Paris to La Rochelle. Fares from London to La Rochelle start at £119 standard class return per person, subject to availability. For bookings visit the voyages-sncf website or call 0844 848 5848.

    For more information on Région Poitou-Charentes please visit the Poitou-Charentes website.

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  • 05 of 08

    Islands off Marseille

    R. Manin

    Marseille is a wonderful city, renovated and rejuvenated. Now that there's a direct train from London St. Pancras to Marseille, this once distant destination makes a great weekend break. 

    Lying just off the now renovated city of Marseille, Chateau d’If is known as the prison for Alexandre DumasCount of Monte Cristo. It’s a suitably grim little rock but well worth visiting by boat from Marseille. There are other, more pleasant places like the islands of Frioul to visit.

    More about Marseille

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  • 06 of 08

    Islands in the Mediterranean

    © OT HYERES 2007

    Isles d’Hyères 

    These islands lie just off the south coast of France south east of Toulon. They’re a far cry from the glamour of the Cote d’Azur and it's Great Gatsby style. Porquerolles, just 10 minutes by boat from Gien, is amazingly unspoilt with a charming harbour, ruined forts, no cars and not much in the way of hotels. It’s the largest island with gorgeous empty beaches to the north and rugged cliffs on the south.

    Port-Cros just next door was a focus for foreign attacks and pirates and was defended by forts from the 14th century onwards. Today it’s a lovely peaceful place, part of a National Park along with Porquerolles founded to protect its ecosystem.

    Le Levant, the third island of the group, is mostly owned by the army. The part that is open to the public was turned into a naturist reserve in the early 1930s; today Heliopolis is one of France’s well known naturist colonies with a beautiful beach, village and shops.

    Isles de Lérins

    The Isles de Lérins are an archipelago just off the glitzy resort of Cannes. Sainte Marguerite is the bigger island, known for its military history. This was also the place where Alexandre DumasMan in the Iron Mask was incarcerated – at Fort Royal. In contrast, the second inhabited island, Saint Honorat, was settled by the Cistercians. They run a good restaurant and you can stay here as well. They are easy to get to from a boat trip out of Cannes

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  • 07 of 08

    Corsica, France's largest island

    Atout France/Palomba Robert

    The island of Corsica has always been important. Strategically placed on the major trade routes of the western Mediterranean, it’s been ruled by very different ancient civilisations, driving the natives into the mountainous interior. Corsica was bought by France from Genoa in 1768 but its Italian past is seen in the architecture all over the island.

    Corsica has the most extraordinary varied landscape which runs from beautiful half-moon bays of white sand to Cap Corse, cut off from the rest of the island until Napoleon III had a coach road built around it. But it still feels very separate from the rest of the island, and due to its earlier reliance on Italian maritime traffic, has a Tuscan dialect which comes as a surprise to French speakers.

    Take the ferry from France; the crossing takes from around 2 ½ hours on the fast route to from 7 to 12 hours and you can go overnight.

    You get the Italian connection at Bastia, capital of the north and the main Genoese city. From here you can get to the northern Cap Corse harbors, fishing villages and sandy beaches. Drive into the Nebbio region where the fertile soil produces chestnuts, honey and good wines. Sandy beaches line the west coast down to Ajaccio, Napoleon’s birthplace and the island’s capital. Prehistory is on display at Filitosa, famous for its menhirs with their unique carved faces.

    Other don’t miss sights include the beautiful beach of Saleccia and the extraordinary UNESCO protected Calanches de Piana where the bright orange and pink rocks snake down to the dark blue sea. Porto  is a great place to stay on the west coast; the resort of Calvi is well known, beautiful and historic and another great place to stay.

    Corsica Tourist Office Website

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  • 08 of 08

    French Overseas Islands

    France Department Map
    Nilstilar - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

    The French overseas Departments and Territories make up an area almost as big as France and have a population of 2,691,000 people.

    South America: French Guiana is the largest French overseas Department

    Caribbean French West Indies: Martinique, Guadeloupe,  Saint Barthélemy; Saint Martin

    Indian Ocean: Réunion; Mayotte in the Comoros Islands and the Scattered Islands

    Pacific Ocean: In French Polynesia there are 118 islands of five archipelagos:  Society islands include Tahiti in the Windward Islands; the Leeward Islands include Bora Bora; the Marquesas islands, the Tuamotus and Gambier Islands; Austral Islands

    Western Pacific: In New Caledonia: Loyalty Islands, Isle of Pines, Chesterfield, Huon, Wallis and Futuna.

    Antarctic: Saint Pierre and Mioquelon

    Southern Hemisphere: Amsterdam, St Paul, Crozet and Kerguelen archipelagos