A Tour of West France: The Highlights
West France offers so many different experiences that it's difficult to decide where to go. There's the glorious Atlantic coast with its unexpected islands where time stands still; places like Ile d'Aix where Napoleon spent his last days in exile; very chic Ile de Re, and delightful Noirmoutier, cut off from the mainland at high tide.
Aquitaine is one of the most beautiful areas of France, with surprises like Puy du Foy (one of the best theme parks in the world).
And all this before you get to the northern part of west France and glorious Brittany which makes a tour in itself.
But to make it easier, I did a road trip but only going one way from the UK. Take the ferry to either St Malo, or my favorite route of Santander, and you'll only have on a major drive.
You can also do this easily from Paris, or add it on to your trip to Spain.
I recommend driving from Santander to Bordeaux, via Biarritz, and spending 2 or 3 nights in Bordeaux. Then go into the glorious Dordogne where there are spectacular hotels to enjoy. From here, head north into the Loire Valley and stay in the western end in Saumur. From here it's an easy drive to St Malo for a night or more in this lovely fortified seaport with a superb history. Take the ferry from St Malo to Portsmouth.
Take the Ferry
Tip: Take the Portsmouth to Santander ferry on the Pont-Aven. It’s more like a mini cruise than a ferry, you get an excellent dinner and overnight in a cabin. Then there's a day to relax and sunbathe on deck before arriving in time to check into your Santander hotel, get a good dinner and night to start the next day.
Brittany ferries run various services, but I recommend leaving Portsmouth at 5.15 pm and arriving the next day at 6.15pm.
The Portsmouth-Bilbao route is slightly shorter and you can take either a day or overnight crossing but this is the less popular route for people taking a Spanish holiday so is not so frequent.
If you do it this way, you will be driving from south to north.
Next Stop: From Santander to Bordeaux - via Biarritz
Drive from Santander to Bordeaux - via Biarritz
Drive: Santander to Bordeaux 430 km (267 miles) taking from 4 hours 50 minutes
The drive is pretty past mountainous country and you might want to stop on the way. It takes slightly less from Bilbao to Bordeaux.
Alternatively, beach lovers might consider stopping in Biarritz for an overnight and the chance to surf on the great Atlantic rollers. Or join the other high rollers at the Casino.
Next Stop: Bordeaux
Recommended: 2 to 3 nights
Bordeaux is one of France’s most vibrant, and prosperous cities. The river quays have been renovated while the new Bordeaux Cité du Vin has brought an exciting world-wide attraction to the city that was once at the heart of the wine trade, filling the cellars of English milords with the rich Saint-Emilion, Château Yquem and Pomerol vintages that are the best wines in the world.
Check out the Water Mirror that reflects the Bourse; the markets that line the quays; the museums that display the story of the city, show fine and contemporary arts and intrigue with the history of historic Aquitaine. Above all, savor the great restaurants, and taste the great wines of the region.
And after this, you deserve a day trip out to the surrounding Bordeaux wine country.
Next Stop: Drive from Bordeaux to Trémolat in the Dordogne. 153 km (95 miles) taking around 2 hours
Recommended: 3 to 4 nights nights
The Dordogne is a beautiful region, covering Périgord where the living – and the food is rich. The region is famous for its bastides, or fortified towns that defended every community in the Middle Ages when baron fought baron and the French and the English fought each other.
Where to Stay
For sheer luxury spend the first night at Le Vieux Logis in the small village of Trémolat. This old manor house is now one of the most comfortable and charming hotels in the area offering a warm welcome and top dining in the garden where a small stream provides a gentle background sound.
What to See in the Dordogne
From here the sightseeing choices are endless, so take your pick. Lascaux II takes you on a walk through the prehistory of this region; Château Beynac is one of the castles that once ruled the area. Or visit the Château de Milandes, where the American dancer Josephine Baker spent many years, some happy, some towards the end, desperately sad. Look at the views from the Hanging Gardens of Marqueyssac, then go deep underground down into the Gouffre de Padirac, a vast sinkhole where you take a boat ride through the silently flowing river.
If you’re here for the weekend, don’t miss the Saturday market in Sarlat-la-Canéda which fills the streets of this pretty old town.
Next Stop: Drive from here to Lacave and the fabulous Château de la Treyne. The distance is 80 km (50 miles) and the drive takes around 1 hour 30 minutes.
The Dordogne: Part 2
Spend the second part of your Dordogne tour at the impossibly romantic Château de la Treyne. This fairytale castle is perched high up above the Dordogne river that flows slowly and majestically in the gorges below. It’s a delightful, surprisingly casual, family-run hotel where you sit on the outdoor terrace at tables lit by flickering candles and dine watching the sun slowly sink below the hillside opposite.
The two hotels are relatively close so you can catch up on any of the major sights you have missed and also try to get to see the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Rocamadour. Or you might just like to chill out for the day, playing a gentle game of tennis and swimming in the outdoor pool.
Next Stop: Drive from the Dordogne to Saumur. 355 km (220 miles) taking around 4 hours 30 minutes.
Saumur in the Loire Valley
In the western section of the Loire Valley, you’ll find one of the pretty but less well-known towns.
Saumur might be familiar through its excellent sparkling wine which some people prefer to Champagne, but it has a lot more going for it than just bubbly. It was once an important military town and it still has the Armoured Corps Academy. You can visit the Military Museum, as well as the Tank Museum (Musée des Blindées) which has the largest collection of armored vehicles in the world. Check a really good visitor guide to the Tank Museum online.
Horse lovers will be drawn to the National Riding School (Le Cadre Noir) to take a tour and watch how the horses are trained in the gentle and complex art of dressage.
Saumur is half-way between Tours and Angers so it’s a good place for some trips beyond the city walls. To the west, the Loire river flows towards the city of Nantes and beyond to the Atlantic with its glorious islands. To the east, it takes you past the great châteaux and gardens of the Loire Valley, once the playground of kings and now one of the most beautiful areas of France.
Next Stop: Drive from Saumur to St-Malo - 262 km (162 miles) taking from 3 hours
St-Malo on the Brittany Coast
St-Malo is a lovely city, its grey granite walls wrapped around the narrow, cobbled streets of the old town. Originally a fortified island protecting the city at the mouth of the river Rance and the open seas, it’s now attached to the mainland.
St-Malo has an old citadel and in the section called intra-muros (within the walls) plenty of restaurants, bars, and cafes.
If you’re planning to take the ferry the next day back to the UK you’ll only have an afternoon and an evening here. So book a hotel within the center, enjoy your last moules frites or plateau de fruits de mer, have a good night’s sleep and get onboard the next day for a tranquil trip back to Portsmouth.
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