A charter holiday to remember on board a Bénéteau Barracuda in the fabulous Gulf of Morbihan
Buzzing round There’s no finer area for a French boating holiday than the star of Brittany’s sunny south coast
The Gulf of Morbihan is a star of Brittany’s sunny south coast, an enchanting inland sea whose entrance opens into 50 square miles of sparkling tidal water scattered with wooded islands. There’s no finer area for a French boating holiday, protected in any weather with a maze of channels and inlets to explore in Swallows and Amazons style.
We’ve often cruised to the Morbihan from Dartmouth, usually leaving the boat in Vannes or La Trinité between stages. A two-way trip from the Solent needs good luck with weather and at least a fortnight, which still only allows limited time for enjoying all the Gulf has to offer. One of the best ways of getting to know this beautiful area is to drive down to a holiday cottage or B&B and charter a boat for a relaxed week of pottering as the mood takes you. Jane and I did this in May for an early season break. Weary of election-obsessed Britain, we phoned Emmanuel Le Roch, a genial Frenchman who has run the charter company Nautic Sport for over 20 years.CHOOSING OUR BOAT
A few miles east of the Gulf, the shy mouth of the Crac’h River leads to La Trinité-sur-mer, the Cowes of south Brittany. La Trinité has long been trendy for boating and sailing, and numerous high-profile yacht races start and finish here. Yet despite its celebrity razzmatazz, La Trinité is amazingly laid back, and this picturesque town seems focused on simple boating pleasure. The friendly hire company Nautic Sport has a wide range of motor boats for family summer holidays, from RIBS of all sizes up to a skippered Summerland 40 cruising cat or a sleek Monte Carlo 47. The team here are a great bunch of boating enthusiasts and look after you well.
We wanted quite a small, shallow boat for exploring secret corners of the Morbihan, with a decent turn of speed for whizzing out to offshore islands on calm days, especially Houat with its heavenly beaches. We’d spend some nights aboard, but would retreat now and then to a splendid chambre d’hôtes townhouse we know in Vannes, a magnificent old port and walled town with a prodigious choice of restaurants.
We decided on a Bénéteau Barracuda 9, a nifty sportsboat with two soothingly quiet 200hp Suzuki outboards. I’m not normally an outboard man, but these almost new engines were virtually silent at meandering speed and surprisingly thrifty at 24 knots. The flybridge gave all-round views in the fascinating leads through the Morbihan archipelago.
INTO THE GULF
Clearing La Trinité marina, you follow the buoys along the east side of the Crac’h, avoiding a drying expanse extending from the west bank for two-thirds of the river’s width. The sociable town is soon left astern and the estuary feels surprisingly wild as you come out into Quiberon Bay, gloriously enticing on a clear day. Away on the starboard bow, the Quiberon peninsula
The Quiberon peninsula shuts out Atlantic swell to create a perfect boating playground, the low smudge of Houat ahead a paradise of anchorage bays with stunning white sand
shuts out Atlantic swell to create a perfect boating playground. Ahead, you see the low smudge of Houat, a paradise of anchorage bays with stunning white sand. We turned south-east to pass outside Méaban islet, its two distinctive humps providing a key landfall mark for the Morbihan.
By chance, our jaunt coincided with La Semaine du Golfe, a flamboyant festival of traditional yachts and sailing ships which blended naturally with this evocative stretch of water. As we approached the Gulf, two piratical tall ships were coming out, and we half expected a cannon shot across our bows.
The narrow Morbihan entrance constricts vast quantities of water as the tides ebb and flow, the current touching 8 knots at springs. Fast boats can easily push the ebb and stay nicely under control, but with the flood running well, we were sluiced in rapidly on a flurry of overfalls and swirling eddies. You must be on the ball arriving like this, watching for cross set and keeping Le Grand Mouton green beacon and its evil rock safely to starboard.
Inside the seething strait, you face a bewildering choice of gaps between islands of all shapes and sizes. To port, the Auray River is fringed with oyster bed withies. To starboard, tantalising vistas scroll behind overlapping points as the tide hurries you on. We hung a right around Grand Mouton, tracking east to skirt the bottom of the Morbihan’s largest island, Île aux Moines – the island of monks. Ancient Brittany was awash with monks who liked islands, particularly attractive fertile islands where they could live well off the land.
Jinking sharply north and east, we emerged into a fabulous open reach with more islands in the distance. Jane steered for Île d’arz, where we found an empty mooring off its south-east coast and relaxed over a superb lunch of duck pâté and local Tome de Rhuys cheese from La Trinité market. A short siesta to settle the digestion and then we inflated our somewhat precarious dinghy and sculled over to the landing slip jutting out from Arz.
ASHORE ON ÎLE D’ARZ
A beach curves south from the landing and the famous Glénans sailing school has a base here. We followed a shady path to the charming village centre with its cluster of cafés and small shops. The main street has a Spar mini-market and locals get around on bikes, pedalling slowly and stopping to chat.
Au Perroquet Bleu is a good bistro in Avenue Charles de Gaulle, the road leading north out of the village, which we followed along the spine of the island to a sweeping bay on the north-west coast. The tide dries far out here and you’ll see locals digging for clams in the muddy sand. On the west side of Arz, a tidal lake feeds one of the best-preserved tidal mills in Brittany, Le Moulin à Marée de Berno, a quaint stone building out on the mill pool dam.
INTO CONLEAU NARROWS
In the late afternoon we circled east of Île d’arz and the acres of drying flats off that side of the island. This delicate passage is not used much by visitors, but our skimpy draught and largescreen plotter made light of this foray through one of the wildest parts of the Gulf. The Suzukis were whisper quiet and from the flybridge, we heard a distant church clock and the haunting trill of oystercatchers. The breeze carried a tang of wrack, ozone and
shellfish. We saw flat-decked oyster boats amongst the withies, the sun catching their crews’ yellow oilskins.
Our byway joined the main channel off Île de Boëdic, a private island which I’ve always hopelessly coveted for its spacious grounds, sizeable manor house and landing jetty on the north tip. At Roguedas green tower we turned into the picturesque cut leading towards Vannes. On the east bank is another desirable house, painted bright pink and set amongst pines in a walled garden. La Maison Rose is a logo for the Morbihan and an obligation to maintain its colour is written into the deeds of this property, though nobody can remember why it was first painted pink.
We found a restful mooring at Conleau and stayed the night here after dining at the waterside restaurant of Le Roof Hotel. This Morbihan gem has a prime position on what was once a small island, now linked to Vannes by a causeway road. Le Roof ’s luxurious plateau de fruits de mer is our invariable choice, a seafood extravaganza lingering well into the evening, helped along by fruity Tavel rosé which goes so well with crab, langoustines and juicy crevettes. They make real mousse au chocolat here for dessert, one of my tests of a proper French dining room.
UP TO VANNES
Conleau was glassy calm next morning. As it was Sunday, no fishing boats were roaring about and the creek felt pleasantly drowsy as we sipped good coffee in the forward cockpit. The Barracuda has quite compact accommodation, but we’d slept well and this idyllic weather was uplifting.
On the tide, we followed a trail of spars across a shallow lake to the swing bridge and access canal for Vannes. Inside the gate are leafy quays to port and then rows of pontoons next to an avenue of gardens, where we were given a shady finger next to a grassy bank. The port continues almost to the south gate of the walled town, but these inner berths were packed with classic boats for La Semaine. Even without the carnival atmosphere, Vannes basin feels special, surrounded by medieval houses with timbered facades.
A sail training ship was alongside the east quay with its sails set. Opposite lay the venerable Dutch steamship Hydrograaf, built in 1910 and definitely one of the festival’s ‘vessels of character’. There were some fine motor yachts too, including the impeccably kept 1937 Silver 48 Hyskeir, now under the French flag. In the evening,
Skimming east of the island, we creamed in towards Houat’s most alluring beach. This blissful anchorage felt like the Caribbean, and we swam and lazed until early evening
Breton music echoed round the harbour and the aromas of barbecues and hog roasts tantalised hungry yacht crews.
To make the most of Vannes en fête, we left our boat snugly moored for a couple of days and repaired to La Maison de la Garenne, a comfortably rambling late-19th-century mansion on three storeys, just up the hill from the port. Set in a walled garden overlooking the town ramparts, this is a great B&B base from which to savour Vannes in easy bites. We could amble along the quays and join the festivities, but retreat to this calm oasis with opulent beds and cracking good breakfasts. We dined at two of my favourite Vannes restaurants – Les Remparts, just down from La Garenne on Rue Alexandre le Pontois, and Brasserie des Halles, in the heart of town at 9 Rue des Halles.
DOWN TO ÎLE AUX MOINES
On a still morning, we idled back down to the glittering waters of the Gulf, pleased to be underway again. Following the north shore, we glided past fashionable Arradon, where old-money villas in extensive grounds look across grand reaches of the Morbihan. Arradon village lies half a mile inland, its slim church spire a familiar landmark. East of Arradon point is a wide slip and popular boating centre for sailing dinghies, RIBS and speedboats. Then the fairway dips towards Île aux Moines harbour, where we moored at a detached pontoon and gazed at all the boats coming and going.
ASHORE ON MOINES
Hitching a lift from a passing dory, we landed at the ferry quay and wandered inland to Le Bourg, with its cluster of bistros and gift shops. This north part of Moines is quite touristy, with ferries shuttling across from Port Blanc every 15 minutes, but if you wander south, the visitors thin out and you feel the true spirit of the island which originally appealed to the monks. Le Domaine du Guerric is a tranquil park and manor house on the east arm of Moines. Music and art festivals are held here, a cultural retreat far from 21st-century clamour. Down on the south-east shore, beside a shallow bay, a centre of shipwrights’ excellence – Chantier du Guip – has been building and restoring wooden yachts for over 30 years, a dedicated enterprise not unlike a monastery.
WHIZZING OUT TO HOUAT
The weather stayed warm with gentle airs and we fancied a whiff of the open sea. Cruising through Port Blanc narrows past the west spur of Moines, we headed for the Morbihan entrance where the far horizon beckoned. Out beyond Kerpenhir lighthouse, I opened up the patient Suzukis and traced a gleaming wake towards Île d’houat, nine miles offshore at a touch west of south.
Quiberon Bay looked utterly dazzling, with sails in all directions and motor boats and RIBS scooting to and from the islands. As well as Houat, we could see Île Hoëdic to the south-east and the bolder profile of Belle Île further out. These are historic waters and the Battle of Quiberon Bay was one of the Royal Navy’s most dashing actions. In November 1759 with a rising gale, Admiral
Edward Hawke’s fleet threaded the islands and reefs to attack the Marquis de Conflans’ ships here. Imagine the pilotage in a winter blow aboard a lumbering three-decker under sail, with uncertain tides, no lights or buoys, and sketchy charts.
As Houat drew closer, we saw its harbour pier with yachts anchored outside. Skimming east of the island, we creamed in towards Houat’s most alluring beach of soft white sand, backed by dunes and tamarisk. This blissful anchorage felt like the Caribbean and we swam and lazed until early evening. It was dusky as we sped back to Port du Crouesty, a large marina just outside the Morbihan where we topped up with fuel in the morning.
UP THE AURAY RIVER
Inside the Gulf to port, the Auray River leads to an unchanging world of oyster beds, tiny Breton hamlets, remote creeks and sleepy boatyards, culminating in the inland port of St Goustan, whose cobbled quays are lined with half-timbered houses – like a waterfront described by Alexandre Dumas. The lower estuary feels wide and open, though the shallow west side is full of shellfish beds. After squeezing between two small islands, the channel gradually funnels to a serene hideaway enclosed by gnarled oaks and lofty beech. At Le Bono, a tributary leads to visitor trots below a high road bridge. From here, you can take the dinghy to a miniature harbour and wander up to a convivial lunching brasserie, Les Allizés in Rue Pasteur.
Above Le Bono we followed the buoys and spars towards Auray and the picture-book port of St Goustan. More classic boats were gathering for an evening of chansons and merrymaking, so after a stroll round the back streets, we dropped downstream again for a peaceful night on a buoy near a white house with blue shutters I’ve always envied. Supper was a succulent crab Jane had bought in Crouesty that morning, with mustardy mayonnaise and crisp Viognier white from the Ardèche. Just the biz!
BACK TO LA TRINITƑ
The weather vibes had changed by morning. Although our mooring was calm, a brisk wind rustled the trees above the river and hazy clouds signalled more active conditions at sea. The forecast was giving Force 5 south-westerlies, more than I’d like for our little boat, even for the hop back to La Trinité. Near high tide, however, we took an inshore route round to the Crac’h, inside Méaban islet and various shoals that act as natural breakwaters.
It was a splashy, exhilarating trip back to base, using plenty of power and the bow trimmed to throw spray well aft. The sun shone as we arrived and La Trinité felt as welcoming as ever. The Nautic Sport team helped us hose down and we left our dashing little Barracuda with reluctance. We’d thoroughly enjoyed renewing our acquaintance with this fantastic boating area, at what turned out to be an ideal time of year.
St Goustan’s cobbled quays are lined with half-timbered houses, like a waterfront described by Alexandre Dumas