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

Motorboat & Yachting - - Contents - Words & pic­tures Peter Cum­ber­lidge

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.

IS­LANDS GALORE

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

Île d’arz old tide mill Peter’s Bénéteau Bar­racuda Leav­ing La Trinité

The Nau­tic Sport team

La Trinité bridge

Vannes basin en fête

Café at Conleau

St Gous­tan old bridge

Jane at the helm With thanks to Florence Gaulu­peau at Tourisme Bre­tagne for her help with this ar­ti­cle

Peter’s favourite Au­ray River house

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