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We love the rewards perks we get from loyalty programs, but we also know that some of the best travel experiences are off the beaten path where nary a points hotel can be found. Contributor Adee Braun takes us to France’s bucolic Brittany region, shows us the sights and offers us affordable accommodations.
Brittany is a rustic, seafaring corner of France where crepes, oysters and cider reign supreme. Bretagne, as it’s called in French, or Breizh, in the local Breton language, is a region of northwest France that is somewhat overshadowed by its cousin to the east, Normandy with its D-Day beaches and slightly closer proximity to Paris. In Brittany–just three to four hours from Paris–you will never be far from a charming town or a dramatic shoreline. Dairy cows graze in the lush pastures, sunshine yellow canola flowers puncture the landscape, and long stretches of beach reward any weekend traveler to the region.
St-Malo is the gateway to Brittany for most visitors to the region. It’s a fortified town on what was originally an island with mazes of streets connecting to small squares with meticulous, grey brick row houses. While its walls were built for centuries of militaristic defense (namely, to keep the English out), today St-Malo is a thriving tourist destination and the walls add to its aesthetic charm. Though crowded in the summer, it’s well worth an overnight stay to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere after the day-trippers vacate. Then it’s just you and the stones and the sea.
Small boats line the narrow beach and tourists stroll along the ramparts as the sun sets over the tiny islands that dot the surrounding waters. St-Malo has plenty of wide, welcoming beaches where you can take in some sun. If you’re looking to get a little windswept, try roller surfing or sand yachting (windsurfing meets go carting) with the local sailing school.
You can’t throw a rock (or a discarded oyster shell) without hitting a seafood restaurant or creperie in St-Malo. At Crêperie le Tournesol get a lunchtime galette (buckwheat crepe) with different savory filling options and wash it down with a kir Breton (cider with blackcurrant liqueur). Complete the crepe experience with a dessert crepe of honey and almonds or flambé it up with a dash of calvados (apple brandy).
Where to Stay: There are many hotel options within the intra-muros (walled city) whose population can quadruple during the summer. Cheaper options lie outside the walls, but are not easily accessible without a car. However, local buses do run regularly from the train station to the old city. If you are driving, the lovely Château du Colombier is an indulgent option 15 minutes from the old city with rates starting at $230 in the summer. Within the city walls, the pleasant and conveniently-situated Hotel Bristol Union is run by an amiable couple and offers simple and comfortable rooms at reasonable rates (doubles $120-147 during the summer).
How To Get There: A few trains run direct from Paris (Montparnasse station) to St-Malo each day, taking a little over 3 hours. Otherwise, you’ll have to make a quick change at Rennes, the regional capital. Tickets are $94-$127 for standard class seating, depending on the time of day. On busy weekends, it’s best to book at least a day in advance.
With St-Malo an ideal entry point to the region, you can plan a series of day trips or overnight stays to Cancale, Mont St-Michel and Dinan.
Oyster Feasts on the Seashore in Cancale
Cancale is pure paradise for oyster lovers. You’ll find dozens of seaside spots to dine on the briny bivalves, from rustic stalls to upscale restaurants. Au Pied d’Cheval (10 quai Gambetta) started out as one of those stalls and now serves up oysters and all types of shellfish in a few homey dining rooms across two floors. Breizh Cafe, the popular Parisian crêperie, has an outpost in Cancale offering decadent galettes with a Japanese twist as well as lots of local catch.
Getting There: Public buses depart from the St-Malo train station for Cancale frequently. The trip takes about 40 minutes and costs a couple dollars, making it a great lunch destination from St-Malo.
Spectacular Sights in Mont St-Michel
Mont St-Michel is an undisputed top destination of the region and arguably of the entire country. This densely built island topped by the spire of a gothic abbey, rises from the vast mud flats of the Bay of Mont St-Michel. While technically in Normandy, the mount is only about 45 minutes from St-Malo just across the Brittany border. Arrive early before the crowds and you will get a sense of why those Medieval monks chose this remarkable island for their home.
The steep hike up the mount is not for the faint of heart. But trudge past the cheesy trinket shops, and you will be rewarded at the top with spectacular views of the surrounding quicksand. Accommodations on the mount are limited and pricey, as are the food options, but enjoying a drink outside at one of the terraced restaurants as the dramatic tides rise is a true delight.
Getting There: Buses depart to Mont St-Michel from St-Malo frequently. The trip takes about 45 minutes if you catch a direct bus, $27 roundtrip. If you come from Paris: There is no train station on the mount or anywhere nearby, so you either take a bus direct from Paris, or take the train to Rennes and then a bus to the mount. The entire trip will take about 3 hours and will cost $75-$150. Book in advance in the summer.
La Belle Vie in Dinan
Dinan is a town in two parts: the walled Medieval part atop a hill and the port below along the Rance River. It’s perhaps the definition of a charming French town, and one of the best preserved in Brittany. An overnight stay in Dinan allows you to really enjoy the place after the tourists have left. The shops and galleries close, and the picnic tables in the Medieval streets fill up with cider drinkers as the riverside restaurants welcome diners. The robust Thursday outdoor market has an array of local meats, cheeses, breads and vegetables perfect for cobbling together a picnic that you can enjoy in the lovely English garden by the basilica where shaded benches come with great views of the river below.
The walking trails that run along the river make a great afternoon stroll beneath the poplars or sit back in a converted river barge and take a short ride down the river. Don’t miss a chance to finish lunch with a kouign amann, a Breton pastry of flakey dough, caramelized sugar, apples and plenty of butter, fresh from the ovens of La Maison de Tatie Jeanne (82 Rue du Petit Fort).
Where to Stay: Dinan has plenty of accommodations within the old town for a range of budgets. The Hotel de la Tour de l’Horloge is a quirky, Moroccan-themed hotel right in the heart of things, lovingly run by its accommodating owner. The rooms are colorful, comfortable and quite large (doubles from $106-$120, including breakfast). If you don’t mind a short hike, Le Logis du Jerzual is a charming B&B just outside the city gates with a lovely garden (doubles from $115-$133).
Getting There: Trains from St-Malo to Dinan run often. The journey takes about 45 minutes (change at Dol) and costs around $15. If you come from Paris: It’s about a 3.5-hour train ride (also with a change at Dol) and costs $100. But trains only run once a day in the morning, so plan accordingly. The train station is at the bottom of the hill, so springing for a short taxi ride will save you a world of suffering.
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