There’s an unseen line on the west coast of France – cross it and life becomes easier, warmer and full of simple joie de vivre. This is our cruising guide
This is the time of year when most of us are starting to look forward to another boating season. I am already hatching cruising plans and they are definitely focused on reliable weather, blue skies and warm water.
No, we aren’t thinking about moving to the Med, which certainly has many attractions but also plenty of drawbacks these days. Our solution is much simpler, because you can find real summer sunshine by crossing the Channel, passing Brittany then cruising quickly along the west coast of France to find that crucial ‘Blue Line’.
Just past the mouth of the Loire, something magical happens to the vibes off the land, your mood, the colour of the sea and the climate! Suddenly life feels like the warm south and you stop fretting about Atlantic depressions.
Lows and fronts are for the chilly north, but here boaters are accustomed to glassy seas, soft sandy beaches and lazy lunches at anchor. Ashore, you see clustered white villas with pantile roofs reminiscent of the Midi. Each balmy evening you can dine al fresco.
There are islands where the pace slows even further – Noirmoutier, Yeu and enchanting Île de Ré. So for 2017 we will be hurrying south for a season to remember – beyond the Blue Line.
Head for the Loire
Working down the French Biscay coast with a purpose, we often use Belle Île as an offshore staging post. From Belle Île to the Loire is an easy 70-mile run past Pointe du Croisic, a low headland separating two very different cruising areas.
Here, traditional Brittany vanishes behind a mysterious curtain and an entirely fresh scene opens up. Following a line of friendly cliffs and secret coves, you soon open
up Pouliguen Bay and the glittering seafront at La Baule-Escoublac.
Famous for its seven-mile beach, La Baule became fashionable in the late 19th century. By the early 1900s, prosperous Parisians were flocking to this chic resort, with its pampering hotels and south-facing seafront. Much of La Baule is still quite classy and at its east end Pornichet Marina is a snug port of call before you cross the Loire Estuary.
Pornichet old town is extremely civilised, with neat parks and avenues of pine trees and oleanders. The four-storey town hall is a French classic, a solid emblem of civic pride and order.
Across to Pornic
Leaving Pornichet on a fine summer day, you often find any morning breeze falling quiet and the sun feeling more seriously warm. The Blue Line isn’t far away! Coasting east you can stay safely inside Plateau de la Banche, five square miles of reefs guarded by buoys and a black-and-white lighthouse.
In the Loire Estuary you see the graceful carriageways of the St Nazaire bridge climbing towards two red-and-white suspension towers and their glinting web of cables.
Pornic lies a few miles east of the Loire, a laid-back resort on the north shore of the Bay of Bourgneuf.
Its amiable marina is at the mouth of a peaceful drying inlet which cuts half a mile inland to a picturesque old fishing port. Holidaymakers come to Pornic for its beaches and coastal walks, but also to gaze at Bluebeard’s Castle, a restored medieval château overlooking the harbour like a film set.
Bluebeard was actually a nasty piece of work and his gruesome murderous history is strangely at odds with the calm Belle Époque quarter across the water, its comfortable villas cocooned in rambling gardens. The town goes back a long way and its narrow cobbled streets were once trodden by 11th-century monks. On market days, the shoppers spill out from Place des Halles like a swirling medieval carnival.
DON’T MISS Lunching at Le Jardin de l’Olivier, a fabulous little bistro in Rue des Sables, tucked behind Pornic’s north quay. Strolling right around the upper harbour and then seawards again to the Crêperie de la Source and its splendid views across the Bay of Bourgneuf.
The spirit of Noirmoutier
Shielding the Bay of Bourgneuf from the Atlantic, the low, flat island of Noirmoutier often seems to hover on the horizon like a mirage, especially in morning light. Its narrow south end is linked to the mainland by a high, curving bridge. The north part is much wider and the island’s lively main harbour and marina is on the north-west tip at L’Herbaudière.
Crossing to L’Herbaudière from Pornic you often don’t see the inner shores of the bay, which are barely above sea level. Succulent oysters and mussels are nurtured here on miles of drying muddy sand, and the marshy coast is riven with tidal channels leading to tiny shellfish harbours.
Whenever we are cruising in the Bay of Bourgneuf, I think of the Camargue in south-west Provence, with its saltwater lakes and lush fens shimmering in summer heat.
Rocky shoals extend a mile north of L’Herbaudière, especially on the east side. Coming in you leave a north-cardinal tower to port and then follow green and red buoys to the pierheads. The visitors’ pontoon is straight ahead as you come in.
L’Herbaudière is a popular harbour and in season there are boats coming and going in all directions. Yachts, dinghies, RIBs, fishing boats, all squeeze through the entrance in a good-natured free-for-all.
Once safely alongside and well fendered, you can pull a cork and watch all this vivacious action, savouring the summery atmosphere. Ashore, the white buildings and red roofs are typically Vendée. The fishing boats are brightly painted and the infectious air of joie de vivre is exactly what you came for.
Ashore on Noirmoutier
The small town at L’Herbaudière bustles with bistros, bars, tourist shops and ice-cream stalls. You can easily hire bikes for exploring the island and the terrain is all flat. From the harbour, pedal out to Noirmoutier’s west tip and then turn south to follow a gorgeous Atlantic shore of turquoise shallows, low dunes and long empty beaches.
Soon you run out into open country where the paths thread gleaming salt ponds and meadows patched with white cotton grass. The skies are big and blue, the horizons pierced here and there by church spires.
Sheep graze the marshes, developing the unique flavour of L’Agneau de Pré Salé. Noirmoutier is also renowned among gastronomes for its naturally evaporated sea salt, and for the delicious local potatoes which thrive in the rich but sandy soil.
DON’T MISS Dinner at La Marine, a stylish Michelin restaurant overlooking L’Herbaudière harbour on Rue Lemonnier. Cycling east to Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, the island’s main town, whose pretty drying harbour is lined with fishing shacks.