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Cruising West Brittany: Exploring France’s wild west coast

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Often overlooked for more popular cruising areas to the north and south, this section of coastline is one of France’s finest boating areas

We have always loved the North Brittany coast for its glorious rivers and craggy inlets, its fantastic tidal range and shifting seascapes, and for the heady zest of the sea, which permeates the estuary channels. The south is made for lazy summer holidays, with its warm turquoise water, white sandy beaches and wonderful scattered islands with anchorages galore.

Between these very different areas, the wild west coast has a special Breton character, pierced as it is by grand gulfs of ancient granite cliffs. Pushing south from the English Channel through the Chenal du Four, you emerge in a flurry of overfalls off Pointe de St Mathieu, a looming headland of legends with its semaphore signal station, red-capped lighthouse and ruined monastery.

The vast expanse of water facing you is known as L’Iroise, a romantic name which locals roll off their tongues in guttural growls. The splendour of L’Iroise catches your breath, especially on a clear day when you gaze across to the hard edge of Pointe du Raz, whose race lies in wait. The shores around Toulinguet Point look lonely and untamed, with more stone megaliths on the hill behind Camaret.

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Ouessant Le Stiff lighthouse is a distinctive landmark

To the east, Brest is almost invisible from seaward, glimpsed though a tiny gap in the cliffs. Further south, the magnificent Bay of Douarnenez is equally shy, its glorious strands and two charming harbours shielded by the craggy headland of La Chèvre.

To those in the know, Brittany’s west coast is one of France’s finest boating areas, so next time you’re passing, don’t pass. Dive into Camaret or one of Brest’s snug marinas and start exploring from there. You won’t regret it.

Across to Camaret

Nine miles across L’Iroise from St Mathieu, the picturesque fishing port of Camaret is tucked behind Pointe du Grand Gouin. The town stays hidden until you enter the bay, which is fringed with low cliffs and golden beaches.

Then you’ll see the masts of visiting yachts behind Port Vauban breakwater. These outer pontoons are snug in most weathers, with open views around L’Iroise, or you can moor nearer town in Port du Nodic, opposite the colourful waterfront on pontoon ‘A’. Here you are in the hub of things, with shops, bars and restaurants to hand.

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We usually moor at the outer marina, an easy stroll into town along the sea wall. On the way you pass a 17th-century pink stone fortress that glows in evening light. Beyond a sailors’ chapel, exquisite inside, is a drying hard where rotting hulls are reminders of a once prosperous fishing fleet.

Soon you reach the Hôtel Vauban, my favourite place to eat. While the town quay has many fine restaurants, the Vauban’s family atmosphere and traditional cooking give a perfect end to the day.

The Brest narrows

From L’Iroise you skirt the long north shore with its bays, beaches and steep-to cliffs, entering the narrow Goulet de Brest off Petit Minou lighthouse. This strategic cut was crucial to the growth of Brest as a naval base because French ships anchored inside the Rade could be defended from hostile ships – especially the British Royal Navy – by heavy batteries that could sweep the whole strait.

The Goulet also had its own natural defences with a string of rocky shoals dividing the entrance into two much narrower channels. You emerge into the spacious reaches of the Rade de Brest, the combined estuary of several sleepy rural rivers, which you can explore from one of Brest’s comfy marinas.

Marina du Château

This well-appointed yacht harbour lies below the ramparts of Château de Brest, a sturdy fortress that has been added to since Roman times. Turning in past a mile-long breakwater, head just west of north for half a mile and then double back between the inner moles to enter a large sheltered basin. The visitors’ berths are straight ahead on either side, but larger boats go alongside the long pontoon to starboard.

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Moulin Blanc Marina in Brest is a safe spot to base yourself for a few seasons

Marina du Moulin Blanc

A couple of miles east in a pleasant shallow bay, Brest’s original marina is my favourite, with attractive landscaping and some interesting new buildings. Facilities are first class and there are bars and restaurants on site, including Le Tour du Monde with its sunny veranda – a popular meeting place for moules-frites and a chatter over jugs of cold rosé.

Next to the marina are the distinctive white domes of the Océanopolis centre, an award-winning aquarium extravaganza covering all aspects of marine life and habitats, particularly in Brittany. As well as the dramatic walk-through aquariums, there are displays on local tides and currents, and examples of all types of sea flora and fauna presented with French flair.

Moulin Blanc is a safe and convenient place to leave a boat between cruising stages or as a base for a couple of seasons. It’s easy to catch a train east along the coast to Morlaix and Roscoff from where regular ferries run to Plymouth.

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Escape the bustling ports with a meander along the tranquil Aulne

The Aulne River

The Aulne estuary opens into the south fork of the Rade de Brest, a peaceful stretch of water, which soon leaves the city behind. Quite wide at first, the banks draw together past Landévennec and its elegant abbey. The river loops around this peninsula between wooded banks and you pass rusting naval ships in a graveyard bend.

Then you curve into a steep-sided reach where a striking new bridge eclipses the old, disused crossing. If you are bound for Châteaulin basin, aim to pass these bridges at half-flood. It’s nine miles from here to the lock, which operates two hours each side of HW Brest, from 0730-2100.

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