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We define "Biscay France" as the region south of the Raz du Sein, the tidal gate which guards the entrance to this easy cruising area (north of the Raz is on our NW Brittany page). From the Raz to the Gironde estuary is a superb cruising ground (8/10), a busy holiday coast with easy day sailing, sandy beaches, sheltered estuaries, inland seas, groups of small islands, and some beautifully preserved old towns. It is the yachting centre for France, rather the equivalent of Poole/The Solent in south England. It is dense with reasonably priced marinas, harbours, and anchorages. This is a good value area to base a boat for those commuting to UK with the help of this public transport planner site. The whole area could occupy at least four weeks cruising. You won't travel far, but there will be more to see when you return. The 150nm south of the Gironde is another matter, devoid of cruising interest (1/10) though some like to stop at Arcachon if conditions are favourable; otherwise, best skipped in one hop.
Passage planning is simple, with little tidal stream along the coasts to worry about. However, entry to some of the many ports/marinas is tide dependent, sometimes with strong tidal streams to contend with, and sometimes swell dependent. Tidal range at springs is from 4m to 6m, and will limit some departure and arrival times. Shallow draft yachts under 10m length will have many more berthing options than 12m+ vessels with 2m draft. There's not much big commercial traffic, but streams of fishing vessels pour in and out of some harbours at dusk and dawn.
Weather, and When to Go. With plenty of shelter, year round cruising is feasible for hardy folk. Temperatures are some 3°C to 5°C warmer than in the English Channel, with slightly fewer depressions. From early June to mid September, in sunny weather, moderate day sea breezes develop, and brisk NE night-time land breezes liven things up in the anchorages. Outside sheltered waters, you can be exposed to the N Atlantic swells. Swell alone will block entrance to some estuaries. From the weekend before Bastille day (July 14th) to late August, the whole coast is crowded with holiday makers afloat, in shore accommodation, and in extensive camp sites. Massive firework displays on Bastille day open the season. Outside this incredibly busy period, smaller resorts are surprisingly quiet, and many facilities shut down.
The westernmost headlands of France create two major tidal gates (Le Four, and Raz de Sein) guarding Biscay. The area has some well sheltered cruising and wintering spots which can be part of the Biscay France ruising experience, and it's described on our NW Brittany page
The coast from Raz de Sein to Belle Île is fairly densely populated, with several large towns, many attractive smaller towns, lots of holiday resorts and villages, and hundreds of camp sites. Coastal cafés, bars and restaurants are geared to the wild crush of French holidaymakers between early July and the end of August. Delightful river estuaries, some navigable for many miles, lead to quieter inland destinations. There are many marinas and ports; only the particularly interesting or useful ones are mentioned here. Working north to south:
Audierne and Guilvinec, 5/10, are interesting towns which stay alive in low season. They are both busy fishing ports whose boats flood in and out on autopilot. You can't enter Guilvinec in the evening rush hour from 1600 to 1830! Audierne has more holiday atmosphere, a small marina and an outside anchorage, so it's a good spot to wait the tide when northbound.
Benodet and Loctudy, 5/10 for adults, 7/10 for children on beaches. These are child friendly holiday resorts built around great beaches and pretty tidal estuaries. Both have yards and marinas, and provide for visiting yachts. The Benodet river runs well inland with many possibilities for mooring or anchoring.
Concarneau, 8/10 is a busy town year round with a lot of lovely old buildings and a busy fishing port, well worth a visit. The marina is next to the beautiful old 'Ville Close', an island walled city, a "must visit", even in high season when it's grossly busy. Fishing boat traffic and some surge in southerly winds put a lot of stress on lines in the Avant Port.
R Aven and R Belon, 7/10 for peace and quiet. These are two of several very pretty wooded estuaries on this stretch of coast which can be entered in suitable tidal and weather conditions. Pont-Aven is an attractive village to walk around, full of art galleries celebrating Gaugin's stay there. Houses seem buried in flowers and visitors. Alternatively, raft up on buoys in Belon (misty picture on this site's home page). Enjoy the restaurant at Lanriot; its speciality is Belon oysters and other seafood. Lovely setting.
Îsle de Glénans. 6/10, a smaller version of the Scilly islands, a rewarding archipelago to explore, home to the well known Centre Nautique de Glénans - a superb seamanship school. You'll need a large scale chart.
Îsle de Groix. 6/10, A small holiday island whose port, Port Tudy, can be entered in any weather. However, you'd be lucky to find space in high season.
Lorient. 3/10, but those who value excellent yacht support will rate it much higher, as will those who enjoy a quiet trip up the River Blavet - past a warship graveyard. Once a major military port, pulverised in WW2, this town lost its heart. It's still a major fishing port and an ever growing yachting centre with many marinas and yards. Makes me think of Portsmouth . . . but an Inter-Celtic Festival starts on the first Friday in August for 10 days and fills the town with Scots, Irish, Welsh, Cornish, Asturians, Galicians.
Carnac/La Tinité. 5/10, La Trinité, tucked behind the Quiberon peninsula up the Crac'h river, is a large marina, and a major racing centre with excellent yacht support. Nearby Carnac was famous for its megolithic "alignments" (disappointingly awkward to see), but its well sheltered beach now makes it a surprisingly lively beach resort.
Morbihan. 9/10, the inland sea of Morbihan, with its multitude of islands, ancient dolmens, strong swirling currents, moorings, anchorages and mud banks - leads to the picturesque holiday towns of Vannes and Auray. It's a great place to spend a week with family, anchoring off the islands, visiting nearby towns and beaches. Crouesty is a large marina just west of the Morbihan entrance, useful if waiting for the tide.
River Vilaine. Just east of Morbihan, navigable up to Redon. There's a lock at Arzal (no CEVNI needed), so it's non-tidal above with marina and yard. There are many moorings in the river, another marina at Roche Bernard. The river is an economical place to base your boat while commuting from UK.
Î Houat and Î Hoedic are two tiny sandy islands off the tip of the Quiberon Peninsula which provide delightful summer anchorages.
Belle Île, 8/10, is very popular and easy access. Sauzon is a beautiful village with good restaurants, and Le Palais has a fine citadel, once a prison, which is interesting to tour. Buoys in both harbours.
There are several fishing ports and marinas on this stretch of mainland coast between the Morbihan and the Loire estuary, including the large yacht harbour at Pornichet-La Baule, accessible in most conditions. South of the Loire the coast is comprised of long sandy beaches, with many apartment blocks, and several large, easily accessible marinas to serve the developments.
La Baule, 3/10. Two marinas, one accessible in almost all conditions. Luxury hotels, enormous apartment blocks and sand dunes. A manufactured resort.
Îsle de Yeu, 6/10, attractive island to visit if there's room, with good beaches for anchoring in the south.
Les Sables d'Olonne, 4/10. Magnificent beaches . . . this large modern resort is well served with restaurants, cafés and shops. It's still a busy fishing port, and has a big marina which is very useful as a pause while en route to La Rochelle
St Martin de Ré, 7/10. Development has been controlled on îsle de Ré, and St Martin, the capital, retains the charm of an old whitewashed fishing village, still actively farming oysters. Lovely place to visit, but often full in peak season. Access dries 1.5m. Locked "bassin a flot". No catamarans.
La Rochelle, 10/10, is described by the Rough Guide as 'The most attractive and unspoilt seaside town in France'. We agree. Enjoy the cafés around the old port, do a wine tasting at 'Le Taste Vin', and work the superb restaurants along Rue St Jean de Perot (book at weekends!). The marina at Les Minimes is 2km from the town centre/Vieux port, and does not win awards for service, but it's convenient. Yacht support is good. The Vieux port, though open to visitors, is usually emptied from mid August to make room for the September boat show. Port Website & Tariffs.
Rochefort, 8/10. A historic town, sheltered behind Îsle d'Oleron. The old ropeworks (Corderie Royale) is a great visit with an exhibition of ropes and rope making over the ages. Also a Musée de la Marine. Lock in off the Charente river.
Royan, 5/10 A marina accessible in all conditions, entrance dredged to chart datum. A serviceable town with good yacht support. A suitable jumping off port for N Spain.
For details of the Gironde, Bordeaux and Paulliac, and entry to the Canal du Midi as a short cut to the Mediterranean, see our partner site page: http://www.french-waterways.com/waterways/river-garonne.html
Southwards? (1/10) Miss it out, unless Arcachon is on your "must visit" list for some reason. If so, check the firing range, which extends up to 40nm off shore just south of the Gironde estuary. It's quite busy, but different bits are used at various times - weekends are often quiet. Check missile range operating times for the day's activities. Otherwise, it's best to jump to Biarritz, Cap Breton or N Spain direct. The Basque corner of France centered around Bayonne (8/10) is described on the N Spain page - because it's Basque!
Reviewed Aug 2015