10 Gorgeous French Islands You’ve Probably Never Heard Of
Get ready to set sail for these off-the-radar Gallic islands.
France may be famous for the Eiffel Tower, Chanel couture, and the Champs Élysées, but the Hexagon, as the French love to call their five-sided country, has plenty of hidden spots, including dozens of glorious little-known islands. Many of them are renowned for gorgeous silk sand beaches or peaceful hidden coves; others are famed for their ancient fortresses and prehistoric sites or brine-fresh seafood and crisp white wines. From exotic Gulf-stream-bathed islands where cars are unwelcome to sun-drenched getaways where celebrities go to chill, here’s our pick of the best.
Famed for delicious oysters and exotic flowers, this colorful collection of islets linked by artful engineer Vauban’s exquisite Pont ar Prad bridge is just a 10-minute ferry ride from Paimpol, on Britanny’s rugged Côtes-d’Armor.
Get your oyster fix directly from the producers along boulder-strewn Pors Hir beach and then hike out to explore along the island’s endless sandy paths.
Rolf E. Staerk/Shutterstock
Île de Batz
Another beautiful Breton isle, car-free Batz’s main claim-to-fame is the vast botanical garden created in the 20th century by local insurance vendor Georges Delaselle. Apart from admiring Delaselle’s huge collection of exotic plants and thorny cacti, it’s worth taking the 10-minute ferry ride here from Roscoff in order to lounge on some of the best powder-white beaches this part of France has to offer.
Île du Levant
This lovely island near Toulon, which was once an infamous penitential colony, is now famed as the home of Heliopolis, a naturist colony founded by two funky, free-life-loving doctors André and Gaston Durville in the 1930s.
With its gorgeous secret coves and soft sand beaches, this is the only Mediterranean island where nudism is allowed everywhere—even in the small main town.
#hyerestourisme [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons
Île de Lerins
Fans of the story of the Man in the Iron Mask will be thrilled to learn that Sainte-Marguerite, one of the cluster of Lerins islands just a short ferry hop from Cannes, is home to the 17th-century Fort Royal where the mysterious masked man (rumored to have been Louis XIV’s twin brother) was imprisoned for more than three decades.
These days Sainte-Marguerite and twin island Saint-Honorat are a magnet for celebrities, who flock here to escape the French Riviera’s heat and dust (along with fans and paparazzi) during the glamorous Cannes Film Festival.
The granite cliffs, secret sandy coves, lush scenery, and traditional fishing communities of this laidback Atlantic island off the Vendee coast have inspired countless French artists, including Fauvist painter Jean Dufy who created some of his most colorful canvases here.
Little has changed since Dufy’s days: you can still see colorful fishing boats bobbing in the harbor or stroll around the island’s magnificent Vieux-Chateau, which was built in the 16th century when this lush island was pestered by pirates.
The island where small-guy-with-a-big-attitude Napoleon spent a final week, before being sent into exile on St. Helena in 1815, is a bijou paradise that few tourists ever visit.
Reached via ferry from Fouras-les-Bains, a warren of sandy paths lined with head-high hollyhocks link this island’s pristine beaches and small villages. Be sure to visit the quirky Napoleon Museum which is packed with the ex-emperor’s paintings, clothes, and diaries.
It’s a two-and-a-half-hour ferry trip from Brest to reach Ushant, Finisterre’s westernmost island, which is Brittany’s best-kept secret.
Perhaps understandably, this remote chunk of rock where the flocks of (rare) short-tailed sheep outnumber the inhabitants is renowned for its picturesque lighthouses, including the bizarrely-named Le Stiff, which was built in 1695 by Louis XIV’s architect Vauban.
Bundle up to explore the windswept crags and coves of this five-mile-long isle, then spend a few cozy hours learning about local customs and lifestyle in the fascinating Écomusée du Niou.
Île de Porquerolles
A 10-minute ferry ride from the southern French city of Toulon, this tiny slice of paradise fringed with powder-sand beaches and framed by pine forests is like a Gallic version of a Caribbean island.
You should rent a bike and explore spectacular cliff paths in the south of the island, before spending the day on one of the north’s glorious beaches.
Îles de Glenan
The “Breton Tahiti” is how locals refer to this dazzlingly pretty string of isles off Finisterre’s south coast, which are famed for their Seychelles-like white sand beaches surrounding a sheltered turquoise lagoon.
Reached from Concarneau, an hour-and-a-half’s boat ride away, main island Saint Nicolas has a few restaurants and a not-for-profit maritime school where you can learn how to sail. Alternatively, rent a kayak and paddle about on your own to explore.
Pedal through car-free “Monk’s Island” and you’ll feel like you’re on a Greek island: not only because of the balmy climate but because of the labyrinth of flower-strewn sandy lanes and traditional white-painted fishing villages.
The icing on the cake? There are plenty of spots to stop off and sample Morbihan’s famed oysters with a glass of Pommeau, the punch-packing local liqueur made from sweet cider and apple brandy.
Jebulon [CC0]/Wikimedia Commons