STEPHEN DAVY-OSBORNE escapes the rat race in a beautifully unspoilt corner of France

THE Val de Loire is famed for its fantastic wines, unrivalled chateaux heralding an era of regal France, and bountiful orchards that line the banks of the river. But journey west away from the so-called Garden of France towards the mouth of the magnificent river and you will find yourself in one of the most beautiful sun-kissed bays in the country.

Think Nice or Cannes, but without the hustle and bustle of the film festival or flight-loads of tourists newly landed, eager for a party.

La Baule is where Parisians go to get away from it all. Just three hours from the capital by high-speed train, this 9k stretch of sand and pure blue waters has made itself a destination resort – home to two of the world’s 18 luxury Barrière hotels and resorts. L’Ermitage offers unrivalled beachside dining with an extensive seafood menu that is sure to please.

Beautifully ornate villas are nestled in among the pine trees back from the golden sands of the beach, harking back to a golden era of days gone by, while harbours on either side of the bay highlight the popularity of sailing.

But the high-end seafront conceals a working class heritage that is still very much at work today, and life really is black and white when it comes to this part of the Atlantic coastline.

From humble beginnings amid peat miners, the nearby villages are now more commonly associated with exquisite salt – with striking salt plains stretching out along the countryside behind the seafront, where the sunlight can be found casting beautiful patterns across the water. The Guérande peninsula is home to some 2,000ha of salt marshes, which have seen Guérande’s fleur de sel find international fame and popularity. It is still farmed extensively today at the paludier’s village of Saillé. Records suggest salt was being produced here as long ago as the ninth century, and skills and experience have been passed down from generation to generation, resulting in some of the best salt in the world for flavour and mineral content. Pay a visit to La Maison des Paludiers to taste it for yourself – it doesn’t get much fresher than that.

Marshland is key to this area’s success, and a visit to the nearby Le Parc naturel régional de Brière can only really be carried out aboard a chaland – a flat-bottomed boat like a punt. Step aboard and you will be treated to a tour around the sweeping channels that make up France’s second largest area of marshland after the Camargue. Once home to peat diggers, today the tranquil waters are an absolute haven for a myriad of wildlife which has now made these idyllic waters their own.

Be sure to pay a visit to the walled medieval town of Guérande. It is picture postcard perfection, and home to delightful boutique shops, restaurants, coffee shops and creperies, such as Crêperie Roc Maria where you can enjoy classic sweet Bretagne crepes, or indulge in a savoury galette.

Follow the bay round into the mouth of the Loire and you will find the seaside city of Saint-Nazaire. This thriving metropolis is unashamedly not a seaside resort, but a lively city which attracts visitors all year round. With a maritime history stretching back centuries, the shipyard has built some of the finest cruise liners to take to the seas – including Cunard’s magnificent Queen Mary 2. Launched in 2003, it was thought the vast ocean-going liner would never return to Saint-Nazaire – with an 11 metre draft only an exceptionally high tide would allow the vast vessel back to port.

That moment came earlier this year, when 14 years after she slipped out of her dock and into Cunard’s service, she returned to mark 100 years of Franco-American friendship. Saint-Nazaire was the landing point for the first American troops to land in Europe in the summer of 1917. And 100 years to the day, the QM2 returned to port to mark the momentous occasion by taking part in an unprecedented race across the North Atlantic against four giant trimarans. She completed the epic journey in five days, 16 hours and 45 minutes, shaving an entire day off a typical transatlantic crossing, and leaving the state-of-the-art trimarans trailing in her wake.

While you are unlikely to see the QM2 in port anytime soon, chances are you will be able to catch a glimpse of another multi-million-Euro liner under construction during your visit. Be sure to pay a visit to the Escal’Atlantic for a flavour of the city’s rich maritime history, with exhibitions revealing what life was like aboard a transatlantic voyage at the turn of the century, and more than 200 artefacts from liners built in the city’s docks.

Leaving the city and heading south takes you across the awe-inspiring Saint-Nazaire Bridge - 3,356m of cable-stayed bridge spanning the Loire, some 61m above the waves. Heading slightly further south, but sticking to the coastline you will come to the charming seaside town of Pornic.

This beautiful fishing port – less well-known than the affluent La Baule – is the perfect place to relax along the beautiful Jade Coast after the hustle and bustle of Saint-Nazaire.

Until the 1970s the harbour was a hive of activity for sardine fishers. Today, life passes by at a slower pace, and there is now better way of experiencing this than enjoying some of the freshly made ice creams and sorbets – or evenly freshly-picked strawberries at the Fraiseraie, while overlooking the harbour, now home to many pleasure craft. Be sure to try the sumptuous strawberry nectar before taking in a stroll along the wooden walkway hugging the rugged the harbour walls to the chateau, perched on the rocks overlooking the town.

With atmosphere like this, it’s not hard to see why so many Parisians like to escape the rat race here.

For more details on the region visit and

  • You can’t get much closer to the shoreline of La Baule than Mercure Majestic which offers 4* comfort in the heart of the bay.
  • For a home away from home in Pornic, Auberge la Fontaine aux Bretons is a delightful hotel with sea views, and beautiful vast gardens. The roaring fire makes it the perfect place to kick back and relax after a busy day of sightseeing, and the kitchen offers an extensive menu of gourmet dishes. There is no better way to start the day than in the hotel’s serene outdoor swimming pool.
  • Easyjet fly daily direct from Gatwick to Nantes, as well as operating flights from Bristol to Nantes. La Baule and Saint-Nazaire are easily reached by train, or a short drive.