Beaches in France are among of the best in Europe, with a staggering range of coastlines ranging from sheltered corners of the iridescent sea on the Mediterranean to majestic cliffs towering above slate-colored churning ocean in Normandy. You can eat fresh grilled fish on one of the most gorgeous beaches in the South of France, or you can walk rough stone cliffs for exclusive access to inaccessible regions.
Included in the excitement is the active goal of getting there by boat, kayak, bike, or foot. Yet, just because you put a towel down on the sand doesn’t mean you have to rough it. The ultimate luxury is to soak up the authentic atmosphere of France’s best beaches, whether floating in the salty sea or slicing through the surf.
1. Plage De L’Escalet, Ramatuelle
An eye-catching sandy cove, nestled away between Cap Camarat and Cap Taillat, is a different kind of wild beyond the famed Pampelonne beaches where the bronzed and gorgeous move to a thumping base. With your snorkel and fins, explore the many neighboring inlets, or glide through the pristine water in a kayak. Build up an appetite by strolling down the rocky coastal trail (a six-mile stretch that runs all the way from Croix-Valmer), then reward yourself with a healthy Michelin-starred lunch at La Voile at La Réserve, Ramatuelle, which is only a five-minute drive from the beach.
2. Plage D’Herlin, Belle-Ile-En-Mer, Brittany
Belle-île-en-Mer (‘beautiful island in the sea’) is the largest of Brittany’s islands, and is known for its high cliffs, breathtaking flora, and, more recently, an eco-friendly mentality. Rent an electric car and drive to Plage d’Herlin, an estuary with two golden-sand beaches on the south coast between Bangor and Locmaria. Barnacles and mussels still cling to the rocks of the highly protected shoreline, but don’t try to pry them off; instead, try the restaurant of the newly refurbished Wilmotte-designed Hotel du Phare in Sauzon, only a 15-minute drive north, for exquisite platters of shellfish.
3. Plage Des Dames, Ile De Noirmoutier, La Vendee
This little-known postcard-perfect isle in the Bay of Biscay is a long-established haven for generations of French families with holiday houses, who come for its low-key, unpretentious ambiance. It’s about an hour and a half from Nantes. The Plage des Dames, located in the north-east corner near Bois de la Chaise, exudes nostalgia with its row of stylish on-the-beach changing cabins from the nineteenth century. There are kids scrambling on the rocks crab-hunting and grandfathers fishing off the long wooden pier, as well as a variety of water activities and a sailing school.
4. Calanque D’Antheor, Le Trayas, Saint Raphael
The nine-mile stretch of rocky Estérel coastline, with its sequence of quiet creeks and red-rock calanques – including Maubois, Cap Roux, Saint-Barthélémy, and Petit Caneiret – often concealed from view beneath pine-shaded bluffs, will astound you. The combination of clear green water, jagged rust-colored cliffs, and russet pebbly beaches is unique to the Riviera, but you’re on your own – no lifeguards, no restaurants. If you are hungry, La Cabane, a welcoming snack shack on a curve on the road near the tall viaduct, is five minutes by vehicle up the coast.
5. Plage Paloma, Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat
Situated back on a lush finger of land where the likes of Cocteau, Matisse, and Chagall once painted, this gorgeous beach in the south of France is popular with snorkellers, local families, and the well-heeled who arrive by yacht. There’s something for everyone, whether you’re looking to eat fresh grilled fish at Paloma’s beautiful restaurant or a pan bagnat at Le Cabanon down the street. The highlight is the panoramic seaside view, which is even better from a paddle board or jet ski, both of which may be rented.
6. Plage Notre-Dame, Ile De Porquerolles
The little government-protected island of Porquerolles is a treasure trove of natural beauty, with pine and eucalyptus trees, wineries, and untamed expanses of beaches – which explains why everyone from day-trippers to serious scuba divers visit here year-round. Before heading to the crystalline shallows of Notre-Dame, a long curve of white sand where you may recline in the shadow of a windswept pine to the tune of thrumming cicadas, pick up a sandwich (and lots of water) at the village square.
7. Plage De L’Ouille, Collioure
This tranquil gravelly beach, nestled between Argelès-sur-Mer and Collioure, is a snorkeler’s paradise, surrounded by flowering Mediterranean flora. You’re deep in Fauvist territory, where Matisse drew preliminary sketches for Le Bonheur de Vivre and the sea is a vibrant turquoise. l’Imprévue, an on-the-beach snack bar, serving Catalan-style tapas, grilled sardines, and local wines.