The Mont Saint-Michel Bay is one of Europe’s most captivating sites, so much that its reputation often eclipses the area around it. A stone’s throw from the preened citadel of the Mont, the neighboring French region of Bretagne, or Brittany—traditional homeland of the Celtic Bretons—appears rugged and untamed in comparison. But drive through this corner of northwestern France and it will begin to enchant you with its rich palette of hills, mounds, rivers, and seascapes. Here’s how to make the most of your visit to Mont Saint-Michel, its bay, and nearby Bretagne.
The fairy-tale tidal island
Le Mont Saint-Michel
The cinematic approach of the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel exudes a sensation of new beginnings. In the horizon, a lone mound emerges coyly from a recumbent bay. As the air becomes steeped with the scent of salt and sand, the rock unveils its intricate costume. Embroidered upon its cloak is an entire kingdom—abbey, monastery, castle, and village layer harmoniously upon one another, forming a bastion of blissful isolation. It’s no surprise that every year, the alluring glow of the Mont Saint-Michel draws more than three million visitors from the world over.
During the day, it’s best to avoid the sweating crowds flooding into the holy site by promenading instead along the bridge and admiring the view from La Caserne on the mainland. For lunch or dinner, nearby restaurants such as La Ferme and Le Pré Salé offer a local delicacy, agneau de pré-salé—salt meadow lamb. The meat from these sheep take on a fuller flavor due to the high salinity of the pastures in the Mont Saint-Michel Bay. The best time to visit the island is around sundown, when the majority of visitors have gone and the crepuscular lights can freely emit their magic in the evening calm.
The unassuming oyster capital
To the west of Mont Saint-Michel rests Cancale, a small Breton fishing village that has garnered worldwide attention for its succulent bivalves. It’s widely reputed that Louis XIV, preferring oysters from Cancale above all others, ordered daily deliveries of them by horse to the royal palace in Versailles. Today, the village continues to supply France and the rest of the world with these fresh, succulent shellfish—which are definitely dropping some euro for.
The walled city of corsairs
For every bit of Cancale’s quaint charm, the walled city of Saint-Malo matches with toughness and formidability. Recognized today for its fortifications and historical architecture, in the past, Saint-Malo was known as a city of corsairs and adventurers. It was from here that Jacques Cartier sailed to present-day Québec and, in 1534, claimed the land around the Saint Lawrence River for France.
The joie de vivre of France’s Belle Époque
The winds might be blowing hard and cold in Dinard along France’s Emerald Coast, but that’s all part of the beauty of Brittany. Situated just across the estuary of the Rance from Saint-Malo, Dinard balances the wild Breton landscape with vintage French gentility. The city is home to white sandy beaches and many magnificent cliffside villas built at the end of the 19th century.
The quaint medieval gem
The town of Dinan, built on a hillside, is a medieval marvel and preserves a rustic and undeniably Celtic charm. Descend down the sloping streets of Rue du Petit Fort and you’ll discover why many consider Dinan to be the loveliest village in all of Brittany. On both sides, an ensemble of stone chimneys and bright wooden shutters are nostalgic reminders of a bygone era. Guided by the greenery spilling over walls and seeping up from the cobbled road, continue onwards until you reach the port of Dinan, tucked away on the valley floor, along the Rance River.
Take a seat at one of the handful of restaurants along the quayside and embrace the art of French living over a good meal. You might opt for a galette, for example, which is a buckwheat pancake that originated from this part of Brittany; choose from a selection of savory toppings such as fried egg, smoked ham, and grated goat cheese. For dessert, the far breton—a baked custard containing brandy-soaked prunes—is another local classic.