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An Idyllic Escape

© By Mike Keenan














  France's northwest corner, Brittany, juts out boldly into the Atlantic Ocean, the jagged coastline both a terrific photographic offering and an ideal seaside holiday with scenic drives along rugged headlands and bountiful beaches in northern Cöte d'Emeraude and Cöte de Granit Rose while the south coast offers wooded valleys and the prehistoric sites of Carnac and Golfe du Morbihan.
     Magnificent beaches embrace the northern shore, swept bare by vast, rolling tides. They are dotted with seaside resorts, fishing ports and for gastronomic excess, ample oyster beds. In contrast, the south coast appears gentler with a milder climate, and that is where we headed, searching for a paradise retreat, gambling on the name "Belle Isle" which seemed to embody precisely that which we were seeking. We guessed right!
     From the mainland, we scrambled to catch a departing car ferry at Quiberon, and in a mere 45 minutes of easy travel through the Atlantic, we arrived at Brittany's largest island, 14 km. south from where we had departed.
     Belle Isle is aptly named. Coincidentally, it was a sunny day, perfect for lolling about, and we immediately parked ourselves alongside others to enjoy the beach. The atmosphere was relaxed, topless swimming and sun bathing in order for the ladies, the inviting aquamarine water, refreshingly cool as I witnessed a scuba diver slowly troll for supper, armed with his trusty spear gun. We lay passively on the warm sand for hours, absorbing the welcome rays of the sun.
     After our fill of idleness, needing some exercise, we climbed up to the top of a small hill to observe a dozen sailboats safely anchored in a well-protected bay amidst a rugged, narrow coastline.
     In town, we discovered the Citadelle Vauban, a 16th century star-shaped fortress and more importantly, a grocery providing tasty wine and fresh bread, adequate to fortify us for invigorating walks and spectacular views along the Cöte Sauvage.
     The island is small and easily explored, measuring only 17 by 9 km., with an average altitude of 40 metres. The coasts are a delightful mixture of sharp cliff edges on the southwest side, the Cöte Sauvage or Wild Coast and placid beaches, the largest, les Grands Sables (Great Sands). The navigable harbours are located on the northeast side. The two main ports are Le Palais where we landed and Sauzon, also accessible by ferry from Quiberon and Lorient.
     I was surprised to discover that a large portion of the current population is descended from repatriated Canadian colonists, following "The Great Upheaval," aka Great Britain's defeat of France in Canada. That stunning defeat on Canada's Plains of Abraham ultimately led to the Acadian Expulsion, in fact, an ethnic cleansing to borrow a trendy phrase.
     By 1755, 6,000 Acadians, three-quarters of the total population, were forced onto ships bound for British American colonies, Europe, and prisons. By 1763, over 10,000 Acadians were deported from our Maritimes, some shipped as far away as the Falkland Islands. Of course, the largest group was returned to France where, sadly, they were poorly treated and ostracized. Thus, Belle Isle was probably a welcome respite, offering just enough distance for the newcomers.
     As with most vacation paradises during summer, the population explodes as many own vacation homes on the island with its secluded location and beaches. In fact, Belle Isle has become a musical pilgrimage. Lyrique en Mer/Festival de Belle Ile is the largest opera festival in western France. Founded in 1998 by American opera singer Richard Cowan, the Festival produces two staged operas every summer, conducted by Music Director Philip Walsh and directed by Cowan, the Artistic Director. There are sacred concerts in all four historic churches as well as many smaller concerts.
     Belle Isle was the setting for segments of The Man in the Iron Mask by Dumas and Dumas has Porthos, one of "Three Musketeers" die.

Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

Photo Credits
Mike Keenan

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Belle Isle Tourism Office: http://www.belle-ile.com/fr/
Lyrique-en-mer Festival: http://www.belle-ile.net/en/accueil/
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belle_%C3%8Ele

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