This year, as usual, the family holiday was spent in Brittany. A recurring frustration for me on these occasions is that my boat is back home. Looking out across at the Rade de Brest (the waterway that includes the French Navy's major northern port), I always want to be on it rather than just looking at it. This year we were staying near Camaret-sur-Mer, a town built on its maritime history, and I was able to get afloat aboard two very different craft.
First up was Belle Etoile (beautiful star). Built in 1992, this is a replica of a traditional craft designed to harvest the langoustine so favoured by the Breton palate. It's owned by Etoile Marine and run locally by a young couple. €40 gets you a half day aboard this old-style sailing vessel (€70 for a full day). The weather on the morning I was due to go was very poor and I was expecting the trip to be cancelled but the clouds lifted and we had a glorious afternoon although a bit more wind would have meant a bit less time on the engine.
Assuming you're able, you don't sit about – you're quickly asked to pull on this or coil that. Hoisting the mainsail is a 4 person task and I can tell you is trés dur! The instructions were clear enough although my inability to speak more than basic French was a continuing frustration. The two younger men aboard had more to do mainly because they were more able to engage with the even younger skipper. The two younger chaps pulled one of the halyards to raise the mainsail while I worked the other with a retired lady who had recently moved to Camaret from Cornwall.
She and I chatted a lot during the trip and I was surprised to learn that there isn't a large ex-pat community in the area. As we have long considered buying a house in Brittany we kind of assumed others wanted to too but it seems we're in a smaller minority than we thought. This doesn't quite strike true given Brittany Ferries has a discount scheme for local property owners and Credit Agricole has an account designed for English owners of Breton properties. Maybe it's just Camaret where the Brits are absent.
Once off the mooring it wasn't long before we were rounding the Pointe de Toulinguet. It's hard to see this from the land as it's one of the military areas that are off-limits so seeing it from the sea was particularly rewarding.
From there on to the Pointe de Pen Hir.
This is one of the iconic locations of Brittany and, of course, you get a very different perspective at sea. The skipper took us in between and round the rocks off the main headland with my camera and others snapping away merrily.
The next day included a very different maritime experience, aboard a high powered speed boat. With 2 enormous 200 horse power engines and not a lot of boat, Iroise Evasion offers a very different experience altogether.
On leaving the harbour, the first point of interest on the route was the Pointe des Capucins. Originally built in the late 17th century and re-built in 1848, it guards the Goulet de Brest, the narrow channel between Brest and the open Atlantic.
From the Pointe des Capucins it's a short hop across the channel to the twin towers of le Petit Minou (the little cat), the lighthouse of which was built in the same year.
We'd been to Le Petit Minou so it was good to go back, again seeing a familiar landmark from a different perspective. The next stop was very familiar indeed. For the last two years we've stayed at Les Terrasses de Bertheaume which is the campsite on the cliffs above the beach in the picture below. I've swum out among the boats moored off the beach here but never got this far out.
The final stop on the trip was one of my favourite locations in Brittany, Pointe de Saint Mathieu. Keep going west in a straight line from Brest and this is where you get to. It's an intirguing mixture of ruined abbey, lighthouse, coastguard station, church and, close by, memorial to sailors who have died for France (oh and there's a cafe as well of course). Just round the corner is the village and port of le Conquet and a few kilometres further on, past the terrific plage des blancs sablons, is the Pointe de Corsen, the most westerly point of the French mainland.
Oh and from there you just open up the throttle on all 400 horse power and belt home via Toulinguet!
If you want to take either of these trips or any other (there are loads in the area to choose from) then book early in your holiday. Cancellations due to bad weather or insufficient numbers are not uncommon. In both cases, my trip was delayed by a couple of days so don't leave it to the last minute.
The Belle Etoile is booked and paid for through the tourist information office. No problem there if you don't speak any French and the Belle Etoile's skipper also speaks English when needed. The only difficulty is knowing where to wait to be picked up on the day. I was told I'd be picked up from the SNSM slipway which is next to the Tour de Vauban (SNSM is the French equivalent of Britian's RNLI). Well, I got there in good time and saw the skipper and his wife (plus baby) make their way out to the boat, then he came back for the first passengers - but not by the SNSM slipway. I went down to where they had embarked on the tender and was duly picked up but there was general confusion among all of us, I think, on where we were actually supposed to wait. Be early, be watchful.
Iroise Evasion has its own booking office which is just above the commercial boatyard area in what must surely be a former filling station. I am very grateful to the lady who works there for being so helpful (Valérie Gaurat). I really wanted to do the Petit Minou tour rather than the other trips they offer - which I'm sure are equally enjoyable, it's just that I wanted to get to Pointe de St Mathieu. There weren't enough people for the first booking I made so we changed it to a new time, only to find I was then double booked on the Belle Etoile. Eventually we got it sorted with a mixture of my bad French and Valérie's much better English. Je vous remerci.
For a trip with a sense of maritime heritage and the matchless feel of being driven purely by the wind, take the Belle Etoile trip. For a sightseeing trip interspersed with high speed bounces across the waves, Iroise Evasion is for you (and the kids).