Quiberon: a former French island turned presque-isle

Presqu'ile de Quiberon

A NASA screenshot of the Presqu’ile de Quiberon

Situated in the Morbihan region of Brittany, the Presqu’île de Quiberon is a small French peninsula that used to be an island. Long ago, strong winds and currents formed a flat sandy isthmus that reattached the 9 km² territory to the mainland. Dubbed Isthme de Penthièvre, the narrow arm is no wider than 22 m in parts, just enough for cars and trains to circulate. Vulnerable to storms, it has been enlarged and reinforced by man-made dikes on several occasions since the 19th century.

Nowadays, Quiberon is a restful, invigorating and somewhat picturesque sea resort that welcomes thousands of visitors each year. Yet, tourism has not always been the dominant sector. From the second half of the 19th century fishing, especially sardine fishing, and canning concurrently developed as core industries leading to the peninsula’s economic prosperity. A dozen canning factories were established on the presque-isle and Port-Maria, the local harbor, became France’s primary sardine fishing harbor from 1930 to 1957. Two facilities reminiscent of this glorious time are still in business today, La Belle-Illoise (free guided tours are available) and La Quiberonnaise, both renowned for their fine tinned foods, and Port-Maria remains a prominent fishery harbor of the Morbihan region.

Needless to say delicious, extra fresh sea food from the bay can be purchased every morning at the local markets: sardines, gilt-head bream, common sole, langoustines, king scallops, mackerel, seabass, and more.

Thus profoundly shaped by human activities the land nevertheless retains some remarkable natural features that may interest those looking for a vivifying blend of nature and culture, preferably in the spring or fall to avoid crowds.

Here is an overview of Quiberon’s natural highlights in pictures.

THE CÔTE SAUVAGE (i.e. wild coast)

Quiberon’s gem is undoubtedly the Côte Sauvage. This wild coast stretches along the whole western side of the peninsula where stunning cliffs, crevices, caves, dunes and golden sand beaches follow one another over nearly 10 km. Relentlessly lashed by the waves, the sharp jagged edges of the granite rocks deliver a dramatic and melancholic landscape magnified on stormy days.

The Côte Sauvage belongs to Brittany’s largest coastal dune area which spans over 2,500 ha and 35 km of coastline from Quiberon to Grâves. The site encompasses a mosaic of natural habitats including various dune types, heaths and vegetated sea cliffs home to a rich biodiversity nowadays carefully guarded.

Back in the 1990’s, one could explore every inch of the Côte Sauvage. There were no fences and visitors spent more time off than on the loosely defined trails, often hiking, biking or horseriding on the vegetation. Parkings were built directly on the coast to accommodate the vehicles of the many tourists that take over the presque-isle during the busy season. Then, in 1999 the sinking of the oil tanker Erika brought an oily mess to the shore of Morbihan; cleaning it up sometimes required removing part of the vegetation.

These factors and others like the spread of non-native, invasive plants and vandalism eventually caused soil erosion on the Côte Sauvage, and conservation programs had to be launched in the early 2000’s to contain the problem.

Animals like the little egret, the European mink and various plant species are specifically targeted by these conservation initiatives.

Here is a small sample of the colorful vegetation that is commonly encountered when hiking on the Côte Sauvage and the rest of the presque-isle. The vegetation changes depending on the season and these photographs were not all taken at the same time of the year.

Although swimming is forbidden everywhere on the Côte Sauvage because of tidal waves and strong currents, the site attracts many surfers and swimmers willing to take a risk. Tidal waves are unpredictable and can strike even when the ocean looks as still as a lake. But the golden sand, turquoise water, impressive cliffs, and unspoiled and intimate atmosphere of these beaches makes them particularly appealing to visitors who barely pay attention to the prohibitive signs.

What may look like a piece of paradise takes several human lives every year; 2015 is no exception. The beautiful beaches of Port Bara and Port Blanc (see images), both popular among surfers, are particularly deadly.

MIXED BEACH STYLES

Swimming is allowed everywhere outside of the Côte Sauvage. Numerous beaches of different character border the rest of the Presqu’île de Quiberon allowing for a variety of activities—swimming, beach sports, water sports, fishing.

Beach shape and size are daily affected by the semi-diurnal tides of this shoreline; the water alternatively lowers and heightens every six hours. It is worthwhile seeing the strongest spring tides. During such episodes, which occur when the Moon, Sun and Earth are aligned (at full or new moon), beaches may completely vanish under the sea for a few hours.

The main beach known as the Grande Plage is clean, well-maintained and watched by lifeguards in summertime. With a length of 900 m, it is ideal for swimming, jogging and beach sports. It boasts very fine sand, decent waves, the water is crystal clear and fish are commonly seen swimming around your feet, but the water temperature rarely goes above 21C which some may find brisk. It gets crowded in mid-summer but mornings are usually quiet.

Excepting the Plage de Penthièvre mainly used for water sports (land sailing, windsurfing, kayaking, stand up paddle…), other beaches are smaller, wilder looking, generally warmer and more intimate than the Grande Plage. This is notably the case of those surrounding the Pointe du Conguel, all the way to Port-Haligen which are pleasant for swimming depending on the tides and how far from the shore you’re willing to go.

Thanks to the presence of large patches of rocks, islets and alguae, many fish and other marine wildlife inhabit the clear, shallow waters bordering the Pointe du Congel. The site therefore attracts its share of skilled divers in wetsuits who snorkel for hours by the foreshore spearfishing for their personal consumption. Species commonly encountered include bream, mullet, basse, ballan wrasse, spider crabs and brown crabs. No licence is required for spearfishing in the area, but basic safety rules must be observed (for more information, contact Quiberon’s office of tourism).

Other agreable beaches are found above Port-Haliguen, but I didn’t have time to hike there to fetch photos on my last trip.

TREASURE ROCKS

Rocks are a defining feature of the Presqu’île de Quiberon. The low, round rocks that form the beginning of the Côte Sauvage (just behind the Château Turpault) and those that stretch from the end of the Grande Plage to the Pointe du Conguel are a heaven for those, kids and adults alike, curious about interacting with the local wildlife.

These rocks indeed contain a myriad of living treasures left by the sea when it withdraws at low tide. Small animals and plants then remain temporarily trapped in the countless holes, pools and crevices among the rocks—shrimp, crab, fish, shells, anemona, urchin, starfish (not so common these days), etc. Wild mussels and oysters are a common sight. They attach themselves on the rocks at the mercy of predators such as the highly specialized oystercatchers (seen but not photographed) and other birds at low tide.

During my recent trip to Quiberon, I hunted small crabs on the treasure rocks. I was amazed to find a specimen of marbled rock crab (Pachygrapsus marmoratus) for the first time, a much welcome change from the exceedingly common and invasive green shore crab (Carcinus maenas)—which is not always green despite its name.

The small but fierce animal was impressively fast and it was quite a struggle to catch it for a photo shooting! You can appreciate its stunning appearance, color and great little pinces on the images below.

COASTAL BIRD & BUG WATCHING 

Many birds live on the Presqu’île de Quiberon including migratory species which only use the site part of the year as breeding or wintering ground.

Regularly used as a bird census point, the area around Portivy, a small harbor at the northwest end of the peninsula, the Pointe du Percho and the Isthme de Penthièvre, is great for birdwatching. Regrettably, I could not spend much time there during my recent trip to Quiberon. Instead, I explored the equally interesting Pointe du Conguel and was able to photograph (not always satisfactorily, see photos below) the following species: little egret, pipit, wheatear, barn swallow, sand martin, cormorant, common wood pigeon, herring gull, black-headed gull and sandwich tern.

Many small passerine birds live on the Côte Sauvage and the dunes and moor behind it. Since access is now restricted, it can be challenging to see and photograph them, but at least some can be seen along the trail on quiet days.

Look down, walk carefully and you may discover some cool insects among the coastal vegetation. You’re guaranteed to come across sand hill snails which in summertime form large gatherings on low bushes to escape hot ground temperatures. You’re likely to sight stunning hummingbird hawk-moths along the trails and sand wasp skillfully digging their burrow often directly on the soft, sandy paths.

BREATHING HEALTHY

Finally, last but not least, the presque-isle boasts such excellent air quality that Quiberon was approved climatic spa in 1924, a good enough reason for many people to explore the area.

The local Thalassa Center is renowed for its sea therapy.

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