Hossegor and Biarritz are world-renowned surfing destinations, from the machine-like tubes of La Gravière to the massive peak at Guéthary. As well as hosting a stop on the ASP (Association of Surfing Professionals) world tour, Hossegor in particular is visited by countless thousands of travelling surfers every summer and autumn, in search of the French surfing dream. But limiting a surf trip to this area of France alone would mean missing out on thousands of miles of coastline, from Brittany in the north down through Vendée and Charentes further south.
Just a short hop by ferry from the British Isles, Brittany offers a famously diverse coastline to Atlantic swells. There are fewer pine trees and ruler-straight golden beaches, but to many surfers the variety of the coastline will be the appeal. Because Brittany is a less obvious surfing destination, many of the cars and vans that come to France by ferry every year simply bypass the region and head south straight away. To say they are missing out would be an understatement.
To Cornish surfers or those well versed with West Cornwall, Brittany will feel like a home away from home, though there many differences in geography, culture and waves. The far western tip bears obvious resemblance to a Cornwall of the past. Surfing the small-swell beachbreak Baie Des Trépasses at the tip of the peninsula is a raw experience, but magic infests the whole region. Winding roads connect charming villages, with plenty of wild countryside (not to mention teeming wave potential) in between. Plenty of free-camping opportunities exist, making a ferry journey an ideal option for the budget traveller. If you can't afford the restaurants and are cooking in the van, ingredients from French supermarkets can be cheap and pleasant when washed down with a cup of red wine.
Although Hossegor almost guarantees early-morning barrels and late-afternoon glass-off perfection, the waves of Brittany are steeped in mystery and can offer a surprising level of challenge and quality. Considering surfers can leave southern England and be surfing the Brittany coast just a few hours later, in their own vehicle and with a minimum of hassle, the waves here can pack a surprising punch as many surfers accustomed to Cornwall could attest to. If you find yourself surprised and out of your league just a few hours from home, you wouldn't be the first. Like any coastline of nooks and crannies, Brittany hides many secrets. An 800-mile coast with huge tides, innumerable bays and coves, rocks and islands means that whatever the Atlantic is doing, some spots will almost always offer waves. Gaping barrels and freight-train walls are more commonly associated with Hossegor and surrounds, but they do happen up north too.
The channel coast sometimes breaks, although more commonly in big winter storms. Although Normandy is not a renowned surf destination of itself, spots such as Yport and Etretat can turn on the quality for those passing through. The North Brittany coast is very tidal, and although there are known gems, it remains a place of vague directions and undisclosed potential. The stunning Crozon peninsula boasts natural greenery, free-camping opportunities, and a host of setups exposed to the Atlantic. South Brittany includes highlights such as La Torche and the thick beachbreaks around Quiberon. Beside the named spots, countless unmarked waves peel off, and looking outside the guidebooks can yield unexpected rewards.
To the south, the regions of Vendée and Charentes stretch for a further 400 miles to the River Gironde, where Aquitaine begins and typical French beachbreak conditions commence. Vendee and Charantes are massive surfing regions in their own right, with hundreds of spots to choose from. The Côte de Lumière, the coast of light, boasts sunshine and a hybrid mix between the beachbreak consistency of Southern France and the fickle magic of Brittany. Any surfer with decent travelling experience will notice an indented coastline between Brittany and Les Landes, and the potential that this represents. Although not quite as predictable or mechanical as further south, Vendée and Charentes are packed with quality waves.
Highlights include the reef peak at La Sauzaie, jealously guarded but epic under the right conditions. The nearby beaches around Bud Bud can mimic Hossegor, without the international crowds, whilst the reefs around Sauveterre can really pump under ideal Autumn conditions. The islands, Ile de Ré and Ile d'Oleron, hide their secrets well and offer distinct surfing microclimates.
Crowding is less of a problem in these departments, particularly during the week and the off-season. When a decent low anchors itself out in the Atlantic, perfect days can go down during winter and spring with minimum people sharing the waves. Localism is low, although in some areas it is becoming more common as crowds grow, so respect the usual rules of the road: travel in a small group, be courteous, and don't breach your comfort zone. The less clear water can make the reefs hard to read, whilst some of the beachbreaks are quietly treacherous. If you don't feel comfortable, seek some advice or head elsewhere.
Because of the nature of the coastline, swell can come from all angles but east, with certain spots only coming to life in very specific conditions. This factor, combined with the large tides, mean that local knowledge is essential to get the best waves. Some spots, particularly in Northern Brittany, require a whole set of variables to turn on fully. It's not quite as predictable as Les Landes, but it is emptier, and has that unknown quantity that makes surfing what it is.
Part of the attraction of these regions of France lies with their diversity, with each department sporting its own culture and regional specifics. The Celtic culture in Brittany, complete with cider and crêpes, quickly gives way to a more traditionally French way of life in Vendée. Nightlife on the coast outside the cities can be more relaxed that an evening at the Rock Food, but the delicious wine and seafood is ubiquitous. Come summer and early autumn, French cities empty and tourists flock to the coast. Many areas that are totally dormant in the winter come to life, with buzzing restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
There's no better way to experience France than on a self-drive holiday. Not only is it much more relaxing on board a ferry than a plane, but you have the added convenience of taking your own car, the flexibility to take as many boards as you like (without being charged for the pleasure!), and you don't need to worry about them getting damaged either! Simply load up with all you need to enjoy your trip, and then go get some waves.
To plan your next trip, check out http://www.brittany-ferries.co.uk/surf