Rejuvenating on France’s Wild Coast
ON a Sunday morning last June, the wind was howling across a craggy stretch of France’s Côte Sauvage, or Wild Coast, on the tiny peninsula off Brittany called Quiberon. Standing in the wind, arms outstretched, my traveling companions and I had the sense we might blow out to sea, or at least back toward the pretty houses that line the seaside town of Quiberon.
Below us waves crashed into the sharp rocks, and signs along the rolling green parkland above the sharp gray boulders warned that swimming was prohibited. We were headed not into the water, but into the wind, toward a little shack that clung to the cliffs. Inside, a crowd of Frenchmen and women dug into a midday meal of seafood — snails, oysters, clams, sardines — pulled from the nearby ocean and dressed simply in olive oil and parsley, salt and pepper.
The owners of the restaurant Les Mouettes displayed a little book “Quiberon — la Presqu’ Île” (“The Quiberon Peninsula”) on a shelf. I flipped through it as I ate a perfect tarte-au-citron. The French Atlantic coast is interspersed with stretches of wild, protected land, dotted with fishing towns that were once as isolated and cut off as little islands. In the late 19th century, the railroad reached the truly wild Quiberon peninsula, which boasts mile after mile of protected coast. The tiny town of Quiberon, known for sardine canning, (and still popularly known as the place to buy various exotic fish spreads sold in tins) eventually became a tourist draw. The bulk of Quiberon’s income began to shift from fish canning to catering to the hordes of chic coast-seekers from the French interior.
These days, stores in Quiberon are eager to allow tourists to dress the part of seafaring types, stocking pea-coats, nautical sweaters and caps — as well as more luxurious byproducts like bath salts and algae moisturizers. Old sardine companies hawk their wares at factories like La Belle-Iloise in fancy tins, packaged as gifts. Bicycle companies rent their wheels to Côte Sauvage adventure seekers, and ferries shuttle beautiful people out to Belle-Île-en-Mer, an unspoiled island in the Atlantic filled with 19th-century homes. At the very edge of the Quiberon peninsula, facing the rocky coast, the rich and world weary can nurse themselves back to health at a joint thalassotherapy and diet center.
In the 1960s, hoteliers saw potential in the windswept bluffs at the tip of the Quiberon peninsula and built the Sofitel Thalassa, and later added the Sofitel Diététique. The center reflects the essence of French haute bourgeoisie and attracts the quietly and not-so-quietly wealthy. In the past, clients have included the Chiracs, as in the former Monsieur le Président and Madame.
“I come every summer now,” said a woman who gave her name only as Leila, as she adjusted a purple headscarf. She was among a group of 10 to 20 guests who had just arrived from Saudi Arabia late the Saturday night I checked in. Leila hoisted a large silver Gucci bag as two of her four children looked on with some measure of bemusement. “It’s too hot in Paris,” she explained.
The Sofitel buildings themselves are nothing special — white concrete-block structures in the style of Florida condominiums — but half the rooms, and all of the common spaces, have an unobstructed view of the sea. The clouds drift by floor-to-ceiling glass windows, and guests stroll or run on dirt trails, dressed in windbreakers, and seem not to mind the rain that blows through every hour or two. Some leave the trail and climb the rocks that jut into the sea. But the exercise is not obligatory: you can also watch the action from the seawater lap pool or perched in one of the outdoor seawater whirlpools.
Women and men shuffle through the hushed halls of the Sofitel, shod in white plastic slippers that mold to their feet, white robes and, often, the blue-and-white bath caps necessary for swimming in the lap pool. (The visual effect is like something out of the 1985 movie “Cocoon”). Each guest clutches plastic wrapped sheets listing the treatments they are due to receive, everything from facials to massages, personal training sessions and the saltwater based treatments known as thalassotherapy.
Thalassotherapy is the kind of thing that Europeans all seem to know about and endorse wholeheartedly and that I never fully understood — before trying it myself. In pod-like rooms staffed by women in nurse whites, bathtubs are bathed in soft-blue filtered light. Based on the idea of the healing properties of seawater and algae, thalassotherapy is believed to have beneficial effects on the skin and pores, the circulation and one’s overall sense of calm and well being. Guests may choose from various programs with names like “Regaining Vitality” which promises to “get rid of daily tensions, fight tiredness and free minds and bodies.”