Lonely Planet Writer

Just back from: Brittany, France

Claire 1 Captain Claire for the weekend © Claire Richardson

Claire Richardson, Picture Editor at Lonely Planet Traveller magazine, recently returned from a long weekend in Brittany in northwest France.

Tell us more… My fiancé and I enjoyed a self-drive boat tour on a stretch of the Nantes-Brest canal in Brittany, exploring traditional Breton villages along the way, attempting to spot wildlife and watching sunsets from the deck of our boat, whilst dining on local cheeses and red wine.

In a nutshell… The Nantes-Brest canal is one of Brittany’s most historic waterways; Napoleon Bonaparte ordered its construction in 1821 to protect his men and supplies from the cunning British fleets patrolling the Breton coastline.

Once a busy transport route, the tree-lined banks now paint a much quieter scene, providing a pretty backdrop for people to enjoy by boat, bike or on foot. We rented a boat from Nicols, and the best part is that no experience is necessary, so after a quick induction you’ll be captain of your vessel, cruising through the leafy countryside.

Claire 4 There's nothing like a quiet cruise through the countryside © Claire Richardson

Defining moment… Sitting at the wheel of our boat steering gently along the meandering waterways, under canopies of trees; listening to a soundtrack of tweeting birds, lapping water and the gentle hum of the engine and realising that no one was around. It was a wonderful feeling.

Good grub? Brittany is famous for its crêpes and cider, so it’s worth mooring up at Breton villages to visit their crêperies, cafes and restaurants. For a cheaper option I’d recommend checking when the local markets are on and picking up fresh produce. We bought delicious local cheeses, pâté, fresh fruit and wine from the Saturday market in the village of La Gacilly, which we enjoyed on the deck of our boat as the sun went down.

Claire 5 The beautiful Breton village of Malestroit © Claire Richardson

Any wildlife encounters? Spotting wildlife was one of the highlights of the trip. My favourite moment was when a heron gracefully swooped down in front of our boat, gliding with us for quite a way, in the hope of catching a fish in the ripples of water. We even caught sight of an otter making its way to the banks, but it was impossible to catch on camera as it kept dipping beneath the water – incredibly cute but elusive creatures!

Quintessential experience? You can’t say you’ve been on a canal trip without enduring the challenge and pleasure of navigating through a few locks! Luckily in Brittany most locks are automatic and have lock keepers. The trick is to sound your horn from about 100m away alerting the lock keeper who will pop out of their house, hand you the ropes and push the buttons to open and close the locks for you. We found them all very friendly and it was great seeing them all again on our journey back.

Claire 2 When approaching the lock, sound the horn! © Claire Richardson

You’d be a muppet to miss… The Ile-aux-Pies. 'Magpie Island' is as intriguing as it sounds and well worth a stop at the beginning or end of a trip, as it is only a 10-minute cruise from the Glénac base where you pick up your boat. It’s a beautiful spot and nothing like anything we’d seen on the trip. The river gets much wider and instead of tree-lined banks you’ll find impressive rocky cliff faces towering above the water.

It’s a great spot for families with a campsite, restaurant, trails for hiking and cycling, and a treetop adventure park. We wish we had moored there on our last night as the rocky cliffs would have been a spectacular sight to wake up to.

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Claire Richardson travelled to Brittany with support from Nicols (boat-renting-nicols.co.uk). Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.