If you're an oyster aficionado, you've certainly heard of the Belon, France's most beloved bivalve. Though “Belon” often refers to any flat oyster from France, true oyster-philes know the best Belons come from France's northwesternmost region of Brittany. Though long a favorite vacation spot for Brits, who hop across the English Channel on a ferry, this area of windswept coves, lovely coastal hikes, amazing tides, stone houses with thatched roofs, and the best oysters in France (not to mention mussels, scallops, clams, lobster, and langoustines) is still an under-the-radar spot for American foodies. Here's where to start for a laid-back French holiday with a seafood focus.
A walled town with an imposing 15th-century castle, Saint-Malo is a pleasant introduction to Brittany. Though it can be a bit touristy, Saint-Malo offers a mix of upscale boutiques and souvenir shops. One of the main reasons to come here is the one-Michelin-star restaurant, Le Chalut (average main: $35), which features a phenomenal hommard (lobster) dinner for $100, with lobster served four ways as well as local oysters.
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Where to Stay: Near the center of town, La Maison des Armateurs (rooms from $122) is a pretty choice within the old walls; on the water, the Beaufort (rooms from $130) offers great value, with charming rooms featuring views of the sea.
Oyster lovers will feel their hearts race when they reach Cancale. This tiny town—basically just a strip of seafood restaurants along the water—is capped by a handful of stands selling freshly harvested oysters that the talented shuckers will open for you. Devour them overlooking the very oyster beds from which they came. If you want a more substantial lunch (with, say, a glass of crisp Muscadet from the nearby Loire Valley), Le Surcouf (7 Quai Gambetta) is a delicious choice along the strip of waterfront restaurants.
Where to Stay: For a splurge, Les Maisons de Bricourt (rooms from $265) has a fabulous cliffside perch and phenomenal food at its gourmet restaurant, Le Coquillage (average prix-fixe: $105).
Though not an oyster town, Dinan, the oldest preserved medieval city in Brittany, is worth a stop to stroll the narrow streets lined with adorable, half-timbered houses. Wear your best walking shoes to navigate the steep cobblestone streets, dotted with galleries, restaurants, and boutiques, as you head down to the harbor. L'Atelier Gourmand (4 Rue de Quai, average main: $29) is a romantic choice for a meal on the water's edge.
Where to Stay: Hotel Le D'Avaugour (rooms from $209) is a charming, 18th-century merchant's house converted into a hotel; it's conveniently located on the market square and boasts a lovely garden out back.
Perros-Guirec (Sentier des Douaniers trail)
Since many of the drives in Brittany unfortunately take you inland (where the environs are often barren and industrial), you'll want to hike along the coast to experience the famous scenery. Don't miss the stretch along the Sentier des Douaniers trail, on Brittany's Pink Granite Coast (Côte de Granit Rose), named for the unique pink-tinged boulders strewn along the water's edge. The trail is gentle, giving you plenty of time to admire the magnificent views.
Where to Stay: Castel Beau Site (rooms from $243) has one of the prettiest views of any hotel in Brittany, overlooking a lovely cove with its own beach. You can also start the Sentier des Douaniers hike right from there.
Concarneau and Pont-Aven
If you head from Brittany's north coast over to its west coast, you'll cede oyster territory to the sardine. Strangely, it is very difficult to find fresh sardines at the local restaurants, but you can buy them canned or jarred, standing straight up in true Bretagne style, at many stores. Concarneau is worth a stop for a stroll around the walled medieval fortress, now filled with shops (if you want the classic blue-and-white-striped Brittany shirt, this is the place). Pont-Aven is an old artist's town still lined with galleries specializing in (what else?) paintings of the sea.
Where to Stay: Try to nab one of the four atmospheric rooms at Pont-Aven's Le Moulin de Rosmadec (rooms from $120), tucked into an unbelievably quaint 15th-century watermill.
Home to France's most famous oysters, Belon is the place to sample these briny, tasty treats, at a fraction of the price you'd pay in Paris. It may look like you're driving to a dead end, but park your car and walk down the road until the famed oyster beds come into view; there are a couple trails you can hike to enjoy the peaceful scenery. For the ultimate splurge, don't miss lunch at Chez Jacky (seafood plater for two: $120), which overlooks the oyster beds. Though it's not cheap, the platter is the only way to sample not only the freshest Belon oysters, but also whelks, clams, shrimp, langoustines, and more—all topped with a lobster tail, if you choose.
Where to Stay: Though it's a bit of a drive from Belon, the stunning grounds of Domaine de la Bretesche (rooms from $275) include a gorgeous chateau, a lake, an extensive golf course, and a one-Michelin-starred restaurant.
Getting There: Saint-Malo, the easternmost town in Brittany, is a four-hour drive west of Paris, or you can take the train from Paris's Montparnasse station to Saint-Malo and rent a car—you'll need one to get to the oyster beds, which are off the beaten path. Some European cities, including London and Amsterdam, also offer flights to Nantes; though on the border with the Loire, it's an easy two-hour drive from Nantes to Saint-Malo.
Liz Humphreys is a food, travel, wine, and lifestyle writer and editor formerly based in New York City and currently residing in Amsterdam. She's a former editor of Forbes Travel, Luckymag.com, and iVillage, NYC Guide writer for USAToday.com, and eater in chief of the blog winederlust.com. Follow her on Twitter at @winederlust.