Richard Peace takes his bike island-hopping to give us this wrap of the best islands in France for cycling.
France's islands provide some interesting and varied cycling. From the road cycling haven that is hilly Corsica to car-free Aix and the holiday resort islands of Ile-de-Ré and Oleron.
We also cover some smaller, more unknown islands such as those off the coast of Brittany, as well as France's Indian Ocean outpost of Reunion. And, yes, we include the Channel Islands, even though they are not technically French.
With the possible exception of Corsica with its rugged interior and hilly coast, all these islands are family-friendly – and many of them car-free – making them ideal for safe and care-free cycling holidays with kids.
Here is our guide to exploring French islands by bike.
1. Northern Brittany's islands
The three northern Brittany islands featured – Batz, Bréhat and Ouessant – are very small and ideal for pottering, leisure cycling. They also have their own wonderful reasons for lingering, and are great for combining cycling with other activities such as beach lounging or swimming. Most special of all, many are car-free (or at least very ‘traffic-lite’).
It’s normally warm enough to cycle comfortably from April-October with summer temperatures peaking in July and August. Northern Brittany has a fairly wet climate, and even in summer it rains on average 10-12 days a month. There can be thundery, stormy days, even at the height of summer – and that goes for just about all the places featured in this article that are on the Atlantic coast.
Cycling on Batz
Batz, lying just off the ferry port of Roscoff, measures only around 4 by 1.5 miles but offers a superb collection of beaches all within easy reach of each other along the cycle paths that criss-cross the island (note the coastal path is reserved for pedestrians). The island is low lying, the cycling easy and there are bars, accommodation (including a campsite and youth hostel) and even a summer Sunday market. Best of all cars are not allowed to visit the island.
Practical information: Passenger-only ferries make the 10-minute crossing to Batz from Roscoff town, a mile east of the deep-water Channel port, where Brittany Ferries’ ships land. They operate all year round. See: Armein, Compagnie Finistèrienne and Armor Excursions.
All the above accept bikes (€9 at the time of writing, June 2018) but Compagnie Finistèrienne say they don’t accept e-bikes and it would be wise to check with the others if that’s your plan. There are several places to hire bike on the island as this is how many visitors get around.
Cycling on Bréhat
Reached from Arcouest (north of Paimpol), the car-free and cycle-friendly Bréhat is in fact two islands linked by a very short bridge and separated only at high tide. It’s only around 2.5 by 1.5 miles in size but boasts plenty for visitors to see; lighthouses, a tidal flour mill, attractive beaches and luxuriant vegetation including some tropical looking plants which flourish in the mild microclimate found here (especially on the south coast, where the best beaches are also found).
Practical information: Vedettes de Brehat operate the 10 minute ferry crossing from the mainland. They will take your bike but it costs a pricey 16 euros. Bike hire is possible on your arrival at Port-Clos. There is a tourist office at Le Bourg, the island’s main village.
Cycling on Ouessant
(Ushant in Breton) is off the west coast of Brittany, a 17 mile ferry trip from the mainland fishing port of Le Conquet. Around 6 by 4 miles in size, it’s famed for its wind contorted rock formations and also its historic ability to wreck many ships that were entering the English Channel including the Amoco Cadiz in 1978. The six lighthouses around the island help keep the 50,000 ships a year that currently pass nearby safe. It also home of one of the world’s smallest sheep breeds and is rich in flora and fauna (especially birdlife). There’s a wonderful network of roads and tracks to explore all this and more. Note the main town of Lampaul is the epicentre of all services, including accommodation, on the island and the island tourist office is here, and can advise on cycle routes and bike hire.
Practical information: Daily passanger ferries from Le Conquet and Brest are offered by Pen Ar Bed.
2. Southern Brittany’s islands
Although arguably boasting a less spectacular coastline than Northern Brittany, the southern coast offers warmer and safer sea swimming in summer and a rich pre-historic legacy of remains. The spectacular and very popular island-studded Golfe de Morbihan is most famous for its ancient megaliths and you could combine a cycle trip to Ile aux Moines with a boat trip around the many smaller islands and a guided visit to the spectacular tumulus on the island of Gavrinis. Belle-Ile and Groix offer more cycling opportunities but are further out to sea and so take a little more getting to. However, Belle-Ile in particular warrants one or more nights stay.
The ‘comfortable’ cycling season on the south coast is a little longer, with average temperatures between April and October exceeding 10 degrees celsius. The southern coast is particularly warm and sunny between La Baule and L’Orient and summer temperatures can peak several degrees higher than the north coast.
Cycling on Belle-Ile En Mer
At 11 by 6 miles Belle-Ile is Brittany’s largest island by some way and a magnet for tourism. With 60 beaches, swanky marinas and lots of tourist infrastructure plus an annual opera festival there’s plenty to hold cyclists interest when not in the saddle. The island’s tourist website suggests a couple of routes of 17 and 12 miles, the shorter a coastal ride past tiny coves to the beauty spot of La Pointe des Poulains and the longer a cross-island jaunt with opportunity to see what inspired Monet’s paintings of the area. Note the island is not car-free.
Practical information: Ferries from mainland Quiberon take around 45 minutes with services from Compagnie Oceane and those bringing their own bikes can put them on the car deck.
Cycling on Groix
Groix has some very distinctive traits There are around 25 miles of tracks and trails to complement the tiny road network. The island’s tourist office at Port Tudy has a list of cycle hire operators and a cycle trail map here.
Groix has a few small towns, high cliffs on its north coast and sandy beaches and secluded coves on the south coast. Port-Tudy and nearby Le Bourg are where most accommodation and services are concentrated. The geology of Groix is totally different to that of the mainland.
At 4.5 by 2 miles it is Brittany’s second largest island.
Practical information: Easily reached by ferry from L’Orient or Port Louis. Compagnie Océane and Escal' West lines operate crossings that take between 35 and 45mins, arriving at Port Tudy (note Escal’ West do NOT carry bikes). You will encounter some motorised vehicles on Groix but cycling is hugely popular.
Cycling on Ile aux Moines
At around 3.5 by 1.5 miles Ile aux Moins is one of southern Brittany’s most easily explorable islands, lying in the very sheltered Golfe de Morbihan. There is a five minute shuttle ferry from the mainland and you can explore around 10 miles of tracks, though might have to park up and go on foot to explore many of the covers here.
Practical information: Izenah run the shuttle ferry from Port Blanc on the mainland and will carry bikes. There is also bike hire on Moines itself. Vannes, on the north mainland coast of the Golfe de Morbihan has the main tourist office for the area.
3. Cycling on Noirmoutier
This low lying island has all the landscape characteristics of mainland Vendée with glorious sandy beaches on the western side and low rocky cliffs with small sandy coves around the north and north east. The island is nearly cut in two by the marshes and the south east has mudflats. Natural highlights include the Plage des Dames beach (just one of countless beaches) and the Bois de la Chaize oak forest. Manmade highlights include a butterfly house and an aquarium. Only eleven by six miles, it really punches above its size for attractions and cycleability.
Nearly 50 miles of cycle route doesn’t get much easier than this, with the island’s high point just 13 metres above sea level. Eurovelo 1 – better known as Velodyssey – passes close by on the mainland at the coastal resort of Fromentine, where you can pick up a cycle lane on the main D38 which travels the few hundred metres over the water to the island.
Even more of an adventure is to cycle across the Passage du Gois – but make sure it is low tide as this causeway that links mainland and island is completely submerged at other times. It’s a fascinating 2.5 mile ride across endless sandy vistas. This causeway starts at Bellevue near Beauvoir-sur-Mer arriving at Barbatre.
Despite the lack of hills there’s plenty of scenic variety here, from tiny lanes wending their way through salt pans to bijou beaches backed by tiny bathing huts to pretty little ports and marinas. The tourist office promotes three ‘boucles’ or signed circular routes between 11.5 and 14.5 miles if you are after shorter rides to leave time to explore the islands other attractions. There are also details of a 13 mile route with downloadable PDF and GPX here.
May to October should see comfortable cycling temperatures with June to September more suitable for a cycling and beach holiday. As elsewhere, August is peak holiday time and may be best avoided if you want to see Noirmoutier at its best.
Practical information: Noirmoutier’s website can be found here.
4. Cycling on Ile d’Yeu
The island is home to low, whitewashed houses, complemented by hydrangeas, and dramatic rocky cliffs, tiny inlets and occasional stretches of sand.
The ports of Joinville and La Meule are known for tuna and lobster fishing, and fishermen offload their catches in front of the portside cafés. The island also has a castle, several churches and a concentration of megalithic dolmens and menhirs. Since the 19th century, Île d’Yeu has attracted many artists, including Jean Rigaud, official painter to the French Navy, who owned a house here.
At only 6 miles long and 1 mile across distances certainly won’t tax any cyclist here but it does mean cycling right around the island’s perimeter on tiny roads and tracks is a relatively easy trip for the majority of cyclists. The landcsape is a mixture of wild rockiness and dunes and beaches but the gradients are never too trying.
Vendée département also has this very short ‘beach to beach’ routeand downloads include a PDF and GPX of the route.
Practical information: Reached by ferry from Fromentine and from St Gilles Croix de Vie.
Compagnie Yeu Continent operate from Port-Fromentine, year round with a high-speed catamaran (30 min) or traditional ferry (1h10). Bicycles cost extra
Compagnie Vendéenne sail from Fromentine (45 min), April to September and during autumn school break and from St Gilles Croix de Vie (1h), April to September. Bicycles and large baggage items not allowed on this company’s services, though there is plenty of bike hire on the island (see below).
The island’s tourist office is found near the port at Port Joinville and they have info on bike hire outlets, along with a suggested circular bike tour of the island.
5. Ile de Ré
Ile de Ré has fortified towns, distinctive and colourful local architecture and gorgeous beaches.
Ré is a perfect family cycling destination but do note the 18,000 population make it one of France’s most densely populated islands, though in all but high season (when the population can increase to well over 200,000) there is plenty of space to explore at your leisure.
The towns are characterised by their low white houses with colourful hollyhocks growing through the cobblestones. You might spot captains of industry, government ministers and celebrities holidaying here. A real highlight is the view from the top of the Phare des Baleines lighthouse.
The island enjoys approximately the same amount of annual sunshine hours as the Mediterranean coast but with a light breeze and a cooler water temperature. Mid summer may be just too hot, busy and expensive for many, so like much of southern France, the best time to visit can be spring and autumn.
16 miles long, the Île de Ré contains more than 60 miles of cycle paths and tracks. The ride from the superb medieval port of La Rochelle on the mainland over the bridge to the island's capital St-Martin-de-Ré makes a fantastic day trip of around 35 miles. The terrain is flat with the main climb likely to be up and over bridge to the mainland (almost 2 miles long), using it’s segregated bike lane.
There are even four ‘cycling information centres’ dotted about the island (seasonal opening) and a vélo-mouettes shuttle service will carry you and your bike between the centres for €1 per person per trip (your bike goes on a trailer).
Practical information: The tourist office is in St-Martin-de-Ré. They have maps of suggested routes. See also our bike routes page here, our full report here on the island + our suggestions for what to do here.
6. Ile d’Oléron and Ile d’Aix
Map by Mutichou at Wiki.
The largest French island after Corsica, with a population of 22,000, Oléron has been connected to the mainland by a road bridge since. Nearly 2 miles long, it was the longest bridge in France when it was built. At 19 by 8 miles Oléron is big enough to feel you can get away from it all but with plenty of tourist infrastructure for when you want to return to ‘civilisation’, which includes plenty of seafood cuisine (oyster fans won’t be disappointed).
Attractions include attractive St-Pierre d’Oléron and Le Château d’Oléron, great beaches and restaurants specialising in seafood, especially the local oysters.
The fertile and well-cultivated island enjoys a mild climate with sufficient but not excessive rainfall. As with Ré, spring and autumn are optimum times to visit.
By contrast Ile d’Aix is the tiniest island featured here and lies to the east of Oléron, and is linked (in season) by ferry both to Oléron and the mainland, meaning it could be included in a round trip.
We have a full cycling report on what to expect cycling on Oléron here (including practical info). Don’t assume the ‘official’ bike routes described in tourist literature – like the east-west route described by Karin Badt above – are uniformly well-signed as they not be. Karin’s route describes an easygoing mixture of very quiet roads and good sounding tracks, though the tracks (especially through the forest) need careful navigation. Also beware that crossing the bridge to the island may not be for the faint hearted, especially if there is a strong wind.
We cover Aix in more detail here (including practical info). It's worth noting it is one of the end points of the long distance V92 Flow Vélo route. In summary, it is flat, scenic, less developed than it’s bigger island neighbour and contains only an hour or two’s cycling at most.
7. Porquerolles, Iles d'Hyeres
Iles d'Hyeres. Map by Wikimedia Commons user: Bourrichon
The Iles d'Hyeres lie off France’s south coast just near Hyères and are also known as the Iles d'Or. The largest and most westerly of the three main islands is Porquerolles and is the one to head for the best cycling. Port Cros, the smallest, is a spectacular land and marine nature reserve whilst Le Levant is beautiful and popular but much of it an inaccessible military area.
Porquerolles is a 4-mile-long, largely traffic-free island of superb sandy beaches, rocky coves and clear blue water. Places to go on the island include the many forts (Sainte Agathe is the only one you can actually visit), the Moulin du Bonheur, the lighthouse at Cap d'Arme (superb views) and the little botanical garden near the village. Only just opened, the Fondation Carmignac is a gallery of modern art featuring the work of Warhol, Lichtenstein and other giants of later 20th century art. Domaine Perzinsky, one of three vineyards on the island, offers tasting and sales. The coast offers much besides the beaches - snorkelling, diving, kayaking, kite-surfing etc. and the village has bars, restaurants, shops and hotels.
The village is busy though, especially in high summer and there can be queues for the boats. For this reason if for no other, spring and autumn visits can be preferable and it's maybe worth considering an overnight stay to get the best out of a visit. However, it remains warm enough for comfortable cycling all year round and there are, on average, only a handful of days every month when it rains.
Porquerolles’ winding, unmetalled paths are ideal for cycling with signed routes and much to see. The coast is spectacular but the interior is lovely too, tracks passing through areas of pine, fig, mulberry, myrtle, cypress and eucalyptus and alongside vineyards and orchards. There are hills in the south and east but these are moderate rather than spectacular.
Practical information: There is an all year round ferry service from La Tour Fondue at the southern end of the Presqu'ile de Giens costing about €40 for person and bike, although there are services also from Toulon, La Londe, Les Sablettes, Le Lavandou and elsewhere and even taxi boats, although these may not carry bikes.
For all the usual tourist related info see Porquerolles tourist website here.
There are seven or eight hire shops in the village on the island with a range of bikes including regular bikes, mountain bikes, electrics and a variety of trailers, tagalongs and similar.
It’s undoubtedly the wildness and undeveloped nature of Corsica that attracts many people, cyclists and non-cyclists alike. Incredible mountains, sandy beaches, some wildly differing and spectacular coastline and ancient towns and villages mean its not hard to see why its known as the ‘island of beauty’. It also has distinct culture with its own local language and a distinct cuisine.
Spring and autumn are ideal for cycling as summer can be very hot.
Once you know Corsica is described as ‘the mountain in the sea’ you won’t be surprised to hear that most cycle routes here involve climbing, but in general coast roads are undulating and inland you generally have a choice of steep or even steeper or steeper still, the reward being some unbelievable scenery and magnificent descents. The northern Cape and the inlets and coloured coastal rocks known as the Calanches are just a couple of the highlights. At around 114 miles long and 40 miles wide at its widest the islands holds huge amounts of wild and scenic riding.
Cycling on quiet roads is what most cyclists come for (there are only a few busier main roads on the island). There are plenty of off-road tracks but next to no signed or recognised mountain bike routes, so unless you are a real expert at navigating in the wilds mountain biking is best done via a guide. Of course an e-bike would turn many of the strenuous routes into leisure routes and the island looks made for an e-bike tour!
For a fuller run down on places to cycle and lots more background on the island see our Corsica article here.
Practical information: Ferry from French mainland:Nice to Ajjacio, Calvi and Ile Roussel; Toulon to Ajaccio, Calvi and Bastia; Marseille to Ajaccio, Bastia, Ile Rousse and Propriano. There are also ferries from Sardinia and the Italian mainland.
Corsica has four airports: Bastia Poretta, Calvi Sainte Catherine, Ajaccio Campo dell'Oro and Figari, with flight frequency dependent on the season. Air Corsica and EasyJet both fly to Corsica from various cities on mainland France. National carriers and budget airlines fly direct to Corsica from various countries across Europe. EasyJet flies to Corsica from London Gatwick, Manchester, and from Italy.
The official tourist websitehas downloadable brochures and a cycling section.
For cycle hire, see our own listings here.
Map from TUBS via Wiki.
Réunion is a jewel of a French island (technically an overseas département) in the Indian Ocean. It’s only 39 by 28 miles but sounds a wondrous biking destination, boasting the Piton des Neiges volcano (extinct) at over 10,000 feet and a collection of unique and idyllic beaches. There’s also the decidedly active Piton Fournaise volcano, more of which later.
It’s tropical all year round, but with Réunion holding the world record for most rainfall in the 12-96 hour brackets you may get some intense downpours, especially if you visit in the wet (and humidly hot) season from November to April. It’s also worth planning your rides around the micro-climates, the east coast receiving 6 times as much rain as the west at certain times in the year. And with such a rapid rise in altitude once you leave the coast you’ll have to allow for the cooling effect of gaining significant height.
The coast is the place to head for in terms of leisure riding, with Réunion’s official tourist website giving a mention of coastal bike paths.
There are differing opinions out there on the suitability of Réunion as a purely mountain biking destination. MBUK simply calls it possibly the best place in the world for mountain biking, whilst the Tyretracks blog found it a frustrating if spectacular experience (though note this was written back in 2009). Most promisingly the island’s tourist website is clearly promoting it as a prime Mtbing destination.
Practical information Direct flights from Paris, Charles de Gaulle.Official Réunion website
10. The Channel Islands
The Channel Islands lie just off the Normandy coast to the west of the Manche peninsula. They are not, of course, actually part of France, but they are easy to get to from France and they also provide a ‘short cut’ option on the Anglo-French cycle route the Tour de Manche.
They are also a fascinating, cycle-friendly destination in their own right – there is much to see and do in the Channel Islands.
Jersey's military history is well represented - the War Tunnels, the museum at St Ouen, various barracks and defences are all much visited. Other attractions include a steam museum, a country life museum, a maritime museum and giving an overall view of the island's history, the Jersey Museum in St. Helier. The famous Jersey Zoo has over 1400 animals. The mighty Mont Orgueil Castle overlooking Gorey harbour is an impressive sight whilst island capital St. Helier has nice shopping streets and the Central and Beresford Street markets are full of splendid local produce in the most elegant market halls. Apart from the historic sites in the town, the waterfront is nice for a stroll and Elizabeth Castle out in the bay is accessible by causeway or wading vehicle. A variety of boat trips from and around the island are available and watersports are popular. There's even a vineyard at St Mary offering visits and tastings.
Capital of Guernsey is pretty St Peter Port with its backdrop the 800-year-old Castle Cornet housing various museums and gardens. The town itself offers nice shops and eating places and a host of interesting places to visit. The Town Church is something of a landmark but the Museum and Art Gallery, the Candie gardens and Hauteville House, Victor Hugo's home, are all nice visits. South of the town is the underground military museum and there are military remains across the island, including the Fort Grey Museum, a martello tower over on the west coast. Also just outside St Peter Port are the La Vallette bathing pools offering safe, contained salt water swimming. But there's plenty on offer outside the capital - coastal kayaking, coasteering down 300 foot cliffs or a trial light aircraft flying lesson are all to be found.
There's a little working railway on Alderney - it is about 2 miles long, follows a coastal route, and usually operates summer weekends and bank holidays. St Anne is the island's town, with shops, eating and drinking places and accommodation and there is a large hotel near the harbour overlooking the beautiful Braye beach. There's a campsite near Saye Beach. The 9-hole golf course is open to visitors and has magnificent views and the island has some great fishing.
Car-free Sark has some astonishing scenery much of which can be seen from the cycle paths - the only traffic you are likely to meet are tractors and the horse-drawn carriages touring visitors around the island. The renowned Seignurie Gardens and the Sark Museum are well worth a visit. There is plenty of accommodation on Sark - two hotels, two campsites and a range of guesthouses and self catering.
There are probably no surprises as to the best time to visit. The islands tend to be at their busiest in high summer and the weather at its warmest. Overall, the climate is a bit warmer and drier than on the English south coast. The Guernsey Floral Festival takes place in June (Jersey's Battle of Flowers in August), Sark Summer Music Festival in July, Alderney Week in August and the Jersey International Air Display in September.
Leisure cycling is very popular on the Channel Islands. Both Jersey and Guernsey have a number of signed cycle routes and Jersey has a railpath between St Helier and La Corbiere. On Jersey, Green Lanes, and on Guernsey, Ruettes Tranquilles, give priority to cyclists, walkers and horseriders on a network of low speed lanes. Alderney and traffic-free Sark welcome cyclists although bikes are banned on Herm.
For information on the signed cycle routes on Jersey and Guernesy respectively see here and here. Both sites include attractions along the way and other useful support information. There are bike hire firms offering a good range including electrics on both islands.
Alderney has some 10 miles of quiet roads and around 50 miles of tracks and pathways. Cycle hire is available in St.Anne, including electric bikes. See www.visitalderney.com for a downloadable map of a round the island cycle route.
Sark also has two or three bike hire shops - children's bikes, tagalongs etc are available. They can also give you a map of the cycle paths on the island. To ride an electric bike on the island, you need to apply for a licence to the Sark Road Traffic Commitee.
Practical information: An excellent array of bicycle-carrying ferries goes from the French mainland to and between the islands. On the western side of the Cotentin peninsula, Manche Iles ferries go from Granville and Carteret to St. Helier on Jersey, from Carteret and Dielette to Gorey on Jersey and from Dielette to Guernsey and Alderney. They also have a crossing from Granville to Guernsey via Jersey. It's about an hour from Carteret to Jersey or from Dielette to Guernsey and Alderney. The Condor Ferries crossings from St. Malo are about 1 hour 20 minutes to Jersey and Guernsey can be done in a couple of hours.
Bicycles go free with Condor Ferries. On the Manche Iles services, bicycles are from 15 euros single and 30 euros return. Do book your bike on in advance on all services as there are limits on numbers (6 on the Manche Iles crossings) and always check sailings availability beforehand as there are considerable seasonal variations.
The Isle of Sark Shipping Company operates between Guernsey and Sark but does not carry bikes on passenger services - they need to go separately on their cargo crossings. From the UK, Condor Ferries operate services from Portsmouth and Poole to Jersey and Guernsey. If you prefer, Manche Iles have bike hire and there are bike hire companies on the islands.
Accommodation and bike hire all over France
About the author
Richard Peace is the author of the official English-language guidebook to the Veloscenie Paris-Mont-Saint Michel bike route and the Sustrans guide to the London-Paris Avenue Verte. He also contributes to A to B magazine, Bike Europe and Eurobike Show Daily.