A last-minute escape to a tranquil village in Northern France is the perfect tonic for Katherine MacAlister and family

Padding down the lane in the dark in our wetsuits, it felt like we were taking part in a covert operation. We were after all on the North coast of Brittany where many similar manoeuvres had been carried out half a century before.

On arriving at the beach we quietly deposited our belongings on the rocks and began paddling hard out to the swimming platform in the middle of the sea.

A torch did little to light our way from the beach because the tide was right up, but we made it there and spent a blissful hour jumping off the diving board into the deep black sea. We were finally on holiday.

But then everything about Roscoff had been a surprise, the tranquility, the isolation, the beautiful beaches dotted casually down the coastline, the lack of crowds, the food, the accessibility and the sunshine.

Picking mussels off the rocks to cook for supper in garlic, white wine and cream, the wonderful array of food markets nearby which meant we ate like gods, the daily visits to the boulangerie where the children ordered their own breakfast, ambling past the artichoke fields to the beach, the calm sea views, fishing in the mist early in the mornings, watching the children learn to swim in the pool, or shrieking in the cold Atlantic sea, the nearby medieval towns and Roscoff itself chiselled out of the rocks, almost Scottish in appearance with its stern granite houses.

It had been a last minute decision to go on holiday. We were trying to sell our house and felt unable to go away, but by the end of the summer we had cabin fever and decided to go for it.

Where to go though? After much debate about the pros and cons of going abroad versus renting a house in Cornwall we decided to venture to France for a change of scene.

Of course by then everything affordable and suitable had gone, and as I was beginning to despair, we noticed a new property, near the sea, with a pool, on the Northern French coast in Brittany.

The problem was it was in Roscoff, not the most auspicious of venues. All we knew about it was that it was a ferry port and therefore associated it with Calais or Cherbourg. But beggars can’t be choosers so we booked it anyway.

It turned out we’d booked so late in the season that all the ferries to Roscoff were full, but Brittany Ferries weaved some magic and found us a rather unlikely but workable route there and back – Portsmouth to Caen and then back via the fast ferry from Cherbourg which involved more driving but was well worth the effort.

Brittany Ferries as always was seamless, especially as we reached Portsmouth in 75 minutes from Oxford. We had a wonderfully clean cabin to welcome us even though it was a day crossing, where I slept having driven there, while the kids enjoyed the onsite magician and children’s activities which kept them permanently engaged until we reached France.

On approaching Roscoff however we had no idea what to expect, but as we got closer and the villages and towns got more beautiful, Saint Pol De Leon’s cathedral spire guided us in the right direction, and we began to notice the Roscoff onions balanced on the bicycle handles outside the shops. We drew up in the cathedral square, stocked up with supplies and continued on.

The internet hadn’t done the house justice, it was a like a giant greenhouse on the coast, down a track towards the sea. Isolated, quiet and perfect.

Bounding out of the car the kids all jumped into the pool fully clothed before rushing down the stony path to the beach which was framed by an arch of rocks.

But nothing had prepared us for the beach. Tiny and private, the golden sand stretched out to the sea in which was perched a wonderful swimming platform which kept them occupied all week. To one side were lots of rocks, perfect for rock climbing and rock pooling, and on the other deep pools ideal for snorkling. Despite its beauty there was never more than a handful of people there, all French, meaning it was all ours for the week.

It took the sun a while to burn though the morning mist so in the mornings we were out and about. There were different markets every day selling a stunning variety of local produce from fresh fish, bread, cheese and veg to local wines and of course the Roscoff onions for which the region is so famous.

In fact while cooking French onion soup from Raymond Blanc’s recipe book I noticed the recipe actually calls for Roscoff onions.

Roscoff itself was quite charming. Tiny, it’s a real place with a village community. The ferry which glides in several times a day provides a ripple of activity but doesn’t dominate, life continuing round it. And ours certainly did.

The days passed in a blur of meals eaten outside at night, three sometimes four courses, concocted while the children swam in the pool and we drank the wonderful local rose that I still miss, and chatted until the early hours, interspersed with the odd midnight swim.

I was bereft when we got home, surprisingly quickly on the fast ferry which is more like a plane, seats being allocated in rows, in a fraction of the time it took to get there.

And whenever life gets too much I think back to those dark nights on the beach, when we slipped into the water like seals, lit only by the moon, and I relax.



* Villa 'An Ti Gwer' in Roscoff ranges from £821-£2,421 for a week and is part of the HomeAway portfolio. homeaway.co.uk/p878040a

* Brittany Ferries operates the longer routes from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth to Western France saving miles of unnecessary and costly driving. Travel overnight by luxury cruise-ferry in the comfort of your own cabin with en-suite facilities or be whisked across the channel in as little as three hours. We travelled from Portsmouth to Caen and back, where fares start from £79 one way for a car plus two passengers. Book online at brittanyferries.com or call 0871 244 1400.