Shifting to the Slow Lane Along the Brittany Coast

In a way, we didn’t find the town of Dinard. It found us.

I’d spent hours in November looking through HomeAway apartments in Brittany, a region of France we’d never before visited. I looked at Dinan, described by Rick Steves as an “impeccably preserved ancient city.” We decided we’d prefer to stay by the sea.  We looked at St. Malo,  with its ramparts and history stretching back 1,500 years, but decided it would be too crowded and too claustrophobic in August at the height of tourist season. We looked at Cancale, with its sandy beaches, oyster beds and other seafood spots, but didn’t find an apartment there that we liked. That’s when I stumbled upon Nathalie’s apartment, perched on a bluff a few hundred feet above Dinard’s crescent-shaped beach, Plage de l’Ecluse. The apartment’s panoramic view of the ocean beckoned through the glass doors leading from bedroom to balcony.

Could it be as stunning as the pictures, I wondered? The apartment had but six reviews in three languages. All were good. I was still skeptical, but figured it was worth a shot. And so we booked for five nights in Dinard, a town that commands just a few paragraphs in  Steves’ 1,100+-page opus, “France 2016.” After all, the town was a destination of European royals a little more than a century ago. It was a place visited by the likes of Pablo Picasso and the composer Claude Debussy, and it was a childhood home of Lawrence of Arabia.

Though still dubbed the “Nice of the North” by Michelin Travel, today Dinard has taken something of a back seat in US guidebooks that list must-see destinations in Brittany, a region that sort of claims the iconic Mont Saint Michel, is rich in history, boasts a host of quaint fishing villages and offers mile upon mile of dramatic coastline. The town’s relative obscurity was fine with us.

Besides, we thought we’d use Dinard as a base, perhaps to venture downriver to Dinan, take the ferry taxi to St. Malo or drive up to Normandy.  Little did we know that we’d like the town itself so much after 16 days of travel that we’d barely budge other than take a day’s outing to Mont Saint Michel,  an hour away, and return along the tourqoise waters off of Cancale.  

It’s not that there’s so much to do in Dinard, a town of about 10,000 people. It’s simply a delightful place to relax, its coastline dotted with sailboats; its 9 miles of stone oceanfront promenade, much of it lined with flowers; its kid-friendly beaches; its long and lazy evenings, the sun-setting at 10 p.m. even as the calendar turns to August.  Harry Potteresque stone mansions loom over the rocky outcroppings above the water, reminders of an earlier, grander time.  The outdoor market here bustles Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.  The central boulangerie has earned its line out the door, the bread light, crisp and airy.

Though originally settled by Brits in the mid-1850s, Dinard, we discovered, today is a popular destination for French families. We heard a smattering of German and British English. But in the height of summer tourist season, we never heard an American accent — and loved the town all the more for it.

Steves dispatches with the town thusly: “This upscale-traditional resort comes with a kid-friendly beach and an old-time, Coney Island-style beach-promenade.”

But don’t confuse this low-key, yet classy resort with the honky tonk of Brooklyn’s old Coney Island, which I loved to visit as a kid to ride its rickety wooden rollercoaster. Oh, there’s a casino, where I lost a few dollars on roulette (strictly research, mind you).  But even the casino is small, old-fashioned and easy to avoid. Plage de l’Ecluse does offer trampolines, ropes, swings and other games for kids at a modest price.  There are two mini-golf courses in town, two carousels for little ones, a movie theater. That said, Dinard is anything but an amusement park promenade.

For us, it was a place to poke through markets and quite literally smell the flowers that color its paths; a place to watch the dramatic tides, which stretch the beaches to a quarter mile of sand or more when low, but lap right up to and over the sea-wall path when high. A place to listen to the laughter of children and the murmur of conversation on sumptuous summer nights. A place to listen to music.   And, bien sur, a place to eat ice cream.

There are Michelin-rated restaurants here, but pizza joints, too.  Moules (muscles) and huitres (oysters) are favorites yet foodies can find traditional French food,  Moroccan, Italian, Spanish and much more.

On our two nights out, we settled on a delicious medium-priced restaurant named L’Attiseur, rated 10th of 85 restaurants by Trip Advisor’s amateur food critics. Our grand-daughter Devon, who at 11 can be a bit particular about her culinary tastes, liked the kids’ menu choices. We liked the fish, haddock and, en francais, daurade (porgy),  fresh, tasty and well-displayed.  But restaurant choices here are plentiful, and I’d love to return and explore the variety much more fully.

Whether you’re traveling with kids or want a romantic place to rest mid- or late-vacation, I’d highly recommend Dinard.  By taking the time to stay put for a few days, we explored all of its trails and parks, enjoyed its whimsical, blue-jean-themed summer sculpture exhibit  on the seaside trails, and discovered that we were days from the 75th anniversary of the town’s liberation after World War II, commemorated  with a series of historic photos and description. (General Patton’s grand-daughter was due to arrive to commemorate the anniversary the day after we left).

Each morning and each night I’d walk out onto our balcony overlooking the beach and sea in our once-elegant and still stately rental in the Roc Royal apartment building, just a few blocks from the casino and no more than a quarter mile from the town center. We bought leather purses for both our daughters in the market, listened to folk musicians entertaining kids there, drew in the sand on the beach, and walked, an average of five miles a day among the trees  (who would have expected palm trees on the Brittany coast, but in Dinard, you’ll find them).

By the time we left, I realized that Dinard, for me, was something akin to Brittany’s Aix-en-Provence. Not a place to sight-see or say you’ve been, but a place to be.  And that, ultimately, is precisely what slow lane travel is all about.

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