For a classic coastal break, head to Dinard in Brittany to find old-world charm mixed with modern-day elegance. A short hop across The Channel and you’ll discover a town still gloriously under the radar.
It’s just an hour’s flight from the UK, but Dinard feels like a world away. Wide, windswept – often empty – beaches are dotted with iconic blue-and-white-striped beach-huts, as if time has stood still since the turn of the century. And that – this sense of it being a timeless seaside destination – is exactly why this coastal area in Brittany is being touted as northern France’s answer to the Riviera.
In fact, made popular by British and American tourists in the 19thcentury, Dinard was France’s top summer-time resort, until the same well-heeled travellers started flocking to the south of France in the 1930s. Wander around the boutique and café-lined streets, close to the Plage de l’Ecluse, the town’s main beach, and you’ll spot many of the period villas belonging to these original jet-setters still standing (there are more than 400 listed buildings in the town). You may even recognise the beach scene itself – it having been immortalised in Picasso’s Baigneuses Sur La Plage.
To soak it all up properly, however, take a short stroll along the sea wall, to the Clair de Lune promenade, and you’ll come across one of Dinard’s quirkiest properties – and one of the reasons that this little town is so becoming.Oozing storybook charm, Castelbrac – a quirky 25-room hotel – is set into the cliffs, with pretty views across the water to the old town of St Malo.
Having been opened since 2015, it was hotelier Yann Bucaille who saw the potential of the Belle Époque mansion and reimagined it as a modern-day bolthole (his great-grandfather had been a founding member of Dinard Yacht Club and he had long been on the lookout for a place to showcase the town’s charms). Once known locally as ‘Villa Bric a Brac’ due to its rambling nature and patchwork history, it is carved out of three interconnecting harbour-side buildings. Originally built by the English aristocrat William Faber in 1872, by the 1930s it had become a marine research station and the town’s popular aquarium, but fell into disrepair in the early 2000s.
Now boasting bold and eclectic interiors, courtesy of designers Sandra Benhamou and Léonie Alma Mason, there is an emphasis on the building’s rich heritage. At the building’s heart is its authentic character – so there are period features aplenty: Arts and Crafts’ tiled fireplaces have been restored (one notable one, just off the lobby, has ceramics which depict classic bible stories and another has blue-and-white Delft tiles showing scenes from Aesop’s fables) and vaulted wooden ceilings have been revamped. The stunning centrepiece is the curvy staircase, which is now painted black and laid with a dramatic graphic-design-print carpet, set off by a bright-green palm-print wallpaper.
Elsewhere, there’s a peaceful, restorative atmosphere with much made of the panoramic seaside views outside. All the bedrooms feature subtle aquatic references throughout – so expect elegant, fish shaped mirrors, door-handles modelled on waves and shimmering tiles that echo fish scales. Pale grey walls and white parquet floors keep rooms light and airy, while funky-print wallpapers, velvet armchairs and industrial-style lighting bring a sense of modernity and personality.
Sea-green and citrus-yellow throws lift the crisp white linens on the beds and, in the bathrooms, there are zellige mosaics of blue, white and saffron to add splashes of colour, as well as chic Themae Paris goodies for pampering. Ask for a room with a terrace – most have one – so you can breakfast on the jaunty red-and-white rattan chairs, and take in the sea views. Some of the Prestige Suites have wraparound terraces for heavenly moments watching the sun rise and set.
While bedrooms err on the side of modernity, the public spaces give more of a nod to the building’s history. The lounge has burnt orange velvet tub chairs, a small library and flashes of gold insignia and is inspired by Benhamou’s inspiration of “English spirit with Hitchcockian style”.
Talking of which, Hitchcock himself was a fan of this area – visiting many times and reportedly being inspired by the looming cliff-side mansion, Villa Saint-Germain, as the basis for the house in Psycho. These days he is remembered by a bronze statue overlooking the Plage de l’Ecluse, as well as within the annual British Film Festival, which takes place here in September, during which filmmakers are awarded a ‘Golden Hitchcock’.
To see more of the craggy coastline and picturesque towns that dot the ‘Emerald Coast’, it’s worth jumping aboard Castelbrac’s hand-built yacht, Fou De Bassan, which can take guests on a tour around the surrounding bays and island outposts, or for sunset cocktails in the Bay of St Malo. While Dinard is tiny and ‘muted’ compared to flashier French resorts – there’s nonetheless enough to do to fill a long weekend. As well as standout coastal walks, Dinard is a treat for gourmands, with a Gallic food market held most days along Rue Paul-Valery. Renowned for its galettes, you’ll also find an abundance of crèperies – try Le Hautecloque (on Rue du Marechal Leclerc) or Creperie du Roy (on Boulevard Féart) for some of the most delicious in the area.
Back at the hotel, you can zone out in the elegant mini spa – which offers treatments by Parisian tea-based brand Thémaé – or go for a swim in the heated stone lap-pool. For true reflection, there’s even a non-denomination chapel (there are texts for all religions), decorated with fishing nets and a wishing tree behind the pews.
At night, the hotel sizzles with old-school glamour. Start off with cocktails in the Aquarium Bar, which still features the ornate silver door from its aquarium days. Inspired by the shimmering tones of the sea, you’ll find gilded suspension lamps and original pillars, decked out in black-green-gold mosaic tiles, to make it feel like you are 20,000 leagues under the sea. Porthole windows, black leather bar seats and foam-green floor tiles continue the oceanic theme.
After a Pomegranate Martini, head to the Pourquoi Pas restaurant, which by contrast is fresh and bright with a white and cream palette. With views over Prieuré Bay, it’s minimal and sophisticated. Here, chef Julien Hennote offers his take on Breton dishes – with a focus on local seafood and fresh ingredients (everything is sourced from within 25km of the hotel). As well as a whole menu dedicated to the blue lobster, there are more varied tasting menus, and an àla carte option. Highlights include John Dory cooked in seaweed butter from Saint-Lunaire and saddle of lamb stuffed with spider crab, not to mention freshly-baked breads and the most exquisite amuse-bouche you’ll find this side of Paris. Desserts are nicely inventive with ‘The Carrot” being inspired by the humble carrot cake (but delivering so much more) and the “Iced Black Chocolate with Almond and Honey from Rance’s Banks” a dreamy way to end the meal.
While Dinard has long been a favourite of artistic big-hitters (as well Picasso in the 1920s, Claude Debussy also composed ‘La Mer’while staying in the town), it is one of those rare places that manages to feel wonderfully unknown somehow. “Soul Haven” says the sign for Castelbrac: I couldn’t have put it better myself.
A double room at Castelbrac starts from €250 per night based on two people sharing a room.
This feature is also published in the April 2018 issue of Kensington & Chelsea Magazine