It’s a difficult task, but we’ve tried to curate the best beaches in France.
Included below are coves so hidden that many people don’t know they’re there, as well as beaches so vast you can’t see the sea when the tide goes out.
Many shine for their architecture, and have grand promenades where Victorian aristocrats would come for a dose of sea air, or just a sleepy village with brightly-painted fishing cottages.
Some are so remote that you have to go on a quest through wilderness to get to them , while others are Blue Flag destinations with everything under the sun for a fun-packed or relaxing afternoon with the family.
1. Plage de Saleccia, Corse-du-Nord
There’s no easy way of getting to Saleccia, a piece of paradise on the north coast of Corsica.
It’s probably easiest if you have your own yacht, but the rest of us have to either catch an overpriced ferry from the harbour at Saint-Florent or a 4×4 transfer from the village of Casta almost an hour to the south.
Everyone who makes the trip agrees that it was worth it: There’s a gentle arc of pure white sand, with juniper-covered dunes and the dark outline of the mountains of Cap Corse in the distance.
The sea is perfect; it’s shallow, crystal clear and a shade of blue that you can only seem to find of find on Corsica.
2. Porquerolles, Var
This island, three kilometres by six, is a quick crossing on the ferry from Hyères on the Côte d’Azur.
“Unspoiled” might be an overused word, but it definitely applies to Porqerolles, as the French government intervened in the early 70s to prevent development on the island.
The old settlement is a dinky village around the island’s harbour from the 1800s.
So you’ll ramble through undergrowth with wild herbs, juniper bushes and pines to find yourself at rocky inlets with transparent seas, or Notre-Dame a horseshoe bay gilded with a narrow beach in the shade of pine and eucalyptus trees.
3. Plage de Trouville, Calvados
This sweeping Normandy beach is on the other side of the mouth of La Touques from Deauville, which was made fashionable by Coco Chanel.
Trouville is Deauville’s older sister, with a boardwalk next to regal 19th-century mansions and the resort’s casino, where you can contemplate coastal scenes that were painted by Monet and his mentor Eugène Boudin.
Flaubert and Proust were fond of Trouville, and it was one of the country’s very first seaside resorts.
The beach is one for flying kites with the kids and invigorating walks at low tide when the sea disappears over the horizon.
4. Plage de l’Espiguette, Gard
Where the Carmargue Regional Park finally succumbs to the Mediterranean, Plage de l’Espiguette isn’t so much a beach as a mammoth sandbank on the edge of a landscape of lagoons, dunes and marshes.
The shore goes on forever – chances are you’ll tire before you reach the eastern limit – and apart from the lighthouse and resort area, signs of civilisation are few and far between.
It’s not hard to see why Ernest Hemingway was so keen on this piece of wilderness.
5. Plage de l’Almanarre, Var
Sharing the Giens Peninsula’s isthmus with expansive salt flats, this sublime white sandy beach curls out for more than five kilometres.
What’s rare for the French Riviera is that there’s space for everyone to find some tranquillity as the beach is so long and remote.
Depending on the way the wind is blowing the waters can either be crystalline or rather choppy: When the Mistral’s in full force the sails of windsurfers speckle the horizon . The scenery is always captivating: To the south are the rocks of the Pointe d’Ermitage and straight across the bay are the rugged peaks of the Cap-Sicié Massif, over which the sun sets in the evenings.
6. Palombaggia, Corse-du-Sud
This one is often listed in Top Tens of the best beaches in Europe.
One of the reasons is that, like Saleccia, Palombaggia just isn’t the kind of setting that you associate with the Mediterranean.
The sand is sugar-white, and for two kilometres it’s lapped by blue waters so clear that you can make out every detail of the seabed.
A slice of perfection like this shouldn’t be easy to get to, but it’s much more convenient than Saleccia; you can take a dirt track that branches off from the circuitous coastal road and trails for a few hundred metres through pine forest down to the bay.
7. La Paloma, Alpes-Maritimes
You might only stumble upon this secluded stony cove while walking the footpath around the posh Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, home to the legendary Villa Ephrussi.
Just in from Pointe de Sainte-Hospice, out of the wind and where the sea gets smoother, is this little nook with rows of sun loungers and a waterfront restaurant.
Yachts drop anchor in the sheltered bay, and there’s a launch shuttling drinks and food from the beach out to the lucky souls on board.
This is a busy spot, so if you want to get a good table it’s worth booking a day ahead.
8. Grande Plage de Saint-Jean-de-Luz , Pyrénées-Atlantiques
On the Basque Coast, this resort beach is that rare thing in Southwest France; a sheltered bay with gentle waves.
Pointe de Sainte-Barbe to the north forms a useful lip that shields Grande Plage from the worst of the ocean winds and currents.
Kids are free to play in the water and parents can relax knowing that there’s no danger of accidents with surfers! As part of a popular resort the services and facilities are top-notch, with a lifeguard on duty all summer, and sun loungers for hire.
Saint-Jean-de-Luz attracts the crowds, but never feels congested as there’s so much room.
9. Conche des Baleines, Charente-Maritime
You have to journey to the far western end of the Île de Ré to find this long sandy bay on the edge of the Lizay Forest.
The island is so flat and peaceful that most visitors get around by bike, and it’s probably the easiest way to reach this wonderful location.
Conche des Baleines has a very shallow slope, so is fine for swimming, but there are also stiff breezes that bring in the windsurfers and sailboats.
War-time concrete bunkers are still a fixture to the rear of the beach, and the Phare des Beleines lighthouse is open in the summer, with 257 steps up to the viewing platform at the top.
10. Roccapina Plage, Corse-du-Sud
The final entry in Corsica combines two of the things everyone loves about the island: It’s a flawless white inlet next to a giant jagged limestone rock that rises to the west like a sentinel.
And just like the other dreamlike beaches in Corsica you have to be prepared to put in the hard miles to get to Roccapina: You have to park in the village and walk down the twisting, unpaved road, but you’ll forget your labours when you get there.
The sand is pristine and on sunny days the blue sea has that irresistible glasslike transparency.
11. Plage d’Hendaye, Pyrénées-Atlantiques
At Hendaye’s supreme beach you’re just a few hundred metres from Spain and in the middle of the wild Basque Country.
Along the seafront are old houses typical of this region, with white walls and timbers painted red.
The beach has fine golden sand that goes on for almost three kilometres, offering a place for surfers to ride the breaks, but also for littler visitors to paddle in the shallows caused by the beach’s low gradient.
For those who want to ride the waves but aren’t ready to stand, body-boards are sold all along the waterfront.
12. Plage du Chay, Charente-Maritime
Like many of the best Atlantic beaches in western France, this bay in Royan, capital of the Côte de Beauté, is angled away from the open ocean at the entrance to the Gironde Estuary.
The beach is a crescent of soft white sand, with all the facilities of the resort on the north end, and a quieter, more residential feel as you go south.
This is one of five beaches in Royan, all of which nestle in deep indentations hemmed by limestone cliffs.
When there’s a spring tide surfers can catch the Gironde tidal bore and ride waves that roll upriver, never seeming to break.
13. Plage de Morgat, Finistère
The incredibly cute resort of Morgat faces east and is shielded from the brunt of the Atlantic in Brittany’s Amorica Regional Park.
The setting is one of colourfully-painted cottages behind a wide, white beach bathed by calm waters.
Look around and you’ll see low cliffs covered with forest pushing on down to the Pointe du Kador.
It’s a placid, rural location and with the help of the nautical centre next to the beach you can take sailing lessons in the bay or spend a few hours paddling at your leisure in a canoe or kayak.
14. Grande Plage Les Sables d’Olonne, Vendée
On the Côte de Lumière is another coastal resort that grew dramatically in the 19th century.
France’s high society and artists joined the rush on the train from Paris to bathe at what was lauded as “the most beautiful beach in Europe”, and in a matter of decades a long row of imposing hotels and casinos popped up on the embankment.
You can see what all the fuss was about at Le Remblai, the recently updated promenade where you’ll appreciate the Belle Époque palaces and the grand, curving beach, which is absolutely vast at low tide.
15. Argelès-sur-Mer, Pyrénées-Orientales
The longest beach in Pyrénées-Orientales is divided into sections with different names, but in truth it’s one long, broad column of slightly coarse sand running from the resort’s marina in the south to the Réserve Naturelle du Mas Larrieu several kilometres to the north.
All the way up are small holiday communities and campsites hidden in pine groves.
There’s always enough room for some peace and quiet, and you could find yourself daydreaming as you behold the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees banking up to the south of the beach.
Plage du Racou to the south of the port deserves mention too, for its grid of beach houses along sandy tracks.