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High winds in Ouessant (Finistère, France)

High winds in Ouessant (Finistère, France)

G. Rouzeau - 2010-01-12

Winter heralds the start of the storm season on Ouessant, the westernmost of the Ponant Islands. Its bare landscapes and jagged coastline offer an irresistible attraction.

From Brest to Ouessant: an adventure
Commercial Port in Brest, Quai de la Douane, 8.30am. A trip to Ouessant (also known as Ushant) is a real adventure. The journey takes two and a half hours, but if the wind picks up or there is a heavy swell or storm warning, the boats don’t venture out. Day is gently breaking over a calm sea today. No more than a dozen of us embark on the Penn Ar Bed boat. Some are islanders from Ouessant and Molène who take the boat as we take the tube. They are the ones wearing normal clothes: jeans, jumper and jacket.
 
And then there are the tourists. Senior citizens for the most part. Like us, they are all sporting typical outdoor leisure wear, walking boots, windcheater, fleece and waterproof Gore-Tex jacket. One woman has come all the way from Vichy for the storms; the high season begins in winter.
 
Our crew even includes an old sea dog, his red face wrinkled by spray, cap glued to his head, binoculars around his neck, cigarillo hanging from his lips…
 
The boat snorts, releasing a nauseating smell of fuel oil into the salty air. The crossing from Brest, one of the world’s largest natural harbours (150 km2), is like a real adventure. The sun finally breaks through the clouds and, after an hour, the first stop is Le Conquet, where a new batch of passengers embarks. It was in this little port that the first official steamship line to Ouessant was inaugurated in1880, with a boat christened the Louise. At that time the crossing from Le Conquet took three hours.
 
The journey resumes and, while contemplating the beauty of the seascapes, we try to recognise the coastlines, islets and small islands such as Trielen, Bannalec and Quéménez (see article). To port and starboard the numerous lighthouses and beacons send a clear message: navigating these shallow waters, bristling with rocks and reefs, traversed by raging currents and battered by fierce winds, is not for landlubbers.
 
Once past Molène Island, where we drop off the mail as well as a few passengers onto a small motorboat that has come to meet us, the sea gets rough. White horses leap from the water. The boat has to cross the notorious Fromveur, a tumultuous channel where currents exceed 9 knots, a record in Europe. A dolphin leaps alongside us which is a good omen.
 
Suddenly the island of Ouessant appears. A vast, bare plateau, like a meteorite fallen from the skies. Pliny called it Axantos, “the furthest”, “the ultimate”. Under the mocking gaze of the islanders, we disembark on the big concrete jetty at the port of Le Stiff.
 
A paradise for nature lovers
Ouessant Island, surrounded by mists and legends, fierce currents and reefs, has always had a strange reputation, a mixture of fear and fascination. In the 18th century, the royal administrators in charge of building the island’s defences were dismayed by the sight of it. Just imagine! No beautiful, orderly gardens like those at Versailles or swaying fields of wheat, but instead barren moors, emaciated crops and rugged rocks.
 
By the end of the same century, under the influence of nascent Romanticism, perceptions of the island began to change. The storms, fog and wild, lonely, bleak environment came to be thought of as “sublime”. People began to develop a taste for the chaotic piles of rocks as increasing numbers of thrill seekers sought to terrify themselves and make their heads spin with vertigo. Literary salons made melancholy fashionable and the first tourists arrived on the island to see the foam flying up to the top of the bell tower in Lampaul, the main village on Ouessant.
 
Since then, nothing has changed. Everything that repulsed classical sensibilities now delights ours. Behind the dark legend of shipwrecks, we discover an island paradise for nature lovers. Waves, spume, spindrift, wind and granite: on Ouessant, the elements reign supreme.
 
Inland, the island has moors and close-cropped pastures dotted here and there with small, traditional hamlets. To the north-west, the wild coast and Pointe de Pern headland offer an extraordinary sight: rugged rocks, some reminiscent of the Easter Island statues, and jagged reefs buffeted by never-ending waves. On windy days, the airborne foam looks like snow.
 
At the other end of the island stand the cliffs of the Pointe de Bac’haol headland. The sight of the blue waves constantly rolling in 60m below your feet is enough to make you dizzy.
 
A kingdom of birds and rare plants
Millions of migratory birds, attracted by Ouessant’s lighthouses, stop off on the island. Some 400 species are inventoried each year. The island’s flora is not to be outdone, with several hundred types of flowers and rare plants adapted to the salt spray and strong winds.
 
An island of lighthouses
While Rome glories in its ancient monuments, Ouessant prides itself on its lighthouses which alert ships to the dangers of navigating near its notorious coastline. The most famous example remains the Créac’h lighthouse, a watchtower marking the border between the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean. This lighthouse with its black and white stripes is still one of the most powerful in the world today. Shining its two white beams 35 nautical miles every 10 seconds, it boasts a system of lenses that is absolutely unique. The old machine room houses a Lighthouse and Beacon Museum which traces the history of these towers from ancient times to the present day. The exhibition also offers an insight into the lighthouse keepers’ way of life.
 
At the other end of the island, LeStiff lighthouse (not to be confused with the modern radar tower next door) is surprisingly modest in size. It’s the island’s oldest lighthouse, built by Vauban in 1700, and its squat appearance gives it the timeless look of a Mesopotamian temple tower.
 
Out at sea, Kéréon, Nividic and La Jument watch over the rocks near the surface to the south-west of Ouessant, the Fromveur, the rocks of Molène and the Pointe de Pern headland.
 
At night the white, green and red beams of the lighthouses and beacons sing in unison with the starry vault, which suffers from no visual pollution over Ouessant. “The Island of Terror”, as it was once known, harbours charms aplenty…
 
Practical information
 
Tourist Office of the Finistère
 
Penn Ar Bed boats leave from Brest or Le Conquet
Departures from Brest at 8.30am.
 
Where to stay in Brest
 
Hôtel Océania
82, rue Siam
29200 Brest
Tel: +33 (0)2 98 80 66 66 - Fax: +33 (0)2 98 80 65 50
Entirely renovated in 2007, this modern hotel is located in the town centre near the train station, the Palais des Congrès and the Château and is a five-minute taxi ride from the Penn Ar Bed landing stage. Rooms are spacious and the bathrooms are remarkably well designed.
 
 
Eating out in Brest
 
L’Armen
21, Rue de Lyon
29200 Brest
Tel: +33 (0)2 98 46 28 34
Chef and owner of L’Armen, Yvon Morvan, who has worked with renowned French chefs Paul Bocuse and Joël Robuchon, serves up tasty, meticulous cuisine based on fresh produce from both land and sea. We tried his excellent fried scallops, served with a millefeuille of butternut squash and chervil, and a fine stuffed pigeon in puff pastry with curly kale, bacon and foie gras. His variation on a mandarin dessert is a big hit. The sommelier is also attentive and the only disappointment is the rather cold and dreary classical setting.
 
OUESSANT
 
Ushant Island Tourist Office
 
Where to stay in Ouessant
 
Ti Jan Ar C’Hafe (hotel)
Kernigou (on the Route de Lampaul)
29242 Ouessant
Tel: +33 (0)2 98 48 82 64
E-mail: hoteltijan@wanadoo.fr
This charming, homely hotel at the entrance of the village of Lampaul has eight guest rooms and is nicely decorated in bright colours.
 
 
Eating out
 
Chez Carole (crêperie and tea rooms)
Stang Ar Glan
29242 Ouessant
Tel: +33 (0)6 84 61 69 42
In a real second-hand-shop-style decor that is warm and timeless, Carole (who has always lived on Ouessant) concocts nice sweet and savoury crêpes, traditional home-made cake, hot chocolate and herbal and regular teas at all hours of the day.
 
La Duchesse Anne (hotel – restaurant)
Lampaul
29242 Ouessant
Tel: +33 (0)2 98 48 80 25
Fax: +33 (0)2 98 48 80 25
Set above the small port of Lampaul, the Duchesse Anne is open all year round and is a beacon of Ouessant. The dining room boasts a superb view of the sea and horizon, though the food could be better.

Winter heralds the start of the storm season on Ouessant, the westernmost of the Ponant Islands. Its bare landscapes and jagged coastline offer an irresistible attraction.

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