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“Little Britain,” as it was called by the 4th- and 5th-century Celts who came to settle this northwestern peninsula, always seems apart from the rest of France. While this was once politically true (the region resisted conquer and incorporation into Charlemagne’s Frankish empire, remaining an independent duchy until 1532), even today’s Bretons hold fast to their traditions, and their independent spirit is undeniable. The original Breton language, with its roots in Welsh and Cornish, though once suppressed, has experienced a revival. The Gwenn-ha-du—the black-and-white Breton flag—still flies proudly in every town. This unique cultural identity, along with its wild coast, succulent seafood, rustic hamlets, and medieval fortresses make it one of the most authentic areas of France.

Brittany is home to some of the nicest towns in the country. You can’t help but be charmed strolling the streets of the former fortress town of St-Malo or medieval Dinan. Quimper is the bastion of Breton culture and Nantes is becoming a cool outpost for Parisians.

The region is a perfect destination for nature or beach lovers with its promontories, coves, and traffic-free islands dotting the rocky coastline, some 1,207km (748 miles) long. There’s the posh resort of Dinard for more glamorous sunbathers.

The British, just a channel-hop away, think of Brittany as a resort region. But the French typically go south to chase their sun. Therefore, you’ll never run into huge tourist masses, yet popular beaches can get crowded in summer.

If you’re coming from Mont-St-Michel, use St-Malo, Dinan, or Dinard as a base to explore northern Brittany. Visitors from the eastern Loire Valley can reach the coastline of southern Brittany in under 3 hours.

Brittany for Kids

St-Malo is a great destination for families. Not only is there the beach, but kids will also love exploring the ramparts, the château, and the fort. For some additional family fun nearby, head to the side-by-side Cobac Parc & Aqua’Fun Park (www.cobac-parc.com; tel. 02-99-73-80-16). A day’s worth of fun is had zooming down its waterslides, swinging clubs at the mini-golf, and twirling around on its small amusement park rides. Cobac Parc is open daily 10:30am to 6:30pm in July and August and sporadic hours, usually including weekends, April to June and September (consult website calendar); Aqua’Fun is open the same days but from 1pm. A joint ticket for both parks is 23€ for ages 12 and up and 19.50€ for children 11 and under.

Breton history and culture come to life at the Village de Poul-Fetan (www.poulfetan.com; tel. 02-97-39-51-74), a restored hamlet in Quistinic, a 35-min. drive northeast of Lorient. As you amble through the set of stone houses, historical interpreters demonstrate traditional tasks of daily life and arts and crafts. Children can try their hand at spinning wool, test out some rustic games, and even learn a few words of Breton. Admission is 10.80€ for adults, 5€ for children ages 5 to 15, and free for ages 4 and under; passes for families of 4 are 28.50€. It’s open daily April, May, and September 11am to 6:30pm, June 10:30am to 6:30pm, and July and August 10:30am to 7 pm.

One of the regional highlights for families is Nantes’s Les Machines de l’Ile, 3 rue de l’Hermitage (www.lesmachines-nantes.fr; tel. 02-40-69-72-52), a fantastical workshop based on hometown writer Jules Verne’s imagined creatures and the mechanical drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. A 12m (147-ft.) elephant, made from 45 tons of wood and steel, takes 50 passengers at a time for a stroll around the premises. Don’t leave without a ride on the massive Carrousel des Mondes Marins (Marine Worlds Carousel) that takes 300 “voyagers” at a time on a trip through its three levels representing the ocean, seabed, and abyss. One ticket gives access to the rides, another admits you to the Galerie, where you can see future creations taking shape. Admission is 8.50€ adults, 6.90€ ages 4 to 18; free for children 3 and under. Because the site is a functioning workshop, its opening hours change weekly; check the English pages of their website for details.