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The turrets of St-Malo Castle rise above the city rampartsTravel overnight from Portsmouth to St-Malo, and Brittany Ferries land you at 8.15 a.m. in the sightseeing heart of the Emerald Coast.

That name was chosen a century ago, when the local holiday industry wanted to remind visitors that the waters sparkle emerald green whenever the sun shines.

The tourism highlights of the Emerald Coast are St-Malo, Dinard, Cancale, the estuary of the River Rance and Dinan (a few miles upstream). 

They combine to make an ideal minibreak, packed with interest, wide sandy beaches, history, good food, and oysters by the dozen. 

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There's no need to take a car, unless you plan to stock up on drinks. Don't expect to find parking space inside St-Malo's walls. A very good local bus system operates to Dinard, Mont St Michel, Cancale and Dinan.

Brittany Ferries have a wide selection of hotel and self-catering breaks, based on Plymouth, Poole or Portsmouth routes to Brittany and Normandy. Tel: 08705 561 600. 

More information: French Government Tourist Office, Lincoln House
300 High Holborn
LONDON Tel: 09068-244-123 (60p a minute). 

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The sedate seaside resort of Dinard was developed in mid-19th century from a small fishing village, when it became highly popular for well-off English visitors.

In contrast, St-Malo has a far longer history, founded by a 6th-century missionary from Wales, a monk called Maclou who became Saint Malo. He toured the region, converting the locals and establishing churches. He was the first bishop of Aleth, just across a bay from today's St-Malo.

But in later centuries there was trouble from the Vikings, and the inhabitants re-settled to the safety of St-Malo island. Surrounded by water at high tide, the town was easily defended by ramparts. The bishopric itself moved across in 1144.
Defending a route to the south - Dinant Castle, which overlooks the River Rance
The walled city is the great sightseeing highlight of the north Brittany coast. It's very quiet in off-season, but packed with tourists from Easter onwards, route-marching along the granite ramparts. 

For many years St Malo was the pirate capital of France, thanks to the 17th- and 18th-century French kings who solved their budget deficits by privatising naval business. 

The legalised pirates of St Malo grew very rich from plundering English, Dutch and Spanish merchant vessels, with the government taking a cut on the loot. 

The tidal system was a key part of St-Malo's defences. There's an enormous rise and fall of up to 12 metres. At high tide, off-shore reefs are covered, ready to trap incoming vessels. 

At low tide, ships couldn't get close to the city walls. If any soldiers landed on the beaches, they still had to scale the ramparts. 

Once, English sailors launched a fire-ship against St Malo, hoping to blow up the walls. But the ship went off-course, and exploded far from the target. The only French casualty was a cat. Hit by a falling ember, the moggie danced in anguish. Ever since, the event has been marked by renaming the street where the animal had suffered injury - Rue du Chat qui Danse - Street of the Dancing Cat. 

St-Malo also grew rich from cod fishing off the Grand Banks. Fishing boats sailed across the Atlantic in mid-February and later returned with salted fish for the Spanish and Portuguese trade. 

Newfoundland cod is now off the menu but the Breton coast is rich in shellfish, from cockles, winkles, mussels, clams and oysters to crabs and Dublin bay prawns. 

The small fishing town of Cancale is paradise for oyster lovers. Just off-shore are hundreds of acres of oyster beds that are 'farmed' by tractor or flat-bottomed boats. 

Plenty of opportunity for a plate of oysters Every building facing the waterfront is either a cafe, a bar, a crÍperie or a restaurant specialising in fish. The local drinks are cider or Muscadet wine.

Even if you don't have a taste for oysters, it's worth visiting Cancale's Oyster Museum, especially on a weekday when there's work in progress.

Meanwhile, on the home front, farmers cultivate their market gardens, early veg and wide fields of cauliflowers, red cabbage, onions and artichokes, blessed by the favourable soil and mild climate. 

If you've brought your car, follow up the Rance valley towards the medieval fortress town of Dinan. Keep to minor roads closest to the river, through ancient villages where every house is built of granite.

Watch out for the occasional remains of a 'tidal mill' based on 12th century technology. These medieval mills were powered by the tidal flow that funnels up the Rance estuary. The mills used water captured in ponds at high tides to drive waterwheels as the tides fell. 

Twentieth-century engineers updated the technology by building a 720-metre barrage across the estuary, with a four-lane highway on top. The incoming sea water is held in the basin, and released through turbines during the ebb flow. 

Generating 240 megawatts, the Rance tidal power plant is easily the world's largest. It has been running without any failure since 1967, at zero cost in fuel which arrives twice daily. Maybe some day the idea will be copied on the Severn.

Dinan is stunning, granite and half-timbering, with cobblestones to trip you while you're gazing up at the architecture. 

A Frenchman gets on his horse against the English It's another town with a historic reminder from an English army siege. An English knight called Thomas of Canterbury broke a truce, and was challenged and defeated by the Breton commander Bertrand du Guesclin in a single-combat duel. 

It all happened in 1359, and an equestrian statue of Bertrand in the main square serves as an on-going reminder to visiting Brits. The local guides enjoy telling the tale; just like the dancing cat story. 

It's just another French lesson that Brittany is "Formidable!" 

Where else to go in France

ANNECY - French coach touring by TGV train

BURGUNDY - Go cruising by luxury barge

CHAMPAGNE TRAIL starting at Troyes

LOIRE VALLEY - The Garden of France

MENTON - where lemon trees bloom year-round

NICE - exploring the Riviera

PARIS - Open season for loving

PARIS - See it dressed up for Christmas

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Brittany and Normandy (Rough Guide Travel Guides) by Greg Ward - In the standard Rough Guide format including detailed advice on budget-priced ccommodation.

Brittany Green Guide (Michelin Green Guides) - In the handy pocket size with good coverage of regional attractions, food, customs and history.

Lonely Planet Brittany and Normandy - Packed with authoritative essays and good pictures of all aspects of the region. Worth pre-reading before you go, to capture the full flavour of this area of France.

Brittany (AA Road Map France S.)  A good map. ideal for charting those back roads that help you find the off-beat charms of France.

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