In the late 18th century, people didn’t flock to the beaches like they do today. Sea bathing was only prescribed by doctors to “purify the body” and treat lung conditions. They used the term “hydrotherapy”.
At the time, Brittany was too remote and so the Parisian middle classes travelled to Normandy, giving rise to the first seaside resorts on the Normandy coast.
But as the French rail network grew, other seaside towns became accessible and were in turn developed, Saint-Cast le Guildo for instance. Can you believe that it used to take 14 hours to travel from Paris to Saint-Cast by train in the early 20th century! With the arrival of the Paris-Brest railway line in 1865, it was much easier for the Parisian aristocracy to travel to the Breton coast for their medical treatments.
The town of Saint-Cast developed fairly quickly thanks to the people that came from Paris and Northern France to spend a few days by the sea.
Tents and beach huts were set up on the Grande Plage to protect visitors from the sun and wind, and to enable them to picnic with friends and family, and change into their bathing suits.
You’ll find wooden beach huts on the Grande Plage that are identical to the early 20th-century ones and they are still available for hire today.
The seaside resort of Sables d’Or owes its development to two men – Louis Harel de la Noë, a local railway engineer, and Roland Brouard, an estate agent from St. Malo, who dreamt up the avant-garde resort with motor cars and modern-day sports in mind.
Major building work began in 1922 and the resort opened in July 1924. Building plots were sold for a very high price from 1925 onwards. For some newspapers, it was “the new pearl on the Emerald Coast” and posters of Sables d’Or appeared everywhere, including in the Paris métro and travel agents.
At the time, Sables d’Or was not a “seaside” resort but rather a “health” resort. This internationally recognised label was very popular with the English and awarded by the Ministry of Health. This rating was based on air and water quality, the reliability of the sewerage system, and the absence of any potential source of pollution. Health resorts were therefore renowned for their healing effects and drew in huge crowds.
In the early 20th century, it was customary to cover up and avoid the sun as only farmers and people who worked outside were brown and a suntan was considered common by wealthy people.
Bathing suits were very different back then. In fact, they were called suits rather than costumes and covered up most of the body. They were made from thick (almost always black) cotton or wool and there was little thought for comfort or hygiene as the main aim was to cover up as much skin as possible.
The rise in seaside resorts
The first tourists came from the upper classes and so the facilities needed to cater to this section of the population. Saint-Cast, a fashionable tourist resort, enjoyed a heyday until the eve of the First World War. Luxury hotels were therefore built for wealthy clientele, for instance Hôtel Royal-Bellevue, Hôtel Ar Vro and Hôtel de la Garde.
After World War I, beaches became more popular and were associated with fun and relaxation. It became very fashionable to go to the seaside!
The arrival of paid leave in 1936 transformed the tourism industry as more people could afford to go on holiday. From then on, seaside holidays were no longer just for the affluent elite. Resorts therefore had to cater for these tourists, who although able to go on holiday, still had a smaller budget than the wealthier families. So, more reasonably-priced hotels sprang up. The luxury hotels gradually disappeared and were replaced by campsites from the 1950s onwards. Another form of tourism had emerged.
The French Ministry of Tourism’s station balnéaire (literally sea bathing resort) label was only awarded to Sables d’Or les Pins in 1954 and to Saint-Cast le Guildo in 1969.
Nowadays, we don’t go to the beach on the doctor’s orders but rather to have fun, relax and unwind!