Southwest France's best beaches: Bassin d’Arcachon
The Dune du Pilat offers paragliding opportunities, rich wildlife and splendid panoramic views. (Matt Munro)
At 500 metres wide, 107 metres high and almost two miles long, the Dune du Pilat is the largest sand dune in Europe. This majestic wall of sand is as steep as an Olympic ski jump, providing the perfect launch pad for local paragliders. And it is still growing, edging inland three metres a year.
The Dune du Pilat is one of many stretches of sand around the Bassin d'Arcachon. Sprawling for 1,000 hectares between Arcachon and the headland of Cap Ferret, this is the largest bay in southwest France, closer to a tropical lagoon than an open sea. Celebrated for its laid-back coastal lifestyle, rich birdlife and busy beach resorts, the bay has one other claim to fame, as the capital of French oysters.
Thierry Beaugendre is one of around 300 ostréiculteurs (oyster farmers) working from rickety wooden shacks scattered round the bay. Sprightly and nimble, his skin burnished leather-brown by the sun, he comes from a long line of Arcachon fishermen. "I never considered any other job," he explains. "I've been working the oyster beds since I was a boy. Of course, I didn't really like the taste to begin with," he winks. "I had to grow up before I could appreciate that."
Oyster farming has been a feature of life in Arcachon for more than 150 years. Napoléon III licensed the first man-made beds in 1857, simultaneously establishing Arcachon as a fashionable seaside resort for thalassothérapie (salt-water bathing). Although much of modern Arcachon's architecture is more Costa Brava than Belle Époque, there are still many lavish 19th-century villas dotted round town, built as sumptuous seaside retreats for wealthy Bordelais. The town even has its own cast-iron hilltop observatory, built in 1863 by the engineer Paul Régnauld, which locals cheekily like to claim inspired the Eiffel Tower. Spiral steps climb up to the 25-metre-high viewing platform, which provides a bird's-eye view across the town's ochre rooftops and the cobalt blue waters of the bay beyond.
"Life in Arcachon still revolves around the tides," explains Thierry. "We're a coastal people. I couldn't imagine living far from the sea." Cruising to the Cap Ferret lighthouse in the early morning sunlight, past pine-clad coastline, puttering oyster boats and wheeling gulls, you know exactly what he means.
Where to stay
Once a water-treatment plant, the Hôtel Ville d'Hiver is now Arcachon's most fashionable place to stay. Built in 1884 in the crimson-and-cream stone characteristic of Arcachon's stately villas, the hotel sits in the heart of the respected neighbourhood of Winter Town. Rooms combine the building's heritage architecture (A-frame beams, halfmoon windows) with designer bathrooms, king-size beds and pretty balconies (from £104).
Where to eat
Cafés and bistros line the coastal strip in Arcachon, but the standout choice is Café de la Plage. Cappuccinos and light lunches are served in the café, while the next-door restaurant serves the best seafood in town: blackboards crammed with the best of the day's catch, and seafood platters arranged on beds of crushed ice (mains from £15; 1 bld Veyrier Montagnères).
Further information: www.arcachon.com