The Arcachon Bay is around 55 kms south west of Bordeaux, so it’s a couple of hours drive from Les Milandes. Last year, however, we managed to drag ourselves away from the sun loungers to visit this extraordinary bay. Of course, if we had been a bit more organised we could have flown into (or returned to England) from Bordeaux airport and it would have been a shorter journey, but no matter, the Arcachon Bay was well worth the effort.
The locals often refer to Arcachon Bay as ‘Le Basin’. It lies between the Dune du Pilat (more of this incredible natural feature a little later) and Lège Cap-Ferret. The other towns and villages in Arcachon Bay are; Andernos-les-Bains, Arcachon, Arès , Audenge, Biganos, Gujan-Mestras, La Teste de Buch, Lanton and Le Teich. (Cap-Ferret on the other side of the bay is very trendy and very exclusive. If you fancy staying here there is a lovely hotel called “La Maison du Bassin”.)
Attracting the rich & famous
Arcachon Bay has long been used by residents of Bordeaux as a weekend retreat. Back in the early 19th century, the area was used as a health resort. People visited in order to aid their recovery from ailments (particularly tuberculosis) by taking in the fresh air. It was viewed as a great alternative to Switzerland.
The bay also attracted the rich and famous. Napoleon III was a big fan (he signed the deeds for Arcachon to become a town). The author Alexandre Dumas lived in Arcachon Bay and the painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec once owned a house with sea views.
Before the age of the train, a journey from Bordeaux by horse-drawn carriage would take 14-18 hours to reach Le Basin. However, once the railway was built the journey time was cut to a far more civilised 2 hours. Today, a trip by car from Bordeaux should take under an hour.
The oysters of Arcachon Bay
The Arcachon Basin stretches for more than 100kms and at low tide the water recedes to reveal mudflats and sandbanks – the ideal habitat for many different species of bird. But we weren’t here for the bird watching. Oh no. For us, the visit was all about the oysters and the highest sand dune in Europe. Let’s kick off with the food first.
Stand at the shoreline and you will see lots of crooked poles jutting out of the water (see the picture above). These mark the location of the oyster beds. You will also notice the cabanes tchanquées (huts on stilts used by fishermen) which have become synonymous with Arcachon Bay. These stilted huts were originally built so that the oyster farmers could keep watch for thieves.
The bay is known throughout France for the quality of its farmed bivalves. Back in the mid 1800s, the first experimental oyster beds were installed here. The process probably hasn’t changed a great deal in that time. Larval oysters are grown on lime-washed tiles and then transferred to oyster beds a few kilometres out to sea. 18-36 months later the oysters are mature enough to be washed and packed into large baskets (creels). The bay usually produces thousands of tonnes of oysters each year.
The small town of Gujan- Mestras is at the centre of oyster production. It is home to 7 harbours which produce over half of all the oysters farmed in the basin. Little wonder then that the town has a museum dedicated to the oyster; Maison de L’Huitre.
As you can imagine, all around the bay there are lots of great seafood restaurants and beach bars. Arcachon celebrates the oyster with numerous special events during the peak summer months of July and August. Time it right and you could see oyster farmers parade in traditional costume, watch fire on Lake Magdelan and dance the night away at a free concert.
Sandy beaches and Europe’s tallest dune
And that’s another thing. There are some fantastic beaches here. Arcachon’s white sandy beaches stretch for several kilometres and there are a host of water sports available. The most popular beach is Plage Pereire (it’s also the longest at around 3 kilometres). The town’s main beach is Plage d’Arcachon. Close to the centre of town it’s another good option but it is far smaller than Plage Pereire.
You can choose from the bay’s beaches, the ocean beaches and the lake beaches – over 70 kms of them!
One of the sights which we simply had to take in was Dune du Pilat. (Apparently, the dune is the second most visited natural monument in France.) Located at the southern entrance to the bay, this moving monument is nearly 3 kms long, around 500 metres wide and rises around 110 metres. The winds are constantly blowing sand from the banks, so the dune grows by a couple of metres each year. You can certainly work up an appetite climbing this incredible structure and the views from the top are fantastic. The journey down is a lot quicker. The deep, soft sand makes throwing yourself down the dune relatively safe, but that’s entirely up to you. We chose to be a little more sedate in our descent.
More to enjoy at Arcachon Bay
If your appetite is whetted, it is worth planning your trip to Arcachon Bay. The bay covers 150 square kilometres and alongside the fantastic food and enormous dune there are numerous cycle paths, (one circumnavigates the entire basin, so good luck with that) a large forest, a bird sanctuary, an observation tower built by Gustav Eiffel (yes, that one) and numerous golf courses. Hiring a boat is another option. The ‘Pinasse’ is a long, wooden boat typical of the area and these can be hired (with a skipper) for a relaxing chug around. You can also catch one of the ferries which traverse the bay.
The architecture in Arcachon
As we have previously mentioned, thanks to the signature of Napoleon, Arcachon officially became a town in 1857. Each area of the town is named after a season;
• Summer town (Ville d’Eté) is on the seafront
• Autumn town (Ville d’Automne) stretches east from the seafront
• Spring town (Ville de Printemps) is to the west of the town and home to Plage Pereire
• Winter town (Ville d’Hiver) is south of the main beach
If you’re short on time, Ville d’Hiver is probably the best bet. It is in a conservation area and here you will find wide streets with extravagant (some might say eccentric) 19th century villas. The area was created by the Pereire brothers who purchased the land back in 1862. They divided the area into lots and constructed 300 villas.
The accommodation was aimed at those visiting on a health break. The brothers elected to build the villas in the ‘Mode Pittoresque’ and this resulted in quite a mash-up of different architectural styles. It’s fair to say that some of the buildings are more aesthetically pleasing than others . Think Swiss style chalet meets neo-Gothic assemble. In days gone by servants used to have to live on the lower floor (contending with the damp) while the owners would sleep on the second floor under the high-pitched roof.
The lasting appeal of Arcachon Bay
One thing is for sure. The Arcachon Bay has as much appeal now as it did in the 1800s. Its restorative powers haven’t waned. Here, you can enjoy great food, spectacular views and fresh air. It really is one of the highlights of the French Atlantic coast.