Ah, l’été. August is almost upon us: the time of year when France nearly shuts down, Paris becomes deserted, and the one single question on everybody’s lips is “Where are you vacationing this year?”
For those lucky enough to head to the seaside, the migration has meaning. Different tribes have their go-to spots, sleepy towns that come alive in the summer as families continue the decades-old tradition and head to where the water is. From Saint Tropez to Brittany, Porquerolles to Biarritz, every vacationer has a strong opinion on why their region of choice is simply the best.
The Arcachon Basin on the Southwest Coast is one of those famed destinations where the French summer in style, yet make no mistake: it’s a far cry from the ostentation of the Mediterranean.
Nestled a short drive from Bordeaux, the Basin and especially famed village Cap Ferret, could be considered France’s answer to Martha’s Vineyard. Lined with fragrant maritime pines the Basin and nearby Atlantic coast have the natural appeal of Brittany sans the harsh temperatures, plus a laid-back attitude that’s equal parts surf and chic.
The simple option to get there and get around is to take a train down to Bordeaux (or flight as cheap options are available from both Paris and other French or European cities) and rent a car to make the drive towards the Basin.
The Basin itself is composed of several villages that lead up, so to speak, to Cap Ferret at the tip of the peninsula. A good home base from which to explore the surroundings is to rent a fisherman’s home in one of the villages. Cap Ferret is the quaintest and most chic, but style also comes with a price… and advance booking.
If hotels are more your thing, the Basin has something for every taste. La Maison du Bassin (5, rue des Pionniers Cap Ferret, Lège-Cap-Ferret) is an understated classic right smack in the center of Ferret, as the locals call it. Set inside a 19th century house, you’ll feel right at home and may never want to leave. That might have something to do with the nightly homemade dessert buffet…
In a more modern style, right on the other side of the basin sits one of the newest additions to the area’s hospitality offer. Philippe Starck designed now-famous La Co(o)rniche, a luxury hotel set atop the impressive Dune du Pyla, Europe’s largest sand dune (46 avenue Louis Gaume, La Teste de Buch).
Wherever you choose to set your bags down, the enticing fragrant pines will be drawing you back outside in no time. Strap on some shoes, grab a couple bottles of water, and hop on a bicycle. One of the big draws of the Arcachon Basin is a bike path (website in French) throughout the forest that runs all along the peninsula. Between stops at small beaches or on dunes for a quick bite to eat, the path is a leisurely way to discover the region’s fauna and flora with that unmistakable seaside air blowing through your hair. Bicycles can be rented at most hotels or in all of the villages.
Of course, no trip to the seaside would be complete without actually spending some time on the water. In the past few years, cabins renting stand-up paddles have been popping up along the Basin’s beaches: the calm waters are a perfect setting to paddle along the coast and bust out the stand-up yoga moves you’ve been practicing all season.
For the more traditional, a boat outing is one of the area’s must-dos. The area’s emblematic vessel, the pinasse, is a boat originaly used by fishermen and oyster farmers and remains a favorite among locals and vacationers alike.
For something a bit more exciting, rent a catamaran for the day and head out along the basin and towards the Atlantic Ocean where, on a good day, you’ll get your fix of waves. A safe rental destination is Voile Liberté, that has boats of all sizes (call +33(0)5 56 60 85 82 for more information and prices).
As they say in French, all the biking and sailing, ça creuse: it makes you hungry. Undoubtedly, local oysters take the prize as top delicacy and a trip to the Basin simply wouldn’t be one without a stop at some of the famed oyster shacks in town.
Little White Lies, the 2010 cult-favorite film starring Guillaume Canet and Marion Cotillard, is set within Cap Ferret and the characters dive into platters of fresh oysters as the plot unfolds. La Cabane d’Edouard, however, was famous long before the Oscar-winning actress made it one of her favorite haunts (the couple have a home on the Basin) and is a staple among locals for fresh oysters, a laid-back ambiance, and good-looking waitresses (Avenue du Port, Claouey).
Beyond oysters, the area boasts several great brasserie-type restaurants serving impeccably prepared fish as well as more classic entrecôte-type classics. Chez Magne, in a small coastal village on the road towards Cap Ferret (L’hôtel de la Plage, L’Herbe Le Canon), is a trusted option filled with old-school charm.
For fish with a view, Pinasse Café in Cap Ferret serves up freshly caught sea bream for two in an atmosphere that recalls the sixteenth arrondissement in Paris – this is the place to see and to be seen (2 bis Avenue de l’Océan, Cap Ferret).
Save some space for dessert: right around the corner from Pinasse Café is a delicious ice cream shop that could very easily become a daily destination (this is a vacation, is it not?).
Speaking of dessert, the restaurant at La Maison du Bassin is the Basin’s ultimate go-to destination for sweet-toothed visitors. Although the menu is filled with high quality, well-executed and tasty selections, the dessert buffet blows it out of the park.
Every single night, a dizzying assortment of homemade lemon meringue tarts, salad bowls filled to the brim with chocolate mousse, and dozens of cakes is set out for diners to enjoy. It’s all you can eat, Cap Ferret-style.
Spend a week on the Arcachon Basin and you’ll feel as rested as if you’d just spent a month lazying around, in a daydream of some of the country’s best seafood, a forest that feels like it’s all yours, and an Ocean that is wild enough to feel perfectly rugged. Who knows: Cap Ferret might just become your new family tradition, too.