With its vast beaches, high class oysters and laid back feel, France’s Atlantic coast is easier to reach and less crowded than its Mediterranean sister
Words Pendle Harte
Holidaying in the south of France may be a standard British pastime, but France’s Atlantic Coast is slightly overlooked. Every year we get into our cars and head south from Calais, lured by the promise of sun, seafood, sand and the Mediterranean. But there are downsides. The Cote d’Azur is a long drive and when you get there, it’s crowded. If you lay your towel on a beach at Nice, St Tropez or Menton, there’ll be someone else’s towel a few centimetres away.
Not so on the islands of Noimoutier, Oleron or Re. Still France, but less far south. Several hundred miles closer to home, the Vendee and the Charent Maritime have an Atlantic coastline to rival its southern sister, but one that’s easier to reach and less crowded. The area around La Rochelle is full of beautiful sandy beaches, delightful places to stay and wonderful things to eat.
The most obvious destination is the beautiful Ile de Re, long a haunt of Parisians in August. It’s an island connected to the mainland by an impressive toll bridge and its towns and beaches are connected by a network of cycle paths. Distances are small, the landscape is flat, the narrow roads are clogged with cars in high season and bicycle hire shops are found everywhere, making two wheels by far the best mode of transport on the island. Beaches are of the dreamy, sandy variety and local specialities include seasalt and oysters.
Our trip starts in Le Havre, after an implausibly comfortable overnight ferry from Portsmouth (spacious cabin, comfortable beds, even the breakfast is good) and a few hours’ drive takes us to the Island of Noirmoutier, famed for its salt, its wide beaches and its Mediterranean feel. Just 12 miles long and with a population of just 10,000 (rising to 100,000 in August) the island connects to the mainland via a bridge and its wide sandy beaches rival any of the world’s finest.
Market shopping is an obligatory part of any French holiday. Our spoils from the daily market at Noirmoutier include Breton tops all round as well as kilos of seasalt and salted caramels plus delicious white peaches, fresh seafood, baguette and quiche, charcuterie and more. If we’d had any space left in our car, we’d have come home with furniture from the weekly brocante market too.
This region produces 10,000 tonnes of oysters every year, and those from the island of Oléron are the only French oysters to be awarded the Label Rouge for the ‘fine claire verte’ variety since 1989. The taste is a result of the exceptional cultivation in a unique ecosystem only to be found on Oléron Island and the Marennes basin, where the fresh water of the Seudre River meets the sea, producing a delicately perfumed oyster.
Oleron is less well known than the Île de Ré, though larger and less crowed, is also the access point for Fort Boyarde, the location for the TV gameshow of the same name, a spooky looking abandoned military prison built originally as a fort in the middle of the sea. Now tourists are ferried to it for daytrips to admire its bizarre isolation. La Rochelle itself is a beautiful city, its old port, medieval towers and limestone buildings.
Further south towards the seaside resort of Royan, we stay slightly inland in the grounds of a chateau at Les Castels’ Sequoia Parc, in the grounds of the Chateau La Josephtrie, which has a vast pool complex with water slides, cycles for hire, good dining options and high class entertainments in the evenings from an energetic group of young actors.
Aside from organic attractions such as beaches and shellfish, we make time to stop off at Futuroscope, France’s first amusement park, which is so popular that half the population has visited since it opened in 1987. It’s a surreal, futuristic world with rides including a 4-D cinema experience devised by Luc Besson and an award-winning Time Machine experience, all set in an environment that looks like something out of The Fifth Element. It’s also a handy stop en route to the coast. We’ll be back – vive la France.