Arcachon, located in the southwest corner of France, was once a wooded Atlantic coastline with just a few huts, endless oyster beds and the biggest sand dune in Europe. That all changed in 1857 when Napolean III christened the town of Arcachon and brought all of the debutantes from Paris and the Cote D’Azur to the Atlantic coast to wait out the winter in peace. Today, this little stretch of beach in the corner that separates Spain from France is a bustling tourist spot all summer long, with all manner of outdoor sports, seafood restaurants on every lane, and campgrounds filled with Europeans of all persuasions.
A few things make this region special and inviting. Just northeast of Arcachon Bay (Bassin de Arcachon) is the city of Bordeaux, renowned for the best wines in the world. These wines stock most every eating establishment in the towns around Arcachon and are an excellent companion for a plate of oysters steamed in garlic and a hunk of a baguette. One of the memories that has stayed with me all these years is of a lone fisherman reading the paper while slowly sipping wine and plopping one oyster after another into his mouth, as if in a trance. The whole Cap Ferret is teeming with oysters, and a walk through the fishing villages of l’Herbe or Le Canon will get your mouth watering.
A short drive south, you will find the Dune de Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe and a playground for all ages. From atop the dune you can see far out into the Atlantic and down upon the wooded lanes that course through and around the resort towns of the area. The dune is 500m wide, more than 100m high and almost 3km long. It is dotted with snack stands, chairs and bathers, and the occasional bunker from WWII.
Arcachon Bay is the only bay of its kind on the west coast of France. Most others that face the open sea have long since been sealed off by the sand carried south in the currents that circle the Atlantic. Arcachon remains open due to the several rivers that empty out into the bay, forcing the sand farther out until it eventually becomes just another meter of sand on the “Great Dune of Pyla” — as the dune is otherwise known.
This resort area was built for the rich and has since been “democratized”, but still carries the air of privilege and luxury that only France’s coast can offer. Many of the towns around the bay cater to sophisticated tastes with boutiques, beautiful cafes and high class restaurants. It is quite possible to live it up here if you want to; the other option is to rent a camp site (with or without camper) and lounge about in the sultry summer air of southern France. Perhaps a bit of both? All services are available here; from renting a nice car to water skiing, sailing lessons, snorkeling … pretty much everything a good sea side place might offer. Arcachon Bay and its surroundings were meant to be a getaway in Europe’s most “get-away” country — and you can be sure they got it right.
If the beach life starts to wear on you, take a trip inland and visit some of the fortified towns and castles that the English fought over in their 100-year long campaign to maintain control of Aquitaine during the 14th and 15th centuries. St. Emilion, for example, is a very popular town due to its 11th century basilica, and the city center cobblestone plazas and sidewalks, all lined with cafes, patisseries and salons de the.
My friend David Lee stopped here on his tour around the world, and you can check out his description and pictures on his site Gobackpacking.com — he did what all of us should do when in Arcachon.
Written by Sascha Matuschak for EuropeUpClose.com