A Long Weekend in Arcachon
A sizeable bite out of Aquitaine’s rugged interior; a haven from the marine dramas of the Atlantic coast. The Bassin d’Arcachon is one of the South West’s beach resorts en vogue.
A position it has held onto since its Victorian foundation as a getaway from the city smog. Indeed, Arcachon has long been championed, thanks to its pleasant climes and clean air, as a place of recovery and restoration.
What to see
A visit to the Bassin would, naturally, be incomplete without a thorough investigation of its namesake. The town of Arcachon is renowned for its ‘seasonal quarters,’ the winter town is home to beautiful victorian villas and a stroll through this calming neighbourhood will transport you back in time, many of the villas are in nearly pristine condition.
But for a little more liveliness, it is all happening on the beach front — the summer town, is the life of Arcachon. Seafront shopping and sandy beaches ready to be enjoyed, and that says nothing of the abundant bars and cafés that line the streets for a leisurely sunshine aperitif.
Before the town exploded in popularity the only population of the bay were fishermen and their families. And, although many villas have been built away from the prying eyes of Arcachon for France’s rich and famous, Cap Ferret still captures some of that charm.
Circling the bay reveals myriad wooden huts, jetties, and boats; time tested scenes of the nautical life. Going all the way to the cape puts you in the magical position between the calm bay and the majestic tear of the Atlantic. It turns out that such a place is rather conductive to great seafood. Fisherman’s cabins are everywhere and in them you will find some of the finest offerings in France.
Conversely, heading south along the rugged beaches one stumbles upon the largest (and most dramatic) of sights of the region: The Dune du Pilat. Being the largest sand dune in Europe at 2.7km long, 500m meters wide and 110m high, this is one formidable wall of sand! A veritable crown on the Gascon coast, the dune du Pilat attracts curious tourists and the more resilient beach goer, ready for the challenge of scaling the dune to witness more than a mile of unbroken sand. But what truly makes the dune spectacular is standing on top of it and witnessing not only unending ocean but also a sea of trees in the Landes.
The forest of Landes is the largest maritime-pine forest in Europe and is a spectacular natural backdrop. It is a forest managed for its resources but also serves as a getaway for many city dwellers. Those who wish to roam around in the shade after scaling the dune or to enjoy the various campsites in the region are in luck.
What to eat
After a day of serious sightseeing it is surely time to eat something delicious. While that is rarely a difficulty in France, here especially one finds exceptional things. First and foremost, many people visit the Bassin exclusively for oysters. The oysters of Cap Ferret are a firm favourite, and enjoying them fresh from the producers in beach side cabins, well, that is a real luxury!
They are graded in terms of size from 0 (largest) – 5 (smallest.) The best sizes for eating raw are 3 or 4, larger than that they are best enjoyed cooked. The cabins usually offer a tasting plate of half a dozen fresh oysters, some French bread and a cold, crisp glass of white wine for a great price. Cutting the oysters out of the shell and dashing them with a little lemon is half of the fun, the other half is the fresh seawater taste, knowing they have been plucked vital and fresh from the water.
La Cabane du Phare (19 rue des Pecheurs, Quartier Ostreicole du Phare, 33970) is a great example of this kind of traditional cabin, locally run by knowledgeable passionate people.
However, the curiously instant transition between beach and pine forest places you in a gastronomic wonderland. Not only do we have fine seafood, but one of the richest French regional cuisines on offer. Gascony is famed for its duck. Salted and preserved duck confit, is a celebrated treat here, grilled until the skin is glass-brittle and the meat succulent, a great duck confit served with no more than green salad is a summer dinner treat as the sun goes down.
For the more adventurous, the Salade Landaise – a carnivore’s salad of finely preserved duck; including the meaty and melting gizzards. Salade Landaise would, of course, be incomplete without a generous handful of creamy pine nuts from the expansive local forests. Summer never tasted so good!
And if you need a little something to drink? Arcachon is not far from Bordeaux, after all. The closest Appellation to the region is Graves, a firm favourite of the locals. Graves, as an appellation, has something for everyone; from the famous Bordeaux reds, to crisp and fresh dry whites and sweet dessert wines.
In any case, Arcachon is not to be missed!
Fun fact: There are even skiers around the Bassin! A former ski run (which closed many decades ago) was carpeted by pine needles from the local forests. There are even rumours of those who keep up this tradition in the depths of the forests.