To the north, Aiguillon Bay (at the gateway to La Rochelle), to the south, the Bay of Txingudi (Basque Country). An incredibly-varied coastline, boasting a wealth of biodiversity and history, taking in over 970 km of estuaries, islands, beaches, dunes, sandbanks, mudflats, cliffs. Where everything is battered by the waves of the Bay of Biscay, terror for seafarers and pure joy for surfers. Ports, rivers, lighthouses, a whole maritime tradition has been inscribed on this coastline, from the cod fishermen of La Rochelle to the whale hunters in Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Suddenly, a sci-fi scenescape reigns supreme: the former La Pallice submarine base, now the commercial port of La Rochelle, surprising backdrop used in films such as “Das Boot” (The Boat) and “Indiana Jones”. A place which invites to be contemplated from afar or during a guided boat trip over the summer. This monumental base was built by the Germans during the Second World War, as we discover through La Rochelle’s enthralling bunker-museum. Along the Basin des Chalutiers (former trawler bassin), close to the Old Port, with its fleet of restored sailing vessels, this Maritime Museum proposes visits on a weather ship from the 1980s, a deep-sea tug, a trawler, a lifeboat from the SNSM (French sea rescue), classical yachts classiques, as well as the two-mast ketch belonging to sailor Bernard Moitessier: his ever-faithful “Joshua” with its red hull. We’re forever reminded of the sea in La Rochelle, here with the great aquarium, and there thanks to the towers standing tall over the Old Port.
From Île de Ré to Marennes-Oléron
As soon as you head out of the bay, Île de Ré reigns supreme. You just need to travel over the bridge (second longest bridge in France) then cross the island length-wise towards the west point, where lovers of the wide, open sea meet. The Phare des Baleines (Lighthouse of the Whales) stands tall above the island at a height of 57 metres; here, you can climb the 257 steps of its spiral staircase to reach the top and enjoy a breathtaking vista over the Ocean, the beaches, the coastline, Oléron, and the straits. The charming Conche-des-Baleines Beach, with its 3 km of fine sand, starts at the foot of the lighthouse, and Lizay Forest, with its well-known surfing spot, is right there too.
Between the islands of Ré and Oléron, a strait, the Antioche Strait, invites to discover two pearls, areas free from vehicles, to be explored on foot or by bike. A 20-minute boat trip takes you to Île d’Aix and a 3 km-long crescent with a magnificent view over Oléron and the legendary Fort Boyard. Île d’Aix, also known as “Little Corsica of the Atlantic”, boasts a fortified village and its own speciality: mother-of-pearl. As for the delightful Île Madame (800 m × 600 m), it’s accessible on foot for a few hours during low tide, by walking along a strip of sand and pebbles for about 1 km.
But time has come to celebrate the area’s most precious treasure, because here we’re in oyster kingdom; and there’s no better place than the picturesque oyster port of Château d’Oléron, with its multi-coloured huts restored by artists where you can taste a dozen or so. These oysters which most likely grew in the Seudre Estuary – the smallest river in France –, at the very heart of the sparkling Marennes-Oléron oyster basin.
“Here is where Robinson’s beaches begin, as far as the eye can see, between the sea and the forest, between the waves and the dunes. Bare feet in the sand, eyes peering out over the deep blue, here, we can occasionally contemplate a wisp of eternity”
We move from one estuary to another by jumping on board the Royan ferryboat, and cross over the Gironde Estuary. When visibility is good, the proud silhouette of Cordouan Lighthouse dominates the horizon. This historic monument, completed in 1611, is known as “the Versailles of the sea”. It boasts marble floors, stained glass windows, a chapel, a royal apartment, and is the work of the architect Louis de Foix, who successfully diverted the Adour so it would cross through Bayonne. On the other bank, the Grave Headland beckons us with its white sand and announces the ribbon of dunes stretching 230 km long to the mouth of the Adour. Here is where Robinson’s beaches begin, as far as the eye can see, between the sea and the forest, between the waves and the dunes. Bare feet in the sand, eyes peering out over the deep blue, here, we can occasionally contemplate a wisp of eternity.
The land of waves
Erosion eats away and carves the coastline which takes us to a new estuary, Leyre Estuary, creating Arcachon Bay, dominated by an extraordinary geological phenomenon: Pilat Dune, the highest dune in Europe and second most visited site in France. Climbing to the top of these 100 metres of sand (Ed.: the height varies permanently and can reach 115 metres certain years) offers a dizzying panorama over the Bay, Cap Ferret Headland as well as the legendary Banc d’Arguin. Take time out at the top of the dune to daydream whilst looking over these sand spits rippling around the mouth of the Bay… They conjure up the Bahamas and forever change shape through the movements of strong currents.
Direction the south through the hubbub of the rolling waves, along these Landes beaches with their fragrance of pine resin, wild thyme, warm sand and ocean spray. We cross by lakes and lagoons, Sanguinet, Biscarrosse, Aureilhan, then the inland Léon Lake, where the romantic Courant d’Huchet begins, a waterway which flows deep into the forest, swamps, peat bogs, dunes, then weaves its way over 10 km to the Ocean, at Moliets-et-Maa. An unforgettable experience: this natural jewel, “little Amazonia of the Landes”, is navigated on board a “galupe”, traditional flat-bottomed boat, with naturalist boatmen.
Mysterious gouf-type canyon
Further south, we come across two adjacent towns: Hossegor and Capbreton. What links them together is an invisible geological wonder, the Gouf de Capbreton, a remarkable submarine canyon which starts close to the waterfront and stretches over 300 km reaching depths of 4,500 metres. This canyon makes Capbreton the only port in the Landes, with its convivial “from the stern of the boat” fish market, and Hossegor one of the best surfing hotspots, with its famous wave, the North, caused by the head of the canyon.
The perfect place for observing how the sandy coastline turns into a rocky shoreline is the terrace of Biarritz Aquarium, wonderfully located on the top of the Plateau de l’Atalaye, which was a whale lookout point in bygone days. To the north, the straight Landes coastline. To the south, the Basque Coast curves westwards with its jagged cliffs. From the top of one of them, the Sainte-Barbe headland, the vista is incomparable over gracious Saint-Jean-de-Luz Bay, the dykes, the beaches, the port and Socoa on the other side with its fortress.
But another surprise beckons the visitor not far from there. When you head up the coastal pathway, turn off onto Rue de la Pile-d’Assiettes, so-called because of a geological curiosity known as the “Basque Country flysch”, which you can view here on the cliffs. A sequence of sedimentary rock layers (sandstone and marl) dating back to the Cretaceous form incredible millefeuilles twisted in all directions. Amazing cliffs are waiting to be discovered along the Basque coast road, between Socoa and Hendaye, an idyllic outing where you can occasionally admire the giant Belharra wave. By visiting the Château d’Abbadia and its estate at the top of Hendaye, you become totally aware of just how enchanting the place is and you expect to see laminak (elves) and sorginak (witches) appear before your eyes. The neo-Gothic castle-observatory built by Viollet-le-Duc for Antoine d’Abbadie in 1884 is full of eclectic surprises from around the world! As for its undulating, tree-covered, wooded park, it’s a natural reserve offering an aerial vista over the Ocean, the Jumeaux (The Twins), these well-known characteristic rocks, followed by Bidassoa Estuary, a small border river, and the Bay of Txingudi, with Hendaye’s beaches. Spain, Hondarribia, Cape Figuier are just across the bay. And yet, as you admire this magnificent scenescape, you can’t imagine that it’s divided in two but that the Earth is one and the same country.