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Arcachon Bay: A Unique French Getaway by the Sea

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Arcachon Bay: A Unique French Getaway by the Sea

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Arcachon Bay (in French: Le Bassin d’Arcachon) has been a well-known vacation spot for Europeans and others for some time. Situated on the southwest coast of France, and exposed to both the bay and Atlantic waterfronts, the region offers a wonderful setting for anyone interested in spending time in a place renowned for its oysters, surf, and more. I had the good fortune of being able to spend two weeks in the bay; enjoying some of the sights, activities and local cuisine the area had to offer.

Getting to and around Arcachon Bay

The Bay is about an hour’s drive from Bordeaux, making travel arrangements relatively simple. My voyage brought me from Cedar rapids, IA, to Detroit, to Paris, and finally to Bordeaux where I was picked up by friends and driven to Claoey, the small village where I stayed. While I was lucky enough to have friends to pick me up, one could just as easily take one of the buses from the Bordeaux Bus Station to their point of destination. There is a route that serves the peninsula side of the bay, stopping in each of the villages at specific times on a daily basis all the way up to the end point at Cap Ferret.

The prices however, at around 2-4 euros per ride (even to a neighboring village) I found to be a little expensive. Another option if the weather is good is to rent a bike from one of the local bike shops, and take the well-designed bike paths. These wind all over the peninsula for tens of kilometers, passing by the majority of the most interesting locations on the peninsula side of the bay. I was able to borrow a friend’s bike, and did a great deal of commuting to neighboring villages on two wheels.  

Cape Ferret

Cape Ferret

Most of the villages and towns around the Bay are quite small, reducing the number of options one has in terms of places to shop, eat, etc. However, cities with larger populations such as Arcachon and Cap Ferret are not too far from any village in the area, and offer a greater number of amenities such as restaurants, cafes, movie theatres, and more.

Tides, Dunes, and Islands in the Bay

Coming from landlocked Iowa in the U.S.; one of the most interesting things about visiting a place like Arcachon Bay for me was witnessing the constantly changing tides. When low, the water retreats, leaving the bay dry, and stranding boats on the sand. When high, fisherman and others can drive their vessels straight out to the Atlantic at the mouth of the bay.

According to locals, the tides go in or out once every 6 hours, and vary in volume depending upon the time of day, year, and other factors. One can view tidal charts relevant to the local conditions at Arcachon Bay to know when it will be possible to go for a boat ride or swim. For tourists, this is particularly important if one desires to take the tours of the bay, which are available in various options ranging in distance and time. During such an excursion one can see some of the most notable sights around the bay, including Le Dune d Pyla (the Dune of Pyla), and L’isle aux Oiseux (the Isle of the Birds). The former is a great sand dune situated on the southern side of the bay (see dune in distance in photo below).  While I did have the chance to go there, I was told that it is a great spot for hiking and picnics. The latter, L’isle aux Oiseux, is comprised of two rustic cabins on stilts situated in the middle of the bay.  When the tide is out a miniature island is revealed upon which the cabins sit, hence the name. Word has it that fisherman used to dwell in the cabins, surrounded by water on all sides. They have since become iconic images of the area that one can find in paintings, pictures, and all matter of memorabilia related to Arcachon Bay.

The Dune of Pyla

The Dune of Pyla

Beach at Le Pointe (The Point)

Le Pointe (The Point)

The Point and its Bunkers

A few days into my journey, Fabian (a member of the family with whom I was staying) and I decided to venture out to the tip of the peninsula, known as Le Pointe (The point). We chose a day with strong winds and overcast skies, which made my first visit to the Atlantic in some time all the more powerful and interesting. We walked along the beach, witnessing the many seagulls, families, and boogie boarders enjoying themselves by the ocean. We even saw one boy flying a kite lifted into the air and planted face first in the sand (apparently kite flying on this beach is not to be taken lightly!)

Whilst walking, we also caught sight of the remnants of German bunkers built by the Nazis during their occupation of France during World War II. The bunkers were said to have been built in anticipation of an attack by allied forces (this apparently never happened as the allied forces attacked much further north). Today, the bunkers are covered with graffiti, giving them a somewhat peculiar look considering their location and original purpose. While some of them have begun to descend into the sea, those that have not can be explored via some the small passages and openings where artillery would have been positioned to fire at the opposition.

World War II Era Nazi Bunkers

World War II Era Nazi Bunkers

Restaurant at the Point

Restaurant at the Point

Rue de la Plage

Another day, Fabian and I visited one of the popular piers in Cap Ferret at bus stop Rue de la Page. The area features many fine hotels, apartments, restaurants and cafes that look out on the bay, and is a nice place to visit even on a rainy day. A mini train is available to take passengers for a scenic ride through Cap Ferret out to the Atlantic on the other side. 

We had the chance to stop by a café for dessert crepes and gaufres (waffles). The variety of different options made it a difficult choice, but I ended up going with a crepe with Nutella and vanilla ice cream; and had no regrets about my decision.

Crepe with Nutella and Vanilla Ice Cream

Crepe with Nutella and Vanilla Ice Cream

After our snack, Fabian and I walked out to the end of the dock where the boats pick up passengers for tours of the bay. There we joined a crowd of onlookers watching locals trying their luck at fishing. We saw one boy reel in a cuttlefish, and a man geared up in cold-water diving equipment dive down, to reemerge with 3 crabs.  Apparently none of them saw the NO FISHING sign.

Locals Fishing for Fresh Catch

Locals Fishing for Fresh Catch

No Fishing Sign

No Fishing Sign

Fishing in Arcachon

While small time fishing from docks in the bay may be forbidden in certain areas, commercial fishing, as one might imagine, is one of the biggest industries in Arcachon Bay. The local marine conditions are such that oyster farming is considered to be the primary fishing industry, and one can see oyster farms all over the bay (see Oyster Farm photo below).

Tours of the oyster farms are available by licensed fishermen; but I am told they are quite expensive. One would do best to research the options prior to investing in such an excursion. Oysters farmed in the bay are consumed both locally and abroad, with large amounts exported to other areas of France and other around the world. As a vegetarian I was unable to partake in any oysters or other seafood; however I am told that local restaurants in the bay are any seafood buff’s heaven, with a wide range of dishes featuring the daily fresh catch.

Oyster Farm

Oyster Farm

Oyster Shells

Oyster Shells

French Cuisine

Despite my so-called “culinary handicap” I was still able to indulge in some of the most important elements of French cuisine in addition to the crepes and coffee.
In Petit Piquey, one of the villages between Claoey and Cap Ferret, my friends and I visited a well-known Patisserie called “Patachou.” While many patisseries in France and Belgium will simply serve pastries and sweets, this one offered gourmet cakes, breads, and ice cream as well. After much internal debate I ordered a chocolate raspberry almond cake for one, which ended up being one of the most delicious and enjoyable cakes I’ve ever eaten in my life. I was sad to think that I wouldn’t be able to find cake of this quality back in the United States. For that reason I returned to Patachou for round 2 a few days later.

Apart from this I feasted on delicious home cooked meals made from fresh vegetables, grains, and cheeses; and of course wine and bread were staples at every meal.  We also had the opportunity to indulge in some delicious 4-cheese pizza at a restaurant in Petit Piquey called L’Atlantic.

Chocolate Raspberry Almond Cake for One

Chocolate Raspberry Almond Cake for One

French Staples: Red Wine and Baguettes

French Staples: Red Wine and Baguettes

Surf’s Up

When the weather is nice, locals and tourists alike enjoy surfing or boogie boarding on the Atlantic side of Arcachon Bay.  There are several beaches with good wave conditions, a few of which are patrolled by lifeguards during the summer months. Currents can be strong in the area, so beginners are advised to be careful and may wish to sign up for lessons with one of the surf schools rather than venturing out on their own even on patrolled beaches. 
The day before I left, I finally got the opportunity to have some fun in the ocean.  Since I was going by bike, I decided that boogie boarding would be a more convenient activity (the bus routes unfortunately do not pass by several of the best beaches on the peninsula side). I headed to the nearest surf shop and rented a board, flippers, and a sac to carry everything on my back.

Surf Shop

In the end I ended up having back luck with the wave conditions (they were breaking early and not particular conducive to boogie boarding or surfing), but the weather was beautiful and I had fun to say the least.

Go in Summer if Possible

Summer may be the best time to visit the bay. While the number of tourists may greatly increase, the weather is very nice (I was there in the spring time and it was generally quite rainy) and one may have the opportunity to interact with a greater number of students and tourists from other countries.

Other activities available in the area worth mentioning include mini golf, wind surfing, visiting local art museums, beach volleyball, and hiking in the woods (watch out for the wild boars if you do happen o go hiking).
If I have the chance to visit again, I will try my best to squeeze in days trips to some of the nearby vineyards (there are many in the Bordeaux region), and Lascaux (a site in southwestern France famous for its Paleolithic cave paintings).

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