We've seen much of the Aquitaine coast from the Spanish border up to Bordeaux. From Bayonne southward, the coastline is rocky with points, reefs, and occasional beaches just below the Pyrenees. You can read about some of our coastal hikes there in my other blog posts in the France Category.
From Bayonne north, once you cross the Adour river, there are hundreds of miles of sand dunes reminiscent of those you see south of Santa Cruz on the Monterey Bay. These dunes, like most of the coastline of France, are protected with beach access limited to designated passes through the dunes.
We were curious about the west coast of France north of Aquitaine so we decided to take a quick look at several areas to see where we'd want to return for longer visits. On the agenda were Ile d'Oleron, Les Sables d'Olonne, Quiberon, Finistere, and Perros-Guirec. The last three are in Brittany. I'll be doing posts on each one of these places. The first stop was Ile d'Oleron.
It was the 24th of May, and we were reminded by our teammates that it was a holiday weekend - Monday was the Pentacote, a national holiday. We should be prepared for traffic and crowds.
The off season population of the island is about 20,000, but that swells tremendously during the summer, particularly in August.
It's connected to the mainland by a 2-mile long toll-free bridge. You can drive most everywhere on the island in 15-20 minutes, but if you have the time, I'd highly recommend exploring it by bicycle. From what we could see, most of the hotels provide bicycles. There wasn't much traffic on the roads, so they appeared to be safe for riding, but even better, there are over 75 miles of bike paths.
We were pleasantly surprised that we encountered no traffic getting to the island. We easily found our hotel in La Cotiniere, a small village on the west side of the island and after a quick shower, walked the quarter mile into the heart of the village where we looked for a restaurant for dinner. La Cotiniere has a port that is well-known for its catches and the restaurants all have fresh fish and shellfish daily. After looking at menus, we walked into the Assiette du Capitaine. There appeared to be only one available table outside (where it was quite cold), and one set for 4 inside which was clearly reserved. After a brief discussion, the owner decided to give us the 4-top inside since whoever reserved it had not shown up.
Since Monday was a holiday, we knew we had to leave by mid-afternoon if we wanted to avoid the traffic across the bridge back to the mainland, so we got up early and began exploring the island.
On the southeast corner is Le Chateau d'Oleron and its Citadel which was built in the 17th century. If you're an oyster fan, you can take the Route des Huitres northwest by bicycle or car and do oyster tastings along the way. According to the most of the French we've met, the oysters from the Ile d'Oleron are the best in France. The coastline is rocky and rough with a few small beaches.
Continuing up the coast you will pass through the village of Saint Denis before arriving at the black and white stripped Phare de Chassiron lighthouse. If you like lighthouses, there are at least 6 significant ones on the island including 3 in Chateau d'Oleron and one in La Continiere.
The Phare de Chassiron lighthouse is open to visitors and you can see the entire island from the top of the 151' structure. The original structure was built in 1655 but it's seen a number of renovations/enhancements since. These are described in detail on signs as you enter the lighthouse grounds.
The lighthouse is surrounded by a garden which includes explanations of the wind patterns and their legends, memorials to shipwreck victims, and numerous sculptures. Shipwrecks seem to be a major theme of the coast north of Aquitane.
There are trails leading west and south from the lighthouse that extend for miles. The coastline is all rocky reefs and points with ecusses - former large scale fishing traps - structures build of stone with netting or grills in various places. At high tide, the water would spill over the top of the walls and at lower tide would run out through the grills/nets trapping the fish. This type of fishing is now outlawed, but the structures still stand in the reefs.
There is good surfing here at the end of the island, but as one local said, don't go out alone and be very aware of the tides or you'll find yourself dragged all the way to La Rochelle 15 miles away.
As you head west and south, the rocks and reefs give way to sandy beaches near La Hutte, a well-known surf spot. From there onwards along the west coast of the island, it's miles of sand dunes, often bordered by pine forests. Like the rest of the French coast, the dunes are protected, but there are plenty of passages to the beach.
We spoke with several people about the island, tourism, crowds, etc., and indeed, during late July and August, there are continuous traffic jams on the island. Much of the island is now home to camping parks and these fill up quickly. But, just a bit off-season, there are very few people, and empty beaches, roads, and bike trails. Even during our holiday weekend, it seemed pretty deserted.
We left the island mid-afternoon, but in spite of our early departure, spent a long time on the bridge to the mainland and even more getting through La Rochelle (there was a huge flea market that had roads backed up for miles). Our projected 2.5 hour trip to Sables d'Olonne (my next blog post), took nearly double that.
Would we go back to Ile d'Oleron? Yes, but it would be off season - May/June or late September/early October. The food was memorable and since our return, I've heard from others that the Ile d'Oleron has some of the best seafood in France. And, I must admit that I'd like to see if I can find some uncrowded off-season surf there.