There are miles of beaches ranging from very rugged rocky areas to large sand dunes. Just inland from the ocean is a forest, which Napoleon had planted to protect the inland areas from the sand blowing off the coast, and just a bit further inland from the forest are marshes which are stops for migrating birds and home to many exotic orchids.
The forest and the marshes are crisscrossed by almost 75 kilometers (~45 miles) of biking/hiking trails and kayaks and canoes are available for exploring the marshes.
The area has a remarkable history dating back 2500 years. The Romans occupied it because of its prosperous port. England owned it beginning in the 9th century and Richard the Lionhearted considered it his favorite hunting area in France.
We arrived at the Logis Des Maraichers Monday night after a 5 hour drive that was supposed to be half that. Philip greeted us and showed us to our room. The Logis has 4 very elegant rooms in a closed courtyard with an outside dining area (for breakfast), and a swimming pool. Philip then invited us to the office where he showed us maps of the area, indicated surfing spots, and made some restaurant recommendations. He thought most would be open since it was a holiday.
Unfortunately, his first recommendation was closed so we chose another on his list - touted for great seafood. I'd have to say that although the service was excellent, the food was mediocre.
There's a nice port, but a lot of industrialization in it. The city doesn't have much charm. We tried to find some cohesiveness but couldn't. Some buildings were very new. Others probably dated from the late 1940s. But we didn't find much that was fascinating. Maybe we just didn't know where to look, but in most French towns and cities, you get a feel for them right away. Overall, Karen and I agreed that Les Sables d'Olonne felt pretty disjoint - a city trying to find its identity. Philip, our host at the Logis, agreed. He's British and came here several years ago in search of an opportunity near the coast. He seems to have found it in Orlonne-sur-mer, just a few miles north of the city, as the area is popular with the British and with people from the low countries who love the biking trails.
Apparently it wasn't the best time of year for bird viewing so we didn't bring our kayaks and didn't take the time to rent some to explore the marshes. Since the area didn't excite us too much, we were anxious to move on to Brittany and our next stop, Quiberon.