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Catching Dune Time in Arcachon Bay on France's Laid-back Southwestern Coast

The oysters are fresh, the sand is soft and boats bob in the breeze in the seaside towns of Cap Ferret and Arcachon.

Dune du Pilat

Barefoot and fancy-free on the Dune du Pilat.

“You might want to take your shoes off,” suggests Christel Santurenne as we’re standing at the bottom of the tallest sand dune in all of Europe. My blond, energetic and fit guide is already barefoot herself when we start climbing the 110-metre-tall Dune du Pilat, created by the gentle winds at the entrance to the bay surrounding Arcachon, a seaside town on the southwest coast of France. Soon I’m panting hard, holding on to a rope handrail to pull myself up step by step, while children are hurling themselves in the opposite direction, down the slope, shrieking with laughter.

Ville d’Été; Arcachon Bay

Left to right: High season: the houses and villas of Arcachon’s waterfront neighbourhood, Ville d’Été (Summer Town); smooth sailing on Arcachon Bay.

Blue denim espadrilles in hand (I bought a pair of the classic canvas shoes with braided hemp soles the previous night at the outdoor market in town), I finally reach the summit and dip my toes into the sand. I scan the bay from the top and watch a shifting scene of blues and blonds as sandbanks reveal themselves at low tide and turquoise waters run pale between the channels. I almost forget I’m just an hour from Bordeaux. “On weekends, my husband and I take the kids in our boat,” Santurenne tells me. “We drop anchor on the Arguin sandbank over there.” She points toward a sparkling formation in the middle of the bay. “The dune and the bank change every day; it’s always a different view.”

Chez Hortense

Chez Hortense, a place to sea and be seen.

Once we get back down to the foot of the dune, I make my way over to the terrace of Co(o)rniche, one of two ultratrendy hotels in town designed by Philippe (“just a local guy”) Starck. I sit down on a deck chair next to the pool, which looks like it’s about to flow over into the bay. The stylish hotel director Sophie Téchoueyres echoes the guide’s words about weekends almost verbatim. I would have imagined this impeccably chic woman, in her deconstructed dress, spending her time in some super-glamorous nightclub, surrounded by stars. But here, whether you’re a tour guide or a luxury hotelier, everyone lives the same way, donning the same espadrilles and slurping the same oysters.

Arcachon oyster farming

In Arcachon, the world’s your oyster farm.

Two hundred years ago, Arcachon Bay was an empty expanse, except for a few cabins belonging to fishermen and pine resin workers, who would tap the pines and distill their resin to make turpentine. Then, a railway built in 1857 brought with it the well-to-do French, who settled along the seafront in tall, white belle-époque houses with terracotta roofs. Today the destination, already well known throughout the country but broadcast to the rest of the world thanks to Guillaume Canet’s 2010 film Little White Lies, has a simple, laid-back elegance that attracts vacationers whose days are filled with swimming, boat rides and happy hours.

Ville d’Hiver; Cap Ferret ferry

Left to right: a sculptural detail of a villa in Arcachon’s hillside Ville d’Hiver (Winter Town); having a ferry good time in transit towards Cap Ferret.

My first-ever oyster happy hour is at Olivier Laban’s L’Oyster Bar, an alfresco counter in the heart of the town’s outdoor market. Laban is an oyster farmer by trade and loves the bivalves so much, he can’t resist ordering them when he’s dining out. He comes over to my table and sets down an enormous plate heaping with plump oysters, whelks in their shell, large shrimp and a smoked salmon fillet, served with a selection of mayonnaise and a small jar of pâté de foie with Espelette pepper. People in Arcachon eat their oysters with pâté as we all should. At the same counter, an elderly lady is ordering white shrimp and a man in a suit is inhaling his order, so I grab the Opinel knife that’s been driven into the salmon and cut it into thin slices. I can see why people are proud of this corner of the country and why tourists here quickly adopt the lifestyle of the residents (when they’re not becoming residents themselves).

La Co(o)rniche

A place in the sun: La Co(o)rniche, a hotel by Philippe Starck, sits at the foot of the Dune du Pilat.

I get another oyster fix on the water, when Christian Lapègue takes me out on his barge. “I was a police officer in Paris and a barber in Bordeaux before coming here,” he tells me. He finally found his calling as an oyster farmer in the bay. “It’s not complicated,” he says, his blue eyes sparkling. “My office is breathtaking, the clients are easygoing, so no migraines, no ulcers. This is happiness.” He navigates his small, flat-bottomed boat through the shallow water (at times, it’s less than 30 centimetres deep), and calmly makes his way between the wooden posts, green from algae, that are scattered throughout the bay to demarcate oyster farms. We pass a group of men busy working their oyster beds when Lapègue tells me that Arcachon is Europe’s biggest oyster-growing bay, a kind of giant bivalve nursery. His farm is right across from the Dune du Pilat, and as we reach it, he jumps into the water and ties his boat to a post. He bends over and, from an enormous plastic mesh crate, plucks a dripping oyster and opens it with a flick of the wrist. No sooner offered than swallowed: It is salty and juicy, the firm flesh bursting with a subtle, slightly sweet flavour when I bite into it. The oysters are quickly lined up on a makeshift counter, a plastic crate resting on the barge’s engine, between tumblers of white wine and lemon wedges.

Christian Lapègue; oysters

Left to right: Oyster farmer Christian Lapègue isn’t afraid to get his feet wet; a boysterous party of two.

We’re motoring our way back to shore just as the sun is about to sink behind Cap Ferret. I can barely make out a row of tiny silhouettes atop the dune. Tourists and residents alike climb there every evening to sit and applaud the sunset as the last speck of light disappears. “It’s a tradition,” says Lapègue. When I see how the gentle waves light up under the sun’s final rays and the sandbanks turn red and pink, I can see why that’s so. Around us, sailboats and small motorboats criss-cross the water, making the most of the remaining light before heading back to port. “There’s a 32-year wait-list to get a berth at Arcachon’s marina,” says Lapègue as we watch a catamaran slowly pass before us. I understand why Christel Santurenne told me she docks her boat 20 minutes away from town, in the port of Teich: Some people go for prestige, others tranquility.

Chez Pierre; the Citroën 2CV

Left to right: An oyster happy hour at Chez Pierre; the classic Citroën 2CV.

The following morning, I board one of the ferries that crosses the bay, accompanied by cyclists, families and couples on getaways. Once we arrive at “the peninsula of happiness,” as Cap Ferret is also called, we make our way across the spit toward the wild ocean beaches facing the Atlantic. The coast is strewn with bunkers, vestiges from the German occupation that, from afar, resemble beached whales. I walk for a while, surveying the concrete structures that are almost buried in the sand. Over time, they’ve become a canvas for graffiti.

Once I reach Chez Hortense, I settle in under a canopy of vines, taking a seat at an unassuming wooden table with gingham placemats. While the decor may well be the same as when the bistro opened in 1938, this local institution is known as much for its people-watching potential as for its cuisine and owner Bernadette, whose bracelets jangle as she wends her way around the tables, notebook in hand. Within eyeshot of the dune, the location couldn’t be more picturesque, serving as a magnet for celebrities (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard has a regular table). But I couldn’t care less. My focus is on the garlic mussels, cooked according to a secret family recipe. I devour my order to the sound of the waves and the squealing of children happily diving into a plate of perfectly golden fries.

Gaston Bouloc; Hotel Home Arcachon

Left to right: Taking off with Gaston Bouloc, a pilot with the La Teste-de-Buch flying club; Hotel Home Arcachon, your home away from... well, you know.

By the time the ferry brings us back to the Arcachon harbour, it’s late afternoon. I’ve still got a few more hours of sunshine, so I decide to head out on a stroll to help digest the mussels and white wine. I walk the length of the seaside promenade, buzzing with people in blue and white stripes and suntanned children with sand-covered feet. I happily follow in the footsteps of residents stocking up on groceries, and end up in a tiny store brimming with local products. I buy a bottle of petit gris de Bordeaux; the rosé, with a very short maceration period, is grown at a vineyard only 50 kilometres from here.

Dune du Pilat

On a map quest atop the Dune du Pilat (with the Arguin sandbank in the distance).

I soon leave behind the soft warmth and salty smells of the seafront and find myself meandering the shady, cooler roads higher up in town. On a pine-tree-lined street that leads to my hotel, which is housed in an old water-treatment plant, I stop in front of a tranquil villa with finely crafted turrets and large balconies. In the past, wealthy Europeans came here to breathe in the supposedly curative scents of these grand pines. I inhale the humid air; it’s perfumed with a hint of turpentine. Branches from a fig tree hang over a fence, and I can’t resist grabbing a perfectly ripe fruit and eating it right there on the sidewalk. Night descends on Arcachon, and for a moment – fig in hand, espadrilles on my feet and my skin salty from a day on the bay – I feel like I belong here, too.



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