At over 200km, Côte d’Argent is the longest, straightest, sandiest stretch of coast in Europe. Behind the endless beaches, which reach from the mouth of the Gironde all the way to Biarritz, are high sand dunes, and the largest forest in Western Europe, Les Landes. There’s no coast road, only a cycle path, built at the end of World War II. It winds through more than 75km of pine-forested dunes from the upmarket holiday town of Cap Ferret, to Soulac in the north. The lack of conventional tourist sights means that outside July and August the coast does not get many visitors, and away from the main resorts it’s possible to find deserted stretches of coastline, even in August.
On Friday nights in the summer, Bordeaux’s residents flee the city, making for Arcachon, the oldest beach resort on the Côte d’Argent. In August the white beaches bustle, and blue and yellow cruise boats buzz around the wooden jetties.
Many of Arcachon’s houses date from that brief period in the nineteenth century when the public’s taste resembled that of a seven year-old girl: extravagant, frilly bungalows sit in rose-filled gardens, inscribed with names like “Mirabelle” and “Claire de Lune” in curly italics. The town is made up of four little districts, named after the seasons. The seafront promenades and shopping streets of ville d’été (summer town) are full of ice-cream stalls and fishing nets. Ville d’hiver (winter town), south of the beach, is a place of broad, quiet streets and Second Empire mansions. To get there, follow the boulevard de la Plage west of Jetée Thiers until you reach the pedestrianized rue de Maréchal-de-Lattre-de-Tassigny; there a lift carries you up to the flower-filled, wooded Parc Mauresque, just below ville d’hiver. Residential ville d’automne (autumn town) stretches eastwards along boulevard de la Plage, a gentle 15min walk from the ville d’été; the beaches are a little quieter here.
The tiny peninsula town of Cap Ferret crashed onto the tourist scene in the 1920s, when Jean Cocteau began holidaying here: “We row, we nap, we roll in the sand, we stroll around naked, in a landscape like Texas”, he wrote in Letters from Piquey (1923). Polite society wanted to join in, and Cap Ferret quickly became a well-heeled holiday resort. Surrounded by the Landes of Gascony and the Pays de Buch, the peninsula is full of wooded enclaves, quiet coves and long sandy beaches, and if you’re happy to go off the beaten track, it’s possible to escape the crowds even in mid-summer.
The Dune du Pyla (or Dune du Pilat) is the largest dune in Europe – a vast white lunar landscape of windswept sand, 100m high, 12km south of Arcachon. It’s an arduous climb, so take the steps to the top if you’re not up for the challenge, but the adventurous shouldn’t miss the long, hair-raising slide down to the sea, over slopes as steep as an Olympic ski-jump. Bus #1 leaves from the gare SNCF in Arcachon every hour in July and August – two to five a day in other months. If you’re driving, note that the car park requires payment.