ANGELA BIRD'S

 

GOOD BEACHES AND OTHER SEASIDE PLACES

 

 


Some of my favourite beaches,
in roughly geographical order, from north to south.

Le Collet Near Bourgneuf-en-Retz, just over the border into Loire-Atlantique near the northernmost edge of the Vendée. The muddy seabed may make this spot no good for bathing or building sandcastles, but if you go as the tide is rising you should see a fantastic number of egrets and other wading birds poking about for food.
Port du Bec At Epoids, north-west of Beauvoir-sur-Mer (not quite as "sur mer" as its name implies!). A tiny oyster-fishing port, lined with colourful fishing boats moored to spindly wooden jetties which give the place its nickname of "port chinois", or "Chinese port". No bathing here, either, as it's more of a muddy creek - but picturesque nonetheless. Since June 2003 there are eight giant wind turbines turning idly in the breeze between here and Bouin.
Bois de la Chaize One of the most picturesque beaches on the island of Noirmoutier, with its bathing huts giving it an old-world aura. Parking is almost impossible, so it's better arrive by bike or on foot - which gives you a better chance to appreciate the elegant 19th-century villas that nestle among the trees.
Fromentine/La Barre-de-Monts Lovely sandy beach on the mainland side of the bridge that leads to Noirmoutier.
Notre-Dame-de-Monts Fantastically silky sand fills this wide, gently-shelving beach. Sand-yachting enthusiasts are often racing at low tide just to the north. To the south is the phenomenon known as the Pont d'Yeu, a sandy bank that dries out at extra-low tides and becomes paradise for shellfish-gatherers.
St-Jean-de-Monts Incredibly crowded in summer, this resort is convenient for hundreds of coastal campsites. Tall poles are stuck into the sand during the high season, topped with colourful emblems like a fish, a house etc to help children remember where to locate their families. Look out at low tide for the little pedal-driven "pony carts" on the sands.
La Pège A string of campsites and holiday developments make this an extremely busy strip in summer, deserted in winter. Among its peak season attractions is Atlantic Toboggan ("toboggan" in French meaning "waterslide" rather than something you might expect to run on snow) which offers plenty of chutes and flumes for all levels of courage.
Sion-sur-l'Océan Between Sion and St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie is the Corniche Vendéenne, one of the few cliffs along this part of the coast. It has little sandy inlets (be aware of the tide, in case you have to scramble back up to the top when the waters come in) for those who prefer a more intimate feeling to that of the vast beaches. You will probably notice the "Cinq Pineaux", five craggy rocks just off the coast. On stormy days the spray dashes up through the rocky clefts in dramatic fashion (keep well back from the edge!).

Croix-de-Vie The half of town (now merged as St-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie) north of the river Vie estuary has one or two small beaches overlooked by quaint 19th-century seaside houses. Plenty of interesting shops looking out on an unusually picturesque railway line that runs alongside the fishing port

to end at the buffers (or the trains would drop into the sea!). As well as delicious fresh sardines, for which the town is famous, to cook on the barbecue you can buy the locally-caught and -canned variety from the Gendreau shop - connoisseurs should look for "sardines millésimées" ("vintage sardines") that are designed to be laid down like wine and turned reverently from time to time over the years (if you can wait that long!). A little ferry runs across the harbour mouth to the dunes next to the Grande Plage on the south side of the river. Try and visit the tiny Maison du Pecheur, a fisherman's cottage-turned-museum in one of the narrow streets opposite the tourist office.
St-Gilles-sur-Vie On the south side of the estuary, restaurants line the quay overlooking the harbour. If you want a beach you need to follow signs to the Grande Plage, across a small canal bridge. Parking can be difficult here among the turn-of-the-(last)century houses, but at low tide it is a wonderful sandy spot. High tide is a different matter, however, as everybody is squeezed closer and closer to the sea wall. It pays to check the tide tables (available free from tourist office etc).
Pont-Jaunay The dunes between St Gilles and Brétignolles have at last been protected, so this is one of the wilder beaches you will come across. A bit of a trek over the dunes (be sure to stay on the marked trails, to prevent unnecessary erosion), but it gives you a chance to appreciate the sea-holly and other sand-loving plants on the way.

Brétignolles-sur-Mer A cheery little town, with plenty of beach equipment and toys on sale as well as waffle ("gaufre") and ice-cream shops, and consistently awarded the "pavillon bleu", or Blue Flag, for the quality of its waters. The large beach actually includes quite a few

stones, making it a good spot for anyone looking for interestingly-shaped ones to paint, or make into jewellery. To the south are some mini cliffs, then another beach - La Normandalière - much tarted up recently, which offers serious rock-pooling at low tide (don't forget the rocks if you're swimming at higher tide - they can graze your knees quite fiercely) that now has a bar as well as a large inland pool for swimming etc where the water is guaranteed to be significantly warmer than that of the sea, and a good car park. Look out to the south for a collapsed dolmen in one of the fields, and a dune-ier area of beach, just beyond a small housing development. On the opposite side of the D38 coast road you may spot the "Labyrinthe", a cleverly constructed (or sown) maze of - wait for it - maize!

Brem-sur-Mer Brem itself is a little set back from the beach, but there are some good sandy areas here. The Parc d'Attractions des Dunes is a must for anyone with small children, who will adore the ballponds, bouncy surfaces, slides and pedal cars (open Easter to mid Sept). Don't miss the chance to see one of the Vendée's most famous churches, that of St-Nicolas-de-Brem, signposted off the D38. Its ancient façade has a statue purported to be of St Nicholas himself, and various interesting carvings. Inside it is a model of simplicity and calm, with a few peeling wall-paintings just visible here and there. On the south edge of Brem itself you'll find a wine "cave", or shop, that also contains a museum of wine. Among its exhibits you'll come across the well-known local legend of a barrel, washed up long ago on the beach, from which the locals poured a delicious-tasting drink. Once they had quaffed the lot, they broke open the barrel and out jumped a large orang-outang! A little farther south is a wild spot called Havre de la Gachère, where the river Auzance meets the sea. Not so good for swimming, but great for out-of-season solitude.

Sauveterre In the Forest of Olonne, full of fragrant pine trees and shady picnic spots, is an attractive beach that attracts many of the campers staying in this area. If you've got a good map (IGN blue series, say) you may be able to find among the trees, about midway between La Gachère and Sauveterre,

the huge "menhir", or standing stone, known as la Conche Verte. If conditions are right, this is one of the Vendée's most popular surfing spots. A comprehensive description (in French) of the best surfing places can be found on a site created by surf enthusiast Francky Trichet.

La Chaume A pretty fishing village at the tip of the peninsula opposite Les Sables-d'Olonne, La Chaume is full of narrow winding streets lined with low-whitewashed houses (and some pretty hideous late-20th-century waterfront developments). As well as one or two tiny beaches among the rocks, is a wide, sandy beach called the Paracou, just to the north of La Chaume - another great surfing spot. The old abbey of St-Nicolas, on the point, has been recently restored, and holds occasional art exhibitions. Lots of good restaurants line the quayside, and a little passenger ferry plies across the harbour mouth to Les Sables. La Chaume is the home of Port Olona, the marina from which the notorious Vendée-Globe Challenge, a single-handed non-stop round-the-world yacht race, sets out every four years. The next one is due to start in November 2004, and if you are in the area over the preceding few weeks, you can wander along the pontoons and wish the contestants luck as they make their final preparations.
Don't miss the Route des Salines, on the edge of a huge car park just north of Port Olona, a guided tour by boat up the river Vertonne with explanations about the salt-making industry for which many of these marshlands were famous. In the days of the great cod-fishing expeditions to Terre-Neuve (Newfoundland) the salt was vital for preserving catches until they could be brought back to Europe and sold. Your guide stops to give a demonstration of how the "saunier" worked his salt-farm, and takes you on to see how some of the old workings have been transformed into fish-farming concerns. The same outfit has also created the Jardin des Salines - a brilliant evocation of the salt-making industry in the form of a self-guided trail, with automatic commentaries at certain points (ask for the English-language leaflet), a working Roman-style clay oven, descriptions of the crippling "gabelle", or salt-tax, and the hard life of the "Terreneuviens", the fishermen who set sail for Newfoundland ("Terre-Neuve") to spend months on the Grand Banks.

Les Sables d'Olonne By far the most chic resort of the Vendée, this fishing port has great shops and markets as well as a superb beach. Les Sables is another place you may want to avoid at high tide, however, as privately-rented beach-tents tend to fill most of the remaining strip of dry sand. The central market hall (open seven mornings a week in summer; closed Mondays out of season), next

to the church, is a paradise for foodies; try buying farm-fresh butter, cut off a glistening golden mountain. After a hot afternoon on the beach, you can pick up the freshest mackerel, mussels, langoustines and oysters at the fish market on the east end of the quay (open from about 3.30pm). Follow the Rue du Marché along westwards, and you should eventually come to the tiny Rue de l'Enfer, so narrow that you might scrape your knuckles if you were in charge of a pushchair...

Le Tanchet Beyond the far end of Les Sables beach is another favourite with surfers, as well as with sunbathers. If you're looking for something else to do, there is an excellent zoo just here, near the Casino des Pins. Small, but beautifully laid out among shrub-lined terraces and with plenty of shade,

it is ideal for children. You can buy bags of food to give to goats and some of the greedier animals (though watch you don't get your fingers nipped). Small monkeys swing freely through the trees, before staging lightning raids on the zoo's litter-bins for picnic left-overs. If you're here on a wild day, don't miss the dramatic wave spouts thrown up at the Puits d'Enfer ("Hell's Well") in the cliffs along here. The site was the scene of a grisly discovery about 50 years ago when the body of an elderly man was discovered in a laundry basket, having been dumped among the waves by the murderer - the gentleman's housekeeper. Stay well away from the edge!

Cayola Bay The coast becomes pretty rocky along here, broken only by a few small stretches of sand - of which Cayola is the largest. To the north of the main D949 linking Les Sables and Talmont is an interesting motor museum, the Musée de l'Automobile.

Port-Bourgenay A purpose-built holiday development near Talmont-St-Hilaire provides a traffic-free zone overlooking tranquil lakes and green lawns. Golfers can try the 18-hole golf course (one of five in the Vendée);

clubs may be hired. Down by the waterside is a small marina. Gastronomes should make for the Viviers de la Mine, a shellfish business where the staff will pick out the lobster of your choice before your eyes (and if you order a day or so ahead, they'll even cook it for you).

Le Veillon Lovely beach, with much-enlarged car park, and a beachside bar. The dinosaurs were here first, however; prints of these giant animals have been discovered at low tide. If you're spending a day here, a visit to the town of Talmont is essential for the massive ruined fortress built by none other than Richard Coeur de Lion, who used to spend much time hunting in the surrounding forests. Medieval "animations" are staged on summer afternoons, and you could find yourself learning archery, calligraphy or the steps of an ancient dance. The tourist office organises outings to the nearby oyster beds of La Guittière and the forest of Le Veillon.
Jard-sur-Mer Though the centre of the town is a bit inland, the seaside has a pretty harbour and some attractive houses arranged among the pine forest. Out towards the west side of town is the Abbey of Lieu-Dieu, financed by Richard the Lionheart and occasionally open to the public. Even if it isn't, you can wander into the yard and admire the pepperpot towers that rise among the surrounding farm buildings. If you continue as far east along the "main" road as you can, you can park and then enjoy a wonderful walk - part clifftop, part through gnarled forests of holm-oak - to the Pointe du Payré, from which you can look across to Le Veillon beach. Farther east, at St-Vincent-sur-Jard, is a beachside cottage that was the retirement haven for the great French politician Georges Clemenceau. A guided tour (swot up on the English version before it starts) tells you much about the man; the items lying about the house make you feel he has only just stepped out for a seaside walk.
Longeville-sur-Mer Another place where the town is not as "sur mer" as you might at first imagine. The sands, backed by a pine forest that divides them from the flat marshland behind and shelters many campsites, stretch for miles and offer three main beaches, all relatively unsophisticated: Le Bouil, Le Rocher and - another popular one for surfers - Les Conches (Brits Paul and Louise run the Manu Surf School there). Another resort to be awarded a 1998 Blue Flag for cleanliness. Among the trees are plenty of woodland walks; just off the D105 coast road is a "parcours santé" - a health-giving circuit of 20 wooden obstacles to climb up, jump on or jump off.

La Tranche-sur-Mer Imperceptibly, the long stretch of sand blends into La Tranche, a town as well known for windsurfing, frequently hosting European championships in late August, and tulips (annual parade in mid-April; spectacular floral park open in spring and summer) as it is for its seven beaches, which include

a nudist area north of the Plage de la Terrière. Surf-shops and bars give the place a bustling, vaguely Californian feel. Boat services run across to the Ile de Ré, a low-lying island which can be seen lying out to sea, as well as to the Ile d'Aix and to La Rochelle.

La Faute-sur-Mer In this oyster-producing town four beaches succeed one another along 8km of sea front on a long sandy spit, the Pointe d'Arçay, that curves elegantly around to shelter Aiguillon Bay. The Plage des Belugas is the province of the sand-yachtsmen; naturists are catered for beyond the Plage de la Barrique. The resort is also regularly awarded a Blue Flag for the quality of its waters. A bridge (something of a traffic bottleneck in summer) crosses the river Lay, providing an ideal spot for fishermen and linking La Faute with neighbouring L'Aiguillon. The 140-year-old pine forest that anchors the dunes in place also shelters a "parcours de santé", a trail provided by the forestry commission that gives plenty of opportunity to hop, skip and jump (you are advised to start with 15 minutes of gentle exercise before attempting more strenuous activities on the equipment provided).

L'Aiguillon-sur-Mer Even the traffic roundabout here - decorated to honour the town's three aspects of marsh, sea and shellfish - reminds you that this is the Vendean capital of mussel-growing. The seabed is muddy so it's a spot for sailing rather than bathing, but it makes L'Aiguillon an ideal place for bird-lovers to watch wading birds -

especially as the tide rises. It's an important staging-post for migrating birds, too; thousands of linnets, thrushes, goldfinches and other birds pass this way between late August and mid-November en route for Spain or Africa, returning north again in spring. Ask at the tourist office about the twice-weekly guided nature walks in July and August.

© 1998 Angela Bird
 Please let me know of any delights I may have missed!

 

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