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Europe’s best beach holidays: Arcachon, France | Beach holidays



The Bay of Arcachon, on the south-west coast of France, is a happy place. It must be, because I’ve been visiting it with my family nearly every year for the past 15 years. We usually rent a small apartment in Arcachon town for four or five days, but such is the draw that we have been known to make a two-hour drive just to spend the day there when we’ve been in that part of the world. Everything about it speaks of summer joy: the promenade thrumming with cyclists and strollers; the parade of bistros serving moules, oysters and buckets of chilled rosé; families playing beach tennis on the sands; and a bay brimming with pleasure boats and ferries. It’s like a scene from a Raoul Dufy painting.

The first day begins at Halle Baltard, the town market, where we drink coffee with brioche and croissants, then head to the bike rental shop, and always the same one (Dingo Vélos), because you don’t need a car in this largely flat landscape. Next, we buy ferry tickets at the little beach cabins on Thiers jetty to take the ferry over the bay to Cap Ferret. The wait in the queue on the jetty is more Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday than huff and puff, the air thick with sunscreen and anticipation. Children wear inflatables around their waists and rest crab nets on their shoulders, parents sport sunnies and straw hats and carry overloaded picnic bags and rugs. There’s a babble of chatter as the ferry crew load bikes on the roof and passengers scramble for outside seats.

An overwater restaurant in Cap Ferret. Photograph: Stephen Hughes/Alamy

The journey over the bay takes 30 minutes and delivers cinematic scenes of the receding Arcachon coastline, with its handsome villas and casino, the towering Dune du Pilat and ranks of oyster beds on the approach to the pier at Cap Ferret. Once we arrive, the bikes come into their own.

Turn right out of the pier, and it’s possible to explore this pine-studded headland all the way to Lège Cap Ferret, using cycle lanes to avoid the summer congestion, and calling in at the fishing villages of L’Herbe and Le Canon for drinks or lunch.

We always turn left and head to Cap Ferret market, however, because this offers a window on to the French on holiday. Cap Ferret is more understated than the glitzy Cap Ferrat on the Côte d’Azur. The sand-swept roads are busy with retro Citröen Mehari beach convertibles. Second-homers from Bordeaux and its surrounds sport chinos and pastel polos, or long stripy shirt dresses and pumps. All of these are available at the stalls at the market. But it’s enough to linger over a coffee and canelé pastry and watch the brilliant parade.

Wealthy people from Bordeaux caught on to the rugged, unmanicured charm of Cap Ferret in the 1950s – the wild Atlantic Ocean, the miles of unspoilt beaches and dunes, the fishermen selling the finest oysters and prawns direct from their cabins. Now those oyster farmers have turned their cabins into simple food shacks with decks overlooking the bay. At our favourite, Chez Boulan, the menu is limited to what they do best: oysters, prawns, whelks, winkles, paté and bread served with ice-cold white Bordeaux or rosé. The Bay of Arcachon is indeed a happy place.

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