Travel: France - The lake in the Landes with the unlikely name

The Lake of Biscarrosse-Parentis is dotted with oil platforms and seaplanes buzz overhead, but it's also a kind of paradise
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The Independent Culture
A BACK-TO-NATURE holiday on a lake dotted with 28 oil platforms might seem like rather a perverse idea, but the Lake of Biscarrosse-Parentis in south-west France has never been shy of mixing its business with its pleasure.

Biscarrosse and Parentis-en-Born, the two Gascon towns that give the lake its cumbersome name, are pretty places; both have pedestrianised centres, and are well-stocked with shops, cafes and bars. Both also have significant industrial pedigrees.

In the Thirties, seaplanes operated by Air France Transatlantique took off from Biscarrosse for the 60-hour flight to New York, and the town remains an important centre for what the French call hydraviation. When oil came in the Fifties, Parentis-en-Born, on the eastern shore, became an oil town. Add to that a western coastline reserved for the army, and you have a strange mix of industry, the military, and tourism all centred on the one lake.

In fact, these un-touristy add-ons give the lake a welcome frisson and stop it from being too bland. If you lie on a quiet, sandy beach, you may hear the buzz of a seaplane; if you're out on the water on a wind- surfer or dinghy, there's nothing to stop you setting a course for one of the oil platforms. If the weather should turn misty, as it does from time to time, you can take shelter in the Museum of Petrol at Parentis- en-Born or the Hydroplane Museum at Biscarrosse. Both are worth a visit.

Surrounded on all sides by pine forests, the hinterland is as flat as a crepe - the road from Parentis to Biscarrosse might as well have been drawn on the map with a ruler. Some people find the two-dimensional landscape off-putting but, personally, I rather like the unsettling uniformity. Although the forests are now criss-crossed with footpaths and cycle tracks, they too have their roots in commerce.

Until the middle of the last century, the Landes was a neglected, unvisited corner of France. Swampy, sandy and swept by gales, the land was so wet that the Landais shepherds used to go around on stilts. But, as a result of compulsory drainage and forestation, the Landes grew to become the largest pine forest in Europe, and resin from the trees, an ingredient in glue, made the area wealthy.

As demand for the commodity has faltered, the forest has had to adapt to a new world of leisure. The Landes now promotes itself as the ultimate outdoor playground, and its forests and lakes are ideal for hunting, fishing, cycling, swimming, walking, sailing and pony-trekking. In turn, the Lake of Biscarrosse-Parentis has dozens of campsites clustered around its shore, ranging from tiny aires naturelles to megasites with more than a thousand pitches.

If we parents had had our way, we might have chosen a smaller site, but with children of an age to be scandalised by the mere thought of sitting in a field contemplating nature, we settled for La Reserve at Gastes. Its 628 emplacements make it one of the largest campsites in Gascony and it functions like a village. Suburbs are made up of different companies' tents and static caravans, and La Reserve even has its own beach and marina.

Those who turn up with their own tents and camper-vans get pitches close to the lake. At night, Sunsites' red tents glow like brothels, but only Haven Europe has the nerve to give its tents names: Marge, Monica, Millie, in M-Section; Louisa, Larry and Lippy, in L. You can imagine the conversation back home: "Yes, we stayed with Marge this year; much more comfortable than Millie. We might try Monica next year - you know what they say, a change is as good as a rest."

On the plus side, hard-to-please children will approve of La Reserve's swimming- pools, crazy golf and the wide range of supervised sports on offer - be prepared to queue for the more popular ones. But it's at night when La Reserve really comes into its own. After the arguments over whose turn it is to wash up have subsided, the camp's large teenage population put on their glad rags and mingle outside the Salle des Jeux. At 9.30pm, there's a general rush for seats for the evening show.

But that's the great thing about the lake. You can have it both ways. If you crave company, you can hang around the pool or book yourself on one of the organised activities. When you've had enough of human beings, you can disappear into the forest.

One Sunday morning, we drove up to Biscarrosse to gawp at Europe's jet set, burning across the lake as they competed in the European Speed Skiing Championship. Then back to Parentis, just in time for a more traditional (and sedate) celebration of French culture - the Sunday market offers everything from local wine and cheese to north African drums and lethal Chinese bangers. Try the potatoes cooked in chicken fat for a delicious snack.

Later, we got on our bikes and cycled to Ste Eulalie-en-Born, a tiny village at the southern end of the lake. Here we ate ice-creams on a deserted beach, while ducks paddled serenely in the reedy shallows. Then back to Gastes for supper at l'Estanquet (a reservation is essential during the summer) where we were served magrets de canard, a delicious Gascon speciality, duck cutlet in cream sauce. Which just goes to show that in the Landes, you can have your duck and eat it.