Summer on the beach: The Vendée
Kate Simon travels to the west coast of France for the first in a new series of mini-guides to favourite summer hotspots
Sunday 28 June 2009
A queue is forming at the stall by the gate of Camping La Plage. Clutching baguettes for breakfast, these eager shoppers are already stocking up for tonight's dinner.
In Britain, you'd be unlikely to find anything more exotic than Mr Whippy at the entrance to a campsite, but we're in the Vendée on the west coast of France, and the stallholder is doing a brisk trade in mussels and oysters.
Late risers who miss the stallholder (her business is done by lunchtime) can drop by one of the area's ubiquitous U supermarkets, where a great pile of local mussels is a feature of the fish department and shoppers are supplied with a trowel to scoop the black pearls into bags – no vacuum-packed half-portion for the French. This coast thrives on seafood and though we're in the euro zone, it's an affordable nightly campfire treat.
But there are better things to do in the Vendée than shop for tea. Like going to the beach, the reason why most visitors, many from Britain, head for this popular bucket-and-spade coast every summer. The Vendée has more than 90 miles of sandy beaches – a fair number of which have been awarded the cleanliness accolade of Blue Flag status – as well as plenty of coves for rock-pooling.
And sunny days are almost guaranteed, if you believe the locals, who claim the climate here is more blessed than the Côte d'Azur. The sea certainly benefits from the warmth of the Gulf Stream, and it's less of a schlep than the Med, being just a few hours' drive from the northern ferry ports.
Like many campsites along this stretch of coast, our nearest beach is just across the road. Beyond a screen of maritime pines and over the grassy dunes lies a broad sweep of golden sand where the breeze licks the sea into waves perfect for jumping. If our son were a little younger, we could probably spend the whole holiday here without venturing any further. Indeed, he'd be happy to spend the week playing football on the campsite with his newly made amis. But, as is the way of parents, we drag him out to explore the area.
You could spend your holiday touring the beaches just by bicycle, thanks to a family-friendly network of cycle routes running all the way from Noirmoutier to Bourgenay. Wind-driven sports are naturally popular in these blustery parts and you'll find plenty of opportunities to go sailing, windsurfing and sand-yachting. You'd be hard pushed to find a poor beach on the Vendée coast, but for the very best check out blueflag.org for a full list.
You must cross a bridge to reach the island of Noirmoutier, unless you dodge the tide and cross the causeway – the Passage du Gois – during the couple of hours each day when it is passable. Famed for its oysters, potatoes and salt, it has plenty to recommend it as a holiday destination – a landscape of quaint whitewashed houses with blue shutters and red roofs, pine and oak forests, salt marshes and dune-backed beaches.
Take the boat from St Gilles Croix-de-Vie to the tiny island of Île d'Yeu, 12 miles offshore, a popular day trip. Just four miles by three, it is best seen by bicycle, which you can hire in Port-Joinville. Obligatory photo opportunities include the prehistoric menhirs and dolmens, the Vieux Château, Port de la Meule, and the final resting place of the infamous Second World War Vichy leader Marshal Pétain (his grave faces the opposite way to the others in the cemetery). For the best beach, head to Plage des Vieilles.
At lively Saint Jean de Monts, families will find activities to tire out the kids at Plage des Demoiselles and the nearby Atlantic Toboggan, one of several local theme parks.
Pretty Saint Gilles Croix-de-Vie is part working port, part tourist haunt and has some attractive villas dating from the Belle Époque. Follow the Corniche Vendéenne either to or from the town to see the precarious rock stacks, the Cinq Pineaux. Peer through a huge hole in a rock bearing the sinister name the Trou du Diable. Make your way down to the shore to discover a natural "swimming pool", regularly filled with water by the obliging tide.
The most fashionable resort on the Vendée coast remains Les Sables d'Olonne, popularised in the 19th century by the new breed of aristocratic tourists who came for its thermal baths and casino. It's still appreciated for its sybaritic pleasures by today's yachting crowd. When the sun is high, the place buzzes and the arc of sand below the promenade barely offers room to spread out a hand towel.
Further south at Talmont-St-Hilaire, the ruins of the 11th-century castle offer lots of secret passages to explore, with costumed guides on hand to introduce visitors to medieval pastimes, including jousting. In high summer, special evening events are laid on – Les Nuits de Richard Coeur de Lion – when the castle is brought to life with audio-visual spectaculars.
A day off the beach
Tour the northern marshlands of the Marais Breton. Apart from the long, low bourrines – traditional cottages thatched with reeds – and the sight of storks nesting on posts in the surrounding fields, this is a place where the views are less rewarding than exploration of the local history. Challans is the main town on the marsh and home to some intriguing scenes of local life in Cubist-style sculpted friezes by the local 20th-century artists Joel and Jan Martel. This is also the setting of Autrefois Challans, held on four Thursdays in July and August, where locals turn out in period costume. You can find out more about marsh life at the Ecomusée du Marais Breton Vendéen, near Beauvoir-sur-Mer. Or visit the restored village of Sallertaine to see traditional craftspeople at work, ride in a yole – an old marsh boat – and see inside a bourrine.
How to get there
Kate Simon travelled from Portsmouth to Caen with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; brittany ferries.co.uk), which offers return fares from £126 for two passengers with a car. A week at Camping La Plage costs from £164 with Venue Holidays (01233 629950; venueholidays.co.uk). Portsmouth Marriott (02392 383 151; portsmouthmarriott.co.uk) offers double rooms from £88 per night. Vendée Tourist Board (vendee-tourism.co.uk).
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