Baptised Aquitania, “land of water”, by the Romans, the region has three great rivers, numerous lakes, and a vast ocean frontage where watery activities of all kinds can be enjoyed. The Atlantic waves which pummel the 250km of beach have made this France’s top surfing destination, in particular the elegant and lively city of Biarritz (where surfing was first introduced to France in 1956). In the smaller resort of Hossegor, elite surfers will be competing in a world championship event in mid-September. For less skilled practitioners there’s the opportunity to rent boards and enrol on courses at resorts all along the coast. Surftrip in Hossegor will rent you a board for €15 a day, or you can really go for it with their immersive surf holiday. The cost for seven nights, based on four people sharing a beach cabin, with equipment hire and six lessons, is from €445 per person (00 33 681 908 412; surftrip.fr ).
Surfing isn’t limited to the coast, however. The mascaret is a tidal bore which occurs in the Gironde estuary at high tide and can reach heights of two metres and speeds of 30kph. The best place to ride it is St-Pardon-de- Vayres on the river Dordogne, 20km east of Bordeaux. The best time to try it is in August and September ( mascaretgironde.free.fr )
For swimming, windsurfing, sailing and other activities which require placid water, look towards the string of large, freshwater lakes to be found along the coastal strip between the dunes and the forest. The lakes of Hourtin, Lacanau, Cazaux and Biscarrosse all have beaches and pleasure ports (Biscarrosse is also reputed as a centre for kite-surfing) while the Bassin d’Arcachon, a huge, enclosed bay, has several little ports and, close to the town of Arcachon, the very fine Péreire beach.
From a much smaller lake, the lac de Léon, there’s a relaxing 10km trip to be enjoyed along the Courant d’Huchet on board a galupe. This vessel is a local, flat-bottomed boat made for navigating the shallow streams, courants, which run from the Landes and are constantly changing course in their attempt to get through the dunes and down to the sea.
The Courant d’Huchet has been designated a nature reserve for its wealth of wildlife, including otters, and for its variety of habitats: part of the two-hour trip (longer ones are available in July and August) takes you through the “Amazonie landaise” with its exuberant, almost sub-tropical vegetation. Trips, which run between April and September, cost from €12. Booking is essential (00 33 558 487 539; bateliers-courant-huchet.fr ).
Away from the ocean and the lakes the region’s inland waterways are also well worth exploring. One unusual way of getting to know the Dordogne is to drift down it on board a gabare, also called a gabarre, the traditional sailing barge that used to bring goods to Bordeaux. Barge cruises from Bergerac cost €7.50 per adult for the 50-minute trip (00 33 553 245 880; gabarres.fr ).
Messing about in a canoe or kayak is possible in a number of locations. You can usually choose between short rentals of one/two hours and full-day expeditions. Couleurs Périgord at Vézac beach has trips available along a lovely stretch of the river, decorated with three châteaux, a bastide and a fort. The four-hour, 14km descent from Vitrac costs €32 for a two-person kayak or canoe, and €52 for a four-person family craft ( couleurs-perigord.com ; 00 33 553 303 761). Less visited but equally delightful is the Vézère, the Dordogne’s “little sister”. Explore it from the Aventure Plein Air base at Saint-Léon-sur-Vézère, 40km southeast of Périgueux, and classified as one of France’s most beautiful villages. Seven trips of different lengths are offered at prices ranging from €9.50 to €25 per person (00 33 553 506 771; canoevezere.com ).
Fifty kilometres south of Bordeaux, the river Leyre winds for 90km through the forests of the Parc naturel régional des Landes de Gascogne before flowing via a delta into the salt water of the Bassin d’Arcachon. There are three bases along the Leyre, all accessible via the A63 motorway, where you can rent canoes for trips between two and six hours in duration. Costs are from €12 to €20 per person, including all safety equipment, practical instruction and transport from the base
to begin your trip. The complete descent takes four to five days and costs €19 for a group of four or more people. All of the trips must be booked in advance ( canoesurlaleyre.com ; the high Leyre – 00 33 558 077 301; Le Val de Leyre – 00 33 557 719 929; the Delta Leyre – 00 33 556 228 093).
Another small river, the Gélise, flows into the larger Baïse at Barbaste, five kilometres from Nérac in the department of Lot-et-Garonne. The local leisure park of Cap Cauderoue offers, among other activities, the chance to rent a canoe and play around in the eddies and swirls created by the confluence of the two rivers. Canoe rental is €6 per hour (00 33 553 655 274; cap-cauderoue.com ).
For higher-adrenalin kayaking, look to the gaves, mountain streams, filled with rapids and white water that hurtle from the Pyrenees. On the Gave d’Oléron at Navarrenx, Rafting Eaux Vives provides 13km and 20km descents on rafts from €29 to €55 (00 33 559 660 405; rafting-eaux-vives.com).
To get a taste of rafting in a more controlled environment, not to mention the even more adventurous craft called Hot-dog and Hydrospeed, the place to go is the recently opened Stade d’eaux vives on the outskirts of Pau, in the Avenue Léon Heid. An hour’s supervised session costs from €26 plus equipment rental of €11 per hour ( paupyrenees-stadeeauxvives.com ; 00 33 559 408 544)
The ultimate, watery experience is to rent a houseboat and progress tranquilly down one of Aquitaine’s broader waterways. Two hundred kilometres are navigable without need for permits on the Lot, the Baïse, the river Garonne and the Garonne canal.
The river port of Buzet-sur-Baïse is handily placed at the confluence of the Lot, the Baïse and the Garonne canal. Starting from there, you could, in a week, cruise the meandering Lot from Buzet-sur-Baïse to Lustrac and back, visiting picturesque villages such as Castelmoron, while negotiating the 18 automatic locks. Weekly rentals from the company Aquitaine Navigation start at €823. A day trip on a four-person boat costs €89 (00 33 553 847 250; aquitaine-navigation.com ).
Aquitaine’s abundant watery heritage has produced several interesting places to visit. France’s highest and oldest functioning lighthouse – Le phare de Cordouan – stands on a rocky islet, 7km from the Pointe de la Grave at the entrance to the Gironde estuary; information about times of excursions by boat from Pointe de Grave is available on 00 33 556 096 293.
Another “highest” is to be found 5km south of Arcachon: la Dune du Pilat, Europe’s most spectacular sand dune, is more of a sand mountain. It reaches a eight of 100m, and is still growing. Climb it for wonderful views up and down the coast.
Also special is the Latour-Marliac water lily garden at Le-Temple-sur Lot, 20km west of Villeneuve-sur-Lot. Established in 1875, it was a great influence on the artist Claude Monet and today has 250 varieties of water lily. Opening times from May to September are 10am-6pm, closed Mondays; entrance is €5 for an adult (00 33 553 010 805; latour-marliac.com).
For bird watchers, le Parc Ornithologique du Teich, on the Bassin d’Arcachon, gives the chance to observe 260 species, 80 of which nest there. From 17 observation points, you can spot white storks, egrets, herons and rarer avocets and blue throats. The park is 50km from Bordeaux on the N250. It is open all year from 10am; admission is €7.20 (00 33 556 228 093; parc-|ornithologique-du-teich.com ).