AS boasts go, “Europe’s largest sand dune!” is not immediately impressive.
But as I approach the Dune du Pilat, outside Bordeaux in France, the vast expanse of sand is simply staggering.
It reaches the equivalent of 30 storeys high and, like a slice of the Sahara carelessly dropped on to France, looks strangely out of place.
Neatly bordered on three sides by lush green woodland, the giant dune is marching inland at a rate of five metres a year. I consider taking the crude, wooden staircase laid over the steep incline but make the rash decision to scramble to the top the old-fashioned way — sweatily and moaning.
With every step, the shifting ground gives way as my feet sink into the scolding sand. Still, driven by the promise of stunning views over golden-sand Atlantic isles to the west and vast forests to the east, I finally make it to the top.
The view is worth the effort, with the beach stretching for two miles in either direction. I have stumbled upon — and then up — this extraordinary sight almost by accident while staying at the seaside resort of Arcachon, a few miles north of the Dune du Pilat.
Thanks to a peninsula of land forming a protective bay around it, this quaint coastal town has its own microclimate. Defended from the extremes of the Atlantic, Arcachon offers sunny skies above sheltered beaches and a sea that is warm enough to swim in until September.
It has long been the playground for Bordeaux winemakers but with that special microclimate we were able to visit just outside the school summer holidays.
The beach to the north of the town is Plage d’Arcachon, a place to find little cafes, ice-cream kiosks and traditional shops to buy a bucket and spade. It’s also the resort’s main strip of restaurants, where you can’t miss the local speciality of oysters.
With thriving oyster farms all around the bay, you’re guaranteed fresh and, in most cases, affordable seafood wherever you dine — so just choose whichever eatery has the best sea views.
Having established itself as a resort in the mid-19th century, Arcachon was split into four regions, each named after the seasons and with the beachfront known as the Summer Town.
We were staying a ten-minute walk inland, in Winter Town, an area made up of huge, beautifully preserved historic villas with intricate turrets, balconies and verandas.
A walking tour reveals the rich history of many of the houses and the famous French folk who have lived in them down the years — including novelist Alexandre Dumas, who wrote The Three Musketeers and The Count Of Monte Cristo.
Here in the elevated Winter Town you will also find the Sainte-Cécile Observatory, a steel-built tower constructed in 1863. It is only 24 metres high but still offers a glorious panoramic view over the region. Its co-architect — one Gustave Eiffel — went on to build a somewhat taller structure in Paris.
Completing Arcachon are the Autumn Town, set around the pretty boat-filled marina, and Spring Town to the west. If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the tourist trap, Spring Town is where you will find vast, quieter, sandy beaches.
These are a fair walk from the town centre, but Arcachon — and the entire bay around it — has been brilliantly optimised for cycling. There are car-free tracks meandering along the seafront and clear cycle lanes on all the main roads around the town. There are also many cheap shops to rent bikes from.
It’s an easy ten-minute pedal to the calmer beaches of Plage des Abatilles, where you can laze away the day in the sun with a good book, the occasional cooling dip in the sea and a healthy dose of people-watching.
The cycle route continues nine miles down the coast and is part of a bigger network of tracks around the entire bay and nearby national park.
GETTING THERE: Flights from Stansted to Bordeaux are from £35 per person. Or take the train from London to Arcachon, with single fares from £75 per person at thetrainline.com.
STAYING THERE: One night’s room-only at Grand Hotel Richelieu is from £49pp based on two sharing. Homes and apartments in the Winter Tillage on Airbnb are from £70 per night.
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