TR: French Atlantic coast with teens

Jul 22nd, 2019, 04:20 PM
Original Poster
Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 367
TR: French Atlantic coast with teens

Hi all,

Just got back from 3 weeks in France - driving from Vannes in Southern Brittany to the Basque country. We are a family of four from Canada with two teenage girls. I have a separate trip report for the Southern Brittany portion so this portion covers the trip from Ile de Re in Charente-maritime to the French Basque country. Thank you Fodorites for your invaluable advice!

Ile de Re

We spent two nights on Ile de Re on the recommendation of family in Nantes. It was a very relaxing place albeit very busy in July (I can't even imagine it in August!). With our moderate budget we found a hotel with a family suite in Bois en plage. The kids wanted to try something different for dinner so we ended up at a Portugese restaurant called Ilha do sal in La Couarde sur mer that was very good (very close to the nice beach there). The next day we rented bikes and biked around the island and through the salt marshes. We were lucky enough to see some paludiers out in the marshes. We stopped for a guided tour of the ecomusee des marais salants which was very interesting. I had made reservations in advance at the nearby Cabane du Feneau and was very glad as they were "complet" that day. We had a delicious seafood feast of oysters, fish pates, shrimps and whelks (with an aperitif of the local pineau des charentes, naturally!). It was very pleasant biking on the bike paths but I was nervous when we had to bike on the roads alongside cars with French drivers whizzing by - especially on the narrow "chicanes". Late afternoon was spent at the huge beach at Les Gollandieres. I didn't see any umbrellas or sunbeds for rent at any of the beaches so best to bring your own mats/towels. I sought refuge under a tree at some point for some shade!

I loved the town of St Martin de Re - DH especially enjoyed it as it was another fortified town - impressive fortifications built by Vauban. Dinner one evening was in La Flotte (also very cute town built around a u-shaped harbour) at a restaurant called Le Pas Sage du Marche - my daughter pronounced her steak tartare the best of the trip and my moules frites were amazing (and I used to live in Belgium!). I had the best ice cream of my life at La Martiniere (locations in both St Martin and La Flotte).
Although I wasn't wild about the oyster flavour (tasted like frozen oysters!), the other flavours were amazing.


Next day was a driving day south - we stopped in Rochefort to visit the Arsenal. Included in the admission was the Hermione, the Corderie royale (rope factory), maritime museum and ropes course. Unfortunately, the Hermione was just back in port and as they were unloading we could only board the main deck (DH was really hoping to see the living quarters below deck). DH and the girls did the ropes course and really enjoyed it - if you have vertigo, the ropes course is not for you! The third level is VERY high (and wobbles in the wind). The Corderie Royale was a really interesting museum (with excellent English audioguide). I had reserved lunch at the restaurant at the Corderie royale - while the terrace was a nice setting the food was just ok.

After lunch we drove on to Royan which was our stop for the night. We had booked a hotel right on the beach and enjoyed a late afternoon swim. While the beach was pleasant I wish we had pushed on through to the other side of the Gironde (was not particularly taken by Royan). Our hotel was 1 minute from the "bac" (ferry) and we were first in line for the ferry the next morning (although it was not that busy).

Next morning we drove through the Medoc to get to the Dune du Pilat. Although it seemed like all of Europe was also driving to the Dune (with the most inefficient parking set up ever), I must say it was well worth the stop! The view was incredible - forest on one side and the Atlantic on the other. The girls had fun running down the dune barefoot. I'm glad I took the stairs up - I saw a young girl being treated for heat exhaustion by the "sand patrollers" at the top of the dune. The whole climb and visit took about an hour.

I had pre-booked reservations at a restaurant at a camp site called Le Panorama - it was excellent with a fabulous view of the Bassin d'Arcachon. After lunch was a long (and boring) drive on the autoroute through the Landes to the Basque country for the next leg of our trip.

Pays basque

We had booked 5 nights at an apartment in Ciboure, just across the bay from Saint Jean de Luz. This was my favourite part of the trip! I thought SJDL was a beautiful town on a lovely bay, with the gorgeous backdrop of the Pyrenees. After a late afternoon swim and groceries, we spent the evening seeing this show called Toro Piscine Labat - a real highlight of the trip! It was similar to the "courses camarguaises" we had seen in Arles with these games involving volunteer competitors being chased by cows through various pools and obstacles. It was extremely entertaining! Although I would never let my kids participate!

The next morning was spent checking out the shops (older daughter thrilled to buy espadrilles from Bayona) and buying some Basque linens and treats (macarons and gateaux basques from Paries, lovely prepared foods from Les Halles to eat in our apartment for dinner). Lunch was at the excellent Zoko Moko near the harbour. I had gotten tickets that night to the International Cesta Punta - the jai alai arena. It was pretty interesting although it took us a while to figure out the rules!

Day trip to Bayonne the next morning - kids enjoyed the chocolate and jambon tastings and we had a pleasant lunch on the quai on the banks of the Nive. That afternoon I had booked a Basque pelota lesson and we were very excited when we saw our instructor was one of the competitors from the previous night! We learned the 3 types of pelote basque (main nue, pala and chistera).

The following day was our trip into the mountains - driving through Ascain (did not stop), Sare, Ainhoa and Espelette. My two favourites were probably Ainhoa and Espelette. Although it was the Saturday market day in Espelette I wasn't blown away by the market. The town itself was very quaint though. The kids were a bit sick of eating in restaurants so we picked up picnic provisions (including charcuterie from Pierre Oteiza) and drove to nearby Villa Arnaga, the house of Edmond Rostand. We enjoyed our wonderful picnic on the grounds and then walked through the beautiful gardens and impressive villa. Well worth a visit. On the way back to SJDL we stopped at the Bipia cannery outside of Cambo les Bains to stock up on espelette-based products. A quick dip in the ocean upon our return and it was time to feast at the Fete du Thon - giant communal tables with grilled tuna, amazing piperade, baguette and gateaux basques). There was traditional Basque singing and dancing and several bands. Quite a lively scene! It seemed like a bigger party than the July 14 celebrations the following day!

We spent le 14 juillet in Hondarribia just over the border in Spain - yet another fortified town that pleased DH! We walked through the old town, along the ramparts, through the fisherman's quarter and in the new part of the city. Lunch was at Gastroteka Danonztat - my favourite lunch of the trip! We drove to the beach for a few hours afterwards. Drove back to Ciboure late afternoon. Took the navette "Le Passeur" for a tour around the bay and got dropped off in SJDL. The kids wanted a break from French food (!) and I got the last table at an Italian restaurant where we enjoyed piadina and foccacia followed by gelato. We walked back to Ciboure and stayed up for the fireworks at 11. It was our last night in the Pays basque - what a wonderful discovery!


The next morning we drove to Bordeaux with a stop in Biarritz. Walked along the seafront, out to the Rocher de la vierge and to Les Halles (probably my favourite so far). Lunch was at Bar Jean for tapas and then checking out the California vibe in this surfer town! Drove into Bordeaux after lunch - not impressed with the traffic on the "rocade" to get into the city and then had great difficulty finding the rental car return at the Gare St Jean because of all the construction.

After checking in we took the tram (great system!) to the Cite du Vin. Although it was expensive (20E) it was an interesting museum - they even had a parcours for the kids and we all enjoyed a drink (grape juice for the kids) on the Belvedere. Had a so-so dinner across the street at a restaurant in the Halles de Balacan. So far Bordeaux has not really impressed us.

The next morning we had booked a food walking tour of the city which was very enjoyable (including trying the famous caneles). The girls spent the afternoon shopping on the pedestrian Ste Catherine while DH and I did some more sightseeing. Dinner that night was at a nearby rooftop restaurant in a hipster hotel called Mama Shelter. Although we appreciated the architecture around the place de la Bourse and the great tram system we probably liked Bordeaux the least of the places we visited in France on this trip. As a comparison we much preferred Toulouse, which we had visited previously, further along the Garonne. Mais chacun a son gout!

The next morning was our TGV back to Paris for our final few days.

All in all we really enjoyed the almost 700 km of coastline we visited along the French Atlantic coast!

Merci a tous!

jacolis is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2019, 06:36 AM
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A second very lovely report! Your trip was so very well planned! A question: what source did you use to book your pelota lesson?

In SJDL we went searching for the Euskal Linge shop to add items to our linens supply and found the beautiful Bayona 1890 espadrilles shop had taken its place. Their espadrilles are gorgeous, in a rainbow of colors! I wanted to buy a dozen but no more room in the already far too heavy suitcase!

So glad you enjoyed your lunch at Zoko Moko , the communal dinner and music at the tuna festival and the always lively Bar Jean across from Les Halles in Biarritz, my favorite covered market in the Pays Basque. We finally made it to the Marché Nocturne there this summer and inside the fish market discovered the terrific Chez Jérôme, where we enjoyed yet another oyster feast (theirs come directly from their oyster farms in Arcachon and Brittany). This was our first experience of dining in a fish market in the Pays Basque.

We picked up our rental car at the Gare in Bordeaux and too found it very confusing/frustrating/time consuming, along with the huge amount of traffic on the rocade just to get out of town.

We shall put the Le Pas Sage du Marche and La Martiniere on our list for our time on Ile de Re next summer. Great tips!
Again, thanks for your 2 very fine reports.
Maribel is online now  
Jul 23rd, 2019, 10:17 AM
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I'm sorry you didn't appreciate Bordeaux as much as I have come to like it. I used to hate Bordeaux, but I completely changed my opinion on my last visit. I think it is fantastic now.
kerouac is online now  
Jul 23rd, 2019, 11:40 AM
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Hi Maribel,

I think I used this site to research activities in the Pays basque:

The lessons we took were from Ona Pilota in Bidart:
Ona Pilota | Cours de Pelote par deux champions du monde

Patxi himself was our instructor - he was great. My husband only speaks English but Patxi lived in Miami for 10 years (professional jai alai player) and could give the lesson in English.

We also visited the Moulin de Bassilour 5 mins away as per your recommendation.

In case it is useful for anyone, the food walking tour we did with a lovely guide named Benjamin was through this company:
Home - Insol'eat Bordeaux

It was very reasonable (kids were free!). We had the best caneles (both traditional but also savoury) at Auguste K just off the Place de la Bourse.

I should also mention that the A63 in the pays basque felt like the most tolled road ever! We were able to use our carte bancaire with tap so never had to bother finding the change constantly!

Kerouac: I dont think we disliked Bordeaux but it seemed like a let-down after the wonderful Pays Basque and Golfe de Morbihan! The area around the place de la bourse and along the quai seemed lively but we seemed to pass many gritty areas and the traffic was brutal. Perhaps we need a second visit to fully appreciate its charms!
jacolis is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2019, 11:43 AM
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I'm also sorry Bordeaux failed to impress you. IMO it's one of the greatest cities in France these days. But you hardly spent any time there.

We are huge fans of St-Jean-de-Luz and thereabouts. Nice to know others relish its charms.
StCirq is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2019, 12:08 PM
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Hi jacolis,
Thanks so much for the sources.
We have a dear friend in San Sebastián who is a formerly professional pelota player and another in Biarritz who played in Connecticut before the 2 jai alai frontons there closed and another from Laguardia (Rioja Alavesa) who played in Miami. They probably all know Patxi well.
We love Bidart and would like to find a nice rental there some day.

Yes, the A63 is toll after toll after toll. I wish we had a carte bancaire to use so I wouldn't have to constantly worry about digging out the change and making sure we're in the correct lane.

I'm so glad you found your way to the Moulin de Bassilour. Their gateaux basques are sooo delicious!
Maribel is online now  
Jul 23rd, 2019, 01:20 PM
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The Pays basque is definitely a place I would go back to (with maybe going further into the pais vasco). DH was disappointed that there were no "force basque" games happening in the area while we there so we need to see that!

Although the Dordogne is still my favourite area of France that we have seen (Perigord noir), the Pays Basque is a close second along with Provence for me!

Maribel: for Ile de Re don't miss going to one of the many oyster shacks - there are a few along the St Martin De Re seafront and also in the marais salants (which is the one we hit). Le Fooding has a few recommendations. We also fell in love with the local pineau des charentes. It's not a drink we were at all familiar with from Canada. We found the prices at the cooperative viticole to be excellent. They also make a cognac and wines but I thought the Pineau was the best! Enjoy your trip next summer!
jacolis is offline  
Jul 23rd, 2019, 03:42 PM
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I'll certainly put the oyster shacks on my list, including the Cabane du Feneau. I love them! I've received great recommendations too on that score from le Fooding, including the terrific La Canfouine in Le Canon on Cap Ferret (if you ever find yourselves in Le Bassin d'Arcachon).

And please come back to the Basque Country when you can---to both sides!
Maribel is online now  
Jul 24th, 2019, 08:39 AM
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You didn't go to Hossegor?
kerouac is online now  
Jul 25th, 2019, 04:14 AM
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I think I have to agree that the Pays Basque is second only to my own home in the Périgord. And to be honest, the food is SO much better in the Pays Basque!
StCirq is offline  
Jul 25th, 2019, 10:50 AM
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Sigh-I just posted a long response to this report and the Fodor's gods of the forum ate it! I think it was because I "cut and pasted" a photo without saving it-that has happened once before to me....

Anyway, I wanted to say that we own a family home just north of Royan in St Palais sur Mer and that both St Palais and Saint-Georges-de-Didonne are a bit nicer to base in if you want the 19th century villa by the seaside experience. Royan was heavily bombed by the allies in WWII, 85% destroyed and was called the "martyred city". Here is a picture of it:

The first bombing raids killed over 1,000 civilians and only 23 German soldiers. When the Americans returned later and used napalm (the first time it was ever used), they destroyed the entire town and killed another 1,700 civilians.

However, even though it lost the charm of most of the 19th century villas, after the war in the 50's, it was rebuilt following the great architects Le Corbusier and Niemeyer modernist techniques. So the apartments that are white with red trim are by Le Corbusier for example.

Like others here we love Bordeaux although I will totally agree with you about the traffic-it can be daunting! A tip to other travelers though is that is makes a great city to arrive or leave from because like Nantes (as you talked about in your other report) it is a super easy place to arrive and leave from and get a car rented. We typically fly to Gatwick on easyjet or British airways then take are transatlantic flight from there.
jpie is offline  
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