Renting a waterside cabin and an open sportsboat is a great way to explore the sunlit beaches of the sheltered natural basin of Arcachon
Arcachon is an extraordinary inland sea on the French Biscay coast, 70 miles south of Royan and the mouth of the Gironde. The dead straight shore between Royan and Arcachon is one continuous golden beach backed by dunes and vast pine forests, a paradise for sun worshippers.
The final approaches to Arcachon are fantastic – a complex delta of shallow channels and shifting banks spread out below the famous Dune du Pilat, a mountain of white sand looming 360ft above sea level.
We’ve been into Arcachon several times, but only on glassy days after studying weather and swell forecasts. Inside this natural basin, 60-square miles of fascinating tidal water cry out for exploration. On our previous visits we’d determined to come back by car, charter a boat and winkle out the nooks and crannies of this unique area.
Arcachon itself has a sheltered 2,600-berth marina with first-class facilities. Around the south-east fringes, diminutive rustic harbours serve as picturesque bases for the flat-bottomed barges you see working the oyster beds that give Arcachon its tangy estuary atmosphere. We finally organised this jaunt in June, nicely before the peak holiday months.
Our Arcachon boat
You can charter a range of boats here, from whizz-about RIBs to sizeable cruising yachts. We looked at a Fountaine Pajot Highland 35, with conveniently light draught and two 110hp Volvo diesels; a sleek Beneteau GT40 was another option. A key decision factor was that Jane had broken her right leg last Christmas and, though recovering well, was still rather crook.
She fancied a fast sportsboat for exhilarating day trips and lounging off beaches, but preferred to come ashore each evening to a comfortable gîte, a proper bed and handy restaurants where we could tuck into Arcachon oysters and other local delicacies. Sounded good to me.
A French friend had waxed lyrical about Port de Larros, one of the colourful oyster ports a short drive east of Arcachon town. Here, he told us, we could rent a traditional timber cabane right on the waterfront of this delightful harbour, attractively secluded but with a mouth-watering choice of seafood bistros.
This turned out to be a perfect solution and one of the best house rentals we’ve ever experienced.
For our boat we went to L’Agence Nautique, run with great charm and efficiency by Michel Vanhove and his daughter Charlotte. We chose a Four Winns HD 240, a stylish American-built sportsboat, even though the brand is now owned by the Beneteau Group.
Her 225hp Yamaha outboard easily reached the 20-knot Arcachon speed limit and out at the entrance we sneaked up to 35 knots for a quick burst in the dramatic setting.
The roomy bowrider area was a stunning vantage point underway and gloriously decadent at anchor for drinks and lunches. This very likeable boat proved ideal for our forays in the basin, and was shallow enough to reach a snug pontoon in Port de Larros.
On our first morning we drove the few miles into Arcachon to pick up the boat. L’Agence Nautique operate from a commercial pontoon just east of the marina and we parked on Quai Goslar, free of charge.
Michel and Charlotte gave a detailed briefing over excellent coffee, including a run-down of the main channels through the banks. The basin can be a little tricky to navigate and you must keep track of the tides through the day.
At low water some of the banks dry to enticing sandy islets, where in quiet conditions you can land for a Robinson Crusoe picnic. The boat has a GPS plotter and you can also download an Arcachon navigation app onto smartphones or tablets, where the cartography is regularly updated.
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The engine controls were straightforward, but Michel emphasised the tilt switch for when we were creeping through shallows. After an hour’s tutorial at the pontoon, Charlotte took the helm for a familiarisation trip, during which Michel pointed out crucial beacons, dangerous oyster beds and several anchorages we could sample during the week.
Off the marina entrance we struck north through quite a wide marked fairway, before turning west around a low expanse of wetland called Île aux Oiseaux, which is indeed a rich habitat for birds.
Perched high on stilts here are two distinctive timber cabins, once used by shellfish workers but now a cherished part of Arcachon’s heritage. The history of oyster growing in the basin is vividly presented at La Maison de l’Huître in Port de Larros.
Across to Cap Ferret
Bassin d’Arcachon is enclosed on its seaward side by the long peninsula of Cap Ferret, whose inner shore has a string of picture postcard villages backed by pine woods.
Charlotte edged well in and then headed south past two miles of enviable villas and converted oyster shacks towards the pretty village of Le Canon, one of Cap Ferret’s star beauty spots. Even the simplest ‘fishermen’s huts’ here are now very chic and Michel told us that one of the smallest had changed hands for over a million euros!
We moored at a pontoon and Jane and I wandered ashore down a dusty lane between motley timber houses. Narrow alleys gave glimpses of the basin and the air was fragrant with jasmine and oleander.
At a bar we polished off two cold beers before taking the next pair more slowly. The warm sunshine was a treat after England’s gloomy winter and spring. Coming well south had been a grand idea and the forecast looked promising for the week.
Back on board, Jane took the helm and Charlotte gave her one-to-one pilotage tuition inside some lurking banks almost awash to starboard. Then we sped back to L’Agence Nautique’s base for a lunch of moules-frites and cold rosé wine at the Bistrot du Port.
Later we lazed on our bowrider cushions before pottering out on our own for an hour to get the feel of the boat. We nosed into the marina for auld lang syne. Last time we were here was on a cruise down to the Basque coast of Spain, a halcyon summer when we’d set aside six weeks for getting to San Sebastián and back.
Then we kept inshore off Arcachon town for a while before returning to the hire base and driving back to Larros. Tomorrow the weather looked good for a passage to the fabulous beaches and strangely cocooned anchorage opposite Dune du Pilat.
Down to the Dune
As we cut a swathe past Arcachon next morning, the world felt like a million dollars. Ahead, the sun lit up the beaches and villas on Cap Ferret and when I swung south the open sea glittered beyond the sandbanks that make this entrance so fickle.
Today the Atlantic was still, with only an occasional flicker of white over the outer shoals. I followed the plotter religiously because Michel had said we could cut through the banks west of Arcachon so long as we used the safe gap he’d marked with a waypoint. Slowing down, we slid through in two metres depth, with turbid shallows either side.
Now I headed for a tongue of deeper water on the east side of the entrance, reaching the peak of Le Pilat opposite a flat, crescent islet that protected the beach from swell and provided an idyllic anchorage in theatrical surroundings.
The Dune had few tourists and the hang glider thermals hadn’t got going yet. Later these steep shimmering sands would look like a desert mirage and a caravan of camels might easily appear.
On our first arrival here from Royan, the ocean was calm though we still had to find a fairway buoy before closing with the coast. I imagined I saw eagles circling the dunes, but through the glasses Jane realised they were hang-gliders hovering over the hot sand.
As one swooped towards us, she suddenly squeaked: ‘They’re nudist gliders!’ The pilots were indeed wearing helmets and safety straps but little else!
This time we anchored right under the dune in a more relaxed mood and swam in limpid water, sipping cold drinks from the fridge box between dips. What an incredible spot, but Pilat has existed for centuries, modified bit-by-bit by the wind and weather.
Back to Larros
In the late afternoon, pleasantly sun-soaked, we ambled back north towards Arcachon. I skirted outside the banks for a panorama of this amazing resort, invented from scratch in the 19th century by a consortium of bankers.
The arrival of the railway secured Arcachon’s future and popularity, first with the haute bourgeoisie of Bordeaux and later with wealthy Parisians.
A seaside ‘summer town’ grew around the low coastal strip and the more aristocratic Ville d’Hiver developed on the hill behind, a soothing area of grandiose villas and parks.
We could see these opulent residences through the binoculars, some of which you can rent, but we were pleased with our cosy retreat.
We were heading for home now, so beyond the marina we picked up the skimpy Chenal de Gujan, marked here and there with red or green poles. The tide was up and still rising, so ahead and to port lay apparently open water, with an occasional church spire on the invisible horizon.
To starboard we could see the red roofs of several oyster ports and, at beacon K9, I took the channel towards Port de Larros. The navigation app kept us on track and we throttled back to an idle, gradually lifting the outboard.
Larros has an ornate crucifix on its west jetty, useful because these harbour approaches all look similar. On the east side was a row of timber huts and ahead we could see our own homely cabane. The vibes of this working port were charming and the zest of shellfish wafted on the breeze.
The depth was 1.5 metres, but the tide was still rising and we easily reached our slightly rickety pontoon belonging to an oyster restaurant called La Baraque à Huîtres.
We’d eaten well there on our first night and the genial Patronne had kindly allowed us to use her berth during our stay. Our boat looked content at her new base and would sit there comfortably over low water. We wandered ashore for a shower and drinks on our balcony.
The Arcachon Cabanes
Next morning we visited the iconic cabanes tchanquées on Île aux Oiseaux (tchanquée is an old Gascony word meaning ‘built on poles’). The air was absolutely still and mist hung over the basin, creating an eerie frieze of spar beacons, oyster withies and no obvious line between water and sky.
We left slowly, our wash rippling far astern. Sometimes an oyster barge passed, greyer than usual in the drab light. Each had a dog perched on the bow, but even they were quiet on this ethereal morning.
The cabanes only took shape when we were quite close, and I was reminded of shacks on stilts we’d seen on the Maine coast when fog was drifting about. The first on Île aux Oiseaux was erected in 1883 by an oyster farmer and the pair we were now gazing at ahead are protected by conservation orders.
We almost reached the steps of the red-shuttered cabin, but fell back a little to anchor in this wonderful spot. The silence was profound with the engine off, but we soon heard the strange croaking of egrets and the trill of a curlew. We lingered in this magical place until the ebb chased us into deeper water.
Les Pinasses d’Arcachon
Pinasses are sleek, elegant motor boats particular to Arcachon. Originally they were open cutters with large square mainsails, used for line fishing and tending oyster beds. The modern motor versions are still built of wood in the traditional way and look beautiful with their shiny paint and gleaming varnish.
Les Pinasses du Bassin run skippered day trips to some of the remotest corners of the basin and we couldn’t resist joining a party to learn more about Arcachon pilotage.
Principal Stéphane Lalande showed us how to dodge round oyster beds in practically no water! If you are ever in Arcachon on holiday, don’t miss this experience. Stéphane and three of his skippers speak English.
Five minutes stroll from our cabane in Port de Larros is the well-known Dubourdieu yard, one of the oldest boatbuilders in France. It was founded in 1800 by a young Arcachon carpenter, Louis Dubourdieu, who built rowing boats for local fishermen.
The yard steadily grew and prospered, but after six generations of Dubourdieus at the helm, Emmanuel and Béatrice Martin bought Dubourdieu in 2000 and started building bespoke timber motor yachts and picnic boats for discerning clients.
Built of Burma teak, Dubourdieus are by no means clumpy. The semi-planing hulls have sophisticated profiles fashioned by skilled shipwrights. We chatted with Emmanuel in his office and saw plans and photos of his current range, from 33ft dayboats to 40ft passenger vedettes for trips. Emmanuel hosts haute cuisine picnic cruises aboard his boat.
We hired our Four Winns from L’Agence Nautique and could have chosen their Beneteau GT40. We were looked after royally by Michel and Charlotte, who were excellent company and very helpful.
The Four Winns special MBY price for five continuous bareboat days is €2,250, including all taxes, but without fuel (SP95 petrol). The MBY daily rate is €450 (either present a copy of the magazine or mention my name).
Cabanes de Larros
Impeccably fitted out, our cabane sleeps six people but was just right for two of us. The balcony looks across a branch of the harbour where the water is retained by a lock gate. The view was totally restful and the lake is a haven for all kinds of birds. Out of the front door we were right on the harbour with menus galore to choose from. A hard life!
Contact: Monsieur Nicolas Schirr-Bonnans, 12 Boulevard Pierre Dignac, Port de Larros, 33470; firstname.lastname@example.org
Cumbo’s restaurant picks
Arcachon is awash with eateries, but try these five first:
- Le Bistrot du Port is behind the marina at 5 Rue du Port (+33 (0)18.104.22.168.49).
- La Baraque à Huîtres is on the west side of Port de Larros and became our evening regular (+33 (0)22.214.171.124.07).
- Le Grand Café Victoria is on the Arcachon beachfront at 26 Boulevard Montagneres. First class seafood and slick service (+33 (0)5.56.83.07.75).
- Chez Pierre, also on Boulevard Montagneres, is another sound choice (+33 (0)5 33 52 01 08).
- Restaurant La Co(o)rniche, has fantastic views over Arcachon entrance. It’s out near Le Pilat, 20mins drive from marina.