There’s an unseen line on the west coast of France – cross it and life becomes easier, warmer and full of simple joie de vivre. This is our cruising guide
South to Île d’Yeu
The west side of Noirmoutier is fringed with drying rocks and two miles north-west of L’Herbaudière is a low barren island with a square stone lighthouse at its north point. A well-used channel leads safely inside this island and you come back out to sea this way when cruising south to Île d’Yeu.
Blissfully adrift off the Vendée mainland, Yeu is an escapist’s dream, criss-crossed by sleepy country lanes and bathed in vivid painter’s light. Its north shore has stunning beaches and on the Atlantic coast, you can anchor off a delightful shallow creek at Port de la Meule. At the west end of Yeu, the island’s impressive white square lighthouse soars nearly 200ft above the sea.
Port Joinville is on the north side of Yeu and easy to enter in most conditions. Although the marina has expanded over the years, the visitors’ pontoons soon fill up in season. Like most island harbours, Joinville is always active, with fishing boats, ferries and visiting yachts all jostling for position. Sometimes a helicopter buzzes in to land above the Avant Port.
Try to call here midweek if possible, and in July or August it’s worth booking a berth the day before. The town has plenty of shops, cafés and bistros and you can hire bikes, scooters or jeeps at the harbour.
DON’T MISS Evening cocktails and nibbles at Le Bouchon tapas bar, on the west side of the harbour in Rue de la Chapelle.
St Gilles Croix-de-Vie
This charming mainland harbour is only 16 miles east of Port Joinville. On a calm day the coast here looks idyllic, with miles of beaches and dunes tailing away north towards Noirmoutier. Another glorious strand stretches south from the jetties of St Gilles harbour entrance – the mouth of the shallow Vie River.
You should approach about an hour before high water, with plenty of depth in the entrance and the river current at rest. Once inside, turn to starboard behind a sandy promontory and continue upstream past a fishing basin. You’ll see the marina ahead and the visitors’ pontoon is to port where the channel curves north towards the bridges between Croix-de-Vie on the west bank and St Gilles town on the east.
St Gilles’ attractive riverfront catches your eye as you arrive. The tidal quay is lined with beckoning restaurants and cheerful houses in Vendée style. Behind it, a church with a pointed slate roof looks like a witch’s hat.
From the marina it’s a short stroll to Place Kergoustin, the hub of Croix-de-Vie village where there are plenty of shops, cafés and bistros. Across the bridges in St Gilles, you can wander south from Place du Marché to explore a maze of cobbled alleys between low white houses and hidden courtyard gardens.
DON’T MISS A foray upstream in the dinghy, leaving the marina an hour before high water and following the river inland through the wild salt marshes of the Vendée.
Down to Les Sables d’Olonne
South of St Gilles you pass miles of wonderful sand backed by dunes and forest. Skirting Les Barges’ rocks and grassy Pointe de l’Aiguille, you circle east and then north into Les Sables bay, where a grand sweep of golden beach is backed by hotels, apartments and ornate holiday villas.
You enter the harbour between two jutting piers and follow the channel up beyond the town centre to Port Olona Marina, whose reception pontoon is to port below the capitainerie.
This sizeable residential marina has matured over the years to blend into the harbour. Its west basin is bordered by apartments and promenades, with restaurants and cafés along the north quay.
The newer east basin – the Village du Vendée Globe – has developed since this fantastic non-stop, single-handed, round-the-world yacht race became so high profile. Port Olona has excellent facilities and, though not far from Les Sables centre, is nicely set back from the holiday throng.
Just north of the marina, along the west bank of the Vertonne River, luxuriant forest flourishes next to the sea behind the dunes, an oasis of calm for walking or cycling stretching to Brétignolles-sur-Mer.
Ashore in Les Sables
From Olona west basin you can take a ‘Bus Marin’ launch over to Les Sables, or stroll downstream to a foot-ferry which shuttles across to the fishing harbour. You land near a row of restaurants, of which Le Poisson Rouge or Le Quai des Saveurs are good lunchtime choices.
The oldest and most interesting part of Les Sables lies on the peninsula between the main seafront and fishing port. Here, you’ll find a colourful warren of small streets and alleys in which to get pleasantly lost. Next to a magnificent 13th- century church is a tantalising covered market, best visited early in the mornings.
DON’T MISS Dinner at the notable Restaurant La Flambée, near the market in Les Sables. Exploring the Village du Vendée Globe to see some incredible high-tech racing machines.
Île de Ré
Cruising on from Les Sables, you soon enter a sheltered sound between the mainland and Île de Ré, a long, low island with some of the most stunning white beaches on the French Atlantic coast. Towards the east end of the island’s landward side, St Martin-de-Ré is an old walled port teeming with carefree life and restaurants that never seem to close.
The marina is to starboard inside the entrance narrows and on summer weekends, boats keep squeezing into St Martin until the lock gate shuts. To enjoy this packed basin to the full, you need to be in a gregarious frame of mind, so if a party gets going on the boat next door you should join it immediately.
St Martin Harbour is like a moat enclosing a central island, with half the moat tidal and the marina retained by its gate. The whole place is perfectly arranged for either strolling or watching others stroll. In the glow of high summer, the quays feel as Mediterranean as St Tropez or Cassis.