In the southwest of France sits Europe’s largest sand dune - just one of the many attractions in the unspoilt region of Aquitaine
Despite the signs and the footpaths leading to its edge, Europe's largest sand dune is a surprise when you finally arrive at its base. There, with houses visible in the forests nearby, is one very, very big pile of sand.
The Great Dune of Pyla - or Dune du Pilat - is just 60km from Bordeaux, on the south side of the Arcachon basin. Standing a whopping 107m high and measuring 500m in width, it stretches out some 2500m to nudge the Atlantic coast. There are stairs for those not nimble (or energetic) enough to clamber up the sand itself. It is worth the effort no matter how you choose to scale it. Our efforts to reach the top were rewarded with spectacular views of the ocean and, more than 200km to the south, the Pyrénées.
The Dune du Pilat is best experienced by trudging along the top of the dune towards the coast and away from the crowds. Only then can you truly appreciate its enormity. This also provides a wonderful vantage point from which to take in the beauty of a large chunk of the rest of Aquitaine.
Around the bay sits Arcachon, once a luxury resort attracting royalty and artists from across Europe. Today it is a haven for daytrippers from Bordeaux, who come here to enjoy its relaxed seaside vibe, to sail on the waters of the bay or to while away the hours in one of the many restaurants lining the waterfront.
Seafood is the order of every day in Arcachon, with oysters in particular a local treat. The best views in town can be found at Cap Pereirre (1 Avenue Parc Péreire), which serves up a magnificent panorama of the bay alongside local fish specialities and great wine at affordable prices.
If you’re more a surfer than a sailor, then there are plenty of beaches to try. The first surfboard to arrive in France landed in Biarritz in 1957, and the city has been a hub of year-round surf activity ever since. Further north, Lacanau is a thriving summer destination, yet all but deserted off-season. In between, it’s possible to walk for miles along the soft sand of the Atlantic coast, discovering secluded spots along the way.
Away from the coast, there is no better place to soak up the fresh air than in the western reaches of the French Pyrénées. Just south of Biarritz, Saint-Jean-de-Luz provides an excellent access point for the fantastic GR10, a walking trail that runs the length of the Pyrénées. If you don’t have the time (or energy) to walk from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, it’s possible to do day or overnight hikes, as we did, stopping in mountain refuges along the way.
A highlight of the GR10 is the atmospheric Basque village of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, the starting point for the Camino Francés route of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrims’ trail. As a result, it gets crowded here in summer, but the town is a real delight, with its cobbled streets and tiny port.
From here, it is a mere five miles to Spain. Local bike hire is available for daytrippers venturing south of the border; for the more adventurous, there is canyoning and rafting both sides of the border.
We rounded off our visit to Aquitaine with a night in Pau, its fairytale chateau only overshadowed by the spectacular mountains that form its backdrop. A city of peaceful parks and gardens, Pau is an ideal place to wind down, and a relaxing place to ponder your return to the real world.
Air: easyJet and British Airways fly to Bordeaux; easyJet and Ryanair fly to Biarritz; Air France flies both routes via Paris.
Train: from London St Pancras you can take the train to either Bordeaux or Biarritz, changing in either Paris or Lille.
Where to stay
Hotel Le Dauphin: an authentic Arcachon villa, dating back to the 19th century; in the heart of town. Rooms are priced from €65. (7 avenue Gounod, Arcachon).
Hotel Les Pyrénées: a wonderful, traditional Basque hotel. Rooms are priced from €100. (19 place du Général du Gaulle, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port).
La Palmeraie: this gorgeous hotel and restaurant is located in a wooded parkland area. Rooms from €83. (1 passage de l'Europe, Pau).