It was difficult to climb Pyla's scorching sands, but when I arrived at the top, I had a strange feeling of peace and a 360 degree-view of blues and greens to rest my eyes on
I am not joking. Pyla (or Pilat) is a real mountain of sand, and with its wind-carved crest it is not only the highest in Europe but also the most beautiful. It is just 60km from Bordeaux and part of the sandy 200km-long Côte d’Argent, well known for its silvery-blue waters.
The best way of reaching the dune is to take a boat from the nearby Arcachon, which will take you to the small Robinson Plage, at the base of the mountain. The reference to the castaway character from Defoe’s novel seems quite appropriate, as there were only a couple of other people when I was there. Step off the boat and you’ll soon realise that there is only the obvious way of reaching the top - and that climbing a mountain of loose hot sand is not as easy as it sounds.
However, there is another way to reach the top. Much less exciting, though. On the other side of the dune, you will find the huge pine forest of Les Landes and Pyla Camping (average €27 per day in summer, two people, car and tent), from where a long ladder takes you to the top. If you decide to go for this route, be aware that you need to travel 12km from Arcachon before taking the first step. During summer, daily buses can make this job much easier if you don’t have a car (see www.bassin-arcachon.eu).
Either route you choose will take you to the same stunning views of the Bassin d’Arcachon and its sand banks, such as the Banc d'Arguin, which will vary in shape and size according to the tide. It's a nesting and hibernation place for many birds, such as the oystercatcher, the bar-tailed godwit, and several species of waders. During the summer months, there is a boat connection from the Dune du Pyla to the Banc d'Arguin (www.uba-bateau-arcachon.com).
When on the top of the dune, you can sit and stay for hours, until eventually the wind starts to blow sand on your face, and you decide that is time to return. To go down, you have an extra option: paragliding. Just don’t forget to arrange everything beforehand (www.flightculture.co.uk is organising a trip to Pyla for this summer). Pyla Camping is also a good place to contact paragliding instructors, rent bikes or quads and to take part in boat trips and diving.
If you also want to explore the Bassin d’Arcachon closely, take a boat to the Ile aux Oiseaux (island of birds). You will see the oyster farms and the cabanes tchanquées (cabins on stilts), used in the past by the guardians of the farms. The island is home to many native and migratory birds, a real paradise for birdwatchers. To get there, you can get one of the boats that leave Arcachon or Cap Ferret daily during the summer. The trip lasts 2 hours and costs €14 (www.uba-bateau-arcachon.com).
Stay in Cap Ferret
If you want to avoid the herds of tourists that invade Arcachon during the summer, Cap Ferret is a better place to stay (not to be confused with St. Jean Cap Ferrat, in southern France). Spread over the stretch of land between the Atlantic and the Bassin d’Arcachon, this village has kept its natural and wild side.
Cap Ferret is still home for fishermen and oyster farmers, and it has a lighthouse (58m high) from where you can see the whole area. But be prepared to climb 258 steps to reach the top! Bikes are widely used by locals and visitors alike, and you can’t miss out a day on the cycle paths, built through the middle of the aromatic pine forest to link Cap Ferret to the villages scattered on the coast and across the Medoc vineyards. The forest of Les Lands was an infertile swamp until the 19th Century, but today it occupies more than 10 thousand square kilometres of fragrant greenery, which was designated a nature reserve in the 1970s.
There are some good places to stay in Cap Ferret, which will please all budgets and tastes.
You can take your friends with you and rent an authentic maison with heated swimming pool at Alternative Aquitane (from €974 week until March). I would specially recommend the Maison des Hérons, a Basque-style house not far from the lighthouse. The dining and living areas are open onto an east-facing wooden terrace with amazing views through the trees to the top of the lighthouse. And the beaches are just a walk away. For a budget stay, you have the Cap Ferret Youth Hostel (87 Av de Bordeaux; from €12, opens only in summer), which is located in the middle of the pine forest, but not far away from the village centre.
The Hotel Côté Sable (37 Boulevard de la Plage – 33970; from €166 per room until March) has a nice bar with a big sea-view terrace and a spa with hammam, ideal for a relaxing break. Alternatively, La Maison du Bassin (5 rue des Pionniers; from €130 per room) with its plush bistro and terrace bar, offers a dozen chic classic-style rooms and apartments or the cosy Hotel des Pins, (23, rue des Fauvettes; from €57 per room until June), located in a charming old theatre building. The best thing about the hotel’s retro décor is the wooden furniture in the rooms. The bed design took me back to my grandparents’ room, instantly.
Cap Ferret is also a paradise for seafood lovers. Walk along the coast and it will be easy to see some locals working in the oyster farms. Finding a good restaurant to taste them is not a problem, but be aware that most restaurants are only open from May to September.
Try the Pinasse Café (www.pinassecafe.com; 2 bis, av de l’océan; tel.05 56 0377 87, average €40), which has a wonderful cosmopolitan atmosphere, very friendly staff and excellent food. However, if you don’t care about the place’s ambience and simply want to experience the delicious local cuisine, go to the restaurant Chez Hortense (av du Sémaphore; tel 05 56 60 62 56; €15 to €30) and ask for one of the grilled fish options on the menu. Don't forget to book in advance.
Alternatively, go to Restaurant Le Rouf (186 Bis Route du Cap-Ferret; tel 05 56 60 56 52; average €30) where the service is good and you can taste the wonderful Papillotte de turbot aux huîtres, or to the modern Sail Fish (www.chezgreg.fr; 38, rue Bernaches; tel 0556604484; €20 to €50) which also offers a tasty sea food tajine.