A road trip up the Atlantic coast, from Biarritz to Brittany, reveals France’s wild western edge, where water-sport opportunities abound and there are far fewer tourists than in the Mediterranean. Even if you’re not a lover of the sea, the dramatic coastal landscapes, delicious cuisine, and budget-friendly beach campgrounds are too good to miss.
Here are seven active ways to explore France’s stunning Atlantic coast.
CATCH LEGENDARY WAVES IN BIARRITZ
This is the way all French adventures should begin: straddling a longboard, huffing with sheer exhilaration after catching a wave in the famous birthplace of European surfing. Since 1957, when The Sun Also Rises screenwriter Peter Viertel visited the shore with a surfboard from California, Biarritz has continued to woo serious wave riders with its world-class beach breaks, rugged beauty, and year-round mild weather.
The resort town has ample surf options across nearly four miles of sandy shoreline. Rent a board or take a lesson at Tropical Euskadi on La Grande Plage, an iconic surf spot suitable for all levels. A short walk south leads to La Côte des Basques, where longboarders can find blissfully drawn-out peeling waves at low tide. When high tide rolls in (and the beach disappears all the way to the rocky seawall), watch the more experienced surfers in action while tasting traditional Basque cheeses with black cherry jam at Le Surfing restaurant. While you’re there, make sure to check out newly opened Maison du Surf, an artistic space dedicated to surf culture, and Lastage, where swim trunks are locally made from recycled plastic bottles and you can find reasonably priced longboard rentals. Grab sunset drinks at L’Eden Rock Café, tucked into a jagged cliff above Plage du Port Vieux.
Where to stay: At Hotel Saphir, a few blocks from the old port, book the terrace room overlooking the “white village with red roofs and green shutters” that Victor Hugo fell in love with in 1843. For a more authentic surfer experience, shack up in Campy Camper’s fully-equipped 1972 VW Kombi Westfalia. Before waxing your board, check the surf report at windguru.cz or surf-report.com.
PARAGLIDE ABOVE EUROPE’S TALLEST SAND DUNE IN LA TESTE-DE-BUCH
Miles from Biarritz: 109
On the Road: Two Hours
Kick off your shoes at the edge of the Landes pine forest, and you’ll be met with mountains of silken sand and an abrupt silence. After a “bonjour!” and snap of a buckle, you’ll suddenly find yourself suspended 500 feet above La Grande Dune du Pyla, likely letting slip a few expletives into the warm calm wind. But you’re in good hands with the Waggas School, which has been offering paragliding flights from Europe’s tallest sand dune for over a decade. There’s so much to take in—and a mere 20 minutes to do it, but you’ll quickly adjust to the altitude and start absorbing the immense landscape with the aplomb of the resident dune falcon (who you may very well see flying at the tip of your wing).
Charlie, one of the group’s pilots, says paragliding is best on an overcast day with a few rays of sunshine illuminating the Bay of Arcachon and the two-mile-long, 300-foot-high Dune du Pyla. On a flight with Charlie, you’ll soar above oyster farms on the Banc d’Arguin Nature Preserve, the chic fishing village of Cap Ferret, and the Pyrénées range to the south—all before doing a totally-crazy-but-worth-it stunt. Book the Endurance experience and ask for “the wagga,” a series of acrobatic manoeuvres that brings you swooping and diving close to the sand. Don’t forget to have a photographer ready below to capture your spectacular moves.
Where to stay: The Panorama du Pyla camping village provides a myriad of amenities—bike rentals, tennis courts, pools, laundry facilities, a crêperie, and a gourmet restaurant and mini market—and accommodations, including tent spots, cabins, and sea view cottages.
RIDE HORSES ON THE BEACHES OF ÎLE DE RÉ
Miles from La Teste-de-Buch: 171
On the Road: Three hours
There’s plenty to do on this dreamy 19-mile island off the coast of La Rochelle—enjoy oysters at Cabane du Feneau, try merguez (a spicy North African sausage) crepes at Le Moulin à Café, explore the remains of a 12th-century abbey and charming maritime villages lined with bright pink hollyhocks—but making the most of Île de Ré’s under-the-radar beauty means getting up extra early to meet Iranian expat Ahmad Melodi at the Moulin Moreau stables. Melodi regularly leads two-hour rides that weave through unexpected wilderness and out to Plage des Grenettes, where he’ll shout, “Gallop!” At his call, the thoroughbreds and Selle Français show jumpers your group is riding will begin cantering along the pristine beach and into the sea, where the splashing surf and chorus of neighs resolves any need for that cup of coffee you missed. Sure, you may have wet ankles and grains of sand on your tongue, but it’s worth revelling in this vast and empty shore (at least until your horse kicks at the waves, a sign he’s preparing to lie down). Morning beach trips are reserved for more experienced riders, while beginners can enjoy slower sunset outings that are just as breathtaking.
Where to stay: Book a room at La Villa or camp right on Plage des Gollandières at Les Varennes.
PEDAL FRANCE’S LONGEST WAYMARKED BIKE TRAIL
Miles from Île de Ré: 126
On the Road: 2.5 hours
La Vélodyssée is a 745-mile cycling path that runs from Roscoff, Brittany, to the border of Spain. The full route is a multiday commitment, but travelers with limited time can get a two-wheeled taste of one of the route’s most idyllic sections in the western Pays de La Loire region, where the Tour de France is expected to stage the “Grand Depart” over the Passage du Gois causeway on June 30, 2018. If you play the tides right, you can pedal the same roads as the world’s top cyclists. Only instead of starting on the Passage du Gois causeway, which is connected to the picturesque isle of Noirmoutier and disappears with the tide twice a day, you’ll kick off your own mini bike tour 30 miles to the north.
In Pornic, not far from a historic medieval chateau and a Michelin-starred restaurant, pick up a hybrid or mountain bike from Vélo Retz Volt and head out along the mostly traffic-free trail, winding around canals and flat countryside, waving back at locals in their gardens. The French consider riding a bike to be one of the few simple pleasures in life, and that is especially true along the west coast of France, with its salty tailwinds and smooth roads flanked by grazing horses and wind turbines. Shortly after cruising through the lively Port du Bec, you’ll arrive at the 2.5-mile Passage du Gois causeway, certain to be the wildest (and windiest) part of the ride. Once on Noirmoutier, bike 15 minutes to the southern tip for panoramic views of Bourgneuf Bay and a glass of champagne with Vendée Atlantique Oysters at La Maison sur L’eau. The full out-and-back 60-mile trip should take roughly five hours; just make sure to download the route on your phone or GPS device ahead of time.
Where to stay: Enjoy unobstructed views of Bourgneuf Bay from your tent window at Camp Eleovic, one of several campgrounds in the Pornic area. The site offers an indoor heated pool, kids club, restaurants, laundry facilities, cruiser bikes, and free Wi-Fi.
SCUBA DIVE THE SHIPWRECKS OFF ÎLE DE GROIX
Miles from Pornic: 100
On the road: Two hours
The Atlantic Ocean has been a constant travel companion these last 500 miles, and yet you’ve really only touched the surface of it. Often overshadowed by the more popular diving sites off the Glénan archipelago to the north, Île de Groix’s haunting underworld is worth discovering. Roughly nine miles off the coast of Lorient, Brittany’s “City of Sailing,” Made in Blue leads certified divers to World War II shipwrecks, like the tugboat Cyrano and submarine hunter Chasseur 16. First timers are also welcome, and will start with a 20-minute intro class before pairing off with instructors on an exploration of Île de Groix’s pink and green coral colonies. Divers swim through jade-tinted waters with electric rays, schools of Atlantic horse mackerel, leopard-spotted goby, wolf eels, and even the almighty Mola mola, or ocean sunfish, the world’s heaviest known bony fish. Book the Baptême Mer option or the private two-person tour package.
Where to stay: As you’re in the “City of Sailing,” it’s only fitting that you sleep on a boat. Book the delightful “Muscadet.”
LAND SAIL AT LA TORCHE IN FINISTÈRE
Miles from Lorient: 75
On the road: One hour
When visiting the coast of Brittany, one must do as the Bretons do: wear stripes, eat galettes de blé noir (traditional buckwheat crepes), and basically live at the beach. While La Torche is best known as a surfer hot spot, this wide windswept headland perched on the Bay of Audierne is also an ideal track for land sailing, a 119-year-old sport first popularized in France and Belgium that never quite gained traction in America. With some chutzpah and a good gust of wind, you’ll be able to get the three-wheeled Seagull MC2 zooming up to 25 miles per hour along seven miles of fine sand. Ecole de Surf de Bretagne La Torche offers two-hour sessions, which include goggles, gloves, a helmet, and a lesson. Though the speed record is 126 miles per hour, land sailing at La Torche is a safe and visually stunning activity suitable for adrenaline junkies age 10 and older. Refuel with a crepe pomme caramel (caramel apple crepe) in the garden at nearby La Crêpere de la Rayon Vert before driving five minutes south to Musée de la Préhistoire for a fascinating look at the area’s prehistoric findings, like the Neolithic burial site atop Pointe de La Torche.
Where to stay: La Torche campsite, which has earned an EU Ecolabel, offers chalets for glamping or more basic spots to pitch a tent.
KAYAK THE SEA CAVES OF THE CROZON PENINSULA
Miles from Finistére: 50
On the road: 1.5 hours
The Crozon Peninsula’s spectacular nooks and crannies are tailor-made for kayaking. Rent one nearby at Le Spot Nautique and paddle out from the Bay of Morgat. Not long after your launch, you’ll reach the first of many sea caves. Gliding into Grotte Sainte-Marine and Grotte du Diable, ancient cathedrals of mauve rock best accessed by kayaks, you’re likely to conclude you’ve saved the best adventure for last. Spurred by whispers of a hidden paradise, push on a bit farther north, sizing up the vibrant moors and vertiginous cliffs, until you land on Île Vierge, the hallowed Virgin Beach. This intimate pebbly cove of bracing panoramas and translucent turquoise sea will be the trip’s most difficult place to leave. Linger as long as you can, nourished by memories of wild adventures—and the unknown ones still to come.
Where to stay: Enjoy terraced pitches overlooking the bay of Douarnenez at Camping L'Arimorique, situated half a mile from the beach and a 20-minute drive from the bustling resort town of Morgat. If you’re looking to splurge a bit on the last leg of the journey, book an oceanfront room with breakfast at Le Grand Hotel de la Mer.
Eco-Friendly Travel Tip: It costs just over $5 to offset the 0.51 tonnes of CO2 from this 631-mile road trip. Visit carbonfund.org to offset your trip by making a tax-deductible donation to carbon-reduction projects, such as reforestation and renewable energy. It takes only a few seconds to calculate the cost of your carbon footprint. (Just remember to keep track of your mileage as you go!)