Halfway between the great sand dune of Pyla and the posh surf and golf resort of Hossegor, is the finest stretch of sandy beach in France. South-west of Bordeaux, the Côte d’Argent begins at Mimizan Plage, where a river splits the beach in two.
Looking south, it’s an uninterrupted, endless expanse of flat sand, a golden highway for sand-yachting, joggers and dog-walkers. Twenty minutes’ strolling along the shore and you could be all on your own, even in midsummer.
Daytrippers stay on Mimizan Plage Sud for surfing, or the riverbank Plage du Courant for swimming. Restaurant Ô Courant has views of both and a lunchtime special of starter, main course, cheese and dessert all on the same plate for €15.
The resort has a seafront church, Notre Dame des Dunes, with a witch’s-hat steeple and four surviving bornes de sauveté (medieval stone stacks which marked the limits of religious protection). A stone bell tower is all that’s left of the 13th-century priory, one side of which is covered in tiny chestnut-wood tiles. Most visitors, however, come to Mimizan for the big waves, jet skiing, beach volleyball, camping, gentle cycling and even gentler electric boats on Aureilhan lake, nearby.
One hundred years ago, the only sporting activity was hunting. Chateau Woolsack, a mock-Tudor hunting lodge, was built for the second Duke of Westminster in 1911 and modelled on Rudyard Kipling’s house of the same name in Cape Town. The duke entertained Coco Chanel, Salvador Dalí and Winston Churchill there and spent his summers chasing boar, deer and woodcock with a huge pack of hounds through the forest.
Chateau Woolsack is now in private hands, but can be seen through the trees on the banks of Aureilhan lake.
The first hotel to open in the Landes region is a converted manor house in Mimizan Plage. L’Emeraude des Bois (doubles from €89) has 17 rooms, bikes for hire and a direct link to the coastal cycle path from its back garden.
The whole of the Landes was once a salt marsh, fertilised in places by flocks of sheep. It was drained and planted with pine trees in the second half of the 19th century to supply wood for Napoleon III’s navy. Shepherds became foresters. Sheep were replaced by soaring maritime pines and local industry was converted to timber, resin, paper mills and turpentine production. Even in bright sunlight, the road that cuts through the trees is shadowed in a gingery haze of sawdust, bark and pine needles, with lay-bys full of enormous trunks, felled, stacked and ready for the mill.
The coast road runs three miles from the sea, with only the occasional track to the dunes. The next entry point is a shady picnic area at Plage de Lespécier, where a plank of wood stuck in the sand announces there’s wifi available. Europe’s largest lizards chase after tawny pipit birds on the giant dunes, which are protected by gorse, bright yellow Medicago marina and shrubby everlasting. They may sound like gang members, but these plants stop the dune from disappearing across the forest.
A little further down the coast is Contis-les-Bains, a village built on wooden decking and famous for its big waves and black-and-white striped lighthouse. Dating from 1863, the lighthouse is still operational and open for visits (€3 and 146 steps to the top) but is, curiously, now in the middle of the pine forest.
The high dunes and lack of access points make it easy to lose your bearings on long beach walks. There are a few naturist stretches (far away from the sand yachting), and a tremendous feeling of space. It’s not rockpool and sandcastle territory; it’s a sweeping wilderness, a breathtaking, eye-squinting pilgrimage across the sand until you arrive at Moliets.
Lifeguards survey the waves in the summer on Moliets-Plage, a resort with cafes, a golf course, surf lessons, night markets and the excellent Grill de l’Océan (three-course seafood menu €25).
Like the whole Atlantic coast, Moliets is more for surfing than paddling, with warning signs for treacherous baïnes (tidal pools) at every entrance. It’s the widest beach on the coast and runs alongside the Courant d’Huchet nature reserve. You can walk along the banks of the courant (stream), which ends, 9km inland, at the freshwater Etang de Léon. Weaving through a forest of cork oaks and pines, the path sometimes disappears into the water, where bald cypress trees poke up like wooden meerkats, a Louisiana mangrove on the west coast of France. Bateliers (from €13.50pp) offers a two-hour trip by boat down the courant d’Huchet to see the herons, otters and arum lilies.
Halfway to Léon is the Chalet de Pichelèbe, a barn in the forest, whose doors swing out like a giant doll’s house to reveal flora and fauna information panels and where tourists can book a guided tour of the nature reserve (open April to September +33 5 58 48 73 91).
Looking down from the dunes above Moliets beach, you can see the stream’s fresh water flowing into the cloudier seawater, a curlicue on an aerial photograph and a constant surprise for children in inflatables.
Cycling as a family is easy on the Côte d’Argent, which incorporates La Velodyssée route. A gentle introduction is the ride to the chapel of Saint Laurent in the neighbouring hamlet of Maâ, past typical Landais houses built in a herringbone-pattern brick, with a gently sloping roof that almost touches the ground.
Stay in one of the holiday villas, built in a modernised Landais style, on the La Clairière aux Chevreuils estate. These are managed by Madame Vacances (from €29 per person per night).
FIVE MORE FRENCH COASTAL GEMS
A 40-minute walk from Marseille’s Luminy university campus, Calanque de Sugiton, the most picturesque of the city’s rugged, limestone coves has blue-green waters, twisted pine trees and a narrow island-rock to swim out to known as Le Torpilleur.
Botany in Provence
Originally created in 1910 by a Parisian banker, Domaine du Rayol’s botanical gardens have their own beach, cafe-restaurant and plant nursery. The 49-acre site at Rayol-Canadel-sur-Mer, Var is divided up into separate zones, including bamboos from Asia, Chilean cacti and one zone completely underwater. The domaine hosts classical music concerts during the summer.
Seafood on a Breton island
A 10-minute ferry ride from Roscoff takes daytrippers to the île de Batz and the sheltered, white sands of Grève Blanche at Finistère. Batz specialises in seaweed and lobster but the tastiest meal is a scallop crepe, wrapped up like a giant cracker with seafood sauce and eaten on the beach.
Islands off the Cannes coast
A cedar and oak forest runs down to the water’s edge on the southern flank of Sainte-Marguerite at Les Iles de Lérins, Alpes-Maritimes, a 20-minute boat ride from Cannes (€13.50 return horizon-lerins.com). The rocky inlets around the Pointe du Dragon are perfect for swimming and snorkelling, or a picnic beside the stone furnace where Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops heated up cannonballs to fire on enemy ships.
Paddle on the Riviera
A half-hour walk from the tiny railway station at Cap d’Ail in the Alpes-Maritimes, a coastal footpath runs underneath a line of art nouveau and art deco villas and round a headland before Mala Plage comes into view. There are kayaks and paddleboards to rent and a pontoon to swim out to. Try lunch at one of the beach restaurants.