Sun, sand and seafood: discover Charente-Maritime

The sea view from Dolus-d'Oléron

The sea view from Dolus-d'Oléron - Credit: Archant

Nick Dowlatshahi presents the delights of this popular coastal département

Restaurants in La Rochelle at night

Restaurants in La Rochelle at night - Credit: Archant

Charente-Maritime is the coastal department of Poitou-Charentes, where you can be in the grounds of magnificent châteaux one moment and lying by the sea the next. This is an area abundant in forests and beaches but also historic buildings, museums and attractions for all the family. The best known towns are La Rochelle, Royan, Rochefort and Saintes.

The first two are renowned seaside destinations, while Rochefort was a naval base and dockyard from 1665 to 1926, has an interesting marine museum and is unique due to its organised network of interconnecting roads. Saintes has a noteworthy heritage dating back to Roman times when it was declared the capital of Aquitaine. It has a rich array of museums and hosts numerous annual festivals that attract tourists from around the world.

La Rochelle dates back to the 10th century, a history that can be seen in its architecture. This vibrant and charming seaside town is centred around a harbour, off which numerous, seemingly secret roads are lined with arcades and stately residences. It holds jazz, art and film festivals but is also an important centre of commerce, hosting national and international congresses at its exhibition centres and being the base for many large French companies, helped by having its own TGV station.

A vineyard in the region of Haute-Saintonge

A vineyard in the region of Haute-Saintonge - Credit: Archant

Royan, on the other hand, is quite clearly a traditional seaside resort whose popularity dates back to the mid-19th century, when Parisians started coming to relax and enjoy the sea and sunshine. Its attraction stems from the numerous white sandy beaches but also its vast forests, large parts of which have been officially protected giving the area a very natural feel.

Along with the seaside village of St-Palais-sur-Mer, Royan has an excellent selection of seafood restaurants, bars, cafés and boutiques. Sailing and surfing schools and Belle Époque villas line much of the seafront, and its fresh produce markets are arguably the best in the whole of Charente-Maritime.

Just off the coast, the enchanting islands of Ré, Aix and Oléron are accessible by car. Here you will find salt marshes and plentiful oyster beds (the whole coastal region is known for its cultivation of oysters) but also long stretches of sandy beach and forest. The islands are home to French film stars and famous musicians and have retained a natural island atmosphere by restricting building to low-density, traditional housing, with none of the vast concrete apartment blocks that you often see on the Côte d’Azur.

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Furthermore, Charente-Maritime benefits from a microclimate which provides a particularly long period of sunshine, usually lasting from March right through to the end of October. The amount is comparable to that of the French Riviera, at 2,250 hours per year. Even winters are quite mild.

Getting to the area couldn’t be easier from the UK, with an international airport and TGV station at La Rochelle, and excellent bus and road networks throughout the department.

If you’re into golf, this is a great area as it has no less than 24 regional golf courses. One of the best is the prestigious, 18-hole Royan course, surrounded by pine trees and following the natural undulations of the land. Parts of the course offer magnificent views of the ocean and Phare de la Coubre.

The lakes and sea around St-Augustin-sur-Mer offer an array of activities from fishing, diving and swimming to surfing, sailing and waterskiing. On land, on the other hand, there are just as many options with tennis, mountain biking, horseriding, paragliding, quadbiking, dune buggying and a theme park to name just a few, and there are also children’s activity clubs and nurseries to give parents time to themselves should they wish.

With this time they can go on guided boat trips and river tours or visit the many châteaux, art galleries, museums – such as the Gallo-Roman example at Barzan – and charming villages in the area, see the troglodyte caves, go on wine-tasting tours or simply relax in the sunshine. During the summer there are continuous festivals and shows for children and adults alike, from circus events to theatre, concerts and cabaret. The options really are endless.

As you can imagine, fresh seafood is in abundance in this part of France with mussels, scallops, soft-shell crabs, cuttlefish, carp, sea bass and dover sole being served up in delicious sauces up and down the coast.

The oysters here are also known to be the best in France, having obtained the prestigious red label in recognition of their quality and flavour; the best come from the Île d’Oléron. The daily markets offer a good supply of fresh fish and shellfish, so you can either dabble in some home cooking or be lazy and sit at a seaside restaurant and be served – the choice is yours!

Poitou-Charentes is renowned for its excellent wines and produces red, white and rosé and indeed some sparkling wines. Its wine production dates back to the 11th century and vineyards are to be found everywhere. It is also famous for its pineau, a fortified wine made with cognac, and tasting tours are widespread and popular.

So if you're looking for sunshine, seaside, a rich cultural heritage and superb local food and wine, Charente-Maritime is surely worth a closer look.

Nick Dowlatshahi is managing director of Leapfrog Properties

Tel: 020 3597 7030