Tracing the opening stages of the 2018 Tour de France, Lara Dunn enjoyed the same landscapes of the Atlantic coast at a gentler pace.
The 105th Tour de France celebrated its Grand Départ from the Île de Noirmoutier in Vendée, before travelling 189 kilometres to Fontenay-le-Comte. The Tour spent three stages in the area, with a total of four in Pays de la Loire, marking the beginning of the world’s most famous cycling race for another year.
My experience of cycling in Loire-Atlantique and Vendée was a little different from that of the pro peloton, replacing speed with spas, and time trials with treats. The landscapes of broad open skies, long sandy beaches and labyrinthine marshland remain the same for all levels of cyclist, however. That said, I cannot imagine that the professionals used too many of the area’s 2,800 kilometres of signposted cycling routes!
Stage one of my Tour de Loire-Atlantique and Vendée began in La Baule-Escoublac, commonly known simply as La Baule. With no fewer than three five-star hotels in this modestly sized town, it is clear that this is a holiday town for the well-heeled. The vast majority of visitors are French, with many taking the train from Paris to enjoy the wide skies, immaculate nine-kilometre-long sandy beach and, of course, the spas. The resort towns along this stretch of the Atlantic coastline date mainly from the late 18th and the 19th centuries, and owe their prosperity to the expansion of the railway system, and the private wealth that came with the Industrial Revolution. La Baule still has more than 2,000 villas from that time, which are now protected, their varied art-nouveau architecture dotted at interludes among the pines and more modern buildings.
No race bike for me for my cycling outing here. My fiery steed was a comfortable e-bike with three levels of motorised assistance, making the fairly flat countryside an absolute (sea) breeze. Taking the coastal cycling route along the Côte Sauvage from Batz-sur-Mer, the scenery unfolded its charms as quickly as I pedalled. Wild rocky inlets and low cliffs were hugged by small stands of pine trees; beautiful private villas lined the quiet road, inducing huge envy of those fortunate enough to own one. It was hard to imagine that TVs were ever switched on in these houses, with such a staggeringly beautiful view. Contouring around the coastline, those houses soon became larger, with higher fences and slightly intimidating gates, protecting that sought-after view and their own spot of beach. A detour down a slipway at Pointe de Penchâteau opened up on to the sand, giving a vast panoramic view of my end goal, La Baule itself, that long strand clearly visible in all its glory. Popping the power level up to max, I was soon down by the smart harbourside, bustling with people enjoying a drink in the sunshine. As appealing a thought as this was, I had an appointment with some mud.
Thalassotherapy (from the Greek word thalassa- meaning ‘sea’) is based around the purported curative powers of seawater and has been one of the mainstays of French tourism since the 19th century. While these therapies are often associated with Brittany, the Atlantic Coast is dotted with a huge array of hotels and Thalasso centres in which to appreciate the restorative qualities of the sea and its products. These centres are still massively popular, with both young and old, wealthy and less so. The smart and intimate-feeling Rivage spa in La Baule (www.thalasso-rivage.com, 20- minute argile des moutiers clay wrap from €57) soon had me enveloped in lavender-scented marine clay, poly-wrapped like a cheap enchilada and left blissfully cocooned, sunk within a water bed cloud. I nearly floated out on to the esplanade after the treatment.
Next morning, a visit to the Spa Diane Barrière at the Hôtel Royal (www.hotelsbarriere.com, one-hour ‘relaxation ritual’ with lagoon water bath and massage from €99) continued the Thalasso theme, plunging me into warm bubbling seawater before a relaxing dip in the saltwater pool. Clearly visible from my hotel room, the tumbling waves of that long beach were calling to me, but a quiet voice in my head pointed out that “it IS the Atlantic” and therefore worthy of respect. Perhaps I would stick to the tamer options of the spa.
The Île de Noirmoutier, a short, sweeping hop over the bridge from Le Barre-de-Monts on the mainland marked quite the contrast from chic La Baule up the coast . There is a genuine island charm, narrow streets enticing the visitor with oyster shacks and mussel restaurants, small houses decorated with brightly coloured shutters, reputedly using up leftover paint from the fishing boats.
My bicycle tour (no motor this time) of the north of the island took in small, secret-feeling sandy beaches as well as compact forests of pines and, thanks to the island’s microclimate, oaks.
Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited the island to paint in the 1890s. Seeing the quality of the rapidly changing light over the sea as our group cycled along near the Bois de la Chaise, it was easy to see the source of the Impressionist artist’s inspiration. Storm clouds roiled on the mainland across the channel, and yet on our little island the sun still shone. The connection between the sea and the island is understandably strong, with excellent seafood and fish available in local restaurants. A superb meal at Le P’tit Noirmout had me enjoying palourdes (clams) and a delicious dish of turbot with a Noilly-Prat and red onion sauce, while one of the group – a self-confessed oyster fan – declared the local variety to be some of the best he had ever eaten. And the best thing about a small island? It was just a ten-minute walk back to our harbourside hotel – Le Général d’Elbée.
I was sad to leave Noirmoutier, with a feeling of there being so much more to explore, but Vendée’s golden beaches and spas were drawing me even further south. Saint-Jean-de-Monts welcomed me into its watery embrace with a visit to its Thalasso Valdys (www.atlantic-thalasso-hotel.com, 15-minute ‘hydrorelax’ from €39 and 15-minute ‘bain hydromassant’ from €37). A dip in the 32°C saltwater swimming pool, nestled indoors and surrounded by a glade of pine trees, was followed by more water-based therapies before a sunny terrace lunch at the nearby golf club. The views of the smooth, green undulations of the course stretching out towards the sea were only matched by the desserts! For a tour of the narrow promenade, stretched alongside the seemingly endless sandy beach, we eschewed two wheels for four, taking a pedal-powered Rosalie as a group. The laughter that accompanied the frenetic pedalling more than made up for the effort post-lunch.
Soon we were contouring even further south in the car, making our way towards our final stop on the Vendée coast, Les Sables-d’Olonne. It was only right that the final stretch on our Tour de Vendée was to be by bicycle. As we pedalled in the sunshine through the former salt marshes – now largely used for leisure fishing – and alongside dramatic sweeps of rocky and sandy coast, spotting lighthouses off on the horizon, we were in two-wheeled heaven.
Celebrating its 800th anniversary in 2018, Les Sables-d’Olonne also includes the village of La Chaume, all narrow streets and painted shutters. Our final approach to the harbourside took us past an amazing mural depicting a real local street scene, before heading down to the port that every four years sees the start of the famous international yacht race, the Vendée Globe. Looking out to sea from the top of the Tour d’Arundel, it was easy to imagine the excitement of those competing in the race. The sea seemed to stretch endlessly away, welcoming and enticing, and yet with just a hint of danger. The Atlantic at its best.
While the peloton would have whizzed through Les Sables-d’Olonne at high speed, probably not even noticing the sun, sea and skies, I was glad to be ending my tour with one last Thalasso indulgence. This was probably significantly more pleasurable than the agonising sports massages the pros receive each day (www.hotel-coteouest.com, ‘Forfait Marin’ half-day spa with two treatments from €99).
For ultimate marine indulgence, we ended with one of the most impressive seafood buffets I have ever been fortunate enough to experience. The array of local shelled and swimming things was incredible, from the expected oysters, mussels and crevettes, to alien-esque spider crabs, whelks, petits gris shrimps and fresh anchovies. There were only winners in this particular sun, sea, spa and seafood cycling event.
Lara travelled to Nantes with flybe www.flybe.com.
Alternatively, the train journey from London via Paris or Lille to La Baule takes from 6hr 25min www.oui.sncf
Where to Stay – Hôtel Barri?re L’Hermitage , La Baule-Escoublac, www.hotelsbarriere.com; Le Général d’Elbée Hôtel & Spa, Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, www.generaldelbee.fr/en; Côte Ouest Thalasso & Spa – MGallery by Sofitel, Les Sables-d’Olonne, www.hotel-coteouest.com; Le Domaine de Vertmarines, Saint-Jean-de-Monts www.summerfrance.co.uk.
Where to Eat
Restaurant Le Shore, La Baule-Escoublac, www.shore-la-baule.com Smart seaside restaurant specialising in super-fresh seafood and fish. The salads are amazing. Lunchtime menu from €18.
Fouquet’s, Hôtel Barri?re Le Royal, La Baule-Escoublac, www.hotelsbarriere.com Opulent branch of the famous Parisian eating establishment, located in La Baule’s other Barrière hotel. Black and white photos of film stars dot the walls and the food is beautifully presented. Three-course Menu Fouquet’s €49.
Crêperie Roc Maria, Guérande, www.hotel-creperie-rocmaria.com Enjoy traditional crêpes and galettes in a cosy traditional restaurant with wooden beams and flag stone floors. The restaurant also has rooms. Three-course Menu Galette €11.50.
Le P’tit Noirmout, Noirmoutier-en-l’Île, www.le-ptit-noirmout.com This small restaurant is always packed and booking is advisable. Fresh, modern food is prepared using the best local ingredients, particularly fish and seafood. The three-course Menu du Jour is fantastic value at €24.80.
Club House Golf de Saint-Jean-de-Monts, Saint-Jean-de-Monts, www.golfsaintjeandemonts.fr The terrace with its views of the golf course and sea beyond are the main draw, but the food is good, too, with a good variety from light bites to bistro classics. Three-course lunch menu from €19.
Côte Ouest Thalasso & Spa – MGallery by Sofitel, Les Sables-d’Olonne, www.restaurant-cote-ouest.frEvening meals are well cooked and presented but the Sunday lunchtime seafood (and dessert) buffet is the star here. €59pp.
Nantes and La Baule area – Bike ’n Tour (www.bikentour.com); Île de Noirmoutier and Saint-Jean-de-Monts (including Rosalie) – Cycl’hop (www.cyclhop.fr); Les Sables-d’Olonne – Veloo de la Foret (www.veloodelaforet.fr).
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