Tucked away on a peninsula behind the Bassin d’Arcachon, Cap Ferret is a charming little bolthole with universal appeal. Carolyn Boyd takes a trip and finds the oysters aren’t the only aphrodisiac
From the top of the Cap Ferret lighthouse, the Dune du Pilat, on the other side of the bay, looked like an enormous golden quilt laid out over the forest. The mighty dune’s soft sand glistened in the sunshine that was peeping through the grey clouds. As the wind tousled my hair and a fine spray of summer rain cooled my cheeks, I looked down on the village below. Rows of small wooden cabins hugged the edge of the water, many offering the ultimate aphrodisiac – oysters – and before I had even tasted one, I felt the first few pangs of l’amour.
It was a feeling that remained with me during our two-day visit to the peninsula, a quick detour on our way to the south with my husband and two small children. I had been desperate to explore this long, thin headland that separates the Bassin d’Arcachon from the Atlantic, but we had less than 48 hours to do so. As the clouds cleared and the searing heat of June beat down on us, we discovered an idyllic little hub of oyster-growing activity that I fell for – hook, line and sinker.
Despite its out-of-the-way location, Cap Ferret seems to have universal appeal. While the sophisticates of Bordeaux nip down for weekends of chilled white wine and oysters, surfers take to the enormous waves on the Atlantic side of the spit; cyclists and walkers, meanwhile, have the run of the pine-scented forests, and twitchers are spoiled by the array of birdlife. Yet while there is something for everyone, not everyone has discovered it; although the area must have been quite busy – it took a few phone calls to find a chambre d’hôtes with a vacancy – it felt quiet and extraordinarily unspoilt.
After lunch en route at Andernos-les-Bains, a tourist-friendly town where we licked prune and Armagnac ice cream while admiring the elegant 19th-century villas, we reached Cap Ferret in mid-afternoon. Our first port of call was the lighthouse: a towering white beacon 53 metres high, which doffs its red hat over the pine trees and cabins in the centre of Cap-Ferret village itself. Built in 1947 (the 19th-century original was blown up by the Germans in 1944), the lighthouse offers a 258-step climb towards a spectacular view of the Bassin d’Arcachon in one direction and the Atlantic coast in the other.
Although we could have chosen better weather to make our ascent, it was a great way to get our bearings. Breathing in the fresh air, we looked out over the terracotta roofs hidden among the pine trees and, in the sea, admired colourful fishing boats and the dotted lines of black poles hiding a treasure of oysters beneath the surface of the blue water. The lighthouse is something of a museum, too, with displays on oyster fishing and how boats navigate the complicated sandbanks in the bay. We stood for some time in a darkened room, lit by an enormous interactive screen that allowed us to take a virtual tour of the Bassin d’Arcachon by a number of different vessels.
As we left the lighthouse, our over-long sojourn in the gift shop was perhaps the first sign that I was falling in love with Cap Ferret – in a vain attempt to ‘own’ something of it, I bought a few too many pretty postcards to take home. For our overnight stay, we had booked into The Surf Shack, a chambre d’hôtes owned by Catherine Lataste and her husband Patrick, who runs a surf school. It was rather more comfortable than it sounds and we were quickly at home in the stylish wood-panelled room decorated with surfing memorabilia. The next morning, we were up with the lark (as you tend to be with small children) and went to explore the quartier ostréicole, the oyster farming quarter. The village was just waking up to the day, and as we wandered past the dark wooden cabins we saw countless signs offering ‘dégustations’. Tempted as we were to try, the early hour made us resolve to wait until lunch when the essential accompaniment – a glass of chilled white wine – was a little more appropriate. Another sign, for the Apéro Plancha du Père Ouvrard, a tiny wooden deck set back from a narrow village street, showed that it was ‘open from time to time’ [ouvert de temps en temps], a touching way to tell visitors that this was how they roll, and I was disappointed to find the next soirée would be long after we had left.
As we strolled around, our daughter peered though the gates of the residential cabins, tempted by the higgledy-piggledy gardens full of flower pots, fishing nets, colourful floats and tiny boats with peeling paint. The lighthouse peeped out over the trees and the roofs of the cabins behind us, while in the water in front, beyond the skeletal staves marking out the oyster beds and the masts of colourful yachts, the immense Dune du Pilat was still glittering in the sun.
Warren of cabins
The few people we did see greeted us with friendly bonjours: a young woman lying on a tiny beach reading a book, two fishermen in chest-high waders emerging from the water carrying their rods, and the owner of an antique shop reclining in a vintage deckchair at the door perusing a copy of Le Monde newspaper. We stood back from the road to let through a tractor and an open-top, powder-blue classic Peugeot 404, which seemed the perfect vehicle for cruising around under the pine trees.
The next vehicles were a more incongruous sight and they took us by surprise; six people standing on Segway electric scooters whizzed past – a strange and rather too speedy a way, perhaps, to experience the Cap. It was a reminder, though, that our own time was limited and so we pressed on towards the market at Piraillan, where we picked up supplies for the next few days. Signs pointing towards the village’s own quartier ostréicole tempted us into a warren of cabins beside the water. With little more than a metre between them, the jumble of colourful wooden oyster-farmers’ homes jostle for space among a tangle of weeds, wild flowers and vibrant hollyhocks. The fishermen’s cranes and pallets occupy what space there is and as we explored the maze of gravel paths, I would have felt an intruder had a woman in a doorway not said “bonjour” and two blue-smocked fishermen not smiled at our daughter. A small road up a hill around the back of the wooden cabins revealed a dozen or so villas, with wonderfully preserved examples of architecture from the 1950s to the 1970s.
With our tummies rumbling, we doubled back on ourselves and drove towards L’Herbe, where the promise of fresh oysters at the Hôtel de la Plage beckoned. Parking on the water’s edge, we made a quick detour to examine the intriguing Chapelle de la Villa Algérienne. This large red and white striped church is all that remains of an amazing Moorish folly built by 19th-century entrepreneur Léon Lesca, who bought up most of the Cap Ferret peninsula after returning from making his fortune in Algeria. He is largely responsible for developing the area, by establishing fishing reservoirs, oyster beds and constructing dozens of buildings. The villa itself fell into ruin after Lesca’s death in 1913, and was finally demolished in 1965. The chapel underwent restoration in 2011 and, after years of faded glory, its exterior and pretty ceramic tiled doorway are now as colourful as the fishing boats looking on to it.
The road down into the quartier ostréicole is for residents and pedestrians only, so we strolled along the sea wall and into the village where the cream and maroon clapboarded Hôtel de la Plage welcomed us to a gingham-clothed table on their terrace. As we sat admiring the hotel and watching the world go by, I sipped on the cold Bordeaux Graves wine and imagined a bygone era when the hotel was a boarding house for forestry workers and oyster farmers.
While we waited for our platter of oysters, the chatter from a group of friends on the neighbouring table floated on the breeze. Our daughter had overcome any language barrier by befriending a French girl of her own age as they played and then ate together, and we watched them enjoying their meal at the children’s dining table.
When the handsome young waiter brought the ice-cold platter of oysters, it felt that the moment we had been waiting for had arrived. We eagerly spooned the piquant sauce on to each oyster and savoured each cold and briny mouthful, resisting the urge to move quickly on to the next after each one. To know that the beds from which these oysters had come were just metres away only added to the frisson of anticipation. Our seafood feast continued with the house special of mussels, with moreish salty frites, followed by a cool strawberry bavarois for dessert.
The hotel marks the threshold into L’Herbe’s own village of oyster-farmers’ cabins, which stretches over a bigger area than that at Piraillan. Tiny little avenues between the cabins ran from the road to the sea and, as we stood at the end of each one, wondering which would lead us best into the maze, boats would flash past the other end, their passengers laughing in the sun.
We chose one of the sandy paths at random and, stepping over dopey dogs dozing in the shade, we walked among the colourfully painted cabins, adorned with terracotta pots and window boxes laden with geraniums. Bright gladioli and hollyhocks stood tall, competing for our admiration, and we delved in among the cabins amid the excited squeals of our daughter who ran back and forth along the lanes. A radio blared out from one of the cabins and the chatter of the residents floated through the colourful shutters as we enjoyed the shade of a vine-covered pergola and looked upon an oversized fountain squeezed into a tiny square.
Residential cabins soon turned to working spaces, and as we neared the beach on the other side of the village, we wove our way past tractors, wooden pallets and piles of oyster and mussel-farming paraphernalia. A soft, yellow sandy beach led down to the gently lapping sea and the deck of the wonderful Cabane des Kykouyou, which looked as if Robinson Crusoe himself had set up the day before, and making me wish that it was lunchtime all over again. While the Hôtel de la Plage had offered the more refined dining experience, the Cabane, with its reed roof held up with driftwood poles, and its wooden benches and rusting metal chairs, seemed enticingly makeshift, giving rise to the feeling that the oysters were even fresher, if it were possible, than anywhere else.
The tables had just been vacated and the frames of huge seafood platters were waiting to be collected by the now-absent waiter, who was, by then, probably enjoying a siesta. As we sat on the beach, the sight of Arcachon on the other side of the bay made us feel as if we, and the few other sunbathers, were cast away on a charming little island. It was an island that I could have stayed on forever, but after a short while paddling in the water with our daughter, we made the heart-wrenching decision that our onward journey toward the Pyrénées had to resume.
With sun-kissed faces and sand between our toes, we paced slowly back to the car. While the stay had been only a short fling, I resolved to return soon and kindle the flames into a full-blown love affair.
Lose yourself in the charms of Cap Ferret
By road/ferry: Carolyn travelled with Brittany Ferries (tel: 0871 244 1400, www.brittanyferries.com) from Plymouth to Roscoff and drove the seven hours to Cap Ferret, coming back via the Le Havre-Portsmouth service. Fares start from £79 one way for a car plus two passengers.
A passenger ferry operates between Arcachon and Cap Ferret in the summer.
By air: The nearest airport is Bordeaux.
By rail: The nearest stations are Facture-Biganos or Arcachon, which can be reached via Bordeaux.
WHERE TO STAY
The Surf Shack
23 Allée des Cigales
33970 Cap Ferret
Tel: (Fr) 6 10 80 12 21
Charming little chambre d’hôtes in the back garden of the home of a family of surfers. Doubles from €120 per night.
WHERE TO EAT
Hôtel de la Plage
L’Herbe Le Canon
Tel: (Fr) 5 56 60 50 15
The former cantine and boarding house is now an elegant hotel-restaurant overlooking the village of L’Herbe. Oysters from €9.80.
La Cabane des Kykouyou
Avenue de L’Herbe
Tel: (Fr) 5 56 60 90 06
Eat oysters overlooking the beach at this casual waterside hangout.
Avenue du Sémaphore
Tel: (Fr) 5 56 60 62 56
Cap Ferret’s most famous and historic restaurant.
WHERE TO VISIT
Le Phare du Cap Ferret
4 Promenade Tour du Phare
Tel (Fr) 5 57 70 33 30
Résidence La Forestière
1 Rue des Cormoran
Tel: (Fr) 6 64 18 13 57
Lège-Cap-Ferret tourist office
1 Avenue du Géneral de Gaulle
Tel: (Fr) 5 56 03 94 49