Back and forth, hither and yon – whether on my habitual trajectory between Touraine and Paris or further afield… destinations, encounters, events and observations I can’t resist sharing.

Biscarrosse – gorgeous beach & lakes on a budget

February 24, 2012

I’m at an adorable B&B overlooking the dunes in Biscarrosse-Plage on the Côte d’Argent, after accepting a seemingly seductive proposition. “How about if every month for a year, you came along for two to three days while I film the tide at one of twelve spots along the French Atlantic coast?”

The offer to be a video artist’s road buddy/logistical backup came from my husband Jeffrey, who concluded that as the youngest of our three children is soon to graduate lycée and leave the nest, it’s time to overcome resistance to accompanying him on working trips.  The Arctic Circle (twice) and Bay of Fundy were easy to pass up, but he knows I’m a sucker for the French Atlantic coast, which has everything a landlocked girl from the Jersey shore craves, except sunrise over the horizon, salt water taffy and a boardwalk.

For once, I don’t get to pick the destinations.  The twelve filming locations are equidistant and his schedule requires we leapfrog up and back, starting at the Spanish boarder, stopping at six points heading north and after reaching Pointe du Raz in Brittany, head back to cover six points on the way back down – ending up around Vieux-Boucau-les-Bains in December.

Creature comforts are my responsibility, being practiced at finding a charming chambres d’hôtes or intimate hotel*, and decent places to eat and drink.  I’m not permitted to stray far a field from the filming location, as we have one car, and being PA on the project, I’m expected to set up and break down at appointed hours – which yesterday began at 7:30 am, with the thermometer registering 0 C, frost obscuring the windshield and a stiff wind whipping the filming tent atop the dunes.

Agreeing to the scheme, I forgot that half the year – November through March, is pretty grim at the seaside, with shops and service establishments shuttered in all but larger towns midweek.   Before Easter and after Toussaint, there’s a good chance many of the places I hope to see/try will be closed, but it is France, so there’s bound to be fresh seafood served somewhere, a boulangerie,  and café with strong coffee, a galopin de bière, or verre de vin.

It’s a great opportunity to discover destinations like Biscarrosse, that I mightn’t otherwise be inclined to visit, and fill in my regional knowledge gaps.  The natural beauty of the Atlantic coast is stunning.  Cresting the dunes and confronting a broad sandy beach stretching into infinity, with waves crashing and gulls swooping, is a thrill I’ll never tire of.  Thanks to protectionism imposed by the Loi Littoral in 1986, a break was put on development.  For an American from the east coast, it’s refreshing to note that a serious effort was made to develop hiking trails along the coastline and permit everyone access to beaches.

So back to Biscarrosse, or ‘Bisca’ to habituees.  It’s at the northern limit of les Landes, the 100 km of coast edged with pine forest that runs between Biarritz and the Bay of Arcachon in the Gironde.  Les Landes has always been an isolated, sparsely populated region, although Biscarosse being an hour’s drive from Bordeaux, it is now becoming something of a bedroom community.   The population swells more than tenfold in summer months, but now it’s getting to be lively year round – at least on weekends.  For distraction midweek, Arcachon is less than a half hour’s drive north.

Popular has two meanings here.  Unlike Biarritz and Arcachon, which developed as fashionable bathing stations in late 19th century due to an influx of British and European aristocrats and captains of industry, Biscarrosse was popularized by working class French after passage of the first mandatory paid vacation law in 1936.  That year, 600,000 salaried workers left home for the first time on paid holiday leave and many headed for the coast.  By 1982, France’s mandatory 2 weeks of paid vacation had extended to 5, and the camping grounds and holiday bungalows around Biscarrosse-Plage and its sister town, Biscarrosse-Ville ( located between the shores of two enormous lakes) expanded along with the swelling crowd of vacationers.

The beach at Biscarrosse has the added attraction of having two enormous fresh water lakes alongside it.  Northern Lake Cazeaux is where most of the action is concentrated, along its south-west and southern shore.  There is a Pierre & Vacances golf course resort, several sandy beaches, and ports filled with sail and motorboats.  Because there is no access to the sea from the lakes, very few ocean going pleasure boats and fishing vessels pass by the on the horizon.  It also explains why Biscarrosse hasn’t become a tony resort, as there is no ocean harbor for glitzy yachts to dock.

Tents have disappeared from the camping grounds, replaced by RVs and bungalows.  Several have five star ratings, with full service facilities, grocery stores, tennis courts, miniature golf, and a host of organized water sports and leisure activities. They draw families from all over France, along with a significant contingent of Dutch, German, Belgian and British tourists.

12 surf shops and 4 schools in Biscarosse-Plage testify to a boom in long and short board surfing, now a veritable craze along the south Atlantic coast.  Surfing, like skate and snow boarding, has engendered a flurry of youthful tribes, with distinct subcultures.  Along with surf shops, Biscarrosse-Plage has the requisite neo hippy clothing boutiques, piercing/tattoo studios and enough pizza and waffle shops to sate carbo cravings.

The first summer vacation cottages were built in the teens, with subsequent development surges in the 1930’s, 50s and 70’s.  Many of the period houses have been restored and added onto.  Judging from some unsightly 1970’s apartment blocks and ugly commercial facades, it would seem that many of the old cottages were razed opposite the oceanfront promenade.

The beach is majestic, as it is all along the Côte d’Argent, the longest and wildest sandy shoreline in Europe, which runs the length of the Landes and Gironde departments.  The dunes are high, requiring strairways down to the beach.  If you want to avoid high season crowds on the strip below the promenade, you can head a bit further north to Vivier Plage.  Getting to the water requires a walk through the pines and a scramble down the dunes but the reward of relative isolation is worth it.

Philippe Pascutto, the delightful host of Cote & Dune is a surfer himself and borrowed the theme as the design motif for his sunny, beach centric chambres d’hôtes.  A native of the region, Philippe returned after 25 years working at an IT job in Paris to pursue his dream of living by the sea.  His contemporary home is built around a central courtyard, replete with sleek pool and teak decking.  All but one of the 5 surf themed guestrooms has a balcony, roof deck or terrace.   Once air warmed to 10 C, the sun drenched balcony of pink hued ‘Malibu’ was a relaxing spot for a read, wrapped in a polar throw provided for just such occasions.

Philippe has visited some of the world’s best beaches, and the guestrooms are decorated with travel books and funky-chic travel mementos from Hawaii, Brazil, Costa Rica, California and Australia, along with inventive shell and driftwood decorative objects created by his partner, a talented interior designer who oversaw the creation of the project in 2010.

Elegant landscaping features succulent and native sand-loving flowing plants that create a harmonious counterpoint to the fresh, upbeat ambiance of the interior.  The rooms are compact without being cramped, with well appointed open-plan bathrooms to optimize a sense of light and spaciousness.

Breakfast is served at a long white table in the central dining section of your hosts’ loft inspired living area.  In a designer’s home, nothing is left to chance and every detail, from the cluster of shells adorning your place setting, to the reglisse flavored ‘black honey’ and home made mini canelés, is picture perfect.

Philippe has excellent suggestions for dining and touring.  Having a good working relationship with local restaurants and the tourist office, he was able to quickly resolve a few logistical snafus.   Once you’ve had your fill of beach-combing and walks through the pine forests, I suggest heading to Pyla and Arcachon, if just to see the idiosyncratic and often opulent architecture of villas in the old neighborhoods and climb on the tallest sand dune in Europe.

On Sunday and Monday night, dining options around Bisca were slim, but we enjoyed a satisfying menu du jour at Le Bleu Banane, a contemporary bistro serving simple but well prepared French staples.  It’s terrace ajoins the large central pedestrian square a few blocks back from the waterfront.  The chef, a fourth generation local, filled us in on the history of the town.  It grew up around a rail station for transport of resin tapped from surrounding pine forests.  Resin extraction, which resembles maple syrup sugaring, was a labor-intensive process.   Many of the resiniers were former shephards sqeezed out of a livlihood when more profitable pine forests were planted over their marshy pastures.  They lived a simple existence in cabins, many of which were subsequently converted into summer cottages.  The demand for domestic, natural resin diminished with competition from cheap overseas and synthetic supplies, and the industry died out in 1990.  I should add that the 2006 Rioja he recommended was the ideal accompaniment to a perfectly cooked onglet de boeuf.

Isolation provided by the biggest forest in Western Europe led to requisition in the 1960s of tens of thousands of acres just south of Biscarrosse by the French government to create Europe’s leading missile test center.  The high security facility maintains a low profile and doesn’t seem to bother residents, in part because it has hampered coastal development.

Despite initial aesthetic reservations, I left with fondness for this throwback of a seaside town.  It is unpretentious and friendly; rare attributes for a French coastal resort.  With real estate probitive in the oh so chic Gironde resorts of Pyla, Arcachon and Cap Ferret, Biscarrosse might just be on the cusp of a full fledged makeover.

* I’ve not received a discount, let alone a freebee at any of the chambres d’hôtes or hotels mentioned in my blog.

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