Visiting the Bordeaux wine region, you simply cannot ignore its seaside, notably the famous Arcachon Bay or Bassin d’Arcachon. Le Bassin, as it’s called by the locals, is the epitome of the French good life, and is a perfect destination for anyone who loves beaches, beautiful villages, and seafood.
One of Arcachon’s main attractions is the oyster farming, which plays a major role in the local economy and heritage. The mild climate, as well as its location between the Atlantic and the Landes forest, makes it a prime location for oyster farming, and Arcachon oysters are considered some of the best in France – and even more enjoyable when accompanied by the dry white wines of Entre-deux-Mers or Pessac-Léognan.
You can buy oysters in every market and open them yourself, or you can order them in one of the many gastronomic restaurants in the bay. However, my favourite way is to visit one of the oyster ports and eat them directly from the farmer, at their cabanes à huîtres (‘oyster huts’). The menus are typically limited to a small selection, including three different-sized oysters (small, medium and large), prawns (crevettes), whelks (bulots) and homemade pâté with bread – but what more do you need?
Arcachon is famed not only for its oysters, but also for the picturesque villages dotted around the bay. There are 10 towns and villages in the bay, including the Cap Ferret peninsula, which in itself is a conglomeration of many small villages. These range from bustling seaside resorts to fishing villages and nature reserves. If time is limited, I would direct you towards the two most interesting parts of the bay: Arcachon town and Cap Ferret. These have very different energies and together represent the spirit of the Bassin: enjoying life’s simple pleasures.
Arcachon is a beautiful resort town located in the southern part of the bay, about 55km southwest of Bordeaux. Once a tiny fishing village, it has become one of the most vibrant destinations on the Atlantic coast. The town is known for its delicious seafood, sandy beaches and stunning architecture. There’s a lot to do in and around Arcachon, and you need at least one full day to cover the main highlights.
The town is divided into five neighbourhoods which all differ in architecture and atmosphere. The most lively is la Ville d’Eté, summer town, located in the north, around the main beach – this is where you’ll find most of the restaurants, bars and boutiques. It’s also where the main facilities like the market, casino and train station are
located (trains take 50 minutes from Bordeaux’s Gare St-Jean). Stroll along the promenade and stop for lunch or a glass of wine at one of the terrace cafés on the beach. My favourite, Café de la Plage-Chez Pierre, offers a wide seafood and meat menu.
La Ville d’Hiver, winter town, is just south of Eté in the hilly part of Arcachon. There are some 300 villas and mansions here, many built in the Belle Epoque style – be sure to take a map from the tourist office so you won’t miss the most special houses and gardens. It’s a quieter area without many attractions or restaurants, but if you’re hungry after your architecture tour, head to the gastronomic restaurant of Hôtel Ville d’Hiver (see below).
Next on the list, to the east of Eté and Hiver is the Ville d’Automne, autumn town, where the port of Arcachon is located. This is where to head if you want to find an oyster hut without leaving the city. However, if you’re looking for a more authentic oyster-tasting experience, go to one of the seven ports of Gujan-Mestras, the oyster capital of Arcachon Bay.
Spring town, La Ville de Printemps, is where Arcachon’s most beautiful beaches are located. Plage Pereire is my favourite, due to its fine sand, beautiful promenade and great facilities. For me, the highlight here is a beach restaurant run by the Hôtel Ville d’Hiver, Club Plage Pereire (see below). Continue south from Plage Pereire via seaside neighbourhood Le Moulleau until you reach one of the most impressive landmarks in southwest France, the Dune du Pilat – Europe’s tallest sand dune, rising to about 110m. Visit in the evening to catch the stunning sunset from the top, with views of the ocean, the Cap Ferret peninsula, the Banc d’Arguin sandbank and nature reserve, and the Landes forest. For a chic end to your day, head to the ‘tapas’ bar at La Co(o)rniche (see below).
When and how to travel to Arcachon
Most shops and restaurants in Arcachon stay open throughout the year and you can always enjoy a glass of wine in a terrasse cafe, even on colder days. Getting there is fairly easy, taking about 50 minutes by car in low season or direct train from Bordeaux city.
If you decide to go by car, beware of potential traffic on sunny weekends. If you want to continue to Dune du Pilat on public transport, take bus route 1 from Arcachon town. You can also rent a bike and follow the cycle path along the beach from the town centre.
Cap Ferret Peninsula
Separating Arcachon Bay from the ocean, 55-60km southwest of Bordeaux, Cap Ferret peninsula is mostly known for its oyster-farming villages, beautiful beaches and lush pine forest. Lège-Cap-Ferret (the formal name of the peninsula) consists of 11 small villages spread along a 25km coastline overlooking the Bassin. The most lively is Cap Ferret (the town), on the southern point of the peninsula. However, there are many other hidden gems, so I recommend renting a bike. There are dedicated (mostly car-free) cycle paths that cross the forest and the villages along the way.
One of the main attractions in Cap Ferret is once again oyster tasting. When I’m craving oysters I make a beeline for L’Herbe and Le Canon, two beautiful fishing villages where you can stroll among the cabanes (huts) the oyster farmers live in and the boats they work on. Walk along the beaches of these two villages and choose one of the many oyster bars along the coastline, Emile et une huître in L’Herbe is one of my favourites. Another great place for oyster tasting is the port of Cap Ferret itself, where you can buy a plate directly from producers.
Remember that the menu at the oyster huts is very limited so don’t expect a three-course meal. For a more traditional meal, head into Cap Ferret town, where the best restaurants include Le Bouchon du Ferret and Le Pinasse Café.
Another highlight of Lège-Cap-Ferret is its scenic beaches facing both the ocean and calm bay side, with the more charming being Plage de la Pointe aux Chevaux and La Plage des Américains. Check tide times first: when the tide is low, you will barely see any water. Across the pine forest on the Atlantic side are the wilder beaches. My favourite here is Plage du Truc Vert, perfect for swimming, surfing and walks along the shore.
Cap Ferret: How and when to travel
The Cap Ferret peninsula is more difficult to get to from Bordeaux city. Most people travel by car, but as there is only one road that crosses the peninsula north to south, the traffic can be awful. On busy summer days, I’d either avoid Cap Ferret or set off very early to avoid sitting in traffic for hours. A bus runs from Bordeaux centre but that can take equally as long. Alternatively, if you’re on foot, consider taking a boat from Arcachon to Cap Ferret; it leaves from Arcachon pier, next to the main beach.
Cap Ferret is mainly a summer destination and while you can find oyster bars open during winter, it will be less lively. The best time to visit is during spring or early autumn – it’s not too crowded, yet most places are open and there’s a bustling atmosphere.
Your Arcachon & Cap Ferret address book
A small boutique hotel located within 50m of the main beach. Clean, warmly designed hotel with great service and a view of the bay from the terrace.
For a quieter atmosphere, next to the park in Ville d’Hiver, with the rooms set in small beautiful villas. Offers an outdoor pool and small spa facility.
For a more luxurious experience, this stylish hotel designed by Philippe Starck is just minutes by bike from Dune du Pilat, and has a great restaurant and bar. A stunning pool overlooks the bay and the dune.
Food & drink
One of the best food markets in the region, open 7.30am-1pm Tuesday to Sunday, on Place des Marquises. Don’t miss L’Oyster Bar du Marché (see arcachon.com), one of the best places for oysters in the city centre – no reservations, so arrive early to bag a table.
Open from April to September, this is one of the few places in the region where you can dine on the sandy beach. Order oysters, lobster or crab from the menu, or if it’s outside lunch and dinner hours just enjoy a glass of wine or an ice cream. It’s pricey, but you’re paying a premium for the view and ambience. Reservations necessary for lunch and dinner.
Head here to experience a dune blanche – a little choux pastry filled with whipped cream, first created by local pastry chef Pascal Lucas. In the 15 years since, it has gained such popularity that he has opened a few dedicated shops selling one product only: the little dune. In Arcachon, head to avenue Gambetta. Or find them at the original pastry shop where they were created in Cap Ferret, at 8 rue des Mouettes.
One of my favourite oyster huts, in the southern part of the Cap Ferret peninsula at 28 avenue de la Conche. Buy the excellent oysters directly from the farmer or eat them on the chic waterfront terrasse. Open daily during high season, and during winter on weekends and bank holidays.
Arcachon’s one-star Michelin restaurant, located at the port (the other is two-star Le Skiff Club at nearby Pyla-sur-Mer). Chef Thierry Renou uses regional produce to showcase the exquisite cuisine of Aquitaine. These include foie gras, oysters, asparagus from the Landes, and more. He likes to add hints of fusion into his gastronomic creations, notably from Asian cuisine. Open Tuesday to Saturday, dinner only; book in advance.
Not to be missed
Le Côte d’Argent is the biggest hybrid catamaran in France. During July and August, you can embark on a 2.5-hour tour of Arcachon’s main landmarks including L’île aux Oiseaux and its tchanquée cabins, the pretty villages of Cap Ferret, Banc d’Arguin and the dune. The boat leaves from the Pierre Lataillade pier in Arcachon. Book in advance.
Next to the chapel in the oyster-farming village of L’Herbe on Lège-Cap-Ferret, you’ll find Glisse en Herbe. It is a skydiving centre where you can also rent kayaks and stand-up paddle boards and enjoy activities such as water skiing and parasailing (above) in the calm waters of the Bassin d’Arcachon.
This gourmet cruise allows you to discover the unforgettable landscape of Arcachon and regional gastronomy at the same time. A three-course lunch is served during a 2.5-hour tour that leaves from the Pierre Lataillade pier in Arcachon. Choose from three menus: seafood, southwest cuisine (majoring on duck) and vegetarian. The meal is accompanied by wine and a cocktail. Book online.
Arcachon’s oyster museum is located at Port de Larros, one of the seven ports of Gujan-Mestras, the capital of oyster farming. The interactive, child-friendly tour takes about an hour, and no reservation is required. Open from Monday to Saturday year round, and daily during July and August. Gujan-Mestras is about 20 minutes’ drive from Arcachon. Try to combine oyster tasting at one of the huts at the port, just a few minutes walk from the museum.