The Cote d’ Argent or Atlantic Coast of France is the ultimate playground for the recreational cyclist. Many consider the Atlantic Coast as France’s number one bicycling destination, especially during the summer months. Whether you are interested in a long-distance journey or a day or weekend trip, whether you are biking alone, with a friend, or with your family, the Atlantic Coast, especially the Charente-Maritime and the Gironde regions have so many options that your biggest problem will be deciding which route to take! From the bike-friendly cities of Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Royan, to famous wine towns, to lazy beach towns, pristine islands like the Ile de Re, the biggest dunes in Europe, peaceful pine forests, and did I mention great food? This region has it all!
The Atlantic Route is the French part of Eurovelo 1 which also runs through Norway, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, England, Spain and Portugal. The French part of this veloroute starts in Roscoff, the port of arrival for ferries from England and Ireland. The Eurovelo 1 route is now 99% complete through France, providing distance cyclists with a great route from Roscoff to the Spanish border. But this route is only a small part of the bicycling wonderland that exists near the Atlantic. My favorite cycle paths are in the Charente-Maritime and the Gironde Departments, and they can be enjoyed over a weekend, as an add on to a vacation at the beach or a visit to Bordeaux or La Rochelle, and are great for people of all ages including families with kids. Most are signposted greenways, car-free paths that enable you to ride at an easy pace, free of worry about car traffic.
In Part II of this post series, you’ll find my top recommendations for trip planning tools, including maps and regional tourism offices for this region. These resources have also been added to the links section under Atlantic Coast. So if you are looking for a cycling destination near the beach or the Medoc vineyards, or you are thinking about adding a weekend of cycling to a trip you already have planned to the west coast of France, here are my top reasons to take a bike adventure to the Atlantic Coast of France.
The Atlantic Coast of France, especially La Rochelle south enjoys some of the best weather in France. The Charente Maritime and Gironde Departments are located in the area that has the highest number of average annual sunshine hours in France, except for the Mediterranean. La Rochelle, for example, has 2331 hours of sunshine a year, 21% more than the popular beach resort of Biaritz! The coastal areas enjoy a temperate maritime climate with hot summers and cool winters, and almost always a cooling sea breeze. The best months for visiting, based on weather, are late spring, summer and early fall. Due to the popularity of this region, the month of August can be very busy and expensive. But the weather is normally perfect, and once you get to your destination, things don’t seem so crowded. So if you plan to visit this region in August, be sure to arrive middle of the week and travel by bike as much as possible. Early September offers much of the warmth of the summer, but you can enjoy more open spaces and available hotels, especially if you are visiting on a weekend.
Easy Access from Paris
The TGV has made travel to this region of France incredibly easy. The only downside is that most TGV’s do not allow bikes unless they are checked as baggage. So if you are planning to rent a bike in Paris, it may mean that you need to travel on non-TGV trains. Since there are so many bike rentals in major towns along the coast, I would opt for renting a bike when you reach your destination and take the faster TGV.
TGV service from Paris Gare Montparnasse to La Rochelle takes just under 3 hours. There is also one direct TGV train from Charles de Gaulle airport to La Rochelle that connects in Nantes and takes just over 5 hours. The main benefit of this direct train from the airport is that you do not have to go into Paris, thus saving you a lot of time and money. If you want to travel to the belle epoque town of Royan, there is a TGV from Gare Montparnasse that takes just 4 hours.
If you are going to Bordeaux in the Gironde, the TGV from Gare Montparnasse takes 3 hours. There is one direct TGV from the Charles de Gaulle airport a day to Bordeaux that leaves at 10:01, arriving into Bordeaux at 14:39. If the travel time works with your international arrival, this would be much preferable to having to travel into Paris. From Bordeaux, there are trains every hour to Arcachon and the beach. If you would like to have the opportunity to explore both areas, there is even a train from La Rochelle to Bordeaux that takes just over 2 hours.
An Incredible Variety of Safe Bike Paths
You don’t need to be an uber fit, lycra clad cyclist to be totally at home biking the greenways and cycle paths of the Atlantic Coast! Road racing is a big deal in France, but in this beach-oriented vacation wonderland, the recreational cyclist is king. Biking is a favorite family past time. Whether you want to bike on the beach, near the beach, in the pine forests, on an island, near the oyster beds or in and around a city, there are bike paths everywhere. For example, there are over 700 km of cycling paths in the Gironde, all safe, well-marked and ready for adventure. These cycling paths run along the coast, through seaside villages, to and from the beautiful city of Bordeaux, and through serene pine forests. A directory of major routes can be found on the Gironde Tourism Office. Click on “Carnet de Voyages Cyclo Destination Gironde” and then download the booklet. Even though it is in French, the bike paths are easy to follow and the listings for bike rentals and lodging can be followed up on through their websites. A second valuable biking resource is the publication “Les Pistes Cyclables de Gironde” which includes seven routes, including the very popular Bordeaux-Lacanau route, the bike route around the Bay of Arcachon, and the Upper Medoc route, along with lodging and bike rental information. If you’re staying in Bordeaux, additional biking information can be obtained from the Office of Tourism.
Just north of the Gironde Department, extending up to La Rochelle is the area called Charente-Maritime. Just like the Gironde region, the area is very flat, and full of bicycle paths that are perfect for the recreational cyclist, the ideal way to explore the rich heritage of this area. My favorite areas to explore by bike in this area are the Ile de Re, a magical island with more than 100 km of signposted bike paths around the island and through the salt flats and the island’s fortified towns, the Ile d’Oleron with its famous Fort Boyard, vineyards, woodlands and oyster beds and the Marennes Basin. Maps of the bike paths on the Ile d’Oleron and the Marennes Basin can be found at the Ile d’Oleron Tourism website. An additional route worth looking at is the bike path through the forest from Saint Palais sur Mer to La Tremblade. This ride is particularly great for families with children. Last but not least is the bike path through the Forest de la Coubre in the lovely seaside town of Royan. From this trail, you can take the ferry to Pointe de Grave in the Medoc where you can pick up the dedicated bike paths that run along/near the ocean through one sleepy beach town after another.
In case none of the above ideas interest you, you can get additional ideas of bicycling in the Charante-Maritime, a brochure called Plan Charente Velo lists 25 bicycling loops ranging from 4 km to 70 km and can be accessed through the Charente Tourism Office. These ideas are only a small selection of the unlimited bicycling opportunities along the Atlantic Coast of France, thus making it a real mecca for the recreational cyclist, especially if you are vacationing with kids.
Marennes-Oleron is Europe’s leading oyster-producing area. Even if you are not a lover of oysters, you will be amazed by the process of oyster farming in the Marennes-Oleron region. If you are traveling with kids, a visit to an oyster village or ostreicole will definitely be a big hit. Better yet, plan a visit to a village like La Tremblade where oyster farming and mussels are major industries. Visiting the world-famous oyster cultivation areas near Marennes is really a very special treat. The best news is that you can eat fresh oysters all year round in France, so even if you are visiting in the summer time, oysters will be on the menu in May, June, July and August!
La Rochelle is one of my favorite towns in France, and I’m not the only one! La Rochelle is the third most visited city in France. This charming seaport city is full of history, is quaint, cosmopolitan, bike-friendly, and very manageable. You’ll fall in love with your first view of the Vieux Port with its turrets and medieval buildings and want to learn more about the history of this unique city. In late spring and summer, the port is packed with boats entering and leaving the harbour and there always seems to be some type of festival going on. The old town is well preserved and dates from the 17th and 18th centuries. La Rochelle is a green city, and they love bikes! As a matter of fact, you can “borrow” one of the city’s yellow bikes for free for the first two hours, and in that time you will quickly see that bicycling is the perfect way to explore La Rochelle. There are more than 140 km of bike paths in and around La Rochelle divided into 18 circuits for discovering the region by bike. La Rochelle is also a great starting point for biking adventures on the Ile de Re and the Ile d’ Oleron, a favorite choice for families with children, as well as Rochefort and the surrounding area. For more information on La Rochelle, visit the Office of Tourism.
If you are traveling with kids, or are a military or fortifications buff, you will enjoy visiting the Vauban Fortifications that are located on the Atlantic Coast. Saint Martin de Re located on the Ile de Re, Fort Medoc located in the Gironde Estuary, along with the Blaye Citadel are UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built in 1681, Saint Martin de Re was designed to shelter the population of the whole island if it was attacked by an enemy. The fortification is regarded as one of the best examples of Vauban’s work. You can visit the walls free of charge, and there are a number of guided tours available through the Office of Tourism in Saint Martin de Re. Fort Medoc and the Blaye Citadel were part of the defense system to protect Bordeaux. Both are open to the public. A great article for reading about the Vauban fortification at Fort Medoc can be found at Fortified Places.
The Most Incredible Beaches in France
Long sandy beaches backed by towering pine forests, the largest dunes in Europe and quaint seaside villages and resorts make this area the premier beach destination in France. While the Mediterranean has long been favored as having the best seaside resorts, if you like sand at your beach resort, this is the place for you! In the Charente-Maritime, the seaside town of Royan is one of my all time favorites, with beaches that extend several kilometers north and south of the town. There are beaches here for every taste, from kid-friendly beaches with a French version of beach day camp to the wild beauty of the Cote Sauvage where it is possible to find a quiet spot even in the height of the season. No matter what your preference, you are sure to find it in Royan, along with a chic French laid back atmosphere that makes you never want to go home.
Just when you think that the beaches in and around Royan are the best you’ve ever seen, take a short trip to explore the beaches at Ile’d’Oleron and the Ile de Re. The beaches in Royan and its neighboring islands is one reason why traffic heading to the shore is gridlocked on Friday nights during the month of August. But don’t be deterred, there are so many beaches in this area that you never feel crowded, and you can always find a beach to fit your needs. The Ile de Re is known throughout France for its soft sandy beaches. Often called the French Hamptons because of the number of Parisians visiting on summer weekends, Ile de Re is charming, laid-back and full of things to do. The best beaches are on the south side of the island where there are over 10 km of fine white sand beaches including Le-Bois-Plage-en-Re, one of the most popular, with a beach club just for kids. If you are looking for something a bit more quiet, head for the beaches on the southwest coast near the lighthouse, Phare des Baleines.
The Ile d’Oleron is home to my favorite beach in France, the Grand Plage of Saint-Trojan. The beach is accessible by bike through the forest or via a petit train which you can catch in Saint-Trojan. This beach is remote, expansive and the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. But this is only one of 25 beaches on the island! You can find virtually every kind of water sport here, and Oleron is one of the very few areas that are great for both windsurfing and surfing. For more information on the beaches, surfing and windsurfing on the Ile d’Oleron, take a look at the Oleron’s great website, complete with videos and downloadable brochures.
So many beaches, and I have yet to tell you about the beaches in the Gironde, where there are another 126 km of coastline and beaches! In addition to beaches, the coastline of the Gironde is dotted with one sleepy beach town after another, and some not-so-sleepy ones too. Beach areas here do tend to be much busier than those in the Charente, so you may have to look harder for a quiet beach. Families tend to choose beach areas around the Bay of Arcachon where the water is calmer and safer for kids. One of the most popular attractions in the area is the Great Dune of Pilat, which may be added to the list of the 7 Wonders of the World. Located just under 10 km south of Arcachon, the Great Dune is the largest one in Europe, measuring 105 meters high and 500 meters wide. You can climb to the top via a wooden stairway, or you can climb it the old fashioned way, up the sand. Once you reach the top, you are treated to views over the entire Arcachon Basin and the Landes de Gascogne forest. There is a brochure on the Dune of Pilat available from the Teste de Buch Tourisme Office. There’s on on screen translator on the upper right hand corner, so just click English from the drop down menu and it will automatically translate.
The Islands of Ile d’Oleron and Ile de Re
Off the coast of La Rochelle are two of the best island resorts in France: the Ile de Re and the Ile d’Oleron. They are two of my favorite places, which is funny because few in the US have heard of them. These islands are so perfect that if you go here, you will never want to leave to explore other areas. I’m not sure what it is about this region of France, but even during summer’s busiest time, it never seems too busy here. The Ile de Re is accessed by a 3 km long bridge from just outside La Rochelle. The bridge itself is totally breathtaking and is regarding as one of the prettiest in France. During the busy summer months, the cost to cross the bridge is 16.50 Euro–almost $20, but to pedestrians and bicyclists, it’s totally free! So you can rent your bikes in La Rochelle and pack up for a couple of days on this island paradise. This is really perfect if you are traveling without a car. The minute that you cross over the bridge, you are in a different world. Everything here is in slow time. The Ile de Re is only 14 miles long and 4 miles wide, but its 9 seaside villages and wide sandy beaches will capture your heart.
The island’s capital of St-Martin-de-Re with its town fortifications by Vauban is gorgeous and very manageable as a day trip from La Rochelle or as a weekend getaway. La Flotte with a stunning harbor has the best market on the island. La Flotte, together with Ars-en-Re have been named two of the 151 most beautiful villages in France, so they are both well worth a visit. The island is recognized throughout the world for its production of fleur de sel or flower of salt. Both the grey and white varieties are available in most of the island’s shops. The best way to experience the Ile de Re is by bike. The island is ringed with over 100 km of traffic free bike paths, making this a perfect destination for families with kids or anyone looking for the adventure of biking without the stress of car traffic. And should you need a bike, there are plenty of rental companies in every town on the island.
The Ile d’Oleron is the southern most island on the Atlantic Coast and much less known outside France than the Ile de Re. Oleron is the second largest island in France after Corsica and it is a year-round tourist destination because of its moderate climate. Like the Ile de Re, it accessed via bridge, but this bridge is totally free. The bridge to the Ile d’Oleron is not as easily accessible to bicyclists, but that is not a problem as there are more than a dozen bike rental companies located in every town on the island. Ile d’Oleron is much more wooded than the Ile de Re and a visit to the Foret des Saumonards with its dense pine forest is unforgettable. Low key and laid back is the order of the day here. The beaches are spectacular here. At low tide, the beach can be as wide as a half a mile, at high tide they almost disappear. The first time I was here, I couldn’t figure out why people were sitting so far from the water….and then the tide started coming in!
One of my favorite beaches on the island is the Grande Plage of Saint-Trojan, which is accessible through a dense pine forest on a tourist railway that you catch at the Saint-Trojan rail station, definitely one of my favorite experiences ever! You can spend a day here, or a week and you will never run out of things to do. My favorite towns are Le Chateau and its thriving artists colony, the charming capital of St-Pierre with a great oyster farm and the fishing port of La Cotiniere, where the nightlife goes on practically till the morning. Last but not least, the island also has over 100 km of bike paths running through the forests, marshes and along the sea. Information on the routes are available from the Ile d’Oleron Tourisme Office.
Wine from Bordeaux and Pineau from Charente
Whether you like to visit great vineyards or just drink great wine, a vacation to the Atlantic Coast of France will put you in wine-lover’s heaven. The Bordeaux region is the most important wine region in France, and to many, in the world. Many of these vineyards are well within your reach during a bike trip to this region. On both sides of the Gironde estuary, you can bike on small roads passing famous chateaux, some of which are open for tasting and purchase on the spot. Access to vineyards for tasting is not as open as other areas of France; many chateaux require appointments, and some are not open to the public at all. Wines of Bordeaux is a great resource for anything that you want to know about wines from this region including information on the appellations, wine classifications and the wine routes through the region. Additional information on Bordeaux wines can be found at the Bordeaux Office of Tourisme website. The Bordeaux Office of Tourisme can be helpful in setting up appointments or in arranging tours. Even if you don’t go on one vineyard tour, you will enjoy the wonderful wines of the region at dinner, and hopefully lunch each day you are there. Go into the local wine stores and treat yourself to a special bottle of wine for a picnic lunch. Many wines produced here never make it back to the States, and if they do, it is at a much higher price.
One of my favorite discoveries of the Atlantic Coast is Le Pineau des Charentes, a wonderful light apertif which is served chilled, without ice. I love this stuff! Folklore has it that the beverage was discovered quite by accident back in the 16th century. Whatever the case, this is a great summer drink, a combination of wine and cognac. Pineau is readily available in the Charente-Maritime, but is very difficult to find in the States. So enjoy as much of this beverage when you are on the Atlantic Coast, as you may not have it again for a long time!
That’s it! My top reasons to bike the Atlantic Coast of France this summer! To help you with your trip planning, Part II of this post will include my favorite resources for planning a trip to this area.