Arcachon against the odds

As I mentioned previously, a road accident left us without our campervan, Cleopatra, three days before we were due to depart for France leaving us in a quandary. We were booked to stay at Camping Club Arcachon on the west coast near Bordeaux and had paid a significant deposit. Fortunately the site allowed us to put the money we'd paid towards renting a roulotte - a little wooden cabin and so our holiday was rescued.

Cleopatra has been with us for three years, during which time we've become so used to the flexibility of going wherever and whenever we want. To suddenly be heading on a twelve hour drive in a car required extra thought that we're not used to.

The initial plan was to take a midday-Saturday EuroTunnel crossing and to drive to an aire in Gizeux for the night, cutting the journey through France into two manageable chunks. We'd then have arrived in Arcachon at lunchtime on Sunday. However, even if they were permitted to park on aires, you can't comfortably spend a night in a car, and anyway, our back seats were full of luggage. So we had little choice but to complete the whole drive in one go. We were able to move our EuroTunnel crossing to 6am on Sunday and just hoped that we'd make Camping Club Arcachon before the reception closed that evening.

We went to bed at 9pm but I got very little sleep before the alarm went off at 1.15am. The car was loaded already and so we had only the bike rack and bikes to attach before we set off towards the Folkestone EuroTunnel terminal. It was fortunate we had kept the Saris Bones bike rack for our car because, when we brought home Cleopatra with her permanently mounted bike rack, it looked unlikely we'd ever use the one for the car again.

Six o'clock in the morning was the earliest we were able to secure a channel crossing, but we hoped that if we were a couple of hours early we'd squeeze onto an earlier departure. We were lucky to be offered a 4.45am departure, adding valuable extra time in which to get to Arcachon while the campsite reception was open. We had to stop many more times for fuel than we would have done with Cleopatra's massive fuel tank.

Camping Club Arcachon

We arrived at Camping Club Arcachon in plently of time, at 2.30pm, 12 hours after leaving home. and just as reception had opened again after lunch. The lady at reception was cheerful and helpful and spoke very good English, making our check in easy, and we were soon in possession of the key to our roulotte.

There are four roulottes on the campsite and they're right next to the reception, restaurant and swimming pool. Had the facilities been open in the peak of summer I'd guess this accommodation might get too noisy, but it was February and we were almost alone. A handful of motorhomes were dotted across the rest of the campsite, which is quite large and the pitches often quite small. Trip Advisor reviews often mention the pitch sizes and difficulty manoeuvring into them. I think we'd have been fine with Cleopatra, and the tent pitches all look great. I would certainly have no hesitation in staying again in our campervan.

Tony and I have, for a long time, discussed how we'd like to live in a tiny house, and so our little cabin was a fantastic chance to discover how we'd live in such a small space. At 20 square metres the space was small as can be.

The kitchen comprised a two-ring induction hob and a sink. Also provided was a microwave, toaster and coffee maker and plugging any of those in took up most of the worktop, but we always adapt to whatever space and facilities we have. When we're camping in Cleopatra we usually only have one electric hob and we just plan one-pot meals. The bathroom comprised an adequate shower cubicle, toilet and sink. If I'd designed it, the sink would have been a quarter of the size to allow enough space in the otherwise-usable room. The bed was tucked away high up at the back of the cabin with huge storage underneath, and finally a dining table and two stools filled the remaining floor space.

The roulotte was enough space for a week's holiday. We could make that amount of room work for us permanently but it would have taken a redesign so the space was optimised for how we'd use it. It's given us food for thought.

Having settled ourselves in and found hidey holes for all our stuff, we set off into the town. One of the things we'd overlooked in our change of plans was that we would arrive in France on Sunday and the supermarkets would be closed. We had food with us but not wine to enjoy that evening and we hoped to find a convenience store open on a Sunday afternoon.

Park Mauresque and Arcachon town

Camping Club Arcachon is perfectly situated at the edge of a quiet residential area and leaving the site you immediately enter a park that takes you towards the town and the coast. When you leave the park there's a short distance to walk through the impressive moorish and gothic villas of Winter Town before you enter the Mauresque Park and catch a glimpse of the sea in Arcachon bay for the first time. The Mauresque Park sits high above the town with great views. A lift will take you down to street level but we liked the little windy path and chose to go down on foot.

We were surprised to find many of the shops open on a Sunday. The retailers are quite upmarket and gift oriented and we didn't find a supermarket or convenience store at all (we'd later discover there are plenty of supermarkets on the outskirts). We did find a wine and gift shop open and were able to buy two bottles of red wine for five euros each.

On our way back to camp we sought out a pub I'd heard of while doing research before the trip. I like to see if there are any bars serving real ales and Au Gambetta sounded promising with some Trip Advisor reviews comparing the establishment to a British Wetherspoon. We were pleasantly surprised and rather disappointed all at once. The beer was fantastic - we both ordered a 50ml glass of a strong Belgian beer. It was the price that caused some shock - they were 8.50€ each. With a sizable insurance excess payment due on Cleopatra's repair it was clear visits to this pub would be limited to this occasion!

Over the course of the next six days we enjoyed walking around the Arcachon coast line. You can walk along the seafront for miles and there is beautiful sandy beach the whole way. Our bikes took us far enough to reach the Dune du Pilat - the tallest sand dune in Europe.

Dune du Pilat

It is easy to cycle around and about Arcachon thanks to good cycle lanes. It was even easier out of season in February as we were almost the only cyclists using them. The dune was easily achievable on our bikes. We left them locked to cycle racks at an interesting-looking set of wooden steps down to the beach and, as it turned out, we'd joined the beach almost at the northern end of the dune and were able to walk up it from that point.

The guide books tell you to climb the dune from the other side and, having climbed it from the sea side, I think that's good advice. The views from the top made the climb worthwhile though. I can't say in the heat of the summer that I'd have felt the same! The dune is the tallest in Europe at 110 metres above sea level. It is 500m wide from east to west and stretches 2.7km along the coast from north to south. Having approached it from the sea to find an almost sudden drop on the land side was quite surprising and standing near the edge is rather scary.

We walked back towards our bikes along a more gentle slope that led to a small wooded area. We walked through the trees until we came to a populated area, finding that our path ended at a locked gate. Stretching the chain with which the gates were secured, we were able to squeeze through just about. On the road side the gate said 'Private', but when approaching from the dune there's nothing at all to tell you it's private land. We just shrugged and continued in what we thought was the general direction of our bikes.

Cap Ferret

An hour away by car (a ferry runs from Archacon seafront) is the stunningly picturesque Cap Ferret peninsula where we spent a windy morning exploring more sandy beaches and discovering dozens of World War 2 bunkers. From our initial sighting they looked like giant boulders of black rock. As we approached though we could see they were man made structures slowly sinking into the sand. I was drawn towards one leaning at a considerable angle that was beautifully adorned in colourful graffiti. 

The buildings were built by the Nazis during the second world war as part of an extensive system of coastal fortifications along the western coast of Europe, known as the Atlantikwall. By June 1944, the network comprised of almost 15,000 bunkers.

Around the Arcachon Basin many of these bunkers, or blockhouses can still be seen, however views differ wildly from country to country, and even from town to town, about whether to try to preserve the buildings as part of their heritage, or to let nature take its course, and in some instances to even destroy and remove what some see as sinister remnants of the Second World War.

I found them intriguing, haunting and a little bit eerie. The colourful graffiti though was somehow able to soften the harshness of the abandoned buildings and give them a raw beauty. I'd certainly not wish to see them deliberately destroyed and nor, I'm sure, would a little army of birds finding shelter from the wind on top of one.

Cap Ferret is the oyster capital of France and many of its little villages seem to be entirely devoted to their harvesting and eating. We stopped in Le Canon where we were smitten by the little shacks of the fishermen and rugged appeal of the restaurants.

We took the scenic route home on the road that runs parallel to the coast of the Arcachon Basin, stopping along the way at little harbours where the masts of boats tinkled in the wind and kite surfers were lifted high above the waves. A satnav will take you on major roads between Arcachon and Cap Ferret which may be a little quicker, but the route is longer and nowhere near as nice as pootling along the coast road.

The best and then the rest...

Dune du Pilat and Cap Ferret are the top two must-see sights while you're in Arcachon. We enjoyed other days out visiting the three lakes to the south of Arcachon, and spending a morning mooching around Bordeaux. You can see all the highlights from our week-long Arcachon adventure on YouTube.

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