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Panorama du Pyla

Europe France Aquitaine Gironde

Route de Biscarrosse, Pyla sur Mer, Bassin d’Arcachon, Gironde, France

A unique destination. Silvery-blue sea in front of you, Europe’s biggest sand dune on your right, and oysters for breakfast (possibly).

Arcachon – what a great surprise! This glitzy west coast resort is home to a natural, powerful, and somewhat elegant tourist attraction. It might only be a sand dune, but what a sand dune it is. The King Kong of all sand dunes in fact, busting all other imitations out of the water.

Traffic is bumper to bumper during summer months on the single autoroute to La Teste-de-Buch that leads to the suburbs of Arcachon’s ‘Winter Town’ maze of magnificent Victorian villas. These ornate wooden-balustrade holiday homes belong to wealthy Bordelais and Parisians appear surprisingly tropical against the wooded hillside. The town was once the party destination du jour, and its forest walls whisper with tales of century-old aristocratic soirées. Next to the campsite the view is just as impressive. The largest sand dune in Europe was an 18th-century ‘accident’ that the wind slowly blew in over time. It measures 1¾ miles (3 km) in length, and is 550 yards (500 m) wide and 115 yards (107 m) high. From the campsite below, matchstick silhouettes can be seen trekking towards the summit, the reward for their 30-minute climb being a sublime pinky-blue sunset that engulfs the Bay of Arcachon, from the campsite across the waters to Cap Ferret.

Tourists aren’t the only visitors flocking to this one-mile-wide bay. The Banc d’Arguin nature reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is a nesting home for thousands of birds that are attracted to the shallow coastal waters and protected mudflats of Île aux Oiseaux. But all guests are outnumbered by the zillions of oysters that thrive here. Dotted along the Cap Ferret Peninsula are 100-year-old oyster-farming villages, where colourful cabanes sit on stilts, storing the daily catches gathered in sprawling fishing nets.

Cap Ferret is an upmarket but laid-back shoppers’ paradise serviced by regular, 20-minute ferries that zip back and forth from La Pyla, near the campsite. But if shopping’s off the menu, make sure oysters are on. Pick a restaurant with views across the bay and feast on shellfish that is plated over ice within minutes of being caught. Afterwards, walk off lunch by climbing the 258 steps of the Pointe du Cap lighthouse. The view at the top is of a landscape that hasn’t been destroyed by waterfront hotel or property developments; therein the beauty of Arcachon. You can eat back at camp if you’d prefer. Fresh fish, sea scallops, meat, foie gras, plats du jour, salads, and desserts are for the taking (Camping Panorama du Pyla is part of the Yelloh! Group that runs 45 sites in France, and their standards are high).

Obviously, a stay here isn’t cheap, but it’s worth every centime. The fancy à la carte restaurant, ice-cream parlour and crêperie, two swimming pools, and kids’ entertainment create a boisterous atmosphere in high season, to say the least. The ergonomics work, however, with amenities grouped near the entrance to the site so that the noisier activities precede the quiet calm among the coniferous trees. Terraced slopes allow personal space at numerous pitches, but for greater seclusion aim for a spot by the side of the dune. These pitches are still near the beach – the sea glistens through the trees – but you’re further away from any of the pedestrian paths. Temperatures average 22oC (72oF) in summer, though sea breezes make the midday heat bearable. If climbing the dune feels like walking on hot coals, use the steps etched into the slope at the start of every summer. After the sun has set and you’ve washed the sand off, steam oysters over a bed of pine needles (it’s what the locals do) and dream about the wonderful surprises that lie in store tomorrow.

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