Off the Beaten Track, California Dreaming in the Médoc
South west France’s ‘Silver Coast’ is a magnet for surfers from all over the world. Several Atlantic beaches along the peninsula conjure up a laid-back Californian ambiance, youthful and care-free
California’s landscape has long been synonymous with the dream of personal freedom and infinite
space. Its towering, jagged cliffs, purple hills, windswept dunes and the roar of its mythical surf were immortalised by writers like John Steinbeck and Jack Kerouac. France’s Médoc, associated for over 10 centuries with the production of the world’s finest wines, may seem to embody the traditions of olde world Europe. Surely this flat, vine-dominated, cultivated country is the antithesis America’s rugged and wild west coast? The Médoc is all venerable châteaux, dusty wine cellars and long afternoons spent quaffing grand crus classés, right?
The Call of the Wild
Well, stray a few kilometres off the beaten track of the peninsula’s D2, the Route des Châteaux, and you’ll soon discover sparsely-populated, untamed country in which the sounds of bird-song, of breezes gently stirring the pines, and of surf crashing ashore, reign. The Médoc boasts a vast array of natural riches, huge freshwater lakes, dense forests and 120 miles of pristine coastline. There’s enough here to keep the most active family contented for a whole summer. It would be stretching the truth though, to claim that the Médoc has always been nature’s playground. Much of its diversity is actually man-made. Until the 17th century, most of the land in the peninsula was salt marsh, but then resident Dutch wine merchants applied their knowledge of marsh-drainage to reclaim the land, with the backing of Napoleon III. Thanks to the high gravel content of the soil, this land was ideal for cultivating vines, and many new wine estates sprung up along the Gironde estuary. Huge forests were then planted to protect the vines from strong southern winds.
Surfing was only introduced to France in the year 1957. During the shooting of the movie of Ernest Hemingway’s novel ‘The Sun Also Rises’ in Biarritz, members of the American production crew had their boards flown over from the States so they could enjoy the waves. They taught the locals, who got hooked and soon began to carve their own boards. Since then, south west France’s ‘Silver Coast’ has been a magnet for surfers from all over the world.
Several Atlantic beaches along the peninsula conjure up a laid-back Californian ambiance. Vendays-montilivet is a prime example. Here, the local surfing community organise traditional longboard competitions on a regular basis. Dotted along the 12km beach there are life-guard’s cabins painted a dreamy shade of turquoise blue, modelled on the iconic Art Deco cabins on Malibu Beach.
Harley Davidsons and refurbished VW camper vans line Ocean Avenue. Classic car-meets are a regular fixture in summer, and there’s a bustling daily market, boasting some 240 stalls, where you can treat yourself a few oysters whilst browsing the fresh local produce.
The town is backed by 6000 hectares of pine forest, criss-crossed with walkers’
trails, perfect for pony trekking. The forest is also the location of one of the biggest Naturist Resorts in France, Hélio-marin. If you’re feeling adventurous, why not give it a go? Please note - Naturism is not as strict as nudism, clothed, or partially clothed - guests are warmly welcomed!
The Great Lakes
Lacanau, another paradise surfers boasts beaches backed by Hopper-esque dunes. But surf isn’t all that’s on offer. The town is also positioned on a huge lake offering every kind of water-sport known to man, from kitesurfing and windsurfing to water-skiing, wake-boarding and excursions in catamarans. Perhaps the recent craze for Sup’ing or Stand Up Paddle Boarding is more your style? It’s said to be one of the best abdominal work-outs going.
The lake at Carcans-hourtin is France’s largest freshwater lake. Fringed by dense pine forest, much of which falls within a national park, and measuring 57 kilometres squared, this is Europe’s answer to Lake Tahoe. Come here to fish, sail or spend a whole day idly hugging the shoreline in a kayak. If water-sports are not your idea of personal nirvana, then maybe fishing is? Local anglers brag about the giant specimens of carp, perch and other freshwater fish lurking in the lake’s depths. In the village of Hourtin is a campsite with a difference. Perhaps more of a ‘Glampsite’, it’s entirely Wild-west themed. Stay in either a tee-pee, a clapboard bungalow, or a mobile home in one of the ‘villages’ - ‘One Horse Town’, ‘Little Louisiana’ or ‘Prairie Band Reservation’, then saddle up and ride off into the sunset. Western has its own equestrian centre, and long treks along the lakeside or into the forest are par for the course. The campsite is done up to look like something straight out of the gold rush, and offers a range of activities in keeping with the theme - like Native American-style drumming, archery, totem-carving, and you guessed it - panning for gold.
Catamaran sailing trip on the lake at Lacanau.
Top right: Classic VW Campervan. Below: Cycle paths through the forest. Left page: Stand-up Paddle Boarding on lake Carcans-hourtin.
Top left: Lifeguard Station at Vendays-montalivet.