Known for its oysters for centuries, Arcachon on Gascony’s 250km² inland sea only became something more than a village in the mid 19th century thanks to a pair of canny developers, and since then things have grown like Topsy: the gargantuan Dune du Pilat, just south of Arcachon, alone attracts a million visitors a year. Yet many corners have been left untouched by mass tourism: the little villages in the back Bassin could be part of a 17th-century Dutch landscape painting, with their ports sheltering the Bassin’s small, shallow-keeled sailing boats called pinasses (or pinassayres, in Gascon).
Today the whole area is part of several natural parks: there’s the Parc Naturel Marin du Bassin d’Arcachon, and the Réserve Naturelle du Banc d’Arcachon (which protects the sandy islets off the Dune du Pilat), while the back Bassin and Teich Delta belong to the Parc Naturel des Landes de Gascogne.
What to see and do in Bassin d’Arcachon
Facing the Bassin and cooler in the summer, the Ville d’Été (‘Summerville’) has the lion’s share of Arcachon’s tourist facilities, seaside promenades, sheltered sandy beaches and the casino in the more Disneylandish than outlandish Château Deganne, with the Palatium congress centre to keep it company. Just behind it, the Musée-Aquarium (undergoing renovations at the time of writing) has a pretty collection of tropical fish, tortoises, seashells, stuffed weasels and shark skeletons. For a rainy day, the MA.AT houses Bunker 502 where you can immerse yourself in an authentic underground German telecommunications office with period equipment, dating back to 1943 and only rediscovered in 2015.
The Ville d’Été’s most notorious resident was Toulouse-Lautrec, who had a house by the water and liked to swim in the nude, offending the sensibilities of his neighbours. To pacify them, he erected a fence between his house and the beach – then mischievously covered it with obscene drawings. The furious neighbours eventually bought the house and gleefully burned the fence. Their descendants have never really forgiven them.
Inland, the balmy residential quarter, the Ville d’Hiver has for a centrepiece the Parc Mauresque, named after its fabulously outlandish pseudo-Moorish casino (1864), inspired by the Alhambra and the Great Mosque of Cordoba – but tragically destroyed by a fire in 1977. Inspired by its fantasy, the usually staid 19th-century Bordelais who built villas in the Ville d’Hiver let their hair down, indulging in neo- Gothic, Tyrolean, Tudor, pseudo-medieval and other fond fancies; some 200 of these lacy gingerbread villas survive. Don’t miss the fine overall view of the Bassin from the Parc Mauresque gardens and its Passerelle Saint-Paul (over adjacent Allée Pasteur), built by Eiffel in 1862, and the observatory, reached by a 19th-century lift. Since 1950, a new crop of villas has gone up in Parc Pereire, overlooking Arcachon’s finest beach, Plage Pereire. As incredible as it seems, in 1922 someone had the chutzpah to drill for oil right in the middle of the park, only instead of black gold they discovered, at 472m down, a natural spring of mineral water, Les Abatilles, which you can visit.
Dune du Pilat
As the afternoon draws to a close in Arcachon, the thing to do is drive or cycle 8km south, through the laid-back resort areas of Le Moulleau and Pyla-sur-Mer to the awesome, terrible, extraordinary sight of the Moby Dick of sand piles, at 106m the highest in Europe, at 2.7km the longest. Amid the pine trees there’s a payable car park (free for 30mins, €6 for 4hrs, €10 for the day), where you can leave your vehicle.
Excavations in this little chunk of the Sahara have found that Pilat began to form 8,000 years ago, and more or less reached its present dimensions in the 17th century. Like all dunes, it’s in a constant state of flux, and every year it creeps about 5m, consuming the pines and forcing the campsites and cafés at its rim to move. A wooden stair with 190 steps helps you get to the top for an unforgettable view – especially at sunset. If you can’t resist the urge to roll and slide and scamper down the ocean-side slope, be prepared to face the torturous return trip back up the slippery sands. Often included in the sundown view are schools of bottlenose dolphins and porpoises, who like to frolic just offshore. South of the sand-monster there’s Le Petit Nice beach, and beyond that a naturist beach, both with lifeguards and snack bars.
Travel to Bassin d’Aragon
TER trains run nearly every hour from Bordeaux to Arcachon.
By bus and taxi
Five bus routes circle around the Bassin. Download the app My Bus Bassin d’Arcachon for information and tickets (day and weekend passes are available). For a taxi, try Arcachon Aquitaine Taxis or Grégory Taxi Arcachon.
Park and ride (parking relais) operates in the summer at the entrance to Arcachon (1 Av du Dr Lorentz Monod) with a free bus service into town. There are two underground car parks (on Bd du Général Leclerc/Esp Georges Pompidou and at 14 Rue Jehenne) and several other small payable car parks.
The UBA departing from the Thiers or d’Eyrac jetties make half-hour ferry shuttles year-round between Arcachon and Cap-Ferret, with many more services round the Bassin in summer. They also run a Bus de Mer in season between Port de Pêche, Petit Port, Jetée d’Eyrac, Jetée Thiers and Le Moulleau.