It was midnight in the French forest off the Gulf of Gascony, and I pedaled along the deserted bike trail, fueled by the fumes of a fabulous bottle of Bordeaux and the memory of a seaside feast: oysters and turbot, overseen by a grandmotherly patronne in a flowered housedress. Far ahead my husband’s bike light glimmered through the dense pines. Suddenly he stopped and waited for me. “Cherie, can’t you go a bit faster?” Guy said rather anxiously. Later, I learned that a boar had just crashed through the woods in front of him.
Wild pigs aside, biking along the forested, level trails of France’s southwestern Atlantic Coast feeds a fluid frame of mind conducive to indulging in simple pleasures like the aroma of pine resin; the crush of sunshine in a clearing; the impulsive detour to a waterfront chapel; or a lengthy, wine-enhanced meal without worrying about Breathalyzer-wielding gendarmes.
Even so, I used care in planning our bike journey last summer around Arcachon Bay, a kind of Gallic Cape Cod-meets-the-Hamptons, an hour’s drive southwest of Bordeaux. Fifty miles in five days seemed ideal, leaving plenty of time for visits to fishing hamlets and wetlands, and for exploring the belle époque in Arcachon, the bay’s nexus, where Europe’s fin de siècle high society built fanciful Victorian mansions in the shadow of the mile-and-a-half-long Great Dune of Pilat, Europe’s highest sand dune, which stretches along the bay like a huge white Band-Aid. Finally, as my husband’s local cousins noted, by biking we’d avoid summer traffic on the road leading into the Cape side of the bay, often jammed by “outsiders” (Parisians and other wealthy vacationers) who, over the last decade, have joined the bling-averse folks from Bordeaux and environs who have traditionally summered on the windswept 15-mile-long spit of land between bay and ocean.
Even so, I had to dangle a bribe to my speed-loving husband who, like others who hail from the land of the Tour de France, seems genetically programmed to get from one point to another posthaste. “When we return,” I promised him, as he gazed longingly at the gleaming rental scooters parked outside Locabeach, the bike shop opposite Arcachon’s gingerbread trimmed train station. For now, my plan was to rent the cushiest-seated bicycles possible, load our gear in saddlebags and head for the pier, where we’d hop the small ferry (named L’Embellie, or the “Lovely One”) for the half-hour chug to the Cape. Then we’d begin riding back to our starting point.
As the ferry pulled out, sailboats and catamarans swooped by. In the distance, clusters of wooden stakes poked above the water, marking oyster beds, including the one Napoleon III, who began the tourist boom here when he visited Arcachon in 1859, named after his Empress Eugénie.
On this limpid, sunny day my eyes could almost take in the entire triangular-shaped bay, from the muddy tidal flats at its back to the sifting sand banks at its mouth. It was les vacances, and even the small dogs in carrying cases were relaxed. I convinced my deeply tanned bench mate, Jo Brousse, who had been “coming here for years,” to divulge her favorite spots, which included Chez Hortense, a family-owned restaurant at the Cape’s point. “It’s an institution,” she said. “People from Arcachon boat across for dinner. Order the turbot.”
The prospect of turbot was irresistible, even though it would mean a 10-mile round trip from the B & B I’d reserved in Le Petit Piquey. But it was late July and we had no schedule.
Along the smooth, well-marked bike path, the air was spicy and hot, full of buzzing cicadas. Our only concern was avoiding pinecones and giving way to the handful of spandex-clad cyclists on the trail. Emerging from the forest path on our way to Chez Hortense, we pedaled for a mile or so along the two-lane road and headed around the Cap Ferret lighthouse, named after the main village (which is not to be confused with the better-known Cap Ferrat on the Riviera), and along the hollyhock-lined lanes toward the bay front oyster shacks.
At the end of a dirt path we leaned our bikes against a fig tree. Barefoot girls in sundresses and boys in shorts played tag in a sandy lot while their parents sat on the waterfront decks of oyster shacks sipping wine and hovering over platters of bivalves on rustic wooden tables. The Great Dune, iridescent in the sun’s glow, anchored the far side of the water. Soon, we were sampling our own oysters, which were so fresh they contracted from their silvery shells under a spritz of lemon juice. Corks were still popping when we tore ourselves away at 9.
Signs for Hortense, posted at crossroads in the ramshackle neighborhood of coveted vacation cottages around the point, led us to the restaurant. The fact that the owners of the BMWs, Mercedeses and vintage convertibles out front were among the patrons gathered on the beachfront veranda didn’t detract from the friendly service or the attention of Bernadette, the founder’s aging granddaughter. I suspect running a 100-year-old legacy that’s persevered despite violent tides, tempests and even requisition by the Nazis as their local cafeteria imparts humility. Even the perfectly baked turbot comes from a long tradition, according to our waitress, who said the purveyor, in Brittany, has supplied the restaurant since 1936.
The next morning we hit the Cap Ferret market. On previous visits, I’d noticed the high-quality merchandise at the outdoor stands: Basque table linens, espadrilles and Turkish cotton foutas (used here as beach towels). This time, I headed inside past butchers, fishmongers and fruit stalls straight to Chez Pascal, generally regarded as the best bakery on the Cape. I stood patiently in the long line and ordered a half-dozen “White Dunes” — addictive, bite-size cream puffs sprinkled with powdered sugar and named after the bay’s landmark. All this biking was definitely “opening up my appetite” as Guy so delicately put it.
The next leg of our journey had a historic twist. A friend from Bordeaux had put me in touch with Sabine Lesca, whose great-uncle, Léon Lesca, was a philanthropic real estate mogul of the area in the mid-1800s, when he used some of his fortune to develop the Cape and build a legendary Moorish-style mansion and chapel inspired by his love of North Africa.
“When I was a child in the 1950s, we’d spend the whole summer here at Grandmother’s house, barefoot all day, helping the oyster farmers and swimming,” Ms. Lesca reminisced as we strolled through the sandy alleys of Le Petit Piquey and l’Herbe, two preserved fishing hamlets, mostly consisting of clubhouse-size pine-plank cabins, and once her family’s stamping grounds. “There was no running water then, and they’d call us back for dinner with a hunting horn,” she said. “My great-uncle’s Villa Algérienne was our landmark, with its green cupola and colored windows.” Sadly, the villa was demolished in the mid-1960s, but the bay front Chapelle Algérienne, now a national monument restored to its polychrome glory, remains.
“The bay inspired Laurent de Brunhoff to write “Babar’s Visit to Bird Island,” Ms. Lesca said, as we stood in the chapel’s front archway, looking out toward the island. Colorful wooden flat-bottomed fishing boats called pinasses were beached on the glossy mud. “Jean Cocteau wrote here, too. Now, Marion Cotillard lives behind the chapel,” she continued, “and Philippe Starck has a house nearby.”
Looking at her watch, she brightened. It was 11:30 a.m. “Would you like to join me for some oysters?” she asked.
Once we were sufficiently fortified, we pedaled around to the back of the bay, stopping at the Cabane du Résinier, a one-room eco-museum in a former resin tapper’s hut, where we learned that the pine forest’s “black gold” provided livelihoods for many through the 1960s. As we proceeded through salt marshes and past the working-class town of Arès toward Andernos-les-Bains— the back of the bay’s commercial center — the sea, sand and sun vibe gave way to the lively community fabric of year-round residents, many of whom work in Bordeaux.
We didn’t stop at the pier (one of the longest in France, at 761 feet) with its bistros and bars, but headed straight for the recently restored 11th-century St. Eloi Church, one of the area’s oldest buildings, on the foundations of a fourth-century Gallo-Roman villa. Outside, artists had set up easels under the shade of parasol pines. Inside, the stone floor was splashed with shards of color from light streaming through contemporary stained glass windows.
We wanted to linger in Andernos, exploring the neighborhoods of vacation cottages and gabled houses trimmed in red, blue or green, with names like Mon Repos, Primavera and Fantasia. We would have enjoyed a glass of wine at the newest tapas bar, Loft 33, which we passed on the trail. But we had an evening date with the birds at our next stop, 15 miles away.