South West France is famous (or infamous…) for its foie gras, but the Atlantic coast is also well known for the natural and very unspoilt beauty of this area called Les Landes.
Europe’s second biggest forest, this is a land of pine trees, long beaches, sand dunes, big tides and waves, bicycle paths and surf. It’s the ideal destination for a family seeking outdoor-living and days rich of varied activities. And what’s best, people are very friendly (if you’re used to Paris or the Cote d’Azur, you’ll find this a pleasant change).
We rented a very charming house in Messanges, facing a corn field to our right and wine grapes of the local Malecarre Vin de Sable (sand wine) to our left. Actually, there are 3 houses available for rent from the same owner, all located within 5min of each others, which would make a great base for a large group of friends or a family reunion.
Our house was peaceful and very tasteful (the wife’s owner is a stylist and decorator) , think Joe Colombo lamps and Bayonne bullfighting posters. Yes, the region is also famous for corridas and for courses landaises (no killing of the bull).
I like renting houses rather than staying in hotels. But we would have found ourselves at home as well at La Maison de la Prade, an old Colonie de Vacances (typical French summer camp) recently converted into a stylish small hotel. It was coincidentally featured in the NY Times this past May.
With simple modern design retaining the art deco features of the buildings, a large pool, and most rooms accomodating families of 4, La Maison de la Pradeis ideally located 800 meters from the beach.
For Messanges, you take a plane into Biarritz and drive one hour north, or a TGV (fast train) into Dax (20min drive) and then you need to rent a car anyway. And think of renting bicycles too. There’s so much to do in the region within one hour drive that we did not even get bored on those three rainy days.
In terms of sightseeing, it’s lovely to tour the Basque region aka Le Pays Basque (a region located both in France and Spain, at the bottom of the Pyrenees mountains). Visit Saint Jean de Luz for the atmopsphere of the harbor, the old streets, the tranquil beach in the bay, the typical basque architecture and the many nice bodegas (small restaurants). It’s a must to try the macarons from chez Adam, a pastry shop that dates back to Louis XIV. Soft in texture and strong in almond taste, they melt in the mouth. So good….
You can get an ice cream from Dodin by the beach and walk around admiring the scene and crowd, with some good shopping all around. Biarritz is famous for being a rather chic town, think old school (BCBG, a very French expression) mixed with surf culture (biarritz is home to several surf world championship).
In between Biarritz and St Jean de Luz is tiny Guetary, the fashionable spot on the Basque coast. It’s nice to stop there for a meal at Heterotoclito, unless you want to even spend a night at super casual Le Madrid and enjoy the small beach. It feels like a village where everyone knows each others.
We also ventured to San Sebastian in Spain ( so near to the French border) one rainy day, and it was worth visiting the old town near the cathedral, except that traffic was so bad (everyone had the same idea) that we soon regretted our trip. Better do it on a sunny day when everyone is at the beach, and take time to visit the famous aquarium.
In terms of activities, the choice is never ending. Surf camps, windsurfing on the many lakes, tennis, kids poterie classes, kilometers of bicycle paths, horse riding on the beach, world class golf, trampoline classes and tree walking, rafting, circus performances….you name it.
Rarely have I seen such a concentration of exciting outdoor activities for the whole family, and a laid back atmosphere such that you don’t need to stress about scheduling everything in advance. We tried almost everything (but golf, no thank you). And we finished our stay today with a beautiful small boat ride in a national park, near the town of Leon: Le Courant d’Huchet (must reserve). Even Amalya (15 months) was marveling at spotting the many ducks along the way.
Nearby Messanges, we tried and would recommend Les Roseaux for the romantic setting by the lake of Seignosse, La Station for the cool atmosphere by the Hossegor lake, But our favorite was the little shack by the beach of Messanges, for their grilled gambas a la plancha, watching the sunset, feet still full of sand. Delicieux.
BozAround tip: a bicycle is a great tool to put babies to sleep for naptime. Les Landes, we’ll be back as soon as we need another good dose of oxygen from the city.