Exploring new heights on France's record-breaking dune with a view...
Stretching in front of us was Europe’s tallest dune – a towering wall of sand with its summit high above.
As we began to climb the near 90-degree slope, it felt like one step forward, two steps back, our feet sliding through the sand back down the slope.
Dune du Pilat is 360 feet high and stretches for two miles along the French Atlantic coast from Arcachon in the north towards Biscarrosse Plage in the south. It attracts scores of tourists climbing the slopes up to its rim and then down to the sea.
For those less adventurous than us, there are flights of steps helping people to enjoy the summit without the challenge of the sandy slopes.
But my wife, 11-year-old daughter and eight-year old son were determined that the dune would not defeat us and eventually we made it to the top, to rest in the white sand and admire the scenery. From its peak are stunning views across the bay and, as a popular paragliding spot, you can watch the enthusiasts taking to the skies.
We were staying with Eurocamp at the five-star Domaine de la Rive in the Landes department of Nouvelle-Aquitaine – a family-focused parc complete with pools, slides, a spa, bars, shops and restaurants.
Eurocamp has a wide selection of accommodation offering different sizes and specifications of holiday home. We stayed in the three-bed Avant, which has a fully-fitted kitchen and living area, shower, deck and gas barbecue. The layout of the parc means accommodation is fairly tightly packed in, but the space of the surrounding area more than makes up for this.
The parc is located at the edge of Biscarrosse Lake and seven miles from the town of Biscarrosse with its wine shops and markets. Its setting means there is plenty of opportunity to enjoy water sports such as windsurfing, canoeing or pedaloes.
Another of the options is cycle hire. We borrowed bikes for a day, touring the area which is mainly flat around the lakes, but with some surprising hills towards the coast.
The region has an excellent set of cycle routes both on designated pathways and shared roads. On the whole, it’s easy going, whether you’re an experienced cyclist or a novice. We followed the routes direct from La Rive through winding lanes and along the lake. There was something quintessentially French as we cycled along, especially listening to the accordion music drifting across the route from one of the roadside bars.
It was then on up and over the hills and through the woodland to Biscarrosse Plage – a popular town and seaside resort where we took time to visit the many tourist shops, get a bite to eat and then spend time on the beach, enjoying the heat of the afternoon sun.
Back we then pedaled along the picturesque routes into Biscarrosse in time for coffee and milkshakes before heading back to La Rive. It was a fantastic way to spend time together as a family and feel a sense of achievement as we climbed the hills and later totted up the number of miles we had covered.
The area is fairly rural with a gentle feel and slow-paced lifestyle, but just an hour’s drive north is the port city of Bordeaux, famed as the centre of the wine-producing region. We drove to the outskirts and then caught the tram into the bustling city with its narrow streets and tall buildings. The historic part of Bordeaux is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its 18th century architecture.
Buying a Citypass you can get free or discounted access to many of the tourist sites, including the iconic Cité du Vin museum, which takes you on a journey through the world of wine.
We also enjoyed a tour of the city on an open-top bus before walking along the riverside towards the Cité du Vin, taking in the views across the famous ‘water mirror’ and watching the street artists. You can jump on board a river boat, borrow a bike or ride the tram to take in more of the city.
The south west of France is a region which has been missed off my list previously,, but has so much to offer.
Flights are available to Bordeaux, but we opted to take the car and travel with Brittany Ferries to Santander – a four-hour drive on to Biscarrosse. The overnight ferry journey takes about 24-hours, or more with Brittany’s Economie service, but means you don’t have to think about the journey and can relax on board. On the way back we travelled aboard the quicker Pont-Aven and enjoyed a superb four-course evening meal before relaxing in our cabin, ready to wake up the following morning well on track for our journey home.
Spending just a week in the Grand Lacs was only enough to scratch the surface of what this area has to offer. I’m sure at some point we’ll be back on the bikes, climbing the sand dunes and soaking up the history of this beautiful stretch of the Atlantic coast.
Accommodation: Tim Hopkinson and family stayed as guests of Eurocamp at La Rive. Prices start from £333, for a family of six staying in a two-bedroom Azure Plus. For more information visit www.eurocamp.co.uk Travel: Brittany Ferries operates the longer routes from Portsmouth and Plymouth directly to northern Spain. Fares from Portsmouth to Santander start from £648 return for a family of four and a car including an en-suite cabin on both sailings. Book online at brittany-ferries.co.uk or call 0330 159 7000.