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Cycling the Atlantic Coast

Cycling the Atlantic Coast

Retired writer Helen Millar jumped at the opportunity to cycle part of the Atlantic coast with friends. Would she later regret her enthusiasm? Here she shares her adventure with us…


Frightened to cycle on the roads? Not good on hills? Then this is the trip for you. From Royan to the Bassin d’Arcachon and beyond there’s a series of flat, off road, cycle paths which will make you believe that you can conquer the world. So weekend and novice cyclists do read on.

I’m not one of those lycra clad speed merchants nor am I very young but thanks to my French walking friends, I am fit. We are a group of five, four French women and me the only Brit, who join together for a yearly adventure. We normally walk but this year we cycled, thanks to a wonderful book, ‘La Coté Atlantique à Vélo’, which traces the Atlantic coastal route from Nantes right down to Biarritz. It’s an indispensable, compact book of easy to read maps. Even if your French is rusty you’ll understand everything. So fully armed and not liking crowds, we set out during the last week of June, before the season started.

We left Angoulême station with our bikes, saddle bags and helmets on the train to Royan. What you need to know about French trains and bikes is that the TER’s have limited places for bikes, and they are allowed to refuse to carry them in the rush hour. So get there early, be first on the platform and grab your bike hook to stow your bike. Over the years we’ve only ever had problems once, but it’s best to be on the safe side. The bike hooks look intimidating but as long your bags are well attached there’s no need to unload them. You’ll find as the week goes by the fewer times you unload your bike the better. True to form we’d already managed to change our pre-booked tickets for a five person cheap travel deal. None of us are poor but part of the challenge for all our group excursions is to operate on a budget, so don’t be shy to demand the best deal.


The train to Royan takes one hour forty minutes. On arrival it’s a right turn at the sea and a signposted fifteen minutes ride along the front to the port and the ferry across the Gironde estuary to the Pointe de Grave. This is the promontory from which La Fayette left in 1777 to fight for American independence and the launch point for the frigate l’Hermione’s inaugural voyage in 2015. Setting off on our own adventure we felt equally heroic but we do have a rule that on our brief encounters with ordinary roads we each operate within our own personal safety limits. We are free to walk, take the pavement or chicken out at roundabouts. There are no sissies here. The ferry is perfect, it’s a flat run on to the passenger deck (no unloading of baggage) and a front row bench facing the sea, wind in our hair and we’re on our way. We are soon peddling like teenagers along the first 28km stage of the coastal bike route. What a treat, I had never seen the wide open beaches and endless skies of the Atlantic coast before. Much of the original town and church of Soulac-sur-Mer disappeared in the sand dunes, only to be disinterred in the 1860s, which gives you some idea of the shifting landscape. Now it’s a charming fifties style beach resort.

Soon we’re headed off to L’Amélie and our first night in a camping club bungalow. In low season holiday villages are usually very happy to let single nights to groups they consider responsible enough not to wreck anything. Anyway there are strict rules and forfaits if you don’t leave the place as you found it. The advantage, of course, for us, is that the camp is almost empty and the modest pre season rental of 58 euros is split 5 ways.

I didn’t tell the others but being a red haired, fair skinned Brit I was praying for overcast weather. In full sun I wasn’t sure I would make the grade. Do think about this when you plan your trip.

A light coloured helmet is best and a long lightweight backpack gives good protection from the sun. You need a neckerchief and a long sleeved shirt, and fingerless cycling gloves. Wind and mild weather can still really burn.
From L’Amélie to Hourtin we covered 59kms of cycling track, more than I had ever done in one day, but the going is easy, there’s no fear of getting lost and you can peddle along on autopilot until you hit the next seaside resort of Montalivet-les-Bains. Here our trip took a surrealistic turn because we’d managed to hit the town in mid Harley Davidson festival. There were reckoned to be ten thousand visitors in town. The place was crammed with motorbikes and ancient bikers, even older than ourselves. They found the prospect of five older women, on bikes and sporting blue cycle helmets very amusing but we gave as good as we got! I spotted several leather clad, blond haired pillion passengers clinging on behind their biker granddads though most of what I thought were Brigitte Bardot look-a-likes turned out to be men! What fun, what noise, the atmosphere was electric. After the shock of finding all this activity amidst the dunes and the wide open spaces, we shared coffee with a raucous group of enthusiasts before we explored the seafront.

There’s one of several memorials to the Cockleshell Heroes (operation Frankton) on the main esplanade with
a bi-lingual explanation of the heroics of the British marines, who scuttled ships in Bordeaux harbour. My four French companions, all keen linguists, asked me to read the English portion out loud but I was interrupted by an irate elderly French man who spluttered and shouted the French inscription with sufficient decibels to blot out my infernal English. It was a sour note. My companions were shocked, then ashamed then angry and the man’s wife looked very sheepish as she slunk away.

The man might have been ill or like that all his life but, once we’d had time to reflect, I realised that amidst all the brave daring of the Brits and the plethora of recent commemorations, we’d perhaps neglected the hard times that French men endured during the war. We forget how many were deported to forced labour in Germany, their families scraping together food parcels to keep them alive. It was a timely reminder that this coast, with its cement blockhouses, took the full force of the German occupation.


This coastal sandy forest, in both the Gironde and Les Landes, is almost completely man made. The pine trees planted during Napoleon’s time and ever since, to stabilise the area, are testament to man’s desire to conquer the elements. This vast area has been snatched back from both sand and sea. The rule with this cycle route is that if you cycle parallel to the sea the going is flat, if you cross the dunes towards the sea, it’s obviously hilly. So there are some challenges but walk if you need to and remember that even small traces of sand on tarmac paths can stop a bike dead. Cycle round them!

So we continued down the coast to Hourtin Plage where we stayed in a small and perfect chambres d’hôtes with a bike enthusiast for a patron. He was delighted to meet Les Bonnets Bleus, as he christened us, and he obligingly gave our bikes the once over before the next leg of the trip. What a gentleman.

But we hadn’t felt so cosseted the night before when we’d been betrayed by our planning. We’d rejoiced at arriving in Hourtin la Ville only to discover that it was many difficult kilometres across the dunes between there and Hourtin Plage where we were staying. We decided that another time we’d measure our distances more carefully to allow for the topographical unexpected. This distance between plage and ville continues down the whole coast, they can be kilometres apart. It’s logical, now we’ve been there, because we’ve seen that their town planners had to allow for a wide band of shifting dunes.


We continued down to Le Porge, Lège, Cap Ferret and Le Bassin d’Arcachon, all more heavily touristic areas favoured by weekenders from Bordeaux. The Bassin is very beautiful with terrace cafés, boat trips and even a tourist train. We treated ourselves to two nights at Arcachon but made a serious mistake, the first day, in taking the main road from our holiday village to the waterfront to explore Claouey, the old Port La Molle and the fishing villages towards Cap Ferret. Whilst it looked like the most direct route, it was very cycle unfriendly and come rush hour on Sunday evening it was full of four by fours. It’s the most frightening ride I’d ever done.We’d learned our lesson, the next day we returned to the cycle paths which crisscross the area. It’s perfectly possible to reach everywhere without ever going on the main roads.


The next section between Lège and Gastes turned out to be longer than expected, 83kms in one day, all however on the flat. But, of course, we Bonnets Bleus were by then champions and we arrived exhausted but jubilant. Anyway, to compensate, for our last night we booked into a palatial pigeon loft at Mimizan, what luxury, it even had a pool.
The final day of any trip can be challenging. We had to cycle only 28kms inland from Mimizan to Labouheyre to catch the last train back to Angoulême via Bordeaux. It might sound short but often cycle lanes peter out before the town so you must leave time to walk the last, and usually the most dangerous, section. Personally I hate cycling in traffic. But hats off to the tourist boards along our route, everything possible has been done to welcome cycles.
By the time we reached Bordeaux we were invincible so when the conductor of the train tried to deny us access, we waved our tickets, shouted him down and climbed aboard anyway. We’d travelled 450kms in eight days, we’d spent only 340 euros each by sharing chalet rentals and self-catering. We’d crossed ferries, eaten seafood in retro resorts, sea bathed, wondered at the toppled German bunkers that dot the coastline and even drunk cocktails on the shores of the Bassin d’Arcachon. But most of all, we’d got home without mishap and in very good shape and excellent spirits. That same evening we were already planning to explore another section of the Atlantic coast next year. So if you’ve been hesitating, don’t. If we, les Bonnets Bleus, did it, so can you!


Find out more

For routes and accommodation: La Côté Atlantique à Vélo, Chamina Edition ISBN 978-2-84466-229-3, price 18.50€. 


© Living Magazine - all rights reserved. First published in February 2015