A TOUR OF CAP FERRET

A narrow spit of land about an hour's drive from Bordeaux, Cap Ferret sits on the west coast of France, with the Atlantic ocean's crashing waves on one side, from which the rest of the cape is more or less protected by miles of pine forest and the calmer Arcachon Basin on the other (where all the oysters live). This is where most of the oyster production in France takes place. All the small villages dotted along the cape, each with their own village ostréicole, are situated on this side up to the point where the ocean meets the lagoon. We stayed in Cap Ferret village which is near the point and soon discovered that every time we ventured somewhere else, the area nearest the point always seemed lovelier by comparison. 

I had wanted to visit for some years, so had researched and bookmarked places to go over time, and although we didn't go para-gliding off the Dune du Pilat, the largest sand dune in Europe - basically a mountain of sand on the Arcachon side of the lagoon, we did admire it from afar while sipping ice cold rosé and getting our (ok my - my companion doesn't eat seafood!) daily fix of oysters by the dozen, farmed from beds only feet away. On our four day trip, we definitely went to all the must-go places, but I had a sneaking suspicion that there was an unmarked oyster hut somewhere random in one of the less picturesque oyster villages, which was the locals best-kept secret. It would be impossible to know that without some local knowledge, so while I can't pretend to know the layers of Cap Ferret like I know them in Paris, I got a pretty good blast of the best it has to offer.

Plage de l'Horizon is a huge, enormous dream of a sandy beach on the Atlantic side, which was almost empty on a warm sunny day. This coast is windy, wild and on some parts of the peninsula can only be accessed through the pine forest. At Plage de l'Horizon it's a short walk from the road and then it's paradise! A note of caution though: It may seem to an English speaker that a baïne would be a lovely bathing area - in fact it's where there's a mortally dangerous rip-current, which runs all along this coast and pulls you out to sea. If you get caught in one you're supposed to let it drag you out and not struggle, and it will eventually deposit you back to shore further along the coast. There were a few surfers, and we even saw a seal swimming along, but with the epic size of the waves and the lack of lifeguards because it was out-of-season I decided against swimming here, as there are more sheltered, calmer swimming spots on the lagoon side. 

I had to include a photo of Popie's, which you can find just before the entrance to the beach above. Looks like an average beach shack, selling inexpensive sarongs and flip flops doesn't it? NOPE. Popie's makes and sells exquisitely sewn, yet eye-wateringly expensive simple summer dresses, caftans etc made from Liberty Tana Lawn printed cottons. THE BEAUTY. It was really hard to resist, what with having had my entire wardrobe made from Liberty prints by my grandmother as a child, it was setting off all my nostalgia buttons, but in the end I couldn't justify the prices. Since I live not far from the actual Liberty in London and also know how to pattern cut and sew but am lazy, I had to walk away and bought a few metres of Tana Lawn when I got home. My sewing machine is yet to be dusted off.

Chez Hortense is a Cap Ferret institution and surprisingly was my absolute favourite place, almost right on the point of the cape. You sit on a covered terrace with grape vines hanging down and with a stunning view across the lagoon to the Dune du Pilat; everything about it is perfect. We didn't know that it's only open on weekends and holidays (out of season anyway) when we rolled up at 2.30pm on a Sunday afternoon without a reservation and somehow managed to get a table in this very popular spot. There were big tables of families, everyone lingering, the staff was rushed off its feet, but never rushed the customers. A big, old chocolate labrador lumbered around the tables and Bernadette, the granddaughter of the original owner, who probably has a few grandchildren herself now, was the picture of gracious hospitality. It's simultaneously adorable and sweet and subtly glamourous. And the food was amazing. Pictured below are the moules maison, which I heartily recommend. 

The Quartier Ostréicole nearest Cap Ferret village and then nearby, facing the sand bank of Mimbeau are by far the prettiest of Cap Ferret. Charming wooden huts have lovely gardens facing onto the lagoon, which is completely different depending on whether the tide is in or out. It was out at lunch-time, exposing the bed of the lagoon, so you could walk across to the Mimbeau sand bank and back after your dégustation d'huîtres. In the evening, a warm jumper was required at the very least, but the tide was in and made the lagoon glow in the dusk, reflecting the boats.

La Cabane du Mimbeau faces the sand bank of the same name and, like all the cabanes d'huîtres is strictly regulated on what it can and can't serve. Since they are oyster farmers, not restaurateurs, they all have the exact same menu, although of course their oysters are all different. There is a choice of white or rosé wine - usually just one of each, the oyster menu of which there are different names and numbers corresponding to size, location and flavour. Bread and butter, crevettes with mayonnaise (which can't be made in-house) and for those poor souls who don't eat oysters, pâté bought in from elsewhere in a jar. That's it! La Cabane du Mimbeau is lovely, and like many of the oyster places is a kind of repository of all my French dream items, featuring the Fermob Luxembourg outdoor chairs I've been obsessed with for years and custom Opinel knives, which has the effect of making you feel like you're in a catalogue shoot or French magazine.

La Maison du Bassin is by far the most hyped up / mentioned place in Cap Ferret. A boutique hotel and bistrot, it is lovely with its wisteria covered walls and terrace, but I think maybe because of all the things I'd read about how amazing it was over the years, I didn't find it that amazing! It's not far from, but not next to the water and the terrace which everyone raves about (and is very nice) actually faces the opposite direction and is enclosed by greenery. So to me, along with the rather sweet but stilted formal service and it being twice the price of everywhere else, it wasn't the highlight it seems to be for so many others. We didn't stay here, but came for dinner one night and had a good time, especially since we saw our friend the Mayor, who we kept seeing every night dining in the same places as us, reading the newspaper, alone except for his chocolate labrador Annabel-Sue. (I have no idea if that's his dog's name, but we decided it was.) I think my non-oyster eating companion was also relieved to have a full menu to choose from. 

La Cabane d'Hortense - owned by the same family as Chez Hortense is very simple - again with the Fermob chairs - very relaxed, and just about perfect.

It's next to Chez Boulan, which I also loved. Along with La Cabane du Mimbeau, these are the two places I'd return to day after day to gorge myself on oysters. Opposite Chez Boulan is Le Bouchon. This is a proper restaurant in a gorgeous timber building and is THE local place to hang out. The Mayor was there, the lady who looked like Zsa Zsa Gabor who we also kept seeing was there, all the wealthy older gents with their dusky red trousers and jumpers artfully arranged over their shoulders AND the young surfer types in their scuffed up Vans and beachy hair were there too. It's also really cosy if it gets chilly and you don't want to sit outside at an oyster place.  Its website doesn't do it justice at all. There's a great wine list and it's all locally produced fish, meat and vegetables.

 Excuse the pillar, but Annabel-Sue is on the left! 

Excuse the pillar, but Annabel-Sue is on the left! 

There's a very famous sweet delicacy in Cap Ferret, made by Boulangerie Chez Pascal, called Les Dunes Blanches, below. They're little chou puffs filled with lightly whipped patisserie cream (I think - it's a secret recipe!) Anyway, they're delicious and you have to try them, but if you're nearer Cap Ferret village than Grand Piquey where the boulangerie is, you can find them at the Cap Ferret covered market in the mornings. This is really worth a visit, especially if you're renting a house rather than staying in a hotel - all the local producers have stands here. There's also a great little cafe inside - disregard the one outside that looks like it has all the canelés and is the place to go - it's not. Peyo is the place to go for your morning coffee, and it has little savoury tapas bites and charcuterie if you can't cope with eating a major sugar explosion for breakfast every day. 

Le Canon is another super adorable village, but don't miss the village of L'Herbe in between it and Cap Ferret village, which is strangely easy to miss out because of the road layout, but I'm sure is where all the low-key millionaires live in hidden away amazing wooden houses with their Porsches stowed safely away, which are ubiquitous here. The fishing village at Le Canon is really sweet and made up of alleys of small wooden huts and houses, with narrow alleys leading to small slipways to the lagoon. We actually went here because of an article I'd read in the UK press, where the writer was waxing lyrical about a charming place called L'Arkeseon, which I'd hazard a guess was somewhere he ended up dehydrated with sunstroke after a boat tour and proceeded to chug a vast quantity of wine, as it's the most random tabac / bar with zero charm and possibly the worst reviews I've ever read! Such are the dangers of believing travel articles written by someone who's only spent a few days in a place, which is why I make a point of saying I've only been to Cap Ferret once and don't know it intimately like I do Paris. 

The brocante des rêves: On the main road through Le Canon is my very favourite place in the whole of Cap Ferret, Atelier Anne Gros. This is where all your brocante dreams can come true, for real. If I thought there was a possibility I could go back with a large van anytime soon, I'm not sure I'd tell anyone about it! Since I've been exploring more of France it has become clear that all that really expensive, rare French vintage stuff you pay a fortune for in London, or even in Paris, is widely available everywhere in the countryside. But this is a bit different and special. This lady has the best taste, an amazing eye and very reasonable prices. I went back three times, my Easyjet hand baggage only allowance the only thing preventing me from furnishing my entire home with her wares. There is everything you could possibly want there, from old linens, to simple pottery to the more fancy antique silver and glassware.  

So there you have it: Oysters, wine, beaches, pine forests, brocantes, beauty and fresh air.