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Travel Not far from Bordeaux, a seaside town charms with quirk

A long boardwalk runs along the coast in the French town of Arcachon.

Barbara Ramsay Orr/The Globe and Mail

Early morning in Arcachon, on the southwest coast of France, one sees two slices of French life. On the long boardwalk beside the Atlantic seafront, runners in designer gear take off on their morning sprints. In the cafés along the boardwalk, the less ambitious enjoy café au lait with pain au chocolat.

I compromise. No pain au chocolat, no running, just a good coffee and a comfortable bench on the boardwalk for some sketching.

A mere 50 kilometres from Bordeaux, seaside Arcachon offers a distinct contrast to the urban gloss of France’s premier wine city. It’s a soft-edged getaway where mainly French and European tourists head to vacation by the ocean. Like most beach towns, it boasts a certain languorous air. It is always holiday time, so people sit loose-limbed in their beach chairs. They linger over lunch. They don’t walk – they stroll. It’s that comforting ambience – along with the quirky architecture, scenery and exceptional southwestern Atlantic cuisine – that makes a stay here special.

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Arcachon is a relaxed getaway where mainly French and European tourists head to vacation by the ocean.

Francois-Xavier Prevot/Handout

The town’s eccentric and charming villas are the principal reason I have come. The houses, famous for their mashup of design styles, led to the coining of the term Arcachonnaise. Status-hungry Victorian nouveau riche moved to the seaside for its salubrious ocean air but wanted to make a bold statement with their residences. The result was a bit of Swiss, a soupçon of French, some Gothic, a touch of baroque and a profusion of Victorian turrets, dormers and wrap-around verandas. Once derided for its kitsch, and given the side-eye by the doyens of design of the time, the style has since gained popular acceptance and its jumble is now seen as beguiling.

The bounty of gorgeous views and extravagant architecture makes this a dream vacation spot for artists or photographers. The Arcachonnaise villas can be seen on a walking tour or on a petit train tour through the Ville d’Hiver neighbourhood (the town is divided into four sections, each named after a season). On a guided tour, I learn of the different characters who have resided here, some for its health benefits and some for its quiet beauty and its distance from the bustle of Bordeaux.

Kayaks offer another way to explore the coastline around Arcachon.

Barbara Ramsay Orr/The Globe and Mail

Writer Alexandre Dumas lived here for a while, and composer Claude Debussy and artist Henri Matisse were frequent visitors. Another painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, once had a house on the beach. From the late 1800s to the beginning of the First World War, Arcachon rivalled St. Tropez as the place for the wealthy to hide away.

Today, most of the large villas have been transformed into apartments, but architectural controls ensure that external facades are renovated regularly. The Villa Brémontier was one of the first houses to be built on the pine-covered hills, an interpretation of a Swiss chalet. Villa Alexandre Dumas is a pastiche of Spanish and Italian architecture, with a beautiful garden surrounding it. The Villa Trocadero, Villa Toledo and Villa Teresa all deserve a good look.

The qualities that attracted the Victorian barons of industry – the fresh air, seacoast and pine forests – continue today. You’ll find some of the finest beaches in France here, and miles of boardwalk and biking and hiking trails, following the coastline around Arcachon Bay from the town to Cap Ferret, some 50 kilometres away.

Barbara Ramsay Orr /The Globe and Mail

At 110 metres high, the Dune du Pilat is the tallest in Europe.

Barbara Ramsay Orr/The Globe and Mail

Nearby are the Dune du Pilat. The tallest in Europe, at 110 metres high and three kilometres long, these huge dunes of fine white sand were blown in from Africa and collected between the blue water of Arcachon Bay and the pine forest. Visitors can climb the dunes via a stairway, and slide down, have a picnic, or just enjoy the views. Tourists can also hop on one of the regular ferries that cross the bay directly to Cap Ferret to enjoy a day trip on the cape, or follow the easy bike paths along the coast out to the tip of the peninsula. Although popular with contemporary celebrities – actor Marion Cotillard lives here and designer Philippe Starck has a beach house – Cap Ferret remains quiet, private and understated.

The remaining star attraction is the food. Many of the restaurants along Arcachon’s seafront serve locally caught fish, mussels and oysters, harvested here “since the days of Rabelais” as the locals claim, referring to Renaissance humanist François Rabelais.

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Great seafood can also be found by touring the small fishing villages along the coast. At Chez Boulan, an oyster farm and restaurant in Lège-Cap-Ferret, you can indulge in the fresh oysters for which the area is famous. Order a plate of ferret capiennes or try a selection of local varieties. At nearby Chez Hortense, I sat with a view of Arcachon Bay and the Dune du Pilat and ate moules frites – freshly harvested mussels with bacon, white wine and garlic – accompanied by a glass of crisp Fleur des Graves.

The canelé is a local specialty – a pastry soaked in syrup and formed in a special mould.

Barbara Ramsay Orr/The Globe and Mail

Back in the centre of Arcachon, in the Ville d’Été, you will find a daily fresh market, cozy squares lined with shops and cafés, and bakeries selling canelés. This local specialty, a kind of doughnut or pastry soaked in sugar syrup made in a special mould, is ideal with an espresso. Other shops specialize in meringues – big fat ones flavoured with strawberry, caramel and chocolate.

At Au Pique Assiette, a small café two streets back from the beach, I try a coddled egg in cream, another area specialty, and duck breast with sour-cherry sauce. At the table next to me, an elderly man sits reading a book and savouring his dinner. It always surprises me to see dogs in restaurants in France, but there sat his faithful Labrador, curled around his feet, one of the best-behaved customers in the place.

Walking along the boardwalk at sunset after my evening’s repast, I am again dazzled by the houses – white, pink, blue and yellow, with design elements pinched from everywhere, from the Moors to William Morris.

They stand as a testament to flamboyance and a bold defiance of the norm.

“Beauty,” they seem to say, “is what we decide it will be.”

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How French is that?

Your turn

The ultraluxe Hôtel La Co(o)rniche, naer the Dune du Pilat.

Barbara Ramsay Orr/The Globe and Mail

Air Canada Rouge offers direct, seasonal flights to Bordeaux from Montreal. Arcachon is a one-hour drive from the city, and trains and buses run regularly.

This once obscure stretch of the Atlantic is no longer sleepy during July and August. Traffic can be snarled, cafés busy and hotels booked up. Try visiting in late May (shoulder season) when it is easier to imagine what life here was like for the wealthy visitors who came to take the air at the turn of the 20th century.

Accommodation options are plentiful, with numerous B&B’s as well as small hotels. I stayed at the modest Hôtel de la Plage, just a short walk from the beach (rooms from €79 or about $116). Out near the Dune du Pilat is the ultraluxe Hôtel La Co(o)rniche (rooms from €275). Reserve a terrace table at its restaurant for a selection of the best seafood from the bay.

For more information about Arcachon, visit arcachon.com.

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