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Lège-Cap-Ferret peninsula: a sweet taste of elsewhere!

Lège-Cap-Ferret peninsula: a sweet taste of elsewhere!

E. Tresmontant - 2009-10-01

Between the ocean and immense Pilat Dune, Cap Ferret stretches its narrow strip of sand for a dozen or so miles. Cycling in the pine forest, swimming, tasting oysters outdoors, discovering  fishermen's villages vying in picturesqueness: Cap Ferret is a treasure that must be preserved at all costs!  See the map of Cap-Ferret

From Bordeaux, Lège-Cap-Ferret peninsula can be reached in 45 minutes by taking D 106, the so-called 'Truc Vert' road ('truc' meaning a little hill in Gascon). But you can also catch a boat from Arcachon and rent a bike in Cap-Ferret. Allow at least two days to discover the site. 
The tip of Cap Ferret
This is the favourite destination of Bordelais, coming here to surf, sunbathe or hike, whenever the sun starts to shine! Therefore, at weekends, we advise you to leave D 106 and take the forest road created by the first Gascon settlers. You will then cross the pine forest planted at the time of Napoleon III (7,500 hectares out of a total area of 10,000 hectares). Any time you like, fork off  to the 15 miles of beaches. Seen from the tip, the entrance of the ocean into Arcachon Basin is a beautiful and yet disquieting sight (isn't this the definition of 'sublime' by Kant?). Fearsome currents here are eroding the peninsula as can be seen from the Atlantic Wall blockhouses, all immersed in sand. The tip is being protected after a fashion by the Office National des Forêts which is endeavouring to fix the dune by plantations, pending a gigantic conservation plan funded by Europe.  Opposite this site, barely 2 miles away, lies the impressive Pilat Dune. Measuring 2,700 m long, 500 m wide and 104 m high, it's Europe's biggest dune, constantly changing as a function of the winds and sea currents.  
The foremost European spat centre
Walk down the Chemin des 44 hectares leading to Plage du Mimbeau. Showbiz stars have houses here  (Renaud, Obispo, Julien Clerc, etc.) like that of the architect Castro, built in a shipwreck. But the site is above all interesting on account of its oyster farms*, marked out by stakes, where oyster farmers lay their spats sheltered away from predators. Along with Marennes-Oléron, Arcachon Basin is the foremost European spat centre. Its larvae are sold in Brittany and Normandy where the water is too cold for oysters to milt.
L'île aux Oiseaux
At the beginning of the afternoon, a shuttle boat connects the landing stage at Cap Ferret to Ile aux Oiseaux.  This secret and unusual island owes its name to the multitude of herons, barnacle geese, terns and moorhens to which it is home. With an area of 1,000 hectares at low tide and 225 hectares at high tide, it is the site of forty or so oyster farmers' huts. It exotic nature is above all due to two huts on poles (the famous 'cabanes tchanquées', 'tchanque' meaning a stilt in Gascon), one being more than a hundred years old. Dominating the surrounding water, they stand watch over the oyster farms. Allow two hours for the trip.
L'Herbe, Léon Lesca and the memory of Lino...
Officially listed as a picturesque site since 1981, the oyster-farming village L'Herbe is famous for its brightly coloured wooden huts with tiled roofs. Measuring 4 m by 6 m, they are separated from one another by 2 m wide passageways. The oldest were built out of boats in the 19th century. Every day, fishermen and oyster farmers come down these narrow little streets to the beach. A miraculously preserved little gem! 
The 19th century had a plethora of whimsical and yet humanist adventurers, like the only too little known Léon Lesca! After having built the port of Algiers, this entrepreneur came back to France under the Second Empire and purchased an immense estate stretching from Claouey to Cap-Ferret. He introduced vine growing to the peninsula, engaged in logging, dug fish reservoirs, imported and acclimatised mimosa, and built a jetty, a school, and fishermen's houses. A genuine philanthropist! In 1865, at L'Herbe he had an extraordinary Mauresque style palace built, the 'Villa Agérienne', where he lived the life of a pacha till his death in 1913. Unfortunately, this architectural masterpiece was progressively abandoned, then sold and demolished by a real estate developer in 1965. On the sea front, the chapel of L'Herbe is the only remains of Léon Lesca's residence. Lastly, L'Herbe wouldn't be what it is without the Hotel de la Plage! This 1930s wooden house (run by two sisters with a legendary character) keeps alive the souvenir of Lino Ventura who, during his holidays, liked to play bowls here and enjoy whole basin loads of mussels... 
Jean Cocteau and the resin tappers
After spending a night on the peninsula, your return to Bordeaux will be equally interesting. Travelling along the basin-side coast, don't fail to see the reservoirs at Piraillan, fish reservoirs surrounded by forest. Herons, otters, boars and roe-deer roam freely here. The designer, Philippe Stark has had a deep-south style house built here with large sliding windows. 
Why not then head to the very close Plage du Grand Piquey? You'll discover the location of the defunct  Hotel Chantecler where the young Raymond Radiguet, backed by his mentor Jean Cocteau, wrote in 1920 Le Diable au corps. Cocteau liked this heathland so mild in winter, and brought along in his wake the artistic and literary Parisian elite: Max Jacob, Le Corbusier, Georges Auric, Jean and Valentine Hugo, the pianist Marcelle Meyer, and Comedie Française actors.
More to the north, the village of Claouey lies adjacent to the salt meadows nature reserve, surrounded by forest. You'll discover here the resin tapper's hut which is the last built evidence of the tapping activity on the peninsula. An exhibition and a discovery trail let you discover the reserve's flora and fauna. You can also participate in outdoor workshops, learning to tap pine resin and detect animal tracks.
There are mainly two types of Arcachon oysters:  flat, and gigas oysters originating from British Columbia, the latter being related to the Portuguese oysters wiped out by a disease in 1970.  
Local gastronomy
Oyster tasting
For an oyster tasting, your best bet is to head to the village of Cap-Ferret. The oysters are thin here, not very fatty and salty. Protected from the mud by metallic nets, they have the iodine taste of the basin and ocean freshness.  The oyster farmers will set you a table opposite the fishing smacks and serve you a glass of Entre-deux-mers.
At Cap-Ferret you'll find several restaurants selected by the Red Guide,  with a bistrot atmosphere or a maritime decor like the Pinasse Café, les Pins, Patrick Chautant and Chez Hortense, the latter two being located in fishermen's houses. Since the 1920s, fashionable Bordeaux society used to meet at Chez Hortense until the little house was engulfed by the waves and now lies at a depth of 18 m. It has now been rebuilt identically, slightly higher on the dune and serves mussels and chips that are still as renowned... 
Practical Information
Getting there
TGV Paris-Bordeaux 3 hours.
Cap-Ferret is north-west of the Bay of Arcachon, 65 km from Bordeaux.
Tourist Office of Lege-Cap-Ferret
Tel: 05 56 03 94 49
Fax: 05 57 70 31 70
Departmental Tourism Committee of Gironde
Tel: 05 56 52 61 40
Fax: 05 56 81 09 99
The Bird Island
Information and reservations 05 56 03 72 06.
Cabin resin
BP 40, Claouey
33,950 Lege-Cap-Ferret
Tel: 06 67 44 83 52

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