Discovering the beaches of the Pays de la Loire
Enchanting hamlets, magnificent cities, superb nature, and a wide variety of gastronomic specialties: France is an endless surprise.
Every region has its character, places and attractions that everyone has heard of, and off-the-beaten track destinations that are well worth a detour.
The Pays de la Loire, not to be confused with the Centre-Val de Loire region and its famous châteaux (most of which are in Central France), has its centre in Nantes, the starting point of my journey.
Once a slave trading centre and an important base for shipyards, it was after the decline at the end of the 20th Century that Nantes brilliantly reinvented itself and became a hub for innovation, culture and art. I enjoyed strolling around in the historical centre, relaxing in the Jardin des Plantes - the beautiful botanical gardens - or having fun at the Machines de l’Île - the place where the fantasy world of Jules Vernes comes to life.
However, I also wanted to discover the coast and the beaches of Western France. Bordered by the Atlantic Ocean, the Pays de la Loire boasts a beautiful coastline with wide sandy beaches perfect for relaxing, trying out some water sports, or taking on the hiking and biking trails.
I’m not one to lie on the beach like a lizard, and to me relaxing means shade, a good book and, perhaps, a nap. I also like to be active, whether it’s walking, sailing or biking, and with many beach resorts along the 450 km coastline of the Pays de la Loire, choosing was not easy.
I was tempted by the elegant La Baule, with its wide bay of fine sand (voted in 2011 as one of the most beautiful in the world), and the characteristic tents with their white and blue stripes. I would have liked to explore the nearby wilder Guérande peninsula and the salt mines and I felt intrigued by Saint-Jean-de-Monts with its sand dunes and the surrounding forest. I was attracted by Pornic and the famous Fromagerie Le Curé Nantais, where the local cheese is still made according to the traditional method invented by a parish priest in 1880.
Too many places to visit, too little time.
Eventually, I made up my mind and headed to the Islands of Yeu and Noirmoutier in Vendée enticed by the laid back atmosphere and my predilection for smaller and more secluded places.
For a long time, Yeu has been the main tuna fishing port of the Atlantic coast, and fishing still is one of the island’s main activities and characteristics, also reflected in the local cuisine - pure bliss for seafood lovers. The quaint town of Port Joinville, where the ferry arrives, was what I had been looking for: whitewashed houses with blue shutters and doors overlooking the small port, the exhilarating smell of the sea and the calm of a fishermen village where life flows following the rhythm of the sun and the seasons.
There’s no better way to explore the island than hiking or biking, stopping along the way at one of the many lovely beaches, or to visit the prehistorical sites and the dolmens dating back to around 3000 BC. The GR 80 is a 27 km coastal path that allows you to hike all around the island, but since I’m more inclined to less demanding walks, I chose a couple of the shorter trails (there are five of them), covering the rest by local bus.
More hikes and more beaches can be found on the Noirmoutier Island. The Barbâtre beaches are perfect for water sports such as kite surfing, wind surfing, kayaking and catamaran sailing. If you look for relax and a walk along the seashore, head to the beaches of l’Epine. Don’t miss to spend some time at the Plage des Dames where the white cabins and the long pier recall the early times of seaside tourism.
My time in Noirmoutier wouldn’t have been complete without eating oysters, mussels and other seafood, the specialty of the peninsula, but if fish is not your thing, there are plenty of other delicious culinary options to end your relaxing or active days.