Situated on the Côte de Lumière which covers 105km² of France’s Atlantic coastline, Les Sables d’Olonne is first and foremost a fishing hub, ranking fourth in France for the value of its fish exports (over 6,500 tonnes each year). The main species fished are sole, hake, cuttlefish, tuna and crustaceans – and a fish auction takes place early every morning on weekdays. The fishing quarter of La Chaume is the town’s oldest, formerly a rocky island named Vertime that joined the mainland during the Middle Ages.
Port Olona is Les Sables’ pleasure port, the first of its kind in Vendée and sheltering 1,100 boats. The town has a sailing school (École de Voile), a cruising school (École de Croisière) and various nautical clubs. Thalassotherapy has been fashionable in Les Sables for years: you can bathe in the 29°C Piscine du Remblai on the seafront and visit the thalassotherapy centre linked to the Hôtel Mercure for a range of indulgent treatments. But perhaps Les Sables d’Olonne’s greatest claim to fame is being the departure point of the Vendée Globe, a thrilling solo round-the-world sailing race. A dedicated village opens to the public at Esplanade du Vendée Globe three weeks prior to the departure date.
If you don’t fancy accompanying a tour guide around Les Sables, you can simply use your smartphone to follow the network of 50 QR codes punctuating the town. En route you’ll discover the Notre-Dame de Bon Port church, a classified monument historique built in the 17th century, and the 12th-century St-Jean d’Orbestier abbey, a former residence of Richard the Lionheart. Those into contemporary art should head to the Sainte-Croix Abbey Museum, stuffed with works by Gaston Chaissac, Victor Brauner, Albert Marquet, Combas and Baselitz. Every year Les Sables hosts a vibrant cultural programme of concerts, dance shows and theatre festivals that draw a crowd.
As well as fresh fish and shellfish, Les Sables d’Olonne’s star product is its salt, nicknamed ‘white gold’. Boats used to come to Les Sables from all over northern Europe to buy salt to preserve the fish on board, and there are salt marshes in Les Sables at l’Aubraie, still producing salt today. Wine lovers should visit the Michon cellars in nearby L’Île d’Olonne. All the local specialities can be enjoyed in the numerous restaurants lining the harbour or across town.