Les Sables d’Olonne will surprise you – that is unless you are a serious sailor. A small, lively seaside resort in the Vendée department of Pays de la Loire, Les Sables d’Olonne is the acknowledged world capital of solo ocean racing.

But it has much more to offer than the heroic races it launches around the globe.

Sailing boats at Les Sables d’Olonne for GGR 2022 wth boats with no sails at anchor in still blue sea
Golden Globe Race Boats at Les Sables d’Olonne © GGR 2022

Les Sables d’Olonne sits on a glorious stretch of the French Atlantic Coast. Between La Rochelle and St Nazaire, the active port is sheltered in a harbour fed by extensive salt marshes and rivers to the north.

Aerial view of Les Sables d'Olonne showing long jetty with lighthouse at end town to left, harbour and river separating 2 parts of the town
Les Sables d’Olonne © A. Lamoureux Vendée Expansion

Fishing Port, Seaside Resort and Sailing Capital of Les Sables d’Olonne

coloured painting of La Chaume port in 1921 by Alfred Marquet with one fishing boat in middle and others to righ and port buildings
La Chaume Port in 1921 by Alfred Marquet. Public domain

In the 17th century around 100 boats left Les Sables d’Olonne twice a year to fish for cod, arriving back with fish that had been salted at sea. The export of salt, produced along the coast, brought more wealth; the ‘white gold’ was sold throughout northern Europe as a food preservative. Coming back the boats were filled with stone ballast and the town’s building material needs were neatly taken care of.

Sardine and tuna fishing took over from cod and the canning industry prospered along the coast. You can visit one of the best known, La Perle des Dieux, her or at Saint-Gilles Croix de Vie, 30 kms north on the coast. Or just buy one of their famous tins at any shop.

For top products like fish soups, marinades, sauces and more from a local seafood cannery, buy La Sablaise items in shops and at their stand, Le Petit Comptoir, in the Covered Market.

Looking down from above on covered market with stalls busy with customers on ground floor in iron, steel and glass old-fashioned market hall building
Covered Market in Les Sables d’Olonne © Mary Anne Evans

Then the railways arrived. From 1866 they brought holiday makers from La Roche-sur-Yon, Saumur and Tours and Paris. The Parisians had to wait until 1971 for the express train service.

The American Expeditionary Forces were based here in World War I. In World War II it was occupied by the Germans though there is little left of the memories of wartime France except for the German Hospital Bunker Museum.

What to See and Do in Les Sables d’Olonne

Start at the Beach

Les Sables d'Olonne beach with huge sand in front of gentle blue sea with people and headland with buildings in far background
Les Sables d’Olonne Beach © Mechtraveller.com

The town curls around the coast. To the south of the town a long south-facing sandy beach, La Grande Plage, which buzzes with families building sand castles while the energetic indulge in water sports. The idle (I happily count myself among them), just sit in one of the many cafés or restaurants that line the beach watching the world enjoy itself.

A Place to Wander

Small aley between gracious stone houses leading down to beach
Small alleyways to the beach © Mary Anne Evans

Turn your back on the ocean and walk inland and you’re in a bustling area with gracious official buildings like the Town Hall, the Courthouse and the central covered market (Halles Centrales) which is well worth a visit. Small individual shops, cafés and bars fill the streets.

L'ile Pennot small street with walls decorated with sea scenes like boat on undulating wave all made from sea shells
L’île Pennot © Mary Anne Evans

It’s the place to wander through, but don’t miss L’île Penotte. It’s just a small area but the walls of the houses are covered in murals made of multi-coloured shells of sea snails, scallops, oysters, mussels and some you just won’t recognise. The murals are designed and made by a local resident artist whose imagination ran riot.

The north shore houses the fishing port and a collection of good restaurants (see below).

La Chaume

Stone house in courtyard with tree in front of round tower and house with pale blue shutters pulled back and red tiles
Alleyway in La Chaume © Mary Anne Evans

La Chaume is the oldest part of Les Sables d’Olonne. Small houses line the streets and alleyways that meander their way through the town. Facing the sea, this was where the town defended itself from any sea attacks. There are plenty of small corners and surprises here, like the Café de la Mairie, 69 Rue du Lieutenant Maurice Anger where the clients look as if they’ve been here as long as the pictures on the walls.

Cafe de la Mairie in Les Sables d'Olonne interior with old man sitting at wooden table and walls covered in old prints and photosand
Café de la Mairie © Mary Anne Evans

Marvel at the Murals

Mural in Les Sables d'Olonne showing painted upp part of house with man standing in doorway of a buvette
Buvette Mural © Mary Anne Evans

Just by the church of Saint Nicolas (patron saint of fishermen), a wonderful set of murals decorates the sides of different houses. Imagination takes over as a friend tried to step into the door of the famous ‘buvette’.

Mural of a buvette (bar) on wall with real man trying to ope the door of the buvette and figures seen in window drinking
Mural in Les Sables d’Olonne © Mary Anne Evans

Climb the steps to the top of the Arundel Tower for the view. It’s part of the Château Saint-Clair, one of the main defensive points protecting the harbours from invaders from the sea. From April to September, the Sea Museum in Château Saint-Clair shows the nautical history of the town with plenty of models of ships (why are these so fascinating?), compasses, sextants, globes, maps and more.

Arundel Tower Les Sables d'Olonne view from across the river with stone tower and chateau in distance
Arundel Tower © Mechtraveller.com

And in case you wonder why the tower is named ‘Arundel’, there’s a simple explanation. This part of France was ruled by the English through the marriage of Eleanor of Aquitaine to Henry II in 1154. The château at Talmont became the favourite resident of their son, Richard the Lionheart; the open countryside around it the place he preferred to hunt, though the heart of the Plantagenet Empire was always Le Mans.

St Nicolas Priory from afar showing walk along wall to get to stone defenses and old priory in distance with stone walls and red rooves
St Nicolas Priory © Mary Anne Evans

A walk along a long quay takes you to the Priory of Saint Nicolas. It looks out to sea, its old iron cannon a reminder of the defence of this once important port. It’s an incredibly pretty building, now an arts centre open during special exhibitions.

Long boardwalk on stone jetty with fishermen on one side and at end red lighthouse
Grand Jetty © Mary Anne Evans

Beyond that the jetty stretches out to one of the many lighthouses surrounding the town.

Port Olona Yacht Basin and Ocean-Going Yachts

Boats at anchor in harbour at Les Sables d'Olonne golden Globe race with reflections in water and boats head on
Les Sables d’Olonne harbour © Mary Anne Evans

The large harbour, with 1,500 moorings, is where yachts are kept and where they gather for the start out to sea for all the major races. You can walk down the pontoon and can chat to the sailors; you might even come across the odd famous ones (though you might find it difficult to recognise them working on their boats).

Tapio Lehtinen on boat racing sideways with colourful spinnaker up
Tapio Lehtinen © Christophe Favreau/PPL/GGR

The Golden Globe race which started on Sep 4, 2022, ended in June 2023 though only 3 out of the original starters finished the race itself. Others were put into the secondary class or eliminated but finished the course anyway. It’s a fabulous race, testing skills and resilience to the utmost.
Here’s what the Golden Globe Race is all about.
News and updates on the Golden Globe Race.

Armel Tripon on l'Occitane en Provence with boat partly out of the water on its yellow foils and skipper at front of boat
Armel Tripon on l’Occitane en Provence Photo Pierre Bouras / L’Occitane en Provence

The Vendée Globe is another extreme race, but this one is with those sleek hydrofoils that lift the boat right out of the water and skim along the surface, seemingly defying gravity.

Here’s my article on the last (2020) Vendée Globe Race.
The next Vendée Globe race starts on October 10, 2024.

Where to Stay

Les Sables d’Olonne is a major seaside resort town so you’ll find that in the high season you have to book for a minimum of 2 nights, sometimes 3 or 4.

We stayed at the 3-star Originals Boutique, Admiral’s Hotel, a short stroll to the Port Olona harbour. A large room with a good-sized bathroom had a balcony looking out to the harbour; staff were bi-lingual and very helpful. Rooms range from €93 (low season) to a low of €152 in the high season (2-nights minimum).

The Atlantic Hotel and Spa is a chic choice. It’s located by the beach on La Grande Plage and has its own indoor pool. All rooms have balconies looking out to sea and some have hot tubs. From £116 (low season) to £172 (high season).

Balcony looking out to sea from hotel room in Les Roches Noire with 2 champgne glasses on table
Les Roches Noires Hotel

The 3-star Les Roches Noires & Spa is also on La Grande Plage; some of the 42 rooms have balconies with sea views.  Prices range from €100 low season and €170 high season (3 nights minimum).

The 2-star, small (20 rooms) Les Embruns is a good inexpensive and simple option in La Chaume. From €64 low season.

Stay outside Les Sables d’Olonne

If you’re looking for a bed and breakfast just outside, try Les Fermes de Terre Neuve. In La Girardière in l’île d’Olonne and surrounded by farm land, a 400-year old barn has been converted into 3 rooms, well decorated with antiques. There’s a guest salon with billiards table, heated outdoor summer swimming pool and bicycles to borrow. €140 to €180 per night including breakfast.

Where to Eat

Fleurs de Thym restaurant at night with name on outside of awning and people at outside tables and chairs
Fleur de Thym © Mary Anne Evans

Fleurs de Thym is just by the fish market. Surrounded by restaurants, it stands out for its excellent fish and shellfish, good value and outside tables. If you’re really a fan, try the groaning Plateau de Fruits de Mer. Closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Lunch menu €19; dinner menu €35.

La Cotriade is another good choice along by the fishing port a few steps away from Fleurs de Thym. It promises much with its ice-laden buffet of fish and shellfish at the front. Try la cotriade, Brittany’s answer to bouillabaisse. With top ingredients it’s a hefty €45 (but worth every euro). Or go for the excellent menu at €39.

Les Sables d'Olonne Les Patagos restaurant view from one sideof street showing parasols and people on chairs at tables eating with harbour with yachts behine
Les Patagos and other restaurants © Mechtraveller.com

We had a very good light lunch at Les Patagos, sitting on high chairs right beside the water very near Port Olona in a stretch lined with restaurants. Come here for crêpes and galettes filled with a whole variety of ingredients. And don’t miss the desserts. We were even entertained (or tormented depending on your mood) by an eccentric musician who wheeled a large barrel organ up and down the road in front of us.

Bikini Beach restaurant on beach showing tables and chairs under awnings with sandy beach and people and sea
Bikini Beach Restaurant © Mary Anne Evans

If you’re on La Grande Plage, make for Bikini Beach. This summer casual bar/restaurant serves great salads, as well as fish and meat. Sit at a table on the beach for the best experience.

Plenty to Do outside Les Sables d’Olonne

Paddleboarding in Les Sables d'Olonne. Canoes and paddleboards on bank with one man and river beyond with woman heading off down the river
Paddle boarding in Les Sables d’Olonne © Mechtraveller.com

There’s plenty to do in the peninsula of woods, dunes, beaches and salt marshes that lie north of the town. Take a canoe or try paddle boarding in the marais salt marshlands with La Terrasse des Salines. €16 euros per person for 90 minutes paddleboarding (if you haven’t done it before, that’s quite long enough). €10 per person for canoeing.

Two people on electric scooters lady in front
Electric Scooters in the Woods © Mark Nicholls

I tried taking a hefty electric scooter (big wheels!) in the salt marshes with a group on a guided tour organised by Libert-e Trott. Believe me, you need the guide. He took us through the forest, to the sea and along small paths between the salt pans. It was great, though I did take one corner too fast and fell off into the mud which was shaming. We stopped for a drink (non alcoholic) in a small village on our 2-hour ride. It was fabulous and well worth the €45.

We finished the afternoon with a visit to a nearby small family-run vineyard. Domaine des Granges makes distinctive wines, dictated by the particular soil so close to the sea.

Getting Around

Water ferry boat in Les Sables d'Olonne showing gangway descending from quay to waiting water ferry on water with town in background
Water Ferry stop © Mechtraveller.com

You’ll do a lot of walking in Les Sables d’Olonne but a good option to get from one area to another is taking one of the water ferries that bustle across the water. Three different routes take you around the inner harbours. A single ticket costs €1.10 (you can buy this on the boat). Get the following at the Tourist Offices: 10 trip card is €8 and a monthly pass is €14.

Getting to Les Sables d’Olonne

From the UK: By Air: The closest airports are Nantes (90minutes away) or La Rochelle (100 minutes).

Major airlines like Air France etc. fly from London to Nantes but they are expensive.

Cheaper direct flights from the UK to Nantes: easyJet, Ryanair from Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester and Edinburgh.

From the UK direct flights to La Rochelle: BA, easyJet, Ryanair from Stansted, Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester

By rail: 9 hours from London to Les Sables d’Olonne with 3 changes.

By car: Brittany Ferries: From Cherbourg to Les Sables d’Olonne: 453 kms/282 miles taking around 4 hours 45 mins.
From Saint-Malo to Les Sables d’Olonne: 290kms/180 miles taking 3 hours 30 mins.
From Roscoff to les Sables d’Olonne: 430 kms/267 taking 4 hours 40 mins.

DFDS: From Dieppe to les Sables d’Olonne 524 kms/325 miles taking around 5 hours 10 mins.

Detailed information on how to get from the UK to France by ferry

From Paris:

By air: Air France is the best option for flying to Nantes.

By car: 466 kms/290 miles taking around 4hrs 50 mins.

More Information

Les Sables d’Olonne Tourist Office
Vendée Tourist Office

Here’s more about…

The glorious Vendée Department
The French Atlantic Coast
Charming Ile d’Aix where Napoleon stayed
Chic Ile de Re