The French Atlantic coast is magnificent, sweeping down the west side of France from Brittany to the Basque country and the Pyrenees on the Spanish border. It takes in the old regions of Pays de la Loire, Poitou-Charente and Aquitaine.
To the east, the boundary of the French Atlantic coast is marked by the pretty departments of the Loir-et-Cher and the Indre-et-Loire, the glorious Limousin countryside, rich Périgord and Gascony; to the west, the expanse of the Atlantic ocean.
What does the French Atlantic Coast offer?
Just about everything.
This is the place for some of the best surfing in Europe; for miles of golden sandy beaches and dunes on the Côte d’Argent south of Bordeaux.
It has glorious islands from beautiful Noirmoutier to chic Ile de Ré and tiny Ile d’Aix with its Napoleonic history.
Cities offer perfect short breaks from Nantes to Bordeaux. La Rochelle, Rochefort and Biarritz are all irresistible.
And for rolling countryside there’s the Marais Poitevin.
For cyclists there’s the Vélodyssée, the cycle route that covers over 745 miles (1,200 kms) from Brittany down the Atlantic coast to Spain. And every water sport under the sun is there for the taking.
Pays de la Loire
In the northerly Pays de la Loire, the departments of Loire-Atlantique and Vendée lie beside the French Atlantic coast.
Just off the coastline, its balmy climate has earned Ile de Noirmoutier the nickname of the Island of Mimosas.
Nantes is the capital of both the Pays de la Loire region and the Loire-Atlantique department. It’s a wonderful city known for the former castle of the Dukes of Brittany, its strange machines, its renovated industrial districts and its young population. It’s one of the great towns and cities along the whole Loire Valley.
The Vendée department of the Pays de la Loire region, is known for 161 miles/250 kms of protected coastline and 87 miles/140 kms of beaches.
There are some spectacular islands to explore: just south west of Nantes, the Ile d’Yeu, the ‘Corsica of the Atlantic’, is one of France’s most important tuna fishing islands. The east side faces the French coast; the other, wild side is well worth exploring for its cliffs and small inlets looking out over the Atlantic.
Les Sables d’Olonne, once the most important cod fishing port in France, is now a yachting town.
It’s best known as the port where the famous Vendée Globe starts and finishes. The extremely tough round-the-world solo yachting race takes place every 4 years. The last one began in 2020 and finished in spring 2021.
On the borders of the Vendée, Deux-Sèvres and the Charente-Maritime departments, the marshy flatlands of the Marais Poitevin are quite extraordinary. The area is ideal for walks on well-marked paths, through the Marais Mouillé or Wet Marsh.
The area is known as the La Venise Verte, or the Green Venice, its twisting little streams and canals, constructed by the ever ingenious Dutch in the 17th century, snake through the forests, accessed by boats.
Just inland and between Cholet and La Roche-sur-Yon, the Puy du Fou, as Michelin says, is worth the detour. It’s my favorite historical theme park of any in the world with spectacular shows and great hotels that range from a Roman villa to the Field of the Cloth of Gold grand pavilions. It’s a must-see on any visit to the region.
More about the glorious Vendée.
Poitou Charente/Charente Maritime
Sweeping further south, this is another region of seashore and sandy beaches. Now part of Nouvelle Aquitaine, and with an important history, it’s relatively undiscovered.
In the north the pretty island of Ile de Ré is the summer playground of chic Parisians. It’s a delightful island with fortifications in the capital, St-Martin, oyster and salt beds, a network, of paths to walk and cycle along. Markets to shop in, and remarkably good places to stay and eat.
Here is guest writer Fiona Quinn’s personal take on Ile de Ré.
Just off the coast between La Rochelle and Rochefort lies my favorite – Ile d’Aix. This tiny, traffic-free island was Napoleon’s last French residence, before the dastardly English played their final successful trick on him. They packed him off to Portsmouth then sent him on his way to Saint Helena where he ended his days.
Île d’Oléron is one of the bigger islands on the coast, joined to the mainland by a bridge. Eat oysters and visit La Citadelle, the waterfront fortress in Le Château d’Oléron. Walk through the pine forests and dunes and visit the small fishing ports.
If you haven’t heard of either of the islands, you might have heard of the TV Series Fort Boyard. It was filmed at the fort, half way between Ile d’Aix and Ile d’Oléron. Boat trips take you up close, but you can’t get onto the island (unless you’re a tv star).
French Atlantic Coast Cities
Along the coast, the maritime city of La Rochelle, called the ‘White City’ from its pale limestone buildings reflected in the sea, was once one of the most important ports of France. Its Vieux Port (Old Harbour) is dominated by twin towers at the entrance dating back to the 14th century. Strategically based along the French Atlantic coast, along with Rochefort, La Rochelle port was ideal for transatlantic sailings.
Today it’s a top vacation spot, surrounded by some great beaches, ideal for families. Don’t miss the Musée du Nouveau Monde (Museum of the New World), showing the close links between La Rochelle and North America.
La Rochelle Tourist Office
Just south of La Rochelle, Rochefort was another significant maritime center, with a huge Arsenal building war ships to defend France against their ancient and persistent enemy, the English.
It was from here that L’Hermione sailed. Built in 1780, the Marquis of Lafayette took command of the ship and sailed her across the Atlantic to help the Americans in the Revolutionary War against the English. A replica has now been built which sails to different parts of the world each year. It’s a wonderful sight to see her, flags flying, out at sea.
She lives in Rochefort and when not sailing you can visit her. Well worth it.
Rochefort Tourist Office
Aquitaine runs south from Poitou-Charentes to north of the Pyrenees.
Bordeaux in the Gironde is the regional capital, the centre of the region’s famous wine industry, an important French city, and one of Europe’s foremost ports. A great trade center from Roman times, it’s best known for the famous Bordeaux wines and spirits.
This wonderful city has reinvented itself with top attractions, museums, great shopping, hotels and restaurants. Now just over 2 hours 30 minutes by TGV from Paris, it’s become a favorite short break destination.
Bordeaux Tourist Office
The mighty Gironde river flows north of this beautiful department west of Bordeaux until it empties into the Atlantic. The Gironde estuary produces world-famous wines like Médoc, Haut- Médoc, Pauillac, Margeaux and St-Julien.
South of the Gironde the Bay of Arcachon produces the finest oysters, earning its place as foremost in the regional food of France. The glorious coast line, an enormously long stretch of sandy beaches, is famous for its nudist and naturist resorts like Montalivet where the international naturist movement started, as well as its family beaches.
Inland the immense pine forests of Les Landes stretch along the French Atlantic coast down to the Dune du Pilat, the highest sand dune in Europe.
The huge protected Parc Naturel Regional des Landes de Gascogne is an area of pine forest, wetland and coastline takes in the whole of Les Landes from Arcachon Bay. It’s a vast triangular plain, originally an inland sea that became covered in forest in the 19th century.
So you come down to the southernmost region of the Atlantic coast, the Pyrenees and Basque country.
Many people flock here for the surfing, some of the best in the world. The coast is a mix of rocky inlets and long sloping sandy beaches bringing the surf of the Atlantic pounding onto the land.
Biarritz is the capital of the area, once the most glamorous city in France and for long the most famous, or infamous, city on the French Atlantic coast. It suffered in the 1960s when the fashionable abandoned the west coast for the Riviera. Its resurgence has made Biarritz a lively, cosmopolitan city with a famous Casino, great restaurants and interesting museums including the Musée de la Mer, one of the great aquarium collections of Europe.
Biarritz Tourist Office
And so to the southernmost part of this journey down the Atlantic coast. St-Jean-de-Luz is a charming town with a lovely old quarter. It’s the only natural harbor between Arcachon and Spain and a major port with whaling and cod-fishing fleets.
It’s in the heart of the Pays Basque, the region shared with Spain. You can’t miss the language of Euskera with most signs in the two languages.
And so we come to the end of the journey down the French Atlantic Coast. It’s one of my favorite parts of France with a beauty that sets it apart. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
Getting to the French Atlantic Coast
Brittany Ferries runs from Portsmouth to St Malo in Brittany. From here to Nantes it’s a 177 kms/109 mile drive taking around 2 hrs 30 mins. Check out the information on Ferries to France from the UK.