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.

Ile d’Yeu Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Regions of France (Public domain via Wikimedia)

What does the French Atlantic Coast offer?

Just about everything.

Surfer on the French Atlantic Coast ©-Naturaglisse-Mathieu-Reveillas

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.  

The Mechanical Elephant in Nantes withpeople onits back spouting water towards another machine of a carousel
The Mechanical Elephant ©-Franck-Charel Nantes TO

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.

Marais Poitevin with small bridge over canal and cyclists. Stream and overhanging trees
Marais Poitevin cycle path © Sébastien-Laval

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

Pays de la Loire map placing it in France and with all its departments
Pays de la Loire Public domain via Wikimedia

In the northerly Pays de la Loire, the departments of Loire-Atlantique and Vendée lie beside the French Atlantic coast.

Noirmoutier island on French Atlantic coast with view from a path covered in trees out to a boardwalk stretching into the sea
Noirmoutier © A. Lamoureux -Vendee_Expansion

Just off the coastline, its balmy climate has earned Ile de Noirmoutier the nickname of the Island of Mimosas.

The Mechanical Elephant in Nantes withpeople onits back spouting water towards another machine of a carousel
The Mechanical Elephant ©-Franck-Charel Nantes TO

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.

Overhead view of Loire Montsoreau in Anjou with viens in front, castle to right and Loire in background
Loire Montsoreau vines in Anjou © Jean-Sébastien Evrard

The mighty Loire River is on the last part of its 630 mile/1,013 km journey here. Starting in the Auvergne, it eventually flows through Nantes and into the Atlantic at St-Nazaire.

The Vendée

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.

Ile d’Yeu on the French Atlantic coast Public domain via Wikimedia

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.

Vendee Globe race in action with yacht leaning over in empty sea
The Vendée Globe © Jean-Marie Liot / Alea

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 next is scheduled for November 8, 2020.

Marais Poitevin seen along a canal shaded by trees overhead with boat and man in distance
Marais Poitevin Public domain via Wikimedia

On the borders of the VendéeDeux-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.

Puy du Fou theme park with knights in full armour on horseback with horses also covered in cloths and knights carrying flags. About to joust
Puy du Fou jousting knights

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.

Vendée Tourist Information

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.

Island living

Ile de Ré village looking at church tower and castle ruins from tower level with trees in front and sea in background
Ile de Ré © TO Ile de Ré

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.

Ile d'Aix harbour looking fromthe sea to yachts bobbing upand down, with defensive walls and houses behind in the harbour
Ile d’Aix Harbour © Mary Anne Evans

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.

Ile d’Oléron Beach © Thierry Richard

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.

Heads of children on boat at sea looking at Fort Boyard, a vast prison
Fort Boyard © Charentes-Tourisme

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

La Rochelle

La Rochelle at night with the towers lit up reflected in the sea
La Rochelle Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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

Rochefort

Rochefort Maritime Museum with three figures in 18th century costumes in an 18th century room with window open at one side and ship in case on other
Rochefort Maritime Museum © Mary Anne Evans

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.

L'Hermione, the replica of the ship Lafayette took to America. At sea sailing away with French flag flying but no sails up
L’Hermione © Mary Anne Evans

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

Topographical map of Nouvelle Aquitaine showing position in souther France, main cities and heights of different areas
Nouvelle Aquitaine Public domain via Wikimedia

Aquitaine runs south from Poitou-Charentes to north of the Pyrenees. 

Bordeaux

Miroir d'Eaux in Bordeaux showing shallow waterfilled place in front of row of new-classical buildings with children splashing
Miroir d’Eaux in Bordeaux © Steve Le Blech/TO

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

Gironde

Gironde river estuary with rushes on land tothe left, sea to the right and fishing nets in distance
Gironde Estuary Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Arcachon Bay

Arcachon Bay with boats in the sea against a background of a beach and pebbles, houses and trees
Archachon Bay Public domain via Wikimedia

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. 

Due du Pylat seen from the sky. Huge and high dune stretchying along the coast surrounded by sea on one side and forests on other three
Dune du Pylat © CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia

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.

Map of the Parc Regional de Landes
Parc Regional de Landes Public domain via Wikimedia

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.

Ecomusee de Marquezes showing sheep inforegound grazing and white 2-storey house at rear
Ecomusée de Marquèzes

Its wildlife is superb and for those with any interest in this strange area, a visit to the Ecomusée de Marquèzes is a must. It’s an open-air museum that stretches over several sites taking you back in a very effective way to the lonely life of the area.

The Pyrenees

Virgin rock in Biarritz looking down onto turquoise sea and rocks in the sea with ladder to outlying one
The Virgin Rock in Biarritz © Simon Biggar Pays Basque Tourisme

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

distance view of Biarritz plage with Biarritz in the background and three huge waves washing onto the beach. Taken from a grassy headland
Biarritz Beach © Florian Pépellin, CC BY-SA 3.0

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

St-Jean-de-Luz

Man wlaking down a path between high sided green fields towards the sea and on opposite bank St-jean-de-Luz
St-Jean-de-Luz © Office de Tourisme Pays Basque

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.
St-Jean-de-Luz Tourist Office

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.