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Exploring France's Cap Ferret

Biking along the Avenue du Monument Saliens in Cap Ferret, France.

Photo: Jose Bernad

When I mention Cap Ferret to American friends, the response has become predictable. “Ooh, glamorous,” they say. “Very Jay-Z.” No, that’s Cap Ferrat, on the Côte d’Azur, a place of pop legends, Ferraris, and leathery men. Cap Ferret, on France’s southwestern coast, is much more than a vowel and an ocean away. Its landscape and spirit have more in common with salty Cape Cod than with St.-Tropez. The population is similar, too: a mix of fishermen, vacation renters, arts-industry types, and preppy aristocrats from nearby Bordeaux.

The longer I lived in Paris, the more French friends I made, the more I would hear about this magical place of pine forests, oyster shacks, rough waves, and practically no hotels. Finally, last summer, I went. Then I went back. And as soon as I can, I’m going again. It’s easy to reach: a three-hour TGV ride from Paris and another 90-minute drive due west from Bordeaux. Even in July and August, the shoreline offers many pockets of privacy. Bargain-priced oysters are hauled out of the ice-blue water straight onto your plate. Kids on bicycles are as plentiful as hydrangeas. After the fussiness of Paris, even the shiny and fabulous bits of Cap Ferret are very, very laid-back. Here, Liberty of London gets you a lot further than Versace.

It took a while for the pleasure-seekers to flock to the Bassin D’Arcachon, a massive, diamond-shaped estuary. At its western edge sits the skinny peninsula of Cap Ferret, assaulted on one side by the choppy, bracing Atlantic. Roman artifacts have been found in the mountainous Dune of Pilat, Europe’s largest sandbank, directly across the lagoon from Cap Ferret. And there are handfuls of historic churches in towns such as Gujan-Mestras and Andernos-Les-Bains, on the basin’s 45-mile-long coast. But it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the first wave of tourism to the region came. Aided by the expansion of the national railroad, the city of Arcachon became a thalassotherapy hub, with grand rental villas and casinos springing up along the shore. Meanwhile, starting in 1852, when a local fisherman began the practice of seeding oyster beds, domesticated oysters could ride the rails to Paris, bound for the finest tables. (Even today, some 10 percent of France’s oysters—and 70 percent of its oyster seeds—come from the Arcachon basin.)

But France is a country with more affinity for protectionism than speculation, and the oyster beds were soon parceled out to existing oyster-cultivating families with the provision that they could only be inherited or sold to others in the trade. As Arcachon’s tourism fortunes rose and fell, Cap Ferret, strictly zoned so as not to disturb the seafood or the extremely fragile landscape, maintained a peaceful equilibrium, only seeing an influx of visitors in the 1970’s, when the decade’s back-to-nature ethos went mainstream.

Today, although the ubiquitous signs shouting Respectons la nature “Let’s respect nature”) are a little cloying, people have little choice. It is forbidden to build on the peninsula’s Atlantic shore, so only dunes, shrubs, one or two menacing World War II–era concrete bunkers, and two burger shacks distract from the vistas beyond. That sea is cold. No: freezing. The undertow is fierce, and there are no lifeguards. But the water is sparkling, sky blue, and clear. The tides and temperatures keep most of the crowds across town on the bay side, just a slice of sand bordered by boulangeries, grill restaurants, and flip-flop stores. As the sun turns low and gold, and the tide recedes dramatically, that slice of sand expands into a mossy bed of beached rowboats with herons and gulls picking among the leftovers. Not exactly a bather’s paradise, but beautiful.

A turning point for Cap Ferret came in 1985, when Benoît Bartherotte, a former fashion designer and town father of sorts, installed himself at the southernmost tip of the peninsula and started to spiff up the place. When he bought his 12-acre plot, he also invested millions in a massive stone jetty to keep the compound from washing out to sea. (The tides in the Arcachon basin are so extreme that the 350-foot-high Dune of Pilat moves about a yard inland each year; between low and high tide, the surface area of the lagoon expands from roughly 10,000 acres to 37,000.) Bartherotte’s compound, with its streamlined, light-strewn cabins, modeled on the area’s traditional wood-frame fisherman’s shacks, has become a favorite among French design magazines and the launchpad for a chic cabin-building enterprise overseen by Bartherotte’s two sons. And the surrounding, now wildly exclusive neighborhood—known as Les 44 Hectares, with only 250 plots—is among the most prized real estate in France, with modestly sized houses selling for upward of $13 million. The director and actor Guillaume Canet summers here, and it’s where he and his girlfriend, actress Marion Cotillard, just filmed their latest movie together, Les Petits Mouchoirs.

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