Exploring France's Cap Ferret
Published: April 2011
By Alexandra Marshall
Worlds apart from the glammed-out scene on the Riviera, France’s Cap Ferret is full of unpretentious charms.
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.
While celebrities (Audrey Tautou, tennis champ turned pop star Yannick Noah, and tough-guy matinée idol Jean-Paul Belmondo) have certainly found Cap Ferret, rusticity still reigns. “For me it’s the mix of wildness and quaintness,” says Edouard Debost, a Paris-based banker whose family used to vacation in and around St.-Tropez until the hassle drove them to Les 44. “It’s healthy and sporty and you don’t play a role.” Adds his wife, Mahasti, a lawyer: “No high heels. No makeup. Just nice people and wonderful food.” Indeed, the throbbing heart of Cap Ferret is not a blinged-out cruising drag or a string of LVMH-owned boutiques, but the Marché du Cap Ferret, a covered market with a strong parking-lot trade in espadrilles, hammam towels, and tapenades. Inside is a small trove of fresh local fish stalls, a greengrocer, and a jolly tapas bar, Le Bistrot de Peyo, that serves $4 glasses of rosé, stuffed piquillo peppers, and Manchego cheese with black cherry jam starting at 6 a.m. Lacoste shirts and boat shoes abound, and whether it’s due to the morning tipple or not, everyone, everyone, is smiling.
For travelers looking to play into the local scene, there’s a snappy vacation-rental market through a handful of high-toned agencies. Greg de Lépinay, owner of Sail Fish, one of Cap Ferret’s most glamorous nightspots, has two whitewashed apartments for rent near the town dock called the Sail Fish Suites. Hotels, meanwhile, are not plentiful. The best one, located in the charming Quartier Ostréicole, is La Maison du Bassin. It opened over a decade ago, and has been booked months in advance ever since. With crisp interiors, nautical antiques, and sisal rugs doused with orange-flower water, the rooms are as welcoming as the service, and the restaurant offers excellent bistro comfort food. The absence of televisions or other cushy room amenities propels you to the beach, which is within walking distance. Also right in the shabby-chic spirit of Cap Ferret is the Hôtel des Pins, whose rustic, country-Deco style seems too well-considered for a two-star. More controversial among locals is the new Côté Sable, on the bay side. With a Clarins spa and modern deck furniture, it gives off too strong a whiff of city mouse. Unfortunately it has service and prices to match.
For those willing to lodge across the bay, out of the action but an easy ferry or boat-taxi ride from town, Philippe Starck’s shiny new La Co(o)rniche, in hoity-toity Pyla-sur-Mer, has the basin abuzz. Opened last May—and refashioned out of a split-timber former relais de chasse (hunting lodge)—the hotel has only 12 whimsical, sun-filled rooms, although the restaurant seats more than 200.
The extra tables, even if they are across the bay, are welcome. Despite having the finest possible seafood, Cap Ferret wouldn’t know what to do with a Michelin star if they hauled one up from the deep. The area doesn’t have much of a gastronomy scene, so La Co(o)rniche’s modern cuisine de terroir is a welcome treat. The party atmosphere of the poolside terrace is on lower volume during the day, and lunch is the best time to take advantage of a table overlooking the water and the paragliders who hover over the dune like butterflies. (Though my cod with boudin noir, red pepper coulis, and roasted almonds would have been delicious no matter where I was.)
Back in Cap Ferret, it’s all backyard barbecues and oysters, and, the thinking goes, they need little help. Chez Boulan, one of the many tasting bars that populate the Quartier Ostréicole, is content with a cluster of mismatched furniture set up on a lawn. It serves platters of salty oysters with lemon wedges; plates of steamed shrimp; white wine; and little else. I first stumbled in after a long idyll at the beach, and returned every day for a mid-afternoon snack, watching the to-go platters streaming out the door like the tide. A few blocks away, Le Père Ouvrard serves fish-based tapas (succulent grilled prawns with herbs; impeccable sardines à la planche) during cocktail hour on high-season weekends. Meanwhile, the toughest reservation in town is the scruffy Chez Hortense, with long wooden tables, Christmas lights, a great view of the Dune of Pilat, and garlicky, awesomely tender bacon-strewn mussels that are as good as the regulars say.
The bottle-service set, meanwhile, heads to Greg de Lépinay’s Sail Fish, the beachside outpost of his stylish Bordeaux bistro Chez Greg. One look at Sail Fish’s towering whitewashed walls, fluttering linen panels, disco balls, and tanned-and-toned clientele—and the Rolls parked conspicuously out front—would lead one to think arriviste. But de Lépinay is a local, and he first opened the place 27 years ago as a simple beach bar. (The current incarnation dates to 1996.) Although Mahasti Debost’s no-makeup, no-heels rule is steadfastly ignored here, the room has a palpable warmth and familiarity that feels very Cap Ferret. De Lépinay welcomes nearly every new arrival with an embrace, floats around the tables, and tries not to harass his model-handsome son Thibault, who runs the surprisingly nice sushi bar. The food is unpretentious: single portions of grilled Argentinean entrecôte, letter-perfect frites, and chocolate mousse could each feed three. How do people manage to dance? But around midnight, dance they do—among the tables, in the back grill room, in the large front bar, out on the patio. The strains of Nouvelle Vague and Off the Wall–vintage Michael Jackson follow you out the door to the car, where they finally intermingle with the sound of the surf just over the dune.
Alexandra Marshall is a T+L contributing editor based in Paris.
Agence Immobilière de la Presqu’ile 33-5/56-60-94-88; immo-capferret.com; villa rentals from $2,000 per week.
Great Value Agence de l’Océan 33-5/56-60-45-80; immocapferret-ocean.com; villa rentals from $1,400 per week.
Côté Sable 37 Blvd. de la Plage; 33-5/57-17-07-27; cotesable.fr; doubles from $300.
Great Value Hôtel des Pins 23 Rue des Fauvettes; 33-5/56-60-60-11; hoteldespins.eu; doubles from $103.
La Co(o)rniche 46 Ave. Louis Gaume, Pyla-sur-Mer; 33-5/56-22-72-11; lacoorniche-pyla.com; doubles from $345.
Great Value La Maison du Bassin 5 Rue des Pionniers; 33-5/56-60-60-63; lamaisondubassin.com; doubles from $190.
Sail Fish Suites 2 Rue des Roitelets; 33-5/56-91-81-74; chezgreg.fr; doubles from $3,400 per week.
Chez Boulan 2 Rue des Palmiers; 33-5/56-60-77-32; lunch for two $28.
Chez Hortense Ave. Sémaphore; 33-5/56-60-62-56; dinner for two $140.
La Co(o)rniche 46 Ave. Louis Gaume, Pyla-sur-Mer; 33-5/56-22-72-11; dinner for two $140.
Le Bistrot de Peyo Marché du Cap Ferret, Rue des Mouettes at Ave. du Monument Saliens; 33-6/11-69-52-39; tapas for two $22.
Le Père Ouvrard 4 Rue des Pionniers; no phone.
Sail Fish 38 Rue Bernaches; 33-5/56-60-44-84; dinner for two $110.