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Exploring France's Cap Ferret

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

Photo: Jose Bernad

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.

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