Les Sables is a lively seaside resort, fishing port and yachting mecca, the largest in the Vendée area on France’s Atlantic coast. Jo Moon and Mark Featherstone visit to seek ‘enlightenment’ …

Glorious beaches, endless sunshine and diverse nature – no wonder Les Sables-d’Olonne is known as the brightest star on France’s Côte de Lumière, or Coast of Light. Famed for the Vendée Globe, the greatest round-the-world sailing race, we guarantee that motoring into this bay will make you a winner in the eyes of your crew.

It’s not by chance that this part of the Atlantic coast is called the Côte de Lumière, or Coast of Light. Stretching over 250 kilometres, it enjoys in excess of 2,300 hours of sunshine every year and has 140 kilometres of fabulous beaches. Les Sables is located between Saint-Nazaire and La Rochelle and is perfectly situated for exploring this stunning area. Cruising the coast from the north, you’ll first spot the white tower of the Phare de L’Armandèche, a magnificent art deco lighthouse built by a local architect in the sixties. Rounding the headland, you’ll be greeted by a huge bay, curved like one half of a Vendéenne, the local brioche, fresh and golden from the oven, sitting on a bright cobalt-blue Limoges plate and just waiting to be eaten in one glorious gulp.

Port and town of Les Sables d’Olonne, in the Pays de la Loire region in western France. © iStock/Christian Musat

Port and town of Les Sables d’Olonne, in the Pays de la Loire region in western France. © iStock/Christian Musat

Highly approachable

The approach to the port is straightforward enough and accessible at all states of the tide, with the entrance to the river well marked. There are two marinas. The first on the right is the Quai Garnier, which has no dedicated visitor berths, but the harbour master will advise you of vacant berths if such are available. The great advantage of this marina is its easy access to the town centre, and it is closer to the beaches and restaurants as well. Port Olona on the north side of the basin, on the other hand, has some 1,500 moorings with friendly staff and shower amenities, which are typically French but clean. Visitors should berth on the Accueil (Welcome) pontoon, which is also the fuel dock, and check in at the office. If it’s maintenance or boat repairs that you need, this marina is well served by plenty of chandleries, as it’s the base for racing teams readying their boats for up-and-coming events. Our top tip is to bring your cycles with you if you’re able to transport them aboard your boat. Alternatively, you can make use of the electric bikes handily stationed around the town and on the marina quays, which will make the morning run for croissant and fresh baguettes a lot easier!

An eclectic mix of historic and modern buildings. Les Sables

An eclectic mix of historic and modern buildings

The town`s pride in their marine heritage is clear to see on these silos.

The town`s pride in their marine heritage is clear to see on these silos.

Bienvenu

Our Sablais sojourn began, as all French seaside escapades should, with a brisk walk along the well-maintained beach promenade, Le Remblai, followed by an early stop for a strong café au lait in one of the many cafés and restaurants along the front. Beautiful villas, Victorian buildings and wide pavilions built of large blocks of stone the colour of Devon clotted cream are slightly at odds with the much taller, modern flats in between. However, this busy resort has a joyful holiday atmosphere and families strolled alongside us, ice creams in hand. As with most coastal ports, visitors are welcomed, and we were warmly greeted in every shop, and particularly so in the covered market, which is open every day in the summer and from Tuesday to Sunday at other times. Among the colourful stalls piled high with fruit and vegetables of every hue, local artisans, cheesemakers and wine merchants proudly plied their wares. We came away laden with local delicacies, such as la Mizotte, a hard cheese made with milk from cows raised on the salt marshes nearby, and Domaine Saint-Nicolas red wine, made organically only 10 kilometres away. Several Carrefour supermarkets can be found in the town, and these are your best option for provisioning as the marinas don’t have such facilities.

Pretty alleyways in the Quartier de L`Ille de Penotte

Pretty alleyways in the Quartier de L`Ille de Penotte

The beach on the Bay of Les Sables d’Olonne.             © iStock-Thomas Pajot

The beach on the Bay of Les Sables d’Olonne. © iStock-Thomas Pajot

Streetwise

Wandering around the maze of narrow, quirky streets, we soon came across the area known as L’île Penotte, where the walls of some of the houses are decorated with pretty shell murals. Nearby is the Notre-Dame Church, built during the 17th century at the request of the burgeoning cod fishing fleet. The church houses a rather disturbing memorial to hundreds of men, women and children from the town who were suspected royalist sympathisers and consequently guillotined by the French Revolutionary government during the war in the Vendée in 1793. The town recovered from these horrific events and sea bathing became popular in the early 1800s, bringing tourism to the town, which continued to flourish after the advent of the railway later that century, whereupon Sablais became one of the finest resorts on the Atlantic coast.

A local artist’s display in the priory

A local artist’s display in the priory

Emerging from the welcome cool of the church, we headed away from the seafront to catch the small ferry that scuttles regularly across the River Vertonne running through Les Sables to the oldest part of town, La Chaume. This lovely picture- postcard district has narrow alleyways lined with typical Vendée-style houses with red tiled roofs and lime-washed walls, some of which have amazing trompe l’oeil murals. Climbing the steps to the top of the Arundel Tower (part of the old town’s defences) is well worth the effort, affording, as it does, a panoramic view of the harbour. A visit to the Sea Museum beneath the tower reveals salty tales of the port, which was once one of the most important in France. Further along the quay, we came across the priory of Saint-Nicolas, patron saint of fishermen, which dominates the entrance to the harbour behind two long 18th-century jetties and flanked by seven cannons looking stoically out to sea.

The Halles Centrales market is housed in this stunning victorian edifice of steel and glass.

The Halles Centrales market is housed in this stunning victorian edifice of steel and glass.

Activities on & off the water

This coastline offers some truly stunning beaches – after all, Les Sables means ‘the sands’ – and it was to La Grande Plage that we headed next for a cooling dip in the crystal-clear waters before bagging a table at Bikini Beach. Sitting at a rustic table on the sand, we enjoyed local shellfish while watching families build sandcastles among the stripy blue and white parasols. We were thoroughly entertained by the swaggering braggadocio of the surfers threading their way through the rollers coming in off the Atlantic – their brightly coloured boards like punctuation marks in the endless curl of the waves. But this is not just a surfing mecca – water sports abound here, including parasailing, kayaking, paddleboarding and last, but definitely not least in the town that hosts the most famous race in the world, sailing! The area is also wonderful for walkers and great for cycling, either along the 4 kilometres of golden sands fringed by the wide promenade or around the 100 kilometres of cycle tracks leading into the hinterland of the salt marshes of the Marais Olonne.

Top: During the Wars of the Vende, windmills were used to relay the position of the troops by changing the angle of the sails. Now the area is a haven for birds and wildlife. Les Sables

Top: During the Wars of the Vende, windmills were used to relay the position of the troops by changing the angle of the sails. Now the area is a haven for birds and wildlife.

The imposing church in the middle of the town.

The imposing church in the middle of the town.

Intricate shell murals in the Quartier de L`Ille de Penotte.

Intricate shell murals in the Quartier de L`Ille de Penotte.

White gold in Green Venice

Like many regions on the Atlantic coast, the area of Olonne is surrounded by a huge patchwork of salt pans bordered by picturesque green walkways and canals, making for an interesting and incredibly beautiful landscape. It’s no wonder, then, that it is often referred to as ‘Green Venice’. Indeed, it was the Romans who created these shallow pools that allow the salt crystals to form into the high-quality ‘Fleur de Sel’, renowned for its superior taste and deemed a precious commodity, or ‘white gold’, and exported all around the world. The cod fisheries used it for preserving their catches, and meat was also placed in salt so that it could be shipped across the Atlantic. The biodiversity of the Olonne marshes makes them an important area for conservation. Plus, it is a fantastic place for keen birdwatchers, with more than 180 species of birds logged at the bird observatory.

© iStock-Henricopter

© iStock-Henricopter

At the end of our day exploring this beautiful countryside, we stopped awhile on a little granite bridge across the canal to watch the sun sink majestically into the marsh as the grating croak of the multitude of herons settling in for the night played on the air. The Merlin app on our phones reliably informed us that we could also hear sedge warblers, which sang and chattered into the gathering dusk.

You can`t beat fresh locally caught sardines but we recommend you stock up at this shop on Le Remblai for fishy souvenirs! Les Sables

You can`t beat fresh locally caught sardines but we recommend you stock up at this shop on Le Remblai for fishy souvenirs!

Lasting impressions

There is so much to explore and experience in the Vendée, and Les Sables d’Olonne makes for the perfect pitstop when cruising in the Bay of Biscay. The town has long had a tradition of seafarers, from the intrepid cod fishermen who started the successful industry on which the town was built to the solo competitors in the Vendée Globe race, who have bravery and resilience in abundance. Sitting on the quayside, bathed in the region’s unique and radiant sunlight, watching the boat folk come and go, we were aware of a slightly charged atmosphere, as if the very essence of those intrepid adventurers hung in the air.

The 4 sided clock on Le Remblai was built in the 50`s on the site of a WWII fort

Whether it’s indulging in water sports, meandering through the unique landscapes on foot or bike, or exploring the local culinary wonders, we hope your adventure here will be as enriching and enjoyable as ours.

We recommend making use of the self hire electric bikes - first 15 minutes free!

We recommend making use of the self hire electric bikes – first 15 minutes free!

Cruising destinations

La Rochelle

Protected by two iconic 14th-century towers, this ancient town is awash with history, and well-preserved buildings from the 17th century line the pedestrianised alleyways around the old port. Despite being the largest marina for pleasure boats in France, Port des Minimes has a village feel and is the perfect base for exploring the town and enjoying the popular beaches. We recommend a visit to the state-of-the-art aquarium, which is one of the top attractions in France and houses a thriving turtle population.

Top tip: The approaches to La Rochelle are quite shallow, so plan to visit on a rising tide – ideally two hours before high tide.

Pornic

The first significant harbour south of the River Loire, Pornic is the ideal location for exploring the beautiful Baie de Bourgneuf. This delightful seaside town has a working fish quay that dries out, plus pretty parks and gardens offering shade. The Château de Pornic harbours a dark secret as its former occupant in the 15th century inspired the story of the murderous ‘Bluebeard’.

Top tip: Stretch your sea legs with a clamber up the flights of steps to the upper town (ville haute), where you will be rewarded for your efforts by charming old cobbled streets and their cafés.

A fishy stack. Les Sables

Fleur de Sel

The salt marshes in the Vendée were formed where salt water from the ocean mixed with fresh water from rivers or streams, creating a unique, brackish environment. Over time, sediment in these waters built up, allowing plants to grow, which further stabilised the sediment, allowing the marsh to develop. The Romans understood the value of salt, not just for cooking but also for preserving food and for medicinal use too, and as a commodity for trading and taxation. They created the salt pans in the marshes and developed salt production techniques that are very similar to those used today.

The unique ‘flower of salt’ is a specific type of sea salt found along the French Atlantic coast and is so called because, unlike sea salt, which is the product of evaporation and harvested from the bottom of the salt pan, Fleur de Sel is the finer, delicate flakes that float to the top. Harvesting is done by hand and is a slow and tricky process that can only be carried out on calm, sunny days. Its fine, crystalline structure dissolves quickly and evenly and it has a milder flavour than regular sea salt. It enhances rather than overpowers food and is highly sought after by chefs and food enthusiasts alike.

Shooting the breeze in nearby St Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, home of the founder of Beneteau

Shooting the breeze in nearby St Gilles-Croix-de-Vie, home of the founder of Beneteau

Useful info

Marina Quai Garnier

  • T: 0033 251 964334

Port Olona

  • T: 0033 251 325116, VHF Ch. 9

Fuel:

  • 2 diesel / 1 super 95 unleaded
  • Grey- & black-water collection on fuel pontoon
  • Free Wi-Fi access
  • Showers & WCs open from 7am to 10pm
  • 1 public slipway

Les Sables charter & boat hire companies

www.samboat.co.uk

www.clickandboat.com

www.scansail.com

www.filovent.com

Southampton Boat Show
Wellcraft 355

Premier Marinas - Launch at the tap of the App

Cannes Yachting Festival 2024

Arksen Discovery Series

Henri Lloyd

Yamaha - The most exciting way to get from A to B campaign