Arcachon and the Dune du Pilat – An Active Holiday Guide
Located just 45 minutes from Bordeaux, the beach resort of Arcachon on France’s Atlantic Coast is a top location for an active holiday. Its major attraction is the extraordinary Dune du Pilat, Europe’s biggest sand dune, which at over 100 m high and 3 km long offers breathtaking views over the Bassin d’Arcachon tidal bay and pine forests inland. Arcachon is well served by public transport and makes an easy day trip from Bordeaux.
Paragliding on the Dune du Pilat | © ACTIVEAZUR.com
A great destination for outdoor sports enthusiasts, Arcachon is renowned for its wind sports, surfing, paragliding from the dune, and cycling along the lanes that run up and down the bay. Explore the vast 1500 hectares of countryside by bike, kitesurf the ocean beaches, explore the tidal sand islands, gorge on fresh oysters, or just sit back, breathe in the sea air and let the relaxation commence.
Our guide to the bay of Arcachon will take you through the area’s outdoor activities, plus the best places to stay, eat and drink.
With a beach stretching over a hundred kilometres and thousands of hectares of lush pine forest within walking distance, the bay of Arcachon is packed with a diverse range of activities, from paragliding to sea kayaking. Famous for its fine weather, clear blue waters, busy seaside towns, extensive bike trails and oyster farms, this natural treasure is an ideal destination for an active holiday.
Made up of ten distinct towns dotted along the seafront, each small community adds to the tapestry that defines this bustling tourist hotspot. Explore the attractions of the bay of Arcachon, from the protected bird island on a golden spit of sand, to the stylish port of Cap Ferret.
At the forefront of the eco-tourism boom, the bay is perfectly adapted to explore by bike or foot, leave the car and discover over 160 kilometres of cycle paths.
A unique micro climate, the bay of Arcachon is surrounded by flat, wooded coastal areas scattered with dunes. The 72 km stretch of coastline is protected from the powerful waves that make neighbouring towns like Lacanau a hotspot for barrel-hungry surfers. Arcachon is an idyllic family spot, take full advantage of the landscape and strong Gascon culture that oozes from this popular west-coast resort.
Dune du Pilat
View from the top of the Dune du Pilat | © ACTIVEAZUR.com
The big attraction in the Arcachon area is the magnificent Dune du Pilat, also called the Dune de Pyla, a 114-metre high sand dune that stretches along the mouth of the Bassin d’Arcachon for almost three km.
The dune’s inland facing side is as steep as an Olympic ski jump and it takes some real effort to climb as the sand’s travelator quality takes effect. 160 steps complete with a rope banister have been implanted on the dune to help ease the ascent. At the bottom, the tops of dead trees, smothered by the dune as it moves relentlessly eastward, poke out of the sand. The slope facing the Atlantic, dotted with tufts of grass is much gentler.
The view from the top is spectacular. To the west you can see the sandy shoals at the mouth of the Bassin d’Arcachon, including the Banc d’Arguin bird reserve, and Cap Ferret. In the other direction, dense pine forests stretch from the base of the dune eastward as far as the eye can see.
Parts of the beach are watched by lifeguards from mid-June to mid-September. Elsewhere, you need to take care as despite the sea’s calm appearance, there is a strong current in the bay known as a baïne. There’s a clutch of souvenir shops and eateries near the main car park.
Bordeaux-Mérignac (54 min)
Pharmacie de la Plage, 344 Boulevard de la Plage, 33120 Arcachon.
La Poste, 1 Place Franklin Roosevelt, 33120 Arcachon.
Arcachon Aquitaine Taxis, Chemin de Camicas, 33260 La Teste-de-Buch.
With extensive cycle paths, pedestrianised streets and small ferries to take you across the bay, you can wave goodbye to your car. The bay of Arcachon offers a free park and ride service during July and August. Located just outside the city centre, a regular bus service connects the large open car park to the town of Arcachon. For day trippers, drive into the centre of town and use their secure underground parking.
The official Dune du Pilat car park offers 30 minutes free of charge, which isn't enough time to climb the dune. However, if you drive down the road parallel with the dune for a few hundred metres, you'll find free roadside parking with access to the dune through a forest trail.
Swap four wheels for two and take advantage of the winding cycle lanes, forest trails and bike tracks that span the bay of Arcachon. Fully accessible and fun to use, the 190 km circuit connects the individual towns along the bay and are heavily sign posted.
There is also a regular bus service during the summer, use the free service to travel up and down the bay, reach the train station or pick up your car.
During high tide you can also cross the bay by water ferry, a quick and easy service costing a euro per person, water taxis and ferries are an economical way of experiencing the beauty of the waterways without the hefty price tag.
With cycling being the main form of transport for locals and tourists alike, bike hire is big business in the bay of Arcachon. With many companies offering competitive prices and deals for the summer season, hiring a bike can be a cheap and efficient way to get around. Offering daily, weekly and monthly prices for all types of bike, choose between fashionable beach cruisers, sleek city bikes, endurance mountain bikes, fun tandems or functional family packages. Locabeach rents beach cruisers and electric bikes as well as scooters and has 5 shops around the bay. locabeach.com
Active Things To Do in Arcachon
Running down the Dune du Pilat | © ACTIVEAZUR.com
Conquer Europe’s tallest sand dune
A natural phenomena drawing in tourists from far and wide, conquering the summit of the Dune du Pilat is an outstanding experience and a serious endurance test! The tallest sand dune in Europe, the spit of sand sits at 114 m above sea level, offering unmatched views out to sea and to the lush pine forests inland. Hike to the top using the purpose built stairway and soak up the panoramic views that stretch for miles in every direction, or test yourself and free climb to the peak, traversing the three km spine. Accessing the Dune du Pilat is free and easily reachable from Arcachon by bike or bus. For those of you wishing to drive, parking is available with the first 30 minutes free and 4 EUR for up to 4 hours (see Parking above).
Head south past the dune on the road towards Biscarrosse and the beaches become wilder. This stretch of coastline known as the Côte d’Argent is the start of south-west France’s famous beach breaks and it’s popular with surfers from far and wide. The spot to head to is called La Salie. There’s an info centre called Le Spot where you’ll find all you need to know about renting surfboards and getting lessons. In summer, the waves are quite mellow and suitable for beginners but in the winter the powerful swell and strong currents make it the reserve of experts.
Paragliding the Dune du Pilat
If you’ve climbed the dune and find that casually observing the splendour of the Bassin d’Arcachon doesn’t quite hit the mark, you can join the many paragliders who flock to the Dune du Pilat to fly this unique piece of geography. To take to the skies with an instructor on a tandem paraglider, contact Pyla Parapente. Tandem paragliding on the dune starts from €50 for ten minutes.
Pyla Parapente, Plage du Petit Nice, 33115 Pyla sur Mer.
Tel +33 (0)6 20 91 53 92.
Cycle the Bassin d’Arcachon
Boasting 200km of unadulterated cycling heaven, cruise across the bay of Arcachon using their endless cycle paths. The perfect way to experience the stunning lagoon-like waters across the bay and the shaded pine forests protecting the coastline, choose between a number of cycle routes that range in duration, distance and difficulty. Take a break along the way with cultural pit stops for locally sourced oysters, rustic regional delicacies and friendly Gascon hospitality. Discover the wild and beautiful marshlands of the national bird reserve, breeze along the sun-kissed sand dunes, haggle at local produce markets and clock up the miles through the region’s extensive forest tracks. Push your limits on day circuits of the bay, or take a leisurely ride along the seafront with cycle routes for all levels and abilities.
The Arcachon tourist office has a website dedicated to cycle routes around the bay.
Climb the 258 steps of Cap Ferret’s historic lighthouse
A lazy, sun-kissed spit of sand on the the northern headland, Cap Ferret has become renowned as a luxury hot spot thanks to its secluded seaside sophistication. Not just bling and big money, Cap Ferret is steeped in history, remaining true to its laid-back and authentic maritime roots. Jettied at the furthest point of Cap Ferret’s peninsular sits the region’s only lighthouse. An auspicious landmark offering breath taking 360° views, follow in the footsteps of former lighthouse keepers and climb the winding stairs for a glimpse of the bay in all its glory. During low tide you can look out onto the moored traditional Pinasse boats, exposed oyster farms and golden sand spits that sculpt the region. A firm favourite for families, take a relaxed cycle up the bay to the lighthouse, finishing with a large helping of seafood at the surrounding oyster bars.
Access to the lighthouse is €6, which contributes towards conservation and preservation of the building. Riding up to Cap Ferret from Arcachon is a 77km day-ride, visiting all the ten towns along the way. Alternatively, water taxis run at high tide between the two points and are a quicker way to experience the Cap Ferret peninsula.
Take to the skies for a microlight tour
Flying through the sky with the greatest of ease, microlight tours are a majestic and impressive way of exploring Arcachon. A popular attraction thanks to the region’s unique climate, microlighting experiences are available from a number of spots around the bay. Discover the wide expanse of dense forest and tidal lagoons from the comfort of a professional microlight plane. With a fully qualified pilot in tow, set off from the local aerodrome and enjoy a completely freeing VIP experience; soaring through the piercing blue sky and descending over the Dune du Pilat. Ideal at sunset, glide along the tranquil coastline and circle the lighthouse, passing Ile de Oiseaux as the local birdlife come home to roost. An unforgettable experience, take in the jaw dropping views from local flying school ULM Evasion. Flights start from around €60 and can be reserved for sunrise and sunset depending on availability.
Explore France’s largest Seahorse reserve
Arcachon’s famous flora and fauna is not just resigned to the beautiful forests and seashores, there is a whole different world to explore under the sea. Home to the largest seahorse reserve in France, Arcachon’s PADI certified diving schools offer scuba diving experiences for water sports enthusiasts of all levels; first timers can wade in for a shallow dive, getting to grips with the equipment, whilst more experienced divers can jet out and explore the sunken WW11 bunkers and historic ‘Le Chariot’ shipwreck. Available for individuals and groups of all ages, grab your flippers and experience a vast array of marine life like tropical fish, colourful coral and protected seahorse species. A memorable experience by day, curious individuals can take a dip into the deep blue at night for an other worldly sensation.
Guided tours exploring the area start from €40 per person depending on previous experience and qualifications (not necessary). Plongee Hippo offers a range of diving options including night dives, shipwreck excursions and ‘Bio’ adventures.
Where to stay
There’s lots of good quality accommodation close to the beach in Arcachon
You’ll find everything from swanky five star hotels to rustic B&Bs, and uber-cool boutique hotels to campsites on the beach. Here’s a selection of our favourite places to stay in Arcachon.
Hotel Le B d’Arcachon – Arcachon
From 120 € per night
A modern boutique hotel in a great location right on the promenade overlooking Arcachon’s sandy beaches. Next door is a restaurant serving a mix of simple seafood dishes and fine dining. Comfortable air-conditioned rooms, free WiFi and a buffet breakfast served each morning.Check availability | Go >
Grand Hotel Richelieu – Arcachon
From 107 € per night
With sea views and a central location on Boulevard de la Plage Grand Hotel Richelieu has direct access to the beach and is a great location for watersports. Comfortable rooms and a good breakfast with eggs made on request will set you up for and active day exploring the bay.Check availability | Go >
Residhome Arcachon Plazza
From 72 € per night
Arcachon Plazza is a great option if you want to go self-catering. These spacious and well-equipped apartments occupy a central location near the market, shops and restaurants, with easy access to the beach. Enjoy morning croissants from the boulangerie on your balcony.Check availability | Go >
Hotel La Co(o)rniche – Pyla-sur-Mer
From 449 € per night
Designed by Philippe Starck, La Co(o)rniche is a five star masterpiece near the Dune du Pilat. Furnished to perfection, there’s a fabulous restaurant, infinity pool overlooking the bay and balcony views over the dune. Pinch yourself as you sip a cocktail watching the sun go down.Check availability | Go >
La Cabane de Noreda – Gujan-Mestras
From 85 € per night
B&B accommodation located in a fantastic little harbour area in Gujan-Mestras with good bars, oyster shacks and restaurants. Rooms are spacious and ooze coastal cool and the breakfast is fresh and filling. Borrow bikes from the B&B and cycle along the coast to Arcachon.Check availability | Go >
Camping de la Dune – Pyla-sur-Mer
From 72 € per night
Located in Pyla-sur-Mer, 1.7 km from the Dune de Pyla, Camping de la Dune features an outdoor pool, tennis court, children’s playground, grocery shop and on-site restaurant. A top location for an active holiday you can hike, cycle and paraglide all within walking distance.Check availability | Go >
Where to eat
Fresh local oysters at Le Routioutiou seafood bar in Arcachon
Le RoutioutiouA rough and rugged fisherman's haunt, Le Routioutiou is as authentic as they come; perched on the banks of the port de Larros, this small scale restaurant is an unadulterated treasure, serving up fresh oysters from the heart of the region's most popular attraction. By law, only licensed to sell their personal harvest, Le Routioutiou serves up their mind blowing molluscs with a soft and creamy local pâté. Sip a glass of Tariquet whilst the patron, Fabrice, mills around the small sea-fronted terrace, welcoming guests and greeting old faces. A rustic, humble affair with a price to match, Le Routioutiou doesn't need fancy décor to pull in the punters, with a meal for two costing only €18, this characteristic, wooden 'cabane' is a rare example of where fresh produce meets friendly hospitality. Due to popular demand, Le Routioutiou has a quick turn around, queuing is not unfamiliar during summer season. Definitely worth the wait, the 'cabane' is a great pit stop on a cycle round the bay.
Port de Larros, 154 Port de Larros, 33470 Gujan Mestras. Tel +33 (0)5 56 66 97 40 [hr]
Chez HortenseShrouded in a crown of vines, Chez Hortense is a quaint, neighbourly restaurant steeped in history. A family affair since 1938, this traditional seafood taverna has been an institution in Arcachon Bay for generations. Untouched by the recent gentrification of cuisine up and down the bay, Chez Hortense stays true to its roots, capturing the raw nature of the region in its simple, yet mouth-watering dishes. Honouring connections with local fishermen and oyster farmers that stretch back centuries, dinner is an unpretentious and gastronomic delight of pan seared catch of the day and 'Moules frites'. Set in the faint shadow of the Dune du Pilat, Chez Hortense is a celebration of the beauty and biodiversity that makes this region so special. Booking in advance is advised during the summer, the restaurant caters for both couples and large families with a 'come one, come all' philosophy at the door. Whilst not cheap, dinner is certainly value for money - prices depend on the catch of the day.
Avenue du Sémaphore, 33970 Lège-Cap-Ferret. Tel +33 (0)5 56 60 62 56 [hr]
Pinasse CaféAs you jump off the water taxi that ferries between Arcachon and Cap Ferret, you can't miss the immense terrace of Pinasse Café that stretches out across the shore. Sat on the edge of the busy jetty, Pinasse Café is a refined lunchtime spot for a glass of crisp white wine and lobster plucked from the sea before you. Lose yourself in the gentle pop of corks and cracks of shells as you look out onto the panorama of leisure boats and fishing vessels in the bay ahead . An upmarket treat, Pinasse Café is a firm favourite with Bordelaise foodies thanks to the level of excellence inherent in grand chef and Michelin star winner, Pascal Nibaudeau's cooking. Boasting a generous menu of fresh fish and local wines, take your seat at the harbour and feast on a platter of calamari, tender crab, gambas prawns and lobster. With enough seating to go around, booking isn't usually necessary. A relaxing afternoon spot for a late lunch, we recommend the freshly caught lobster which is a snip, at just €14!
2 Bis Avenue Océan, 33950 Cap-Ferret. Tel +33 (0)5 56 03 77 87 [hr]
The Sail FishAnchor's away! The epitome of high society, San Tropez meets Cap Ferret at The Sail Fish. An oddly appealing themed restaurant, dinner at this 'captain's table' style hideaway can only be compared to sitting in the heart of some luxury yacht. An upmarket institution since the early 80s, The Sail Fish is the spot to see and be seen, a faithful following of models, artists, musicians and celebrities are commonplace, dining and dancing until the early hours. Entering through the terrace you are met with a blur of crisp white drapes, maritime themed brass finishings and the soft glow of candlelight. A world away from the simple oyster shacks down the road, The Sail Fish specialises in sophisticated seafood and late night good times. Not for the fiscally faint-hearted, the well-heeled socialites that pack out the dance floor until 2am are happy to pay top dollar for the finest food and cocktails south of Paris. Booking is a must at this elegant fish restaurant. Dinner is served until midnight, with chairs and tables moving to the roof, making room for dancing until the early hours.
Rue des Bernaches, 33970 Lège-Cap-Ferret. Tel +33 (0)5 56 60 44 84 [hr]
Where to drink
Enjoying a drink at sunset at La Co(o)rniche in Pyla-sur-Mer | © lacoorniche-pyla.com
The brainchild of interior designer and architect, Philippe Starck, La Co(o)rniche is a luxury five star hotel. You don’t have to be rich and famous though to pop in for a drink and watching the sunset over the bay from the deck by the infinity pool you’ll feel a milion dollars. The perfect scene for the house special, a gin and apple ‘Co(o)rniche’, after sunset the party atmosphere gets turned up to the max as stilettoed divas and champagne coiffing Casanovas take to the terrace for a boogie.
Expect VIP celebrity treatment at La Co(o)rniche, no dress code is stated, but smart casual is the general attire. Food and drink are pricey, but who knows, you could be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Audrey Tautou and Marion Cotillard by the end of the night…
46 Avenue Louis Gaume, 33115 La Teste de Buch. Tel 05 56 22 72 11
A fresh face on the Cap Ferret bar scene, Le Cocotte is a young, relaxed brunch-to-bar beach shack. A quirky throw together of old and new, the white-washed ‘cabane’ offers respite from the parade of chic brasseries that mob the bay. ‘The’ hangout for trendy locals and passers-by, the small, friendly atmosphere sizzles at the surface with a hum of holidaying Parisians and Bordelaise sipping on fashionable rum punch and regional wines. After sunset things get a bit loose, during the summer months local dj’s set up the decks for a retro set full of nostalgic disco gems and reworked funk tracks. The type of establishment where kicking off your shoes and getting a bit squiffy is encouraged, Le Cocotte is bursting at the seams come early evening as trendsetters swap the beach for the bar – sandy feet and salty hair galore. A two minute walk from Cap Ferret’s vast golden shores, Le Cocotte encapsulates that quintessential surf inspired, beachy feel.
Le Cocotte differs from most bars on the Cap Ferret strip thanks to its bric a brac style décor and young clientele. This is still a popular spot in the heart of Cap Ferret, with reasonable prices – cocktails start at €8.
62 avenue de l’océan Cap Ferret. Tel 05 57 70 59 13
L’Hôtel de la Plage
Situated in one of Arcachon’s prettiest villages is the humble, L’Hôtel de la Plage. A stone’s throw from the picturesque beach huts and sandy shores of L’Hérbe, this bar and restaurant is a local favourite with oyster farmers and jolly natives. Set apart from the swish, five star resorts located further up the beach, L’Hôtel de la Plage is stripped down to the bare necessities – great wine and a friendly atmosphere. A five minute walk from the beach tram or ‘Petit train du Cap-Ferret’, the rustic on-site bar and terrace is the perfect place to kick back and take in the views, or grab a glass of local plonk and join in a game of ‘Pentanque’. A calm late-afternoon rest stop after a day of exploring, L’Hôtel de la Plage has remained unchanged by the sands of time, gaining recognition up and down the coast as a welcoming, relaxed inn for good wine and traditional Gascon conviviality.
A cheap and very cheerful bar and restaurant, local wines start at €3 per glass. A family friendly atmosphere with shady seating, L’Hôtel de la Plage is busy throughout the day, but bookings are only available for dining.
L’Herbe Le Canon, 1 Avenue de l’Herbe, 33950 Lège-Cap-Ferret. Tel 05 56 60 50 15
Beach club Pereire
A no shirt, no shoes, no problem beach club situated right on the coast of Arcachon, Club Pererire is a beach dwellers delight. An idyllic sunset spot where the sand drifts in over the wooden terrace, wander in from the shore -cocktail in hand, and watch the small fishing vessels chug past on their way back to port. Shaded by a faint canopy, the temporary Bedouin-style bar plays host to a selection of musical talents throughout the summer, serenading the setting sun with their low-tempo, acoustic jam sessions. Lit by a few low slung chandeliers, leave the faint hue of the bar and lay back on their complementary sunbeds, tracing constellations in the night’s sky. Dig your toes into the thousands of grains of sand and savour their creative cocktails and traditional wines.
Nicely situated on the public beach, Club Pererire welcomes big groups and solitary wanderers alike. Part of the grand Hôtel Ville d’Hiver, the beach club is open from May till early autumn.
12 Boulevard de la Mer, 33120 Arcachon. Tel 05 57 16 59 13
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Please leave a comment below if you need specific advice for your trip to Arcachon, or if you have any recommendations to help us improve this guide. Happy holidays!
About the author
Self-confessed foodie and outdoor sports aficionado, Aimée Whistler has been scoping out hidden gems across France for over five years. From shredding backcountry powder to savouring the finest backyard cuisine, get first-hand suggestions from Active Azur’s most committed Francophile.