Well known for its coastline, called locally "LA COTE DE LA LUMIERE", with an amazing 210 days sunshine per year, a record rivalling that of the south of France, the Vendee Charente region also offers magnificent countryside that's worth a detour.
The Vendee coast
In the south Vendee, the flat land gained from the sea and the canals and waterways of the marshlands (marais mouillé) attract ornithologists, nature lovers and photographers from afar. To the north, the rolling hills and green fields (bocage vendéen) give a view of the country life of times gone by. The architectural heritage includes some very picturesque towns and villages, with fine examples of stone houses from the 18th and 19th centuries, Roman churches and many historic sites and monuments. The best renowned spots are obviously to be found on the coast.
Les Sables d'Olonne
Les Sables d'Olonne is home to the internationally legendary “Vendée Globe”, the world’s most prestigious single handed race around the world, which is held every 4 years, leaving in November and circumnavigating the globe without assistance before returning in January.
Water sports as one would expect are very prominent here from beach games and swimming to surfing, land yachts, wind surfing and all manner of sailing from dingy sailing up to ocean yachts. Whether you want to participate or just watch, you will not be disappointed.
Eating out is one of life’s great pleasures, and there are a wealth of restaurants catering for all tastes (and budgets). Among others:
“Le Bistrot du Port” (7, Quai Emmanuel Garnier. Tel. 02 51 21 55 45) and “La Bonne Fourchette. (20 Quai George V. Tel.02 51 95 11 52). A trip across the harbour to La Chaume is recommended, however it may be easier to catch the ferry across the harbour rather than walk around. There is also the attractive rocky coastline that runs south, La Corniche, which has many little coves and there are well marked walking and cycling trails along the cliff edge. Above all Les Sables-d'Olonne is a beach resort and as such it has one of the finest beaches in the Vendée, which stretch from the harbour mouth to the beaches at La Tanchet where surfing is king. For the children, Les Sables d’Olonne Zoological Garden is located within a few hundred metres of the sea and is home to over two hundred species of animals (Opening times: April to September 09.30 till 7pm. Tariff: €14; children (3-10) €9.)
A little further south is the city of La Rochelle, capital of the Charente Maritime. The city has beautifully maintained its past architecture, making it one of the most picturesque and historically richest cities on the Atlantic coast. La Rochelle possesses a commercial deep water harbour, named La Pallice, the location of the fishing fleet, which was moved from the old harbour in the centre of the city during the 1980s.
The Calypso, the ship used by Jacques Cousteau as a mobile laboratory for oceanography, is on display at the Maritime Museum of La Rochelle. One of the biggest music festivals in France, "FrancoFolies", takes place each summer in La Rochelle, where Francophone musicians come together for a week of concerts and celebration. There is so much to do, so depending on the amount of time you have in hand, guided tours may be a very useful solution. Here are some interesting suggestions:
A visit of the Old Town on foot (2 h), a guided tour of the town hall (1 h) , which houses many souvenirs from the past especially those concerning the Siege (1627–1628). Tour by night « Ronde de nuit » (2h), While the town goes to sleep, follow a watchman for tour of the town’s darkest secrets and unconventional places usually closed to the public, with dressed up characters playing little scenes. (On booking only €10.5). The old town by horse-drawn carriage (1h30). 1h by carriage and 30 minutes on foot. Everyday in July and August at 2:30pm (except on Sunday and bank holidays). Price per person: (On booking only Adult: €9.50, children: €6.50).
An interesting part of the region to visit, which the British have always coveted, is a small flat island, The Ile de Ré, easily accessible since 1987, when a 3 kilometer bridge was built to connect the island to the mainland. To ensure the island is not overrun by second-home owners, houses are limited in number, can’t exceed a certain height and must be whitewashed – many also have traditional green shutters and orange tiles. The best way to take in the pleasures of Ile de Ré is to cycle the miles of fantastic coastal cycle routes, but don’t worry, there’s not a hill in sight !. Bike rental is easily available through : Cycland : http://www.holidays-iledere.co.uk/plan/sights-culture/107577-cycland---agence-dars-en-re Weekly rentals start from around €25.
Another remarkable island, the second largest in France after Corsica, is the Ile d’Oléron, once again connected to the mainland by a bridge, this one toll free since 1991. Twenty-five beaches with a large range of water sports: surfing, sailing, catamaran, kitesurfing, windsurfing, rowing, fishing, diving… The Atlantic Ocean is a year-round attraction!
There are almost 110km of bike trails and many, many footpaths in Marennes-Oléron. On foot or by bike, you will enjoy the diversity of the scenery.
Marennes-Oléron is of course known worldwide for its oysters, being Europe's most prominent oyster production area with 40000 acres of parks and claires. The ultimate stage is the “affinage en Claire”, the refining process. At this stage they are placed in what were once marshes. Oysters remain in the “Claire” for one to three months, where fresh and sea water blend together). These produce 45 to 60000 tons every year for an international market. A must-see is the picturesque fishing port of La Cotinière celebrated for turbot, lobster, langoustines, mussels and sea bass. You will find all of these on most of the restaurant menus, at very reasonable prices, while the kids can have their own children’s menu.
Marennes-Oléron has numerous buzzing markets located either in the malls or on the streets. More than simply a place to shop for fresh groceries, the market is a wonderful opportunity to meet people and get insights on local life. The stalls are full of high quality goods and the sellers are always a good source of information if you are wondering how to cook a particular fish or vegetable you have never tasted before. In Oléron colourful markets take place every morning. In Marennes, (on the continent), the market is Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, in and around the mall where a vast number of local producers set up stalls everyday in July and August.
A stay in the Poitou Charentes area would not be complete for the young (and even the not so young), without a trip to the “Futuroscope”, 10 kilometres north of Poitiers, a theme park based upon multimedia, cinematographic futuroscope and audio-visual techniques. It has several 3D cinemas and a few 4D cinemas with films in giant format, along with other attractions and shows, thrill-filled attractions, interactive visits, and much more.