Thursday, March 7, 2024

Discover France’s La Vendée Region: Part I: Les Sables-d'Olonne - A Seaside Haven for Lovers of Sailing, Seafood & Sandy Beaches!

By Jacquelin Carnegie
Les Sables d'Olonne (photo: Alexandre Lamoureux)

La Vendée is a wonderful area to explore in the Pays de la Loire region on France’s western, Atlantic coast (below Nantes and above La Rochelle). While La Vendée is not as well-known to Americans as Provence or Normandy, it's a place where the French and other Europeans like to vacation. It's known for its long coastline and sandy beaches as well as its’ bucolic countryside, Le Bocage Vendéen. There’s great food, plus plenty to see and do. Also, La Vendée has some of the friendliest locals you’re likely to meet in France!
Along La Vendée’s coastline, called France’s Côte de Lumière (Coast of Light), there are several lovely villes balnéaires (beach towns). Les Sables-d'Olonne is one of the most popular with so much to offer:
For centuries, Les Sables-d'Olonne has been home to sailors, seafarers, and fishermen. Today, these old-world traditions continue in a town enhanced by modern-day comforts and lots of enjoyable activities.
Raphael Toussaint "La Villa Blanche, Les Sables d'Olonne"

Explore the Town
- Go For A Promenade: Start your visit with a walk on Le Remblai, the oceanfront promenade, lined with restaurants, cafes, and shops.
- Stroll Through The Neighborhoods: This is a very walkable town with lots to see along the way. The narrow streets are lined with different types of houses from modest fishermen’s homes to fancy beach villas. La Chaume is the oldest section of town, still inhabited by fishermen. Les Sables' historic Le Passage district has old shipowners' houses and one of the narrowest streets in the world, Rue de l'Enfer. In the L'île Penotte neighborhood, local artist Danièle Arnaud Aubin has covered the walls with delightful, seashell mosaic murals.
- Check Out The Shopping: In the Centre-Ville (Town Center) around the
Notre Dame de Bon Port, one of Les Sables’ oldest churches from 1646, classified as a monument historique, there are “rues piétonnes” (pedestrian streets) lined with lovely boutiques: Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, Rue des Halles & Rue Jean Moulin. Nearby, 
feast on a vast array of local produce 
Marché des Halles Centrales (photo: S. Bourcier)
in the Marché des Halles Centrales, a stunning, cast-iron & glass covered, food market, designed by local architect Charles Smolski in 1890.
Visites Guidées (Guided Tours in French & English): You can explore all these places on your own or go on a tour organized by Les Sables-d’Olonne Tourism Office (1 Promenade Wilson, Tel: +33 2 51 96 85 85)

Take Advantage of All the Options
- Do Some Sunbathing: On the Grande Plage, the town beach, or go further up the coast to the magnificent Plage de Paracou, Plage d’Aubraie & Plage de Granges, where there’s a surf school.
Plage d’Aubraie (photo: J.Carnegie)

- Enjoy All The Culture: Go to the Musée de l'Abbaye Sainte-Croix (MASC) – a wonderful modern & contemporary art collection. For WWII history buffs, there’s the Musée Blockhaus Hôpital – a restored, German hospital bunker from 1943. Seashell collectors will lose their mind in the fabulous Musée du Coquillage. Plus, attend concerts and all-manner of events & happenings in season. This is a French, seaside town so, of course, there’s a casino; place your bets at the Casino des Atlantes or the Casino JOA Les Pins.
- Get Some Exercise: In addition to beachcombing, hiking and biking are popular activities here along with all the usual offerings: golf, tennis, swimming, etc.
- Fun for the Kids: There’s a zoo and an aquarium and a million other great activities for children.

Experience The Best: Sailing, Seafood & Salt
- Sail Away: Whether a novice or an experienced sailor, Les Sables’s Port Olona marina is the spot for you. The Sports Nautiques Sablais offers sailing for every level and at the Institut Sports Océan indulge in any number of nautical activities--sailing, surfing, 
windsurfing, kayaking, etc. 
(photo: Vendée Globe)
Vendée Globe: There is a lot of excitement in the sailing world this year!
The Vendée Globe is a prestigious, solo, unassisted, around-the-world, non-stop yacht race for the top sailors in the world. It takes place every four years and the next one begins on November 10th, 2024; it starts & finishes in Les Sables-d'Olonne. There will be 40 international, world-class competitors in this 10th edition of the race. Vendée Globe Village (Oct 19-Nov 10): If you'd like to attend, get a ring-side seat and lots of background info in this special area set up on the Port Olona esplanade. There are also several “Hospitality Package” offerings.
- Feast On Sensational Seafood: Les Sables-d'Olonne’s Port de Pêche is one of France’s main fishing ports with catch such as sole, sea bass, hake, cuttlefish, tuna fish, crustaceans…and, a Vendéen specialty: sardines. This tasty, fresh-from-the-ocean seafood can be enjoyed at restaurants throughout town.
- Learn About “White Gold”: The Salt Of The Sea: In medieval times, Olonne salt was highly-prized and it’s still considered “white gold.” Today, you can visit the salt marshes--which look like a beautiful, tranquil nature sanctuary—on your own or on a tour (in French only). Salt forms when sea water, brought into the marsh basins, evaporates due to the sun & wind. Fine salt (fleur de sel) crystallizes on the surface of the basins and coarse salt on the bottom. By springtime, the salt is ready to be harvested and you can watch a demonstration.

Dine In Style: At these restaurants, the fish is so fresh it’s as if it leapt from the ocean onto your plate:
(photo: StudioBCarre)

Le Poisson Rouge (20 Quai Guiné) – Delicious dining.
Restaurant Le Port (24 Quai George V) – The freshest seafood & friendliest service.
Restaurant Chez Gaëtan (21 Quai Garnier) - Sushi specialties.
La Suite SVP (20 Bd Roosevelt) - Nouvelle cuisine by chef Mélanie Sire.
La Pendule (67 Promenade Georges Clemenceau) – Crêperie right on Le Remblai.
Where To Stay: There is every kind of accommodation: hotels, bed & breakfasts, vacation rentals, etc. Hotel Kyriad Prestige (8 Bd Franklin Roosevelt) – A pleasant, conveniently-located option with a friendly staff.
Getting There: By train: TGV, Paris - Les Sables d'Olonne (about 3½ hrs).
By plane: Nantes-Atlantique airport or La Rochelle/Ile de Ré airport (1½ hrs).

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