travel

See You At The Cape (Part 1)

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Secluded, laid-back and authentic, the French oyster capital of Cap Ferret is a haven of seaside sophistication, says Jonathan Bastable. Photographs by Helen Cathcart

Description: Cap Ferret is akin to the Côte d’Azur – but without the bling and desperate exhibitionism

Cap Ferret is akin to the Côte d’Azur – but without the bling and desperate exhibitionism

You may have seen Cap Ferret without ever having been there. It was the backdrop for the recent French film Les Petits Mouchoirs, in which a group of self-centred Parisians go on holiday while their mutual friend lies dying in hospital. It is a good movie – full of Gallic emotion and dramatic revelation – but perhaps the best thing about it is the lovely setting and the taken-for-granted lifestyle: the rapier loaves of bread that materialize for breakfast, the wine-soaked dinners en plein air, the messing-about in beds and boats…

Cap Ferret is a long lick of land, like a lolling tongue, located on the coast about an hour’s drive due west of Bordeaux. The road grows slower and lazier as you move further along it, and when it turns south into the peninsula, you know you’ve arrived. The cape is exposed on its western side to the Atlantic, while its eastern shore looks out on the Bassin d’Arcachon, a vast, shallow lagoon that is tailor-made for the business of ostréiculture. The cape supplies all of France with oysters, and so this is a working stretch of coastline. It is, in other words, a real place rather than a holiday resort. There are no museums, and no attractions apart from the chance to live the French life for a little while (There is, true, a destination restaurant – Chez Hortense – where it would not be a surprise to see the rumpled face of the actor Jean-Paul Belmondo looking back at you across the populous tables.) Cape Ferret is akin to the Côte d’Azur – but without the bling and the desperate exhibitionism. You might say it is a kind of European Martha’s Vineyard: exclusive, isolated, rather fine.

Description: Cap Ferret is a long lick of land, like a lolling tongue, located on the coast about an hour’s drive due west of Bordeaux

Cap Ferret is a long lick of land, like a lolling tongue, located on the coast about an hour’s drive due west of Bordeaux

By far the best place to stay in Cap Ferret is La Maison du Bassin. This hotel would be a find anywhere in the world. But tucked away as it is, down a tiny street in the village des pêcheurs (fishermen’s village), La Maison is a buried treasure. It is just marvelously chic and comfortable. The rooms are quite small and there are not shortcomings: they make the space feel doubly cosy in an old-fashioned, definitely abroad kind of way. My room was lined with plain wooden paneling, walls and ceiling, so it was like sleeping in the captain’s cabin on some luxurious tea clipper. The shower, in contrast, was constructed from what looked like polished concrete – just as simple as the bedroom, but very modern. The entire hotel pulls off this name trick of reconciling desirable opposites: it is simultaneously stylish and homely, sophisticated and warm.

If you are not staying La Maison, stop by for a kir or a cocktail at least. The bar is full of locals and regulars – you can tell because nearly everyone who comes in receives a welcoming kiss on both cheeks from the barmaid. I sat weaving imaginary narratives around the rather dapper white-haired gentleman who came in each evening with his lapdog, drank a single of Champagne, and headed off silently into the night. After an apéro or two, you will surely be temped to move through to La Maison’s bistrot for dinner.

Description: Hotel La Maison Du Bassin, Cap Ferret

Hotel La Maison Du Bassin, Cap Ferret

The foot is as straightforwardly elegant as everything else in the hotel. Try the daurade rôtie sur un lit de tomates with some of the faultless house frites. The bistrot claims to lay on 30 desserts daily, which sounds like an idle boast until you see them, set out beautifully: an astonishing array of tarts, flans, pies, mousses, fruit salads and sweetmeats. You wander up and help yourself to whichever dish or dishes take your fancy. Altogether, the terrace at La Maison du Bassin is one of the nicest places you could hope to eat – in France, or anywhere else for that matter.

It is only a few steps to the basin itself. The lagoon is sailable when the tide is in, walkable when it is out. And when it is out, the boats languish on their sides like fallen goldfish on a sitting-room carpet. The tide is transformational; it turns the Bassin d’Arcachon from a damp desert into a big boating lake and back again. The effect is like watching someone you love trying on a range of outfits for some special occasion: every time you look, the landscape is differently attired, but always alluring and attractive. Across the lagoon from Cap Ferret town is the Dune du Pilat, the highest sand-dune in Europe. It is an impressive sight, resembling a powdered pyramid. With binoculars, you can see that it is sometimes teeming with people climbing or descending its soft seaward face, like purposeless termites on a giant mound.

Description: The tide is transformational; it turns the Bassin d’Arcachon from a damp desert into a big boating lake and back again.

The tide is transformational; it turns the Bassin d’Arcachon from a damp desert into a big boating lake and back again.

The foreground, though, is dominated by the tall staves in the water that mark out the oyster-beds. The beds stretch all along the shoreline, their striated, rectangular forms looking like well-tended, submerged fields of vines. Oysters are revered here; they are not so much a local delicacy as a kind of tribal religion. I popped into a bar in Cap Ferret town for a glass of wine and asked to see the menu. “Désolée, monsieur,” said the waitress with a shrug and a smile. “The kitchen is closed today. But if you like I can open some oysters for you”

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