Surfers love the Landes. It offers a paradise of mighty Atlantic rollers continually breaking on this part of the sandy Cote d’Argent beaches stretching 106km south from nearby Arcachon Bay.
But the department of Landes with its mild climate also has gentler pleasures to enjoy including a wealth of nature reserves and wildlife, along with traditions part Gascon and Basque yet uniquely Landais.
Originally, the Landes was marshland edged by shifting sand dunes where shepherds herding their flocks wore stilts. Vast pine forests planted to stabilise the land in the nineteenth century have become the largest cultivated forest in Europe and are at the heart of the ‘Landes de Gascogne Regional Natural Park’. Great for walking, horse riding and cycling.
Children will love the tourist train ride from Sabres to the eco-museum at Marqueze recapturing life before the marshes were drained. Landes’s wetlands are studded with freshwater lakes many of which make safe bathing. Spot otters on canoeing rivers and go migrant bird-watching on the ‘Marais d’Orx’ marshes. Visitors to this rural world of scattered farms and sleepy villages will find no big cities although Bordeaux with its world famous wine districts and Biarritz, mixing style with surfing, are within easy reach.
Mont-de-Marsan, Landes’s capital, is certainly cosmopolitan. You may wish to avoid the ‘corrida’ (bullfight) during its July festival but the ‘course landaise’ - more like ‘running’ where no bulls are killed - is exciting. Local village fetes often sport their own lively versions using cows, and audiences participate. The Landais love music and festivals; there’s jazz at Uzeste and summer events with ‘bandas’ (brass bands) in Parentis and Dax.
Inland are spa towns to discover, medieval villages, Roman churches and Landes’s traditional gastronomy. Take a glass of the finest brandy Landes’s sandy soils can produce in Bas Armagnac, and if ‘foie gras’ isn’t for you, what about ‘tourtiere’ a delicious apple strudel made with goose-fat instead of butter?
Returning to the ocean, many beaches are supervised all year and cycling, boating and golfing are popular along the Atlantic coast. Beautiful and rarely crowded, Biscarosse is great for land yachting, surfing and windsurfing (with child-friendly swimming on Biscarosse Lake). Watch world championship surfers at Hossegor. Sailors from the adjacent port of Capbreton are even said to have discovered Canada before Columbus set foot in America.