I should’ve known we’d need a car and I shouldn’t have aimed for perfection.
But without knowing the former and or aiming for the latter, we wouldn’t have experienced what stood out to me as the highlight of the 8 days I spent with my parents during their recent trip to France.
With the exception of the destinations—Bordeaux, Arcachon and La Pouyade in Dordogne—which were more or less decided based on us meeting a longtime customer of my fathers, I took on the role of Chief Planner. I researched restaurants and train times, with Mom occasionally chiming in with an opinion. Lest you not realize how much work this required, please consider a) we are a family of non-decision makers and b) we tend to be a bit…how shall I say this nicely? Choosey. Restaurants proved the most difficult. Not just because as someone who occasionally photographs her food and follows chefs on Twitter I appreciate well-sourced cuisine and atmosphere, but because one of us (ahem, Dad) has various food “sensitivities.” Then there’s the whole France Factor: opening and closing times, set menus, necessary reservations during specific hours and the like.
Overall, I just wanted to make everyone happy and probably put way too much pressure on myself to, as the Holy Knight said to Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade, “choose wisely.”
There had been some discussion about whether we should drive from Bordeaux to Arcachon or if we should just take the train. Arcachon, a beach town in the southwest Aquitane region, is only an hour further west from Bordeaux by car, but I’d read that parking could be hard to come by. Being the city girl that I am, I opted for the train. And I chose poorly.
At that point, the two suburbanites (that’d be my parents) had traveled around Paris and Bordeaux by foot, metro, Uber, bus, tram, bicycle, high-speed regional train and a canal boat. I wrongly assumed there’d be taxis at the station upon the train’s arrival, but instead we found ourselves standing on the curb waiting in front of a sign that listed three numbers to call, none of which offered any sort of assurance that they’d arrive shortly, let alone at all.
I suggested we hoof it, rollie bags and all.
“According to Google Maps, it’s only about a 20 minute walk,” I said, in the most chipper way possible.
They agreed, trepidatiously, and then Mom spotted a car rental company across the street. We headed there first, only to be told they were sold out of cars. We continued on foot and soon came across a bus stop that, according to good ‘ole Google, would drop us within feet of our hotel.
“Let’s wait here,” I suggested.
So we waited. And waited, during which Mom spotted another car rental place where, as luck would have it, they did have a car for us.
As my parents handled the booking and paperwork, I spent the next 40 minutes cursing myself for not having arranged all this beforehand and wondering if we’d even use the car for more than the 5-minute ride from the train station.
Wasted time, money and poor decisions are my nemeses.
At long last, we stuffed our bags into our Renault Twingo and were off. Not five minutes later, we arrived at our hotel to find a spot right out front. Score One for the rental car.
We acknowledged that it would’ve been a long 20-minute walk since things are a bit further than they appear on Google Maps.
Case in point, the Dune du Pilat—Europe’s largest sand dune at 110 meters (360 feet) above sea level and one of the town’s must-see sights. After checking in, we set off in our Twingo with the dune as our eventual destination, passing by quite a few local bus stops along the way, which we would’ve had to wait or stop at had we not had our Twingo. Score Two for the rental car.
We didn’t really know what to expect from the Dune du Pilat. Is it something just to behold? Or something to behold and then hike? Turns out, the latter. While we weren’t all gussied up, we weren’t in sweat-proof cotton shorts or swimsuits either. But it didn’t matter. Up and up we climbed, using the stairs that seemed to ascend forever. Once at the top, we looked over the whole of the Arcachon bay. Pictures do not do this natural beauty justice. It’s just too massive.
We walked along its peak until it dipped down and up again, deciding to pop a squat and chill for a while observing the view and sinking our feet into the super soft sand.
Having silently plotted a vague itinerary in my head based on where we’d be, I suggested we stop at a place called La Co(o)rniche, otherwise known as the Ultra Luxe Beach Resort Designed By Philippe Starck (That We Didn’t Book Because it Seemed Too Excessive, Though, DAMN, it Was Really Dreamy).
Its west-facing bar and restaurant had unbelievable views of the Dune and the bay, and with still a few hours to go until sunset, we scored a prime table and ordered a scotch for Dad, a glass of rosé for Mom and a bubbly-based cocktail for me.
Afterwards, we got in our Twingo and headed for CPP—or Club Plage Pereire. Many people were down with CPP so we wanted to get down with CPP, too—specifically for sunset since it also faces west. We were given a table for three right on that soft sand, ordered a bottle of wine, some fried calamari (that came whole!) and sank into the end of the day with glee—glad to know we had a car to deposit us back “Home” (which our charming hotel was appropriately named).
The next day, Mom and I rose early (as we do) and let Dad sleep in while we biked from our hotel along its beachside path, through town and to its marina and then back to the pier where we locked up for a bit to pop into some shops. We were waiting to hear from Roger, my father’s customer, who was meeting us in Arcachon to show us the oyster farms before bringing us to his home in Dordogne, further inland. The place he suggested for lunch was back in the direction we biked earlier, so we suggested he pick Dad up at the hotel and we’d meet them there by bike. I was intent on sticking with the bike as the plan for later was to hop a ferry to Cap Ferret across the bay where bikes are welcome (and the suggested mode of transport).
Upon arriving at La Cabane d’Aiguillon, an adorably ramshackle oyster house, we got a prime picnic table with a view of the bay. It was a far cry from last night’s chic spot by the dune, but way more our speed, complete with fish netting draped on the fence, crunchy mussel shells at our feet and dogs running about. We waited for the guys to arrive so Roger could order properly, and next thing we know we had two dozen oysters and a bowl of clams and bulout in front of us.
We got to slurping and picking away, before eventually being introduced to the owner, Dominique. He didn’t speak a lick of English, but spoke French with pride (and a rolled, lit cigarette hanging from the edge of his lips), telling us about his business and how Anthony Bourdain has eaten there and other such stories. I nodded, signifying the parts I could understand, while trying to avoid producing a puzzled look that’d give away those I couldn’t.
He invited us for coffee, which turned into us sitting around a table discussing the likes of dog food, retirement and family in Franglish for nearly two hours. Or what seemed like two hours. Don’t get me wrong: It was a special experience—especially when the unidentifiable clear liquor showed up on the table, which was poured generously into our coffee cups. Although we couldn’t fully understand each other, it felt as if we were all old friends, and certainly more alike than not. That said, I was intent on getting to Le Cap Ferret.
Finally, we said our goodbyes and planned to meet back at the hotel to quickly change to make the 5p.m. ferry.
After riding against the wind for what felt eternity, we arrived in time to swap swim coverups for day dresses and shorts for jeans. We all piled into Roger’s car to ride back into town, where Mom and I were dropped at the pier to get tickets and hold the boat. Only, we arrived to discover the 5p.m. ferry did not exist and the next one left in an hour. Dad and Roger showed up breathless after dumping the car on a side street somewhere that would later prove to be an issue, and we broke the news.
“Ah well,” said Roger, like it was no thing. “Time for ice cream then.”
We got some cups and cones of wild flavors and sat back by the pier awaiting our boat.
At long last, we arrived on the island to disembark and realize there’s a lot of surface area to cover on Le Cap Ferret—especially if you’re on foot. (Hence the need for bikes!) After Roger gave us a tutorial on the oyster beds, which are kept on platforms and covered by water when the tide is up, we decided to walk to the lighthouse.
On the way through town, which had a Fire Island-meets-Montauk vibe, we passed tons of adorable shops, causing me to have major FOMO for not being able to properly browse since a) we were now with two men who wanted none of that and b) we were on a time limit. See, the next ferries back were at 8:30—or 11:30. This gave us either 90 minutes or five hours to explore, find one of the many beach-side seafood shacks I’d been told to visit and, I don’t know, shop. Sadly, the majority of us didn’t want to be stuck on the island for five hours. I tried to explain that there’d be better food options, but I was outnumbered.
We agreed just to set out for the lighthouse, but unfortunately arrived about 15 minutes after it’d closed.
After a brief rest, we continued walking around town before landing back at the pier where the oyster beds were now nearly covered by the rising tide.
Upon arriving back in Arcachon, the sun was starting its shiny-descent into the sea, and we were left with what to do for dinner. With about 2% battery left on my phone (the only “smart” one in the bunch), I feverishly tried to figure out the place our hotel had recommended. I managed to get the name—Hotel Ville d’Hiver—but not the exact address…and then my phone died.
“Oh well, let’s get in the car and ask someone,” I suggested.
Only, getting in the car proved to be a problem since we couldn’t find it. For about 30 minutes. Up and down one street, back over to a different one, then up the same one again on a different side. Nothing.
At that point, we were all agitated and hungry. My father and Roger were definitely wondering why we couldn’t just eat at one of the number of restaurants along the boardwalk serving platters of fruits de mer, but Mom knew I wanted something less touristy—and Le Fooding verified. She supported my mission and, at long last, we found the car. Thankfully, Roger had an old school GPS system, which after calling the restaurant on his flip phone for the address, helped direct us about 4 minutes up the road.
We settled into what seemed like a much too fancy place to be eating considering our windswept ferry hair and sandals, but the food was fantastic and as soon as we popped open a bottle of wine, we were all able to laugh about and appreciate the last few hours and the day on the whole.
So, you see, cars and ambitious goals: They do a good vacation story make.