'Mountain' Climbing on the Riviera

Riley is travel columnist for Los Angeles magazine and a regular contributor to this section

The slope to the summit of La Dune du Pilat, on the Atlantic Riviera, is like a steeply inclined 32-story building, a mountain of sand now soaring to a height of more than 380 feet and growing each year.

But it's like no other mountain slope my wife and I have ever tried to climb.

One gingerly step upward and we're apt to slide at least half a step back again.

We experiment with shorter and longer steps and decide that the longer effort only means more backsliding. Now we are inching upward with our feet sideways to the slope so as to get as much traction as possible.

Short or long, each step always buries my shoe far out of sight in the soft sand. Elfriede has decided to climb in just her stockings so as not to have to lift shoes filling with sand.

Worth the Effort

Angling carefully upwards in short zigzags, digging in our heels every dozen or so steps to catch a few breaths and enjoy the view, we slowly reach the summit plateau. Then it is all more than worth the effort.

This is like no sand dune vista point in any of the earth's deserts. The Atlantic Ocean reaches westward far below, in sunlight and shadows of drifting white clouds. Villas in the historic resort city of Arcachon rise above the beaches and sailboats in the sheltered bay to the north and eastward. Pine trees garland the lower slopes of the dune, helping to preserve it from coastal winds and make its slow growth possible.

The Atlantic Riviera at Arcachon has long been a weekend retreat for the people of the wine city of Bordeaux, scarcely an hour's drive to the east.

The wealthy aristocracy from Paris followed Napoleon III here during the middle of the 19th Century. English and German visitors are rediscovering the resort today, but as yet, relatively few U.S. travelers have found their way here.

We were fortunate to have been pointed toward this coast of so many contrasts by a Southern California friend who now lives in the Dordogne River Valley.

To descend La Dune de Pilat and get back to the beaches of Arcachon, we tried what youngsters who like to frolic in the snow recommend. The idea is to take long steps down a snowy incline and land on your heels with a turning motion somewhat like a downhill turn on skis. In the deep, soft sand, we took shorter steps but the technique was generally the same.

A Tumbling Roll

We thought we were making good time until a small dog passed us. It had made the laborious climb with two children and their parents. Now, carried away with the enthusiasm of coming down the dune, it had bounded into a long, tumbling roll of about 50 feet. Finally rolling to a stop in a tiny ravine, it shook off a cloud of sand, wagged its tail and barked impatiently at the family's slower descent.

Half an hour later, we were sunning on the bay view terrace in front of our hotel room, photographing sailboats with their brightly colored jibs.

In 1857, Napoleon III came to Arcachon and decided it had all the attractions to become a community in its own right, not just part of nearby Las Teste. He ordered the railroad extended from Bordeaux right into Arcachon village.

The warm climate and pure air was judged to help recovery from pulmonary ailments. A white castle-like casino hotel was built, the wealthy and famous began to have their own villas constructed. Fifteen resort hotels were completed within a decade.

King Alphonse XII of Spain was guest in a private Arcachon mansion. So was Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria. Artists Manet and Toulouse-Lautrec, and the composer Debussy, found inspiration here, as well as restorative holidays. The Arcachon basin also became widely known as for its many varieties of oysters.

By the beginning of World War I, Arcachon had a thousand villas and a population of more than 10,000. As the 20th Century developed, the Mediterranean Riviera of France became more world-famous than the Atlantic coast, but Arcachon and other resort centers have maintained their own loyal clienteles.

The people of Bordeaux will throng here even for one day of a weekend. Some 2,000 pleasure boats are based in marinas around the bay. Arcachon has excursion and fishing boats, tennis courts and an 18-hole golf course.

Wide Variety of Art

The castle-like casino is open weekends year around. The Aquarium Museum features an exhibit of oyster cultivation. A self-guided walking tour down streets, with such names as Alexandre-Dumas, Faust and Pasteur, takes a visitor past 19th-Century villas that are still the first or second homes of the affluent. A half-dozen galleries display a wide variety of art.

The promenade along the wide beaches is lined with sidewalk cafes, tamarisk trees and restored beachfront hotels.

We drove our rental car into Arcachon just before a weekend early this May, with no idea of where we were going to stay. But the high summer season was not yet under way, and we found a room at the first beachfront hotel that caught our fancy.

This was Hotel Point France, a combination of 34 hotel accommodations on two lower terraced levels and three upper terraced levels of condominiums. We could step from our room overlooking the bay onto a sun deck. At the current exchange rate, the room was about $66. This is in the top bracket of Arcachon hotel prices. A guide booklet available at the local tourist office lists some 14 hotels; rates for doubles start as low as $25.

With appetites honed by the dune climb and Old Town walks, we dined next to our hotel at the L'Amphrodite Restaurant, beside a picture window overlooking the beach and pier. The dinner with Bordeaux wine was about $35, including service.

The bay and entire basin of Arcachon is almost completely sheltered from the Atlantic by the Cap Ferret peninsula. Entrance is through the Teychan Channel between Arcachon and Cap Ferret. A day of driving around the entire basin can dip from the beach and its villages into the misty serenity of pine forests. Bike rentals are available for touring this coast even more slowly.

Scenic Driving

The Cote d'Argent, or Silver Coast, of the Atlantic reaches for another day of scenic driving southward to Biarritz near the Spanish border on the Bay of Biscay, where Napoleon III and the European royalty of his time also relaxed with elegance along warm beaches. Inland from the Silver Coast, vineyards and wineries offer still other alternatives to climbing La Dune du Pilat.

Most of the tourism information we picked up about Arcachon, its bay and the Silver Coast are in French. The illustrations are full-color and the maps are excellent.

For help in planning your own explorations in this region, contact the French Government Tourist Office, 9401 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 840, Beverly Hills 90212; phone (213) 271-6665.

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