Have you ever had moments when you seriously considered strangling your partner with bare hands? Then you took a look at their happy, goofy, eager to please, excited-to-share-face and you tell yourself, “Okay! Let me just give it a try?” And then when you do give “it” a try (whatever that caused this colossal anger to build inside you against your partner), you figure out that “it” was actually one of the best things you did. You secretly thank them for pushing your boundaries for it, driving you to the edge and knowing all the time, that you will love the result. You thank god, that they know you so well and fall in love a bit once again with your better/worse halves. This was exactly how I was feeling when I was standing awe-struck on top of the gigantic Dune de Pilat in France. The vast blue Atlantic Ocean spread in front of me; free and unobstructed, and a huge blue sky spanned ahead. All around me were miles of soft golden sand, and I had a happy baby eating sand at my feet. My crazy adrenaline junkie husband was smiling at me eagerly, his eyes shining with expectation and I shouted at top of my voice, “I LOVE YOU!”
Climbing Dune de Pilat is equal to scrambling up 110 m
Now the truth be told, the experience at the summit of the colossal sand dune of France, referred to as the Dune de Pilat was way better than reaching there. I am nervous of heights. Huge vertical climbs turn my legs into jelly and the free fall walkups to great heights are my biggest nightmares. And there I was standing in front of the gigantic Dune de Pilat on a sunny spring day, wondering what the heck am I doing there. Don’t get me wrong. The area around Arcachon in France, where the dune is located is as pretty as a travel postcard, but that wasn’t the point. I am terrified of heights and climbing Dune de Pilat meant scrambling up a wooden staircase of 160 steps and no railings to the very top of the 115 m high shifting sand dune. That is approximately 33 stories high. As you can figure out by now, my mood to the top alternated wildly between terror and serious rage and I looked in awe at the child-man I married, scamper up the dune with the baby. He was a real Mowgli, wild and fearless and made the climb look fearless, exciting even. I, on the other hand, screamed and bawled my head off till I reach the summit and once at the top, the views simply made me speechless.
The arduous climb rewards in some incredibly lovely views
At the summit, the Dune de Pilat resembles a vast golden white lunar landscape. Sharp winds create ripples and patterns on the sand and the wide blue Atlantic stretches ahead. Thick swathes of dark-green forests of maritime pines, oaks, ferns and strawberry trees (whose wood is traditionally used to build oyster-farmer shacks) carpet the base of the dune eastwards to almost till the horizon. In the west, sandy shoals located at the mouth of the Bassin d’Arcachon create a patchwork of blue and gold. Tranquil little bays dot ahead and these are known to be deceptively treacherous. Powerful currents go up to the sea from these obscure bays and little boats ply these waters. The Banc d’Arguin bird reserve and Cap Ferret stretches across the bay and this is the low-key offbeat coast of France; one which is as gorgeous as its Mediterranean counterpart, if only a lot more (local) and quiet.
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Delights of the French Atlantic coast apart from Dune de Pilat
Most people visit Dune de Pilat as a day trip from the small seaside resort town of Pyla-sur-Mer. It is only 4 kilometers from there and the town itself with low-lying, colonial-style summer houses and towering pine trees, is a real delight. Though we stayed at Anglet, which is closer to Biarritz, it had the same wonderfully relaxed vibe of the entire French Atlantic coast. Being so close to San Sebastian in Spain has its effect on this area of France and this region is a gastronomical delight for crustacean lovers. In fact, feasting on locally farmed oysters, and local sausages called crepinettes is the thing to do here, apart from scrambling up the curvaceous Dune de Pilat.
This monstrous sand dune is swallowing whatever comes its way
The Dune du Pilat is considered a foredune since it runs parallel to a shoreline, behind the high tide line of a beach. This colossal natural phenomenon has a volume of about 60,000,000 m³ and spans around 500 m wide from east to west and 2.7 km in length from north to south. The current height is currently 110 meters above sea level and Dune de Pilat attracts more than one million visitors per year. It is also a constantly shifting dune and despite being Europe‘s largest, Dune de Pilat is growing eastwards 1.5m a year. This monstrous heap of sand has moved landward swallowing trees, a road junction, and according to local legends, even a hotel. That is why maps dating from 1708 and 1786 marked areas to the south and off-shore of the current dune’s location with the name Pilat. The rest of the area where the dune at that time did not stand was referred to “Les Sabloneys” or the “New Sands”. This changed in the 1930s when real estate developers renamed it as the Dune of Pilat, with Pilat originating from the Gascon word Pilhar meaning a heap or mound.
Climb up Dune de Pilat and then race down 33 stories height
Between Easter and early to mid-November, a wooden staircase is placed on one side of the dune to help visitors climb to its sandy top. From there, they can either walk down to the equally gorgeous beach, admire the views from the top or run down the dune like a wayward child. In earlier times, according to Tarek, who had spent nearly all his summers there, it was possible to ski down at a breakneck speed. Thankfully, that is a thing of the past and nowadays thrill seekers should not miss the long, hair-raising slide down to the sea. It goes over slopes as steep as an Olympic ski-jump and both the activities (the climb and the slide) are quite challenging. The best way to tackle Dune de Pilat is either by giving into your inner child or having a man-child adventure loving partner in your life. Or you can just camp at its base, enjoy the pine forests, grab a beer, and stare at Europe’s tallest sand dune from the bottom. Coming to think of it, that does not sound like a lot of fun, does it?
Dune de Pilat Travel Guide
- Location – This sand formation is situated in Arcachon Bay, in the municipality of La Teste-de-Buch in France.
- How to Reach – If you stay at Arcachon, then hop on the Bus #1 which leaves from the gare SNCF in Arcachon every hour in July and August – two to five a day in other months. Self-driven visitors, please note that the car park which is 400 m from the dune requires a payment.
- Where to Stay – There are plenty of picturesque towns and coastal villages around Dune de Pilat. You can choose between Arcachon, La Teste de Buch or even Cap Ferret. There are 5 campsites with mobile homes as well as a luxury hotel located right at the Dune du Pilat. It is recommended to book ahead during the summer holidays.
- Best Time to Visit – July and August are the busiest times at the dune. Traffic is horrendous all around the Arcachon Bay and finding a parking spot is difficult. June and September are considered to be the ideal months for visiting Dune de Pilat. These are just before and after the summer holidays and the weather is not too hot. The sand dune is burning hot in the peak of summer and searing cold in winter.
- Extra Tip – It is advisable to carry your own small meals to the Dune de Pilat. Small snack shops/restaurants which are located between the dune and the parking lot function only during the peak season.
The classic Bordeaux-Arcachon itinerary with Dune de Pilat highlight
This is a classical French Atlantic coast route. It takes about one hour to go to Bordeaux by car from Arcachon, though in summer you might get caught in a traffic jam. You can also cover this route by train. For this, you will first have to reach Arcachon railway station by bus from Dune du Pilat. From there board the TER or even the TGV to Bordeaux St reach Jean railway station. Shuttle buses to Bordeaux Airport are available from here. This is a one-week itinerary which includes Dune de Pilat, authentic oyster tasting shacks, sandy beaches, birding and more. For more details, check out this link. Other attractions near Dune de Pilat are Le Teich Bird Reserve and Carcans-Plage. Weather permitted, you can also practice microlight flying over the Arcachon Bay.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE