Part of what I love about travelling is the random inspiration you can get from some of the most unlikely places…
Sitting in my local barber’s having my hair cut some time ago, I happened to mention that I’d just booked to stay in Bordeaux… it turns out that the guy who owns the barber’s has family with a house in the same area. After a brief conversation, I left with a hand-scribbled list of things to see and do along with a dashing new haircut (even if I do say so myself!)
Fast forward a few months and, browsing one of Bordeaux’s gift shops I spotted a couple of postcards with an enormous sand dune on them, leading me to recall that prior conversation. The barber had mentioned that the Dune of Pilat was worth a visit.
I asked in the gift shop and the staff were a bit “meh” about it…”I’m sure I visited it once as a child” was the first response. That sentiment was further echoed by a couple of locals in a bar that night. Hmm, perhaps it wasn’t worth a visit after all? But it didn’t seem too far away, so in true travel blogger style I decided that I needed to go and find out. And I’m glad I did.
The next day was scorchingly hot so we got up early and hopped on the train at Bordeaux station to go and see the dune for ourselves. Not knowing what to expect, we didn’t take a lot with us. That was a bit of a mistake.
What is the Dune du Pilat?
Also called the Grande Dune du Pilat, it’s located in the Arcachon Bay area and it’s the tallest sand dune in Europe. It’s 2.7km long, 500m wide and 110 metres high. It looks all the more strange because it runs parallel with the shoreline on one side and is completely surrounded by dense forest on all the others. The sand is pure, fine and extremely soft to touch. It’s also a well-known paragliding spot because of its immense soaring conditions. And best of all, it’s free to visit (unless you’re paying to park in the car park)
Apparently it’s pretty simple to drive to the dune, and there seemed to be plenty of parking spaces: the way in felt a bit like an American national park. Parking is about €4 for a couple of hours.
If you’re coming by train from Bordeaux there are two trains an hour (both direct) which take around 52 minutes to reach Arcachon; an attractive, stylish little seaside town. It costs €9.50 for a return journey.
On arrival at Arcachon station we were fortunate to find a shuttle bus to the dune waiting in the car park. It cost €1 each (one-way) and took about 25 minutes to do the 12km journey. On the way back we just missed the shuttle bus and caught a slower one (40 minute journey) costing €2 each. But there are plenty of buses coming and going.
Note: pick up a bus timetable so that you can judge the best times to head back from the dune to await its arrival. The bus stop is a relatively long walk, depending how far along the dune you go.
What’s it like?
Amazing! It really feels like one of those uniquely cool things to do. I’d even recommend booking a stay in pretty Arcachon just to experience the dune.
There seemed to be one main entrance, lined with restaurants and gift shops in little wooden shacks. The forested route to it (about 5-10 minute walk) became sandier underfoot until it was impossible to continue in flip-flops and you have to go barefoot or risk constant sand in your shoes. And then eventually it opened out, the trees giving way to an enormous mound of the purest golden sand I’ve seen.
There are (a lot of) steps up to the top but you can’t come all the way here and not climb up the side of it, right? (although running down it is even more of a thrill). Just make sure your legs feel strong enough because it’s quite an effort battling relentlessly against the steep sand!
When you make it to the top the views are breathtaking; dense green forest directly behind you and the sparkling blue Bay of Biscay stretching out in front, with Arcachon Bay to the right. The dune is so long that you can’t see all the way to the other end, but the tiny people and paragliders dotted in the distance give some idea of its scale and grandness.
On a boiling hot day there were initially a lot of tourists, but as you move away from the start of the summit it begins to feel like there’s very few people there at all. On the day we went there were lots of people taking seemingly death-defying runs and leaps into the unknown, rolling (or falling) down the dune-side in joyful abandon.
Of course I had a go too (with varying levels of success!)
If you want to walk (or even better, run) all the way down to the shoreline it’ll take a good 10 to 15 minutes, and the tide is notably strong, making it a great place to bodyboard.
We were surprised to find that you can easily spend all day here, on the dune or by the water. There’s the shelter of some trees if you want, and many people had gone all-out and brought towels, windbreakers and lunchboxes. The impressions we got before coming hadn’t alluded to anything like this, and we half wished we’d set out even earlier and brought more with us (including swimming stuff).
It’s a really beautiful spot and although it’s definitely a tourist attraction in its own right – it gets more than a million visitors every year – the fact that we didn’t already know about it surprised us. The locals’ reaction to it in Bordeaux probably resembles the way I feel about my own local tourist attractions: they’ve always been on my doorstep and I’ve stopped giving them much attention over time.
I’d undoubtedly recommend coming here. And prepare to be impressed!
A few tips
- On a sunny day it can get really hot at the top of the dune (as well as the sand underfoot) so take plenty of drinking water, a sun hat, sunglasses, suncream and flip-flops or aqua shoes.
- Make a day of it! Take lunch, a beach towel, book and some stuff to do – and don’t forget swimwear.
- Ensure you’ve got everything you need before climbing up the side of the dune – you won’t want to make many trips lugging stuff up and down it.
- It’s an Instagram-lover’s paradise so take your camera.
- As mentioned above, if you’ve come by bus then get a bus timetable to plan the best one to catch when you’re done and make the most of your time up on the dune.
Because it’s always nice to end on an interesting fact…
Apparently the dune is shifting slowly inwards (into the forest) over time, roughly 1 to 5.5 metres every year.