Tez tells us about this trip to stand up paddle in France. Having spent a few holidays in the past down in the usual spots of SW France (Biarrtiz, Anglet, Hossegor etc) I thought it was high time that a visit should be paid to the Charentes Maritime area and it's two islands. This is mainly due to the curiosity factor of wanting to compare the conditions you get on those islands to the conditions we get here on our island (Hayling) Plus the fact we both needed a holiday and had never been to this area before.
So Brian (the van) was packed with all the toys and off we headed.
The first thing of note was just how long the drive took. I estimated about six hours drive time from Dieppe but it actually took longer. And that was just to get the the top of the Charentes Maritime area. It was still another two hours on to Oleron, our first port of call!
Bored of the monotonous roads I decided to firstly head to Les Tranche Sur Mer. Mainly to get a break, but also to check out France's windsurfing hot spot (as well, being windsurfers ourselves)
Now I knew, through having been watching the forecast sites avidly before our departure, that we weren't going to get any epic conditions, so I was pleasantly surprised when I paddled out on the sup to the point between La Tranche sailing club and the the main beach at La Phare round the corner.
A small swell was gently rolling in.
Nothing big, but clean peeling right handers that helped stave off some of those road weary blues.
Plus it was sunny, warm and I was out in just boardies!
The potential of the place was blindingly obvious. For those wind addicted among us, La Trance offers a regular summer sea breeze which will get most out on the water having some fun. And for those more interested in riding some waves you could see how when a decent swell was running you would be well catered for.
La Phare is pretty much a reef. Although a doable reef in that it's not craggy like Cornish reefs etc. And the bay on the inside is sandy. Therefore most peoples skill levels would be catered for. Plus the sailing club offers free facilities to use! Which can't be bad.
After a while we decided we were refreshed enough to continue that last stretch of the journey on to Oleron.
Once across the main bridge onto the island you are instantly aware that the island is lived in. Which is not to say that it isn't a beautiful place. It's just picturesque in a rugged kind of fashion. Oleron is very much a working island with the main labour taking place being tending to vineyards (obviously, this is France after all) as well as muscle and oyster farming. Indeed. The shell fish here is some of the finest, and cheapest, you will get anywhere in the world!
As you head to the main surf beach of Vert Bois/Alassins the typical French back drop of pine forests begin to show themselves in abundance as well as giving off that ever so distinguishable smell hat some how seems familiar. Indeed, if it wasn't for the said trees then you would think you were at a Cornish/Devon/Welsh beach, the place is that similar.
On arriving we were greeted with a sea full of numerous waist high peaks all with the afternoon surf crowd getting their weekend fix. As I had already been in the water that day and was now really feeling the effects of travel, I decided to park up and get stuck into some relaxing juice and wait until morning.
The French are very liberated about their camping and that's why that although you aren't strictly meant to, we along with many others, found it no problem to stay in the beach car park over night without any hassle. The only thing I would say is take plenty of toilet roll as the French don't seem to like putting public toilets on their beaches! Not on Oleron anyway!
The following morning we hit the surf. The start of the French working week meant that myself and Fi were the only ones in the water for most of the morning. The swell was only really knee high and although it started off super clean, eventually the onshore kicked in turning conditions into what reminded me of home! At that point we decided to do some exploring.
Once you go past the main beaches of Vert Bois and Alassins the coastal scenery changes dramatically. Although sand on the beach is still in abundance you also notice that it only takes a few steps into the water before you are upon reef. And it is this reef that pretty much encircled nearly the whole island. This is great for those of us wanting some more hardcore action, but is slightly off putting for the paddler/windsurfer/kiter/surfer wanting a more mellow experience. I was well up for scoring some of the sick set ups that we found, unfortunately the small surf and onshore wind was killing it! However I wasn't deterred and later in the day we found a superb campsite in a little town on the NE side of the island called St Denis which had us almost directly on the beach! The sun was still shining and the wind was blowing strong enough for a little windsurf sesh. We did find it funny that there was absolutely no-one else out though. But as the tide dropped back later that evening we could see why. Just under the surface was again, another reef. This is obviously the reason no-one was sharing the water with us here which is a shame because at high tide it was absolutely no problem. In fact, the colour of the water and the on water conditions were very similar to that of the Caribbean which just goes to show. As long as your skill level and confidence is there, don't always be put off by the fact people aren't out! Although vigilance will pay dividends...
After a quick trip the following morning to Boyardville whose vantage point looks directly out to the famed fort that the town shares it's name with (the tv game show Fort Boyard was also filmed here) we decided that we had pretty much done Oleron island and decided to head to Isle De Re which was supposed to be a pit more Posh and Becks...
And indeed it was. The fact that you have to pay a toll to cross the bridge to the island spoke reams to both of us.
Isle De Re is completely different in vibe and look to it's neighbor. A great deal more "white picket fence" albeit in a very French way with a very up market atmosphere, particularly around it's fortified capital St Martin De Re, which is a stunning little port town more reminiscent of Dubrovnik in Croatia than somewhere in France. Cafe culture and boutique shopping awaits you here. But bring your Euros, as it ain't cheap!
As far as conditions go, most of the spots are again located on the SW side of the island stretching from Rivedoux, which you see as you come over the top of the bridge, and going all the way up the side until you get to Matray. Once here, the reef shows it face again and then stretches right the way round until the mid point of the the island on the opposite side where beach takes over again.
We spent most of our time at one of the main beaches in Le Bois Plage Village (yep another Bois on another island!) The way that it differs from Oleron however, is that the stretch of sand here is more akin to those further south between Biarritz and Archachon. Wide open at low tide bordered by old world war bunkers offering up a multitude of peaks to choose from depending on where the sand deposits seem to have fallen.
Again the conditions we scored were hardly epic, but you can see from the pics that they were perfect! Knee to waist high peeling waves with cruisey walls. The kind of conditions which allow anyone to improve or try something new knowing that it's just sand beneath them. Although at some points of tide, small outcrops of rock do become visible, even here. But for the most part, it's a safe place to be in the water and a big enough space to actually learn, without getting in anybody else's way.
We mainly paddle-surfed but a couple of days we did score some more wind albeit from a N'ly direction, but being an island means that whatever the conditions you should be able to get out, be it surfing, paddling, windsurfing or kiting.
The only word of warning I would give about this place, besides that reef, is watch out for submerged muscle and oyster beds. Even though they are generally clearly marked, Fi somehow managed to slice here foot open on a rogue muscle that put paid to the rest of here on water time. This was pretty unlucky but it is worth noting where they may be if you are thinking of venturing out. If unsure, ask a local, most speak english, even if they need it coaxed out of them.
As far as camping. Again, it was easy to just stay over in some of the beach car parks, although we did also do some nights in campsites of which the quality is excellent. Nice hot showers etc which can be a welcome relief after roughing it! Believe me, if you decide to do this with with your missus in tow then she will be glad of the electric plug sockets for her hair dryer!
As far as eating and drinking goes. Somethings are cheap and some things are more expensive than the UK. Local wine is fairly cheap (2 Euro a bottle) and with this being a hotbed for shell fish, a portion of Moules Marinirere will set you back about 7 Euro. A large Heineken was 2.40 Euro where as local Isle De Re beer, in small bottles, was 4.80 Euro!! Go figure.
It was a shame we didn't get bigger surf or more wind as some of the spots are perfect for paddle surfing and wave sailing. Likewise if you decide to go and there's no swell, then the flat water options are all there. And again, if you preference is for sports of the wind driven variety then as long as it blows, you will be well catered for. And if not, you can always gorge yourself on shell fish and wine!