Do like the Bordelais do and head for the coast.
To the coast
Visitors to Bordeaux often neglect the coastline in favour of vineyard visits. Locals tend to spend most weekends out of the city and on, in, or near the water, which is why you can feel the Friday rush hour building from about 2- 3 p.m. onward, as they all GTFO. Many have beach houses, but, for those who don’t, sleeping in tents, cars, caravans, RVs, or just small hotels or chambres d’hôtes (a sort of bed and breakfast, but often without the breakfast) is perfectly normal.
Most of the camping goes on at official campsites, but people also make use of the various seaside parking lots, and in many cases there is a park lot/camping ground option. Although the parking lots are right on the coast, be prepared, there are usually two further barriers between you and the sea. First a stretch of pine forest, and then a large dune. When you finally get there, the reward will be golden sand stretching for miles on either side and a wide-open ocean.
Respect the ocean
Despite the laid back atmosphere along the Gironde coast, the waves here are serious and dangerous for those who underestimate them. Conditions can change from fine to not so fine in a very short time and it’s not unusual to see surfers or swimmers, who have entered the water in perfectly manageable conditions and suddenly been trapped on the ocean side of rising waves, get plucked out of the water by rescue helicopters. The other danger is the baïnes, or currents, that flow out from the sea water pools left on the beach at low tide. As the tide rises the water from the pools becomes a swift flowing current running away from shore. (If you get caught in one, don’t panic: swim out of it to the left or right, and then parallel to shore for a while until you can easily turn into the beach.)
For those interested in a surf lesson, but who don’t feel up to the bother of getting to the coast, renting all the gear and getting home again, there is CitySurf. The team will pick you up in the town centre, take you to the beach for a surf, with all gear included, and bring you home again. Pack your own sandwiches and water.
Less than an hour from Bordeaux (given the right traffic conditions) Lacanau is one of the best, and closest, Bordeaux surf spots. Beginners can book a lesson with the Lacanau Surf Club, or any of the surf schools and equipment rental shops along the beachfront. The place is lively with bars, restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and places to stay. To get there, you can either rent a car at Bordeaux’s main train station (Gare St Jean) or at the airport. There are also plenty of regional busses so check the TransGironde network or at the Tourist Office. Either way, make sure to specify you are going to Lacanau Ocean, not the more inland town of Lacanau. If the beach is madly crowded when you get there, and if you are happy being out of the lifeguard zone, walk a mile or so up the beach to the right (as you are facing the ocean) and the crowds will instantly thin. If you keep going, and if the tide is right, you will eventually see a metal skeleton of an old boat and, higher up against the dune, a German World War II bunker. If no one has stolen it, it should still hold the remains of a gun turret, pointing out to sea. The bunker was part of the Third Reich’s ‘AtlantikWall’ coastal defence system. Seven other Lacanau bunkers were destroyed in 2002. It’s here that you might also catch a glimpse of the odd nudist, either on the beach or a surfboard.
If you want something a bit more relaxed, north of Lacanau, and about an hour and a half from Bordeaux, there is Hourtin Plage. Same great beach, same great waves (although they get more manageable the further north you go), fewer people, very limited shopping and, generally, a far more tranquil vibe. There is one surf school and a place to rent boards called Home Spot. Public transport options are limited, and you might have to take a series of buses, depending on the summer timetable, so it might be worth renting a car for this one if you’re only going for a day or two.
Arcachon and Dune de Pilat
Arcachon is actually only one of several towns on the shore of the massive Arcachon Bay inlet, but it is the best known. The Bordelaise come here in droves for sun, sea, and most importantly, seafood, especially the oysters that are grown on the nearby sandbank (although it’s so big, it is more like a sand island), the Banc d’Arguin. All washed down with a glass or two of white wine. Slightly south of Arcachon is Europe’s largest sand-dune, the Dune du Pilat (or Pyla, the French seem to use both names). Those of great stamina might consider walking over it. But be prepared: the hike up the from the car park will take about 20 minutes, and then, to get down to the sea on the other side, the same again, depending on where the tide is at. You can also walk its length, about two miles.
At the very tip of the isthmus that forms outer rim of the Arcachon Bay is the very tiny, very chic fishing village of Cap Ferret. The fisherman’s huts (no longer used by actual fishermen) that line the shore on the eastern side of isthmus, overlooking the bay, now sell for millions, and people like designer Philippe Starck have beach houses here. Surfers will head for the waves on the ocean side, small children and those who prefer calmer waters will stay bay-side. For those in the money, there are also some very upmarket hotels, so consider a night or two La Maison du Bassin or at least have lunch at Chez Hortense, the seafood restaurant everyone raves about.