by Lauren and Ian Wright
Darlings all…. Recently from the terrace restaurant of the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild on Cap Ferat, we were rasing a glass of champers to the spectacular view of the nonpareil gardens overlooking the spectacle of the bay of Villefranche (www.villaephrussi. com). Our heads were full of grand plans to stroll the fabled avenues of Monte Carlo, gazing into the gorgeous shops, dining in charming cafes and world class restaurants, swanning about the decks of yachts and all such splendours. But If you will take the word of one who would not deceive you; Monte was heaving with the most horrible posturing people whose work of the moment seemed to be impressing their new found gaudy wealth on all and sundry. Everyone was dressed in clothes showing so many designer logos we began to wonder if they were all getting product placement fees. The shops have always been extravagantly expensive, but now they were insultingly so. Suffice to say a baguette of bread in a local patisserie was eight euros! Shopkeepers harried and snappish were not at all polite. So offended by the supercilious manner of a clerk in a boutique, I put down an exquisite silk scarf, I was about to buy and walked out! Gone was the lovely laissez faire feeling of old. Quiet elegance has been replaced by loud unintelligible voices and glaring avarice. Drat, I really wanted that scarf too – a nautical motif in navy, ice blue and lavender, however one simply must draw the line.
We reconnoitered back to our hotel, The Chateau Chevre D’or in Eze (www.chevredor.com). Halfway through our second Boodles martini, (shaken of course) we decided it was time to up sticks and retrench for the other French Riviera, that azure coastline on the north west Atlantic coast of France that the French try to keep secret from the rest of the world. They designed the Mediterranean Cote D’Azure to appeal to international travellers, but they designed the Atlantic Cote D’Amour for themselves. The exclusive seaside resort of La Baule Escoublac boats a micro climate with some of the most temperate weather in Europe due to the Gulf Stream which hits Europe first at La Baule. A promenade of indigenous palms fringe Europe’s longest beach, a 12 kilometer stretch of talcum powder sand, along the Bay Of La Baule, edged by a boardwalk, overlooked by a plethora of luxury hotels, and of course… all the best designer boutiques. Since the late 1800s, the pine forest backing the beach at La Baule is where the French haute monde built seaside houses in an eclectic mix of fanciful architectural styles set on serpentine avenues under the shade of Les Pins.
The atmosphere is unhurried and elegant. French society comes here to relax not to show off. If you’re looking for pure French chic in all its forms and glory, La Baule is the place to be. You’ll find all the finest in everything from cuisine, antiques, jewelry, luggage and designer fashions. I bought a divine art deco copper and lapis lazuli inlaid travel clock with its original fitted leather case for $100 at an antique shop filled with treasures, and a gorgeous blush coloured cashmere overcoat with a huge crystal fox collar in a tiny fur shop where they tailored it to fit perfectly and delivered it the next day. The thallasso therapy spa is one of the finest in Europe and there’s also a spectacular casino. Aside from sunbathing and swimming in the clear sea, there’s golf at the splendid championship course at La Baule Golf Club. All things equestrian can be found at the Longines Five Star Grand Prix de la Ville de La Baule which hosts the prestigious equestrian show jumping competition that is part of the International Equestrian Nations Cup Series. The stable lads from the local hippodrome exercise the string of thoroughbred race horses every morning. It’s a wonderful spectacle and the sound of 30 galloping horses kicking up the sand and sea spray is never to be forgotten.
If you’d like to rent a car and venture further afield the whole coastline is a succession of beautiful beaches and charming villages. One of my favourite spots in the area is Saint Malo a charismatic walled city surrounded by vivid turquoise seas. Medieval turreted and crenelated walls encircle the entire city and walking along the lofty ramparts affords stunning views out to sea. Amazingly, the tides ebb and flow as much as fifteen kilometers making many of the small offshore islands, easy to reach by foot, across dazzling white sands, during low tide. When we first discovered Saint Malo, the tide was miles out and a captivating castle perched on the precipice of a rocky offshore outcropping, beckoned like a siren.
I was wearing, what I consider to be, the perfect black suede boots, that were only found after an exhaustive husband-maddening search though the shoe shops of Nice, Paris and London. Obviously, they were not the appropriate footwear to walk across wide expanses of wet sand, no matter how white and pristine. My intrepid spirit of adventure along with Ian’s gently persistent coaxing, (ahem) swamped and submerged my vanity. We popped into a nearby shop and bought a pair of hideous green rubber atrocities Ian laughingly called, “Gucci Wellies” and set out across the vast sands, my gallant husband with a walking stick looking like nothing so much as Sir Edmund Hillary about to scale Mt. Everest. Naturally, the castle was much farther away than it appeared, but we eventually reached it to be rewarded with an enthralling view of Saint Malo from the offshore vantage. Need I say, we forgot all about the time? A glance seaward jerked us smartly from our thraldom. The tide was coming in.
If we didn’t high ourselves back across all that sand to the shore in double quick time, we would be engulfed by the steadily advancing tide. By the time we got back to shore, the limpid blue sea was nipping at our heels and within minutes, crashing on the city walls, sending huge geysers of spray up and over the ramparts onto the pavements. We dashed into a charming teashop set into the stone walls for a refreshing cup of the old tissue restorative and sinfully huge slice of sublime cake. Breaths caught and jangled nerves calmed, there was but one pressing task remaining before my equanimity could be fully restored. I held the foul green rubber abominations, with the very tippy tips of my fingers, above the nearest trash bin and let them fall into the black void, never to be seen again!
On the way back to La Baule we stopped in the picturesque little town of Cancalle, known as the oyster capital of France, which has countless restaurants purveying succulent oysters and innumerable other seafood specialties, overlooking massive oyster beds, which are revealed at low tide. The area abounds in mesmerizing medieval towns where you can spend days strolling the ancient streets filled with antique shops, excellent restaurants and gardens. Any sort of water sport from sailing to sand yachting is readily available. For the adventurous, there are literally endless expanses of white sand to explore at low tide, just remember to check the tide tables and give yourself plenty of time to get back to shore before the tide comes flooding in.
And finally darlings, having lived in La Baule for a number of years, we know of what we speak. La Baule was built by the French for the French and they endeavor to guard its secret. Don’t even try to get information from the La Baule Office of Tourism; they simply won’t bother to respond to an English or American voice. But don’t let this put you off. Simply make your own hotel reservations. We suggest flying to Paris and taking the TGV Train from Le Gare Montparnasse direct to La Baule Escoublac rail station, a journey of about three hours. (www.sncf.com) There is a flight from Charles Gaulle to Nantes followed by an hour and a half journey to La Baule by car or train, but the transfers are a bloody nightmare and to be avoided at all costs. Ian advises, on this occasion, "Let the train take the strain” Of course, if you’re really posh you’ll arrive by yacht and berth in La Pouligan which is at the northern end of the La Baule boardwalk and has the most picturesque marina. We shall take a cue from the French and not tell you another thing about Le Pouligan. You shall discover its glories for yourself.
P.S.One more little secret. If you drive south of La Baule for about twenty minutes, passing through Pornichet and St Marguerite, you’ll arrive at the lovely little town of St. Marc which was the location of the classic and much beloved by the French, Jacques Tati film, "La Vacances de M. Hulot”. Here you will find our very favourite restaurant in the entire region. It’s hidden away under the boardwalk where a life-sized statue of M. Hulot gazes out over the beach named for him and protects the secret jewel of a restaurant at his feet. Restaurant La France serving the most incredible seafood at amazingly affordable prices accompanied by the local white Muscadet is nestled right on the sands of La Plage M. Hulot. We highly recommend the mousse au chocolate for desert followed by a walk along the beach to the north and up along a cliff path where charming villas overlook the sea.
Please darlings let’s keep this secret under our chapeaus as we don’t want the same to happen to La Cote D’Amour that’s happened to La Cote D’Azure.