Just south of Brittany, on the French Atlantic coast, the Vendée has 140km of fine white sandy beaches. Famed for its sunshine and luminous light, it is known locally as La Côte de la Lumière. Activities here include sandsurfing, sailing and water sports, cycling, horse riding, golf and revitalising thalassotherapy treatments.
The Vendée is a region of sand dunes, creeks, salt marshes and oyster beds, of vineyards, farmland, forests and fabulous seafood. The colourful village markets are full of locally grown produce and the sweet Brioche Vendéene bread is a must-buy.
Linked to the mainland by a road bridge, the Ile Noirmoutier is a highlight of the Northern Vendée. A serene island of pink-tiled cottages, forest-backed beaches, fertile fields and oyster farms, its bustling little main town of Noirmoutier-en-l’Ile boasts a forbidding castle dating back to the 12th century. In the past it saw off invaders, and still bears the scars, but now it hosts a heritage museum that includes what is said to be the most important collection of English porcelain found in France.
Noirmoutier is a great island for walking and cycling and there are some fascinating activities for nature-lovers, from exploring the salt marshes by canoe to bird watching on the Mullembourg nature reserve and discovering unusual plants in the dunes. Children will love sailing on a traditional coastal gaff-rig, meeting the animals in the Donkey Park and seeing the exotic butterflies among tropical flowers in The Island of Butterflies.
From Noirmoutier to Les Sables-d’Orlonne the coastline is a mix of long, pine tree-backed beaches, resorts and camping sites. Inland, Charolais cows graze in the atmospheric marshlands of the Marais Breton and Marais de Challans with their water meadows and polders crossed by canals and drained by channels.
For an understanding of the marshes and their importance, visit the Ecomusée du Marais Breton Vendéen-Le Daviaud near La Barre-de-Monts. As well as conserving the environment, it celebrates the old way of life with thatched bourrine houses and traditional farming methods. It is open daily from early February to early November.
Some of the loveliest watery landscapes in France are found in the Marais Poitevan in the Southern Vendée. Under the shade of giant poplars, you can explore the maze of canals in local punts and there are some interesting little towns in the area. Check out Richard the Lionheart’s castle at Talmont-St-Hilaire, peaceful little St-Vincent-sur-Jard and its resort Jard-sur-Mer with views across the wood-fringed bay and the 16th-century houses of Fontenay-le-Comte. Inviting Coulon with its pretty restaurants and shops is the place to hire a boat and visit the Maison des Marais Mouillés for an overview of the local history and ecology.
In the Vendée Hills you are into Baroness Orczy country and her swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel novel. But the bitter Guerre de Vendée civil war of resistance against the Revolution in the late 18th century has lived long in local memory and the region is full of memorials and museums.
Children love the Grand Parc du Pay du Fou, about an hour’s drive from the coast. A whirl of adventures and entertainments, it has action-packed shows with special effects that re-enact history from the Romans to Vikings, musketeers, knights and legendary heroes, as well as costumed interpreters in the villages and over a thousand birds and animals to see in the acres of parkland. Open between mid-April and September, it’s a great place to take the family.
Vendée Tourist Bureau, tel: +33 2 51 47 88 22