Not all beach destinations are created equal. We compare the coastal charms of the Vendée and the Côte d’Azur to help you decide which is the best for you.
Rolling sand dunes and low-key sophistication.
The lie of the land…
The Atlantic coast of the Vendée stretches for around 250km and more than two-thirds of it is made up of gently shelving, golden beaches with many Blue Flag winners among them. It’s a relatively flat landscape with expanses of undulating dunes and there’s lots of space for children to run around and grown-ups to disappear into a book without interruption from close neighbours.
Between the most popular coastal towns, including Les Sables d’Olonne, a charming old-world fishing village and the starting point for the gruelling Vendée Globe round-the-world sailing race, there are delightful stretches of pristine beaches. For those prepared to go exploring, you can leave the crowds of high season behind for a much better chance of a sandy spot to call your own. If there are no lifeguards on duty (and there often aren’t on the quieter beaches), keep an eye on little ones and non-swimmers as the waters can be unpredictable.
A favourite of the French, this coastline is out of the spotlight that shines on the glamour and glitz of the Côte d’Azur and is easier to get to from the UK; it’s that bit closer. Of course there are all the activities you’d want for a beach holiday – the area is popular for its watersports and surfing – but there’s a relaxed, low-key feel about the place. Vendée is home to La Roche-sur-Yon, a stately town built by Napoleon but overall, it’s a place of traditional villages rather than bustling urban spaces, with plenty of comfortable cafés for sampling mussels, oysters and other local delicacies.
What else can you do there?
Walkers and cyclists like it here – there are gently rolling hills, as well as pine forests, oyster parks and salt marshes to explore. There’s also a waterpark in La Roche-sur-Yon and several golf courses nearby. And don’t miss Marais Poitevin, also known as Green Venice, with its canals, forest-covered hills, marshland, picturesque villages and historic abbeys – hire a boat with or without a skipper and relax under the lush green canopy above.
Whilst temperatures aren’t as reliable as in the sunny South, there seems to be a microclimate here that keeps the weather generally more than warm enough to be comfortable, although the seas never reach the balmy temperatures you’ll find further south.
Celebrity status alongside captivating historic landscapes.
The lie of the land…
Unlike the expansive Vendée, the Côte d’Azur is more about smaller bays, narrow beaches and the blue, blue waters after which the region was named – and within the 70km-stretch between Cannes and Menton there are plenty of sandy spots to choose from. Although attention focuses on the celebrity resorts such as St-Tropez, Ste-Maxime and St-Raphäel (home to plenty of upmarket beach clubs where the best sunbathing spots go at a price), there are also picturesque fishing villages such as Cassis and more modest seaside towns like Agay, which is nestled into a landscape of dramatic red rocks and vibrant green forests.
Unlike the smaller-scale communities of the Vendée, this is also a region of vibrant towns and cities, with all the culture, shopping and food and wine you need to fill a day from dawn until dusk and beyond. It balances this with a natural presence that cannot be ignored: a diverse landscape of peaceful hillsides; atmospheric villages perchés and the dramatic Calanques National Park, inlets that cut into the limestone cliffs between Cassis and Marseille.
Of course the Côte d’Azur is synonymous with celebrity and has been since the 19th century – red-carpet glamour, super yachts, international festivals and the superstars that go with them, as well as the cocktail bars, gourmet restaurants and clubs required to work those designer wardrobes to full effect. Soak up the abundance – although in July and August, the crawling traffic and excitable crowds are best avoided.
And fortunately there are many ways to do that, whether you choose a medieval village such as Cogolin, Eze, La Garde Freinet or Grimaud in which to linger over your morning coffee, or hike through the kind of dramatic scenery that have drawn writers and artists here for centuries to luxuriate in and be inspired by the extraordinary light and captivating views.
What else can you do there?
Watersports are popular – Ste-Maxime in particular is known for them – and walkers will leave satisfied too. The fjord-like inlets of the Calanques offer spectacular hiking trails and swimming in the blue water between the cliffs is fantastic too, while the mountain paths of the Massif de l’Esterel come with spectacular views. Ten minutes by boat from Cannes will take you to the beautiful Iles de Lerins, great for picnics and relative peace and quiet or join a bike tour for a relaxed, informal and fascinating introduction to the countryside with plenty of coffee stops en route. There’s also plenty to cater for cultural types, from the perfume-fragranced air of Grasse to formal gardens, art galleries and museums.
Expect a typical Mediterranean climate of long, hot summers – so given the crowds, consider a trip there early or late in the holiday season. Temperatures are milder for getting out and about and you won’t have to contend with the bustle of July and August if you want a taste of the riviera’s celebrity lifestyle.