There are four distinct regions to the Vendée département: the Bocage, a rolling, wooded area of low hills; the Plaine with its open countryside and rich arable land, golden with wheat and sunflowers in summer; and two marshy areas - the silent Marais Breton to the north, the lush, verdant slow-moving waters of the Marais Poitevin to the south. Above all else, the region offers some of the most superb beaches in the whole country: long, sandy, gently shelving and safe.
Set in an attractive location, the ruins of the 17th Renaissance castle lie on a steep escarpment over the valley of the River Vie. There are fine panoramic views from the walk around the south tower and an even better one from the top of the 80m water tower. The reservoir is a lovely spot for a picnic and very popular with windsurfers.
Often referred to as the ‘Carnac of the Vendée’ this is an important prehistoric site, the most important of which is Caesar’s Camp, 7m high and 8m in circumference. The village is dominated by other megaliths including La Cornelésie, a rocking stone.
Once a Roman encampment on the tin road between Brittany and the Aquitaine basin, Chantonnay still has caves and megaliths of the prehistory period. It lies on the border between the Bocage and the Plaine. Two miles away lie the small lake and beach of the Moulin Neuf which is ideal for picnics and fishing. The Rochereau dam is also close by.
A typical Marais town that calls itself the capital of the marshes. Standing, as it does, in the middle of an area where horses, cattle and poultry are raised, the town has a good number of markets; the duck market was always the most famous (usually on a Tuesday). North of Challans, at Machecoul, is the Séguin brandy distillery. From July onwards there are daily tours at 2.30 pm. Before then there are tours but only for groups of twenty or more.
Standing on a slope that commands the banks of the river Vendée, and set between the Plaine, the Bocage and the Marais Poitevin, Fontenay has been inhabited since prehistoric times. It was an important Renaissance centre of humanism and culture. There are a number of fine buildings in the town including the beautiful Château de Terre Neuve which is classed as one of the great monuments of western France.
It is from here that one reaches the Vendéan islands and also where the regions of Monts begins. As is the case with many Vendéan resorts, a superb forest lines the beach.
This area of the Marais Poitevin draws large numbers of visitors every year. It is a watery, marshy area made up of crisscrossing canals or 'chenaux' which are navigable by marshland dwellers in small boats and punts. Manoeuvring a boat through the thick blanket of green weeds beneath the entangled canopy of the trees above is a slow business and the area seems to take on a rhythm all its own. The atmosphere is unique and it’s certainly a photographer’s dream.
Ile de Noirmoutier
Visitors to this island can get there either by sea from Pornic, by the Le Gois causeway at low tide or via the bridge at Fromentine. Most of this island is below sea level and protected by dykes, hence its nickname of Little Holland. Its also more picturesquely known as the Isle of Mimosas and is known for its mild climate, lovely beaches and woods of maritime pines.
The wood at La Chaise lines a coast as wonderful as any on the Med and it shelters the lovely Plage des Dames. Here the trees and mimosa come right down to the beach in a manner reminiscent of certain stretches of the Riviera. Two notable attractions on the island include the Océanile waterpark and the Sealand Aquarium at Le Vieux Port.
Ile de Yeu
This is the leading tuna port of France as well being a major seaside resort. It’s situated 25km west of Fromentine and 17km off the coast, has a wild south-western shore and a northern coast of rolling dunes. It’s often compared to Brittany due to its rocky creeks and prehistoric megaliths but it has a gentler, calmer character on the other coast which is distinctly Vendéan. Hire bikes there and explore this lovely corner of the Vendée for yourself!
To get there take a boat from St Gilles, Les Sables or Fromentine (around 175FF per person) A speedier route is via hydrofoil from Noirmoutier.
The famous beach at La Tranche is truly excellent. As well as being a seaside resort, La Tranche is known for its bulb production - tulips, hyacinth and gladioli – an industry for which the town is indebted to the Dutch. Bulbs are all very well but children might just prefer to visit the Zoo Parc de Californie at nearby La Faute-sur-Mer, home to birds from around the world.
Les Sables d’Olonne
This lively seaside resort, fishing port and commercial centre is one of the major centres of the Vendée and, as such, is sometimes modestly referred to as the ‘pearl of the coast of light’. Dating back to Roman times there is much to see here, including St Nicholas fort, Arundel tower (a lighthouse), and the former Capucin monastery which now houses the Bourgenay Institution.
It’s a great place to stroll by day with magnificent beaches, excellent shops and numerous seafood restaurants for which the town has an enviable reputation. At night it’s lively with a wide range of bars and seafront cafes. The Olonne state forest stretches over some 12km, creating a band of pine and oak between the marshes and the sea.
This is an attractive rural cathedral town, once the home of Cardinal Richelieu, and now a thriving agricultural centre. Notable is the Jardin Dumaine, a precisely laid out park, and the cathedral and old quarter which cluster around it. The second Saturday of each month sees a colourful fair-cum-livestock market which is always worth experiencing. Nearby is the Château de la Court d’Aron, a reconstructed château containing collections of furniture, tapestries and paintings as well as extensive gardens.
Notre Dame de Monts
This ancient marshland town is surrounded by forest and beach. To the north lies the famous bridge of Yeu, an underwater plateau that emerges during the tides of the equinox and which is said to have been built by the Devil.
This is an attractive old fishing town with ancient streets and a busy harbour. the 13th century which dominates the town once belonged to Gilles de Rais, the notorious ‘Bluebeard’. Times change and Pornic today is also a holiday resort with a colourful marina. There are pleasant walks to found along the corniches running away from the port. The neighbouring beaches are mainly small coves, similar to parts of Brittany, rather than the more customary long stretches of sand so typical of the Vendée.
In the northern Marais of the Vendée, some windmills have been saved from destruction and restored. Nearly all ceased operating long ago but one, the Moulin de Rairé, still mills grain daily as it has since 1750. There are usually a number of visitors in high summer but there are tours of this relic of bygone technology.
St Gilles and Croix-de-Vie are actually two communes, separated by the Vie river. Both have a harbour and a beach and it was the natural harbour that first attracted the Romans to this spot. In the 12th century, monks from Languedoc built a fortified abbey near the port and the town grew up around it. By the end of the 16th century the town had spilt over onto the other bank of the river and this was the start of Croix-de-Vie.
Today there is a large yachting marina and various boat trips offer sea fishing or go to the Ile de Yeu. On the seafront, there’s also an aquarium.
Sheltered by the vast state forest which is the spearhead of the Marais Breton, St Jean’s beaches stretch for 8km along its shore. The original Ile de Monts was separated from the shoreline by an arm of the sea which has gradually been filled in by soil brought downstream by the Loire and by the hard work of the Cistercian monks and others who drained the marshes.
Sea-bathing came into vogue here at the start of the century but the last twenty years or so have seen remarkable development. This is now the second-largest resort on the Vendéen coast and in high season provides all the trappings of a modern holiday destination: bars, restaurants, nightclubs, cinemas and more. In season, the number of inhabitants (about 5,000) multiplies tenfold.
St Jean-de-Monts ville, with its open market square and charming church with its tall, pointed spire has a very pleasant atmosphere, especially on market days when there’s an extra bit of colour and bustle. It really is a separate entity from the beach area, which is more about lazing and lounging in the sun. On the Route de Beauvoir look out for a bourrine, one of the original low-built houses of the frog catchers of the marshes. It’s now open to the public and provides a remarkable insight into a peasant life very different to today’s holidaymaker.