It has miles of immaculate beaches, a wealth of unspoilt towns and villages waiting to be discovered and a relaxed family vibe – little wonder that those in search of discreet luxury are starting to look away from the flamboyant south of France towards its lesser-known western coast.
The Atlantic shoreline of the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region is more fishing boat than superyacht. The locals tend to spend their time surfing rather than shopping for designer labels, and they travel by bicycle rather than gas-guzzler. But it is this relaxed ambience that appeals, and improved transport links from Paris mean the region is now more accessible than ever to buyers in search of a peaceful weekend getaway.
It is hardly a surprise then that prices are starting to rise. According to data from estate agent Era Immobilier, which tracks house costs in key regions of France, prices for the entire Aquitaine region rose by 13.3 per cent between 2016 and 2017 against a national average of 2.2 per cent. The volume of transactions, a vital indicator of the health of the market, rose by just over 10 per cent in the same period.
The most famous name on the western coast is Biarritz, the grand old resort on the Bay of Biscay that first became fashionable in the mid-19th century when Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, built a palace on the beach. It became a getaway for royalty including Queen Victoria and King Edward VII, seafront casinos and hotels followed in their wake, and for a time Biarritz was one of Europe’s ritziest – and somewhat louche – resorts.
Today, the area has a more laidback vibe according to Nicolas Descamps, president of Côte Ouest Immobilier, an affiliate of Christie’s International Real Estate. “It’s like a small version of California and is similarly very orientated towards surfing culture,” he says. “People like to hike in the mountains and there are many golf courses and tennis courts – it’s very sportif.” Its location – within the French section of the Basque country – gives Biarritz an added piquancy. Those who visit the region will hear Basque spoken alongside French and the area is enjoying a recharged dining scene – one can enjoy bacalao (salted cod) and pintxos (tapas) as well as sole meunière and confit de canard. The Spanish border is only 30km away and dinner at one of the excellent seafood restaurants of San Sebastián is a pleasant 50-minute drive along the coast. Biarritz is also easily accessible from the UK with flights from London Stansted Airport taking around two hours.
Descamps’ buyers tend to be wealthy – and deeply private. Many of them are French, plus a large proportion of Spanish escaping the oppressive heat of summer in cities such as Madrid to this breezier and admittedly wetter coast. “They are discreet. There is no showing off here,” he says matter-of-factly. Family villas – situated some six to 10km inland – are popular and a 465-600sq m property with a pool on around two hectares of grounds costs from €3.5m to €4m. For those who prefer to be at the heart of the action, an apartment in the centre of town with a sea view is priced from €800,000 to €950,000. Some of the best property is from the glamorous belle époque era: Barnes Cote Basque is currently selling a newly renovated five-bedroom 157sq m duplex with knockout sea views for €2.35m.
Property prices are, of course, far lower than in the south of France where it would be perfectly easy to spend €40m on a villa on the fringes of St Tropez. One reason for this, according to Descamps, is that property tends to be a little less luxurious around Biarritz – which has not yet been targeted by top-end developers – and the southwest coast is also far less well known internationally, which means prices have not been pushed skyward. “I think the main reason people have not really caught on is that there’s not a real wealth of hotels here,” says Carol Young, co-owner of real estate agency Bordeaux & Beyond. “People don’t pop down for a holiday and decide to buy a home and so prices are just not comparable to the south. If you have €500,000 to spend you could buy a very appealing apartment or even a small house in one of the lesser-known areas.”
Jean-Alain Nebout, manager of Sotheby’s International Realty in the coastal resort of Pyla-sur-Mer, was born and raised on the frenetic Côte d’Azur, but is now based in Arcachon Bay on the Atlantic coast. “They both have their advantages,” he says. “The weather and the water are slightly warmer on the Côte d’Azur, but it’s busier, built-up and there’s less nature to enjoy. Here, the ocean lends itself to watersports.” Buyers in this area – known locally as Le Bassin – are almost exclusively French and most of Nebout’s clients are families looking for a beachside getaway or retirement home. Many come from Paris, taking advantage of the fast train service to Bordeaux launched in 2017, which has cut the travel times for the 580km journey to just over two hours. However, a handful of in-the-know Swiss, Belgian, Dutch and German buyers have also discovered the delights of the Arcachon Bay, which has 80km of sandy beaches flanked by sand dunes (including the Dune du Pilat, Europe’s largest at just over 100m tall and 2.7km long). As well as the attraction of watersports – from surfing to sea kayaking – there are extensive bike trails through the inland pine forests. “The southwest coast is very peaceful and safe,” Nebout adds.
The main locations for property in the bay are the seaside town of Arcachon – with its bustling shops, restaurants and nightlife at the mouth of the bay – its quieter neighbour Pyla-sur-Mer and Cap Ferret (not to be confused with the Côte d’Azur’s blingy Cap Ferrat) located at the tip of the bay’s headland. Properties range from traditional sloped-roof Basque villas in Pyla-sur-Mer to extraordinary fairytale belle époque houses in Arcachon or simpler cabin-style homes in Cap Ferret, while a fanciful late-19th-century 700sq m villa in the historic heart of Arcachon, with seven bedrooms, seven bathrooms and a large garden with swimming pool is on sale through Coldwell Banker for €3.99m.
Of course, a sea view tops most buyers’ wish lists and Nebout says that a frontline villa with four bedrooms and around 230sq m of living space is priced from €4m in Pyla-sur-Mer and Cap Ferret. Arcachon, which has a larger stock of properties, is marginally less expensive, with a villa there starting at around €3.5m. Prices fall significantly a short walk from the beach and Sotheby’s International Realty has a 19th-century house with six bedrooms and three bathrooms for sale at £2.048m, only 300m from the beach.
Dotted between Biarritz and Arcachon is an almost unbroken line of beaches with scores of small towns and villages to explore. Beyond their beaches is an extensive national forest that was planted in the 19th century when the land was reclaimed from the sea, which protects these locations from urban sprawl. Most are little known outside France and represent excellent value for money. At Biscarrosse – a town popular for its beaches, swimming lakes, golf course and forest trails – Sotheby’s International Realty has a six-bedroom villa for sale just five minutes from the coast. The 300sq m property, with its large garden and swimming pool, is priced at £1.155m.
A particularly charming option in the region is Île de Ré, located north of Arcachon. This tranquil island is the French answer to the Hamptons with long beaches, sleepy villages and excellent bistros. It is linked by a road bridge to the La Rochelle, which has flight connections with the UK. Here, a large (510sq m), four‑bedroom loft apartment in Saint-Martin-de-Ré, the island’s “capital”, is currently on sale with Barnes International for €3.6m. The property has an industrial aesthetic with floor-to-ceiling glass doors, exposed brick walls and beams, and overlooks the ancient harbour.
All along the French Atlantic coast, agents agree that property prices are beginning to rise thanks to limited stock and greater accessibility brought about by the high-speed train link from Paris. In Biarritz, the average price per sq m already stands at €4,580 according to the latest data from the Notaires de France. Bordeaux & Beyond’s Young also notes a recent spike in enquiries from buyers interested in leaving the Riviera in favour of the Basque coast. “The south is all traffic jams and crime is a big issue on the Mediterranean coast,” she says. “The southwest is about spending time with your family and enjoying amazing food, fantastic wine and wonderful beaches.”