As the 2020’s begin we sense a growing belief that we can all make meaningful changes that lower our individual carbon footprint. Changes that can be made both in our everyday lives and in our holiday habits...
We’ve certainly sensed just in the last 12 months that France is making something of a comeback with the UK holidaymaker. Sure, the French still do some daft things (like bringing dogs to restaurants and thinking open-air urinals are a great idea) but we can forgive them this if they can offer us one of the most diverse, exciting, good-living holiday destinations in Europe. Which of course they do.
The fact that France is making a comeback got me thinking. I am convinced that part of the reason is this heightened environmental conscience. So, I have thought about this a little harder and tried to flesh out the reasons why France is the best low-carbon-footprint overseas holiday destination this summer...
1) It’s the nearest hot and sunny destination to the UK
I love geography, maps and the weather. This obviously makes me startling company and I am a deep well of interesting European weather observations. I won’t dig them out now but suffice it to say, my general rule of thumb is that you need to travel half-way down the west coast of France for the thermometer to consistently hit 25+ degrees Celsius on a summer’s day.
Please don’t think I’m disrespecting Brittany or Normandy, both of which are adorable regions of France that I have visited many times. It’s just that there aren’t many villas with pools in these two regions and there’s a reason why...
Once you reach the Vendée on the west coast, things start to improve. In fact the Vendée & Charente Maritime tourist boards like to shout about the micro-climate on this stretch of Atlantic coast and that it’s the third sunniest area of France (after Côte d’Azur and Languedoc in case you were wondering).
Heading further south to the Aquitaine Coast, the number of sun hours doesn’t really tail off whilst the temperatures are generally higher still; there will be several 35+ degrees days in summer but the Atlantic (and, further south, the Pyrénées) tend to moderate temperatures with some naturally-sourced aircon. This is particularly helpful at night when you can sleep in comfort. But, also, during the day it means you can get out and do things, like cycling or surfing, without the need to escape to the shade.
2) You don’t have to fly there
Yes, apologies for stating the obvious. That’s right, when I last checked, France is very close to the UK and this opens-up other means of getting there. And we know that at the best of times airports can be draining places. If you’re taking a 3-hour flight to the Med then your carbon footprint soars; a short-haul flight contributes approximately 90 kg of CO2 emissions per passenger per hour. So, even if you decide to fly to France on holiday, it’s quite a saving [on CO2 emissions] versus flying to, say, the Algarve or Greece (again both are wonderful destinations!).
The point is of course that you can holiday in France without having to fly there. Sure, the ferry and self-drive option is hardly carbon-neutral but a cross-channel or Bay of Biscay ferry can accommodate over 600 cars and nearly 2500 people so the carbon footprint is shared across a much larger audience and the individual footprint is therefore smaller.
It is, though, train travel that offers the most environmentally-friendly option for reaching your holiday destination. And it is the re-emergence of rail journeys that is really helping France.
My Cornish grandad worked on the railways and one of the perks of being Newquay station master was cheap rail tickets home and abroad. Never would I describe grandad as being a pioneering traveller (after all this is the man who took his own box of Shredded Wheats with him on every holiday) but at some point in the early 1960’s him and nana took off on a rail holiday to Lloret-de-Mar in Spain. Too much sun, ‘foreigners’ and a lack of Cornish pasties meant they never went back but my point is that just maybe the ‘hay day’ of railway holidays is about to resurface...
A Eurostar train from St Pancras to Paris takes just 2 hr 45 minutes. And from there you could be in La Rochelle little more than 3 hours later, Arcachon in 4 hours or Biarritz in around 6 hours. This is simply wonderful. I can’t imagine a more relaxing way to arrive on the French coast.
3) You don’t have to use a car when you’re there
We all know the French love cycling and it’s the west coast of France that has an incredible network of cycle trails most of which are safely tucked away from main roads. In fact, there’s a superb cycling infrastructure generally; as well as all the bike paths, every resort has numerous cycle hire outlets (including the increasingly popular option of electric bikes) whilst the tourist offices provide itineraries to discover the area and, often, put on guided cycling excursions too.
So, you can arrive without your car and enjoy your holiday without it too.
The 4 best resorts to arrive easily and keep to two wheels (and two feet) when you’re there, are:
Ile de Ré – the cycling island! Plus it’s a very short transfer from both La Rochelle TGV train station and airport. There’s also an excellent island hopper bus service which allows you to explore the villages and beaches further afield
Arcachon – this French favourite has its own train station in the heart of the town and connects directly to Bordeaux (the journey takes around 50 minutes)
Hossegor – train or flight to Biarritz then it’s little more than a half-hour transfer from there. Once in Hossegor, there’s loads of hire shops and a fabulous network of cycle trails to explore the area. We love the fat bikes for the sandy forest trails!
Biarritz – with its TGV train station and airport just 5 km from the resort centre, Biarritz is the ideal choice for a car-free holiday. If you’re staying in the heart of the town then you can walk to beaches, restaurants, cafés and Biarritz’s famous boutiques. And if you’re staying on the outskirts then you will soon notice that the Basque Coast is not quite the flat landscape of neighbouring Les Landes. Not to worry though as electric bikes are readily available to hire and I can say from experience this makes cycling a lot easier!
4) France is embracing the cut-back-on-meat trend – much to our surprise!
I’ve been holidaying in France since I was a kid and visiting for work trips since 2002. In the early days of Alternative Aquitaine it was a challenge to eat find vegetarian options. That wasn’t a problem for me as I would often use my trips to Aquitaine as an opportunity to indulge in some magret de canard or a choice cut of steak cooked à point. Plus, if I’d asked the waiter for the ‘vegan dish of the day’ there’s a good chance I would have been taken into the kitchen and assaulted with chef’s finest and heaviest le creuset griddle pan.
However, times and tastes change. Again, it’s only really been the last 12 months where I have personally thought more closely about eating less meat. Happily it has become far easier (OK Google Maps has made a difference too) to pin-point a specialist vegetarian or vegan café or restaurant in France. This was put to the test about 18 months ago when I travelled along the south west coast with a new – and vegetarian – colleague. It was one of the best culinary trips I’ve ever experienced.
Sure, the French love their meat and always will but according to French Today around 5% of the population is vegetarian and 30% is flexitarian. More importantly, the French ‘eating out’ infrastructure is catering for modern non-meat diets.
There is no better evidence of this than in the chic surfing resort of Hossegor approximately half an hour north of Biarritz. To be fair, Hossegor has never been especially French. It’s surfing heritage ensures a good supply of international residents from Australia, South Africa, the UK and California. Such well-travelled and enlightened folk bring an array of on-trend eatery options: smoothie bars, food trucks and poke bowls to highlight but a few. Biarritz is also on the case too thanks to its young and dynamic influencers.
Here’s a few of our fave places to eat out healthily...
Hossegor – Waxed Café | Louvine | Mango Tree | Tante Jeanne | Lou Cabana | l’Açaï | Green Cantine
Biarritz – Milwaukee Café | Wild Mood | Asia-Way
5) You won’t need air-con on the Aquitaine Coast
I mentioned this earlier – the Atlantic is your air-con. This is not to say that it won’t get hot – it will. However, the ocean breeze keeps the lid on the heat. Villas with air-con is in fact a popular request for us and it comes as a surprise to many clients that only a few villas offer this amenity. I guess the thinking is that you’re in the south of France so you’ll need it. In reality, even new-build properties on the south west coast rarely feature air-con units. It’s just not part of life down this way and there are more energy-efficient ways these days of cooling and heating homes (e.g. underfloor systems).
Furthermore, I personally feel that people need to change their mind-set when it comes to air-con and assuming it’s a 'given’. It’s a bit of a relic of the past, in my view, and we could all trade-off a bit of comfort for a healthier planet. Aircon is predicted to account for 13% of global electricity usage and 2 bn tonnes of CO2 emissions. Not cool.
Justin Ashby is Founder and Director of Alternative Aquitaine, a Simpson Travel company since 2018. For advice on villa holidays on the Aquitaine Coast and Ile de Ré speak to one of our destination experts on +44(0)1395 576655.
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