by Ramy James Salameh
For Les Sables d’Olonne, sport has brought the world’s attention to this elegant seaside resort in western France. Settled on the shores of the Atlantic coast, the destination has become the world capital of single-handed offshore racing, the cradle of round-the-world single-handed sailing races for the Vendée Globe and the Golden Globe.
The latter is described as the father of single-handed around the world events, that of sailing purists, placing man and not machine at the heart of maritime exploration, while the Vendée Globe, just as demanding, uses advanced technologies and equipment, but with no less cunning, determination and courage.
A village dedicated to the race opens its doors to the public on the Esplanade du Vendée Globe a few weeks before the start of the two races, offering visitors and sailing enthusiasts the opportunity to see the boats first hand, talk to the sailors fearless and get carried away by the magnetic pull of the ocean and adventures at sea.
The pontoons, piers and water arteries of the bustling port all converge on the famous Port Olona canal. This is where sailing legends are created, as the starting and finishing point of these most famous sailing races.
A flotilla of boats trails in the wake of the competing boats on the day of the start of the race. All cross the iconic “Channel” linking the race village of Port Olona to the open sea. A procession of many kinds of crafts brings a lot of pomp and pageantry to the occasion, which resembles a classic boat regatta. Sailors are greeted enthusiastically by the thousands of people lining the channel, many with their feet dangling from the harbor walls, waving and cheering, trying to capture a moment in sporting history.
Paris Air Show Vendée and Les Grands Plages
Les Sables d’Olonne’s support of these incredible races not only shows the power and appeal of witnessing elite sport, but has further cemented the destination’s reputation as a haven for sports travel enthusiasts. This transcends sailing and branches out into the breathtaking natural landscape of the surrounding area.
In June 2022, the third edition of the Vendée Air Show filled the sky in front of one of the most spectacular beaches in Europe – Les Grand Plage. The sandy expanse arches around the bay and extends for 3 km. About 120,000 spectators packed the beach and boardwalk to watch the aerobatics of rolls, spins and loops, performed by more than 40 aircraft.
Most of the time, the Grande Plage can be seen as a microcosm of Vendée life and lifestyle and can be found in just one stroll; the beach is shared by bowling traditionalists, walkers, runners and swimmers of all ages, with many stopping to watch tribes of surfers catching waves or yoga practitioners contorting bodies creating art sculptures momentary human.
One block from the elegant south-facing bay and promenade of cafes, restaurants and shops, one can explore the daily life of the intoxicatingly French Sablais, especially in the Marches Halles. In 1889, architect Charles Smolski rebuilt the structure, drawing inspiration from Gustave Eiffel and Victor Baltard; the elegant balustrades, Juliet balconies and overhanging cast iron and glass canopy make the building itself worthy of a visit, as much as the many fresh produce stalls alongside the general hubbub of market life, which has seen trade on this site since 1810.
Les Marche Halles sits on the site of the former Les Sables cemetery, as the building is almost within easy reach of the 17th-century Notre-Dame de Bon-Port cathedral, a marvel of Gothic and Renaissance architecture and of where many streets converge, the ideal meeting point from where the many cafes and pastry shops sit at the foot of the church.
Vendée Iron Man 70.3 and active adventures
Another event on the 2022 sports calendar in Les Sables d’Olonne, the Vendée Iron Man 70.3, another race of endurance and adaptability. Perhaps of all the events that start downtown, Iron Man is the one where competitors can see more of the area via a 1.9km swim, 90km bike race and a cross country race. 21km.
The competitors’ initial swim begins on the beach in front of Les Atlantes and loops around the famous lighthouse and into Port Olona’s historic canal, passing crowds of excited spectators but also the most historic landmarks of Les Sables d’ Olonne.
From swimming, competitors move on to cycling, which is another 90km loop taking riders east of the town and into the Forest of Olonne. It is here that the spectacular natural landscape is unveiled and offers a topography diverse enough to challenge the participants of Iron Man. For sports tourists, this magnificent landscape is easily accessible; several kilometers from the center of Les Sables d’Olonne, and the greater Vendée offers some 1,800 km of cycle paths.
Part of this vast network of pistes is Marais Olonne, a chain of salt marshes, centered on the former salt-producing village of Ille d’Olonne. Walkers share these narrow paths laid out between the fish marsh and the salt marsh, with cyclists and electric scooters, all with the same aim of admiring the diversity of flora and fauna, from migratory birds to the strange group of grazing goats, unfazed by passers-by. by.
The flat landscape offers a feeling of space, the perspective highlighting a solitary fisherman’s hut in the foreground and wind turbines in the distance sharing the panorama with the bell tower of the Saint Martin de Vertou church. The spire was a visual landmark to head towards and belongs to Ille d’Olonne, one of the many picturesque villages that invites a stopover; especially since this smallest of the villages has a square with the grandest names, Place Général de Gaulle.
In the region, you are never too far or even too long to interact with water. Another way to get even closer to nature is paddle boarding, an almost zen-like experience, providing pure calm, with the only noise coming from the paddle entering the water or the aquatic landing of an egret. . The patchwork of marsh canals was a welcome antidote to the nervous energy of the racing village and the constant stream of boats maneuvering deftly into one of the 1,500 berths that Port Olona offers its sailing community.
The final Iron Man is the “run”, which includes two circuits to reach the distance of 21.1 km of the route, which takes a section of Les Grand Plage, before reaching Le Remblai (promenade) and being able to admire many architectural styles including magnificent 19th century villas. The runners continue towards Lake Tanchet, a popular area for walkers and anglers. The finish line then appears, while the competitors return to the city center.
La Chaume: Fishermen’s Quarter
Outside of racing or party days, it’s a good time to discover La Chaume and the rich maritime heritage of the fishermen’s quarter. Step into the little waterside cafes tucked away in the narrow streets of whitewashed cottages to find walls adorned with black, white and sepia postcards of a bygone era and nautical ephemera . The postcards depict the old port, the fisherman, their wives and families bringing home their catch of cod, sardines and tuna.
It is on this side of the Channel that other landmarks point to the ancient trades of salt, wine, wheat and sailcloth, all of which are still somewhat relevant today. The 11th century Saint Nicolas Priory was built by the monks of Sainte Croix de Talmont and has known many reincarnations. Today it is an exhibition space. Arundel Tower was built in the 15th century as part of the defenses of Castle St. Clair, now incorporating the Museum of the Sea. These are the first monuments that every sailor leaving and entering the mouth of the harbor is comforted to see .
It is towards these historic buildings that each skipper of the flotilla of boats accompanying the departure of competitors in the Vendée Globe and the Golden Globe Race positions his vessel. It’s easy to imagine how emotional it must be and the feeling of homecoming that centuries of sailors have felt when they see these landmarks appear; especially the skippers of those epic sailing races where sailors spend so much time at sea and overcome so much.
Les Sables d’Olonne has used its maritime history as a means to develop its maritime future by being the transition point for the most important single-handed sailing races in the world and also by highlighting the Côte de Lumière. Sport and active adventure have become part of the fabric of this spectacular city that respects its heritage, but writes new chapters in the historical annals through these unique nautical events.
Many skippers have set off on a journey “in which human values and surpassing oneself are essential to face the elements and go to the end of the adventure”, specifies Yannick Moreau, mayor of Les Sables d’Olonne.
These sailors are certainly dreaming of their return to Les Sables-d’Olonne and hope that we will all be back to witness their return.
For more information, see lessablesdolonne-tourisme.com, vendee-tourism.co.uk and admiralhotel.fr