Le Grau-Du-Roi, France: Secret Seaside

Frank Preston, The Daily Telegraph, July 29, 2013

There is a case to be made for isolated creeks, deserted beaches and dinky fishing villages unchanged in a millennium. But there is a quite separate argument for letting rip with a full-tilt seaside holiday – ice-creams, blow-up dolphins, a bit of noise, a lot of activity and a happy hubbub in streets, cafés, and also when the sun goes down. This gives youngsters the impression that they’ve found a place where things are happening. And it can be rewarding for parents, too, to be among people with their sunny sides out.

Such considerations lead you to Le Grau-du-Roi. The unpronounceable little town (try “Grroh du Rwa”) clings on where Languedoc bangs into the Petite Camargue amid a water-and-earth tangle of lagoons, channels, salt-pans, marshes – and 12 miles of France’s sandiest beaches. In recent decades it has also sprouted Europe’s biggest pleasure port. If Le Grau is little-known in Britain, it has, since the mid-20th century, been a regular destination for ordinary French holidaymakers, the sort who favour pétanque and pastis.

Should you need cultural justification, well, Ernest Hemingway was here in 1927, and again in 1948. “This is,” he wrote to a friend, “a fine place… with a long beach and fine fishing port.” The fishing port remains, the second most important on the French Med. Trawlers chug up and down the main channel which splits the town in two. The odours are of diesel, fish and heat, the quayside a scrum of tackle, nets, ropes, tanned blokes with roll-ups unloading sea-bass – but also of café terraces and boutiques selling fluo hairgrips.

Le Grau has evolved from Hemingway’s time. French tourists do come, to throng quays, narrow pedestrian streets and their open-fronted shops (“Italian ices!” “Waffles!” “All dresses: €10!”), and to justify seafront apartment blocks. There’s a sense of permanent impermanence, which suits a holiday mood. Le Grau doesn’t do airs and graces – not even around the coast as it segues into Port Camargue, the marina where richer people go. Completed in 1985, Port Camargue is extraordinary. Seen from above it resembles a pharaonic coral growth of quays bearing warrens of luxury flats, all with berths outside to park the boat. It sounds overwhelming but isn’t.

And, throughout, there’s a frontier feel. The sea and in-town beaches, all six miles of them, are right there. Everywhere else, development cedes to wilderness in the turn of a horse’s hoof. This is the cowboy country of the Petite Camargue, its dunes and reeds, marshes and scrub more suited to bulls and flamingos than humans.

To experience this, you need to drive or cycle (there’s a brand new cycle path) south out of town to Espiguette beach (pictured above), (another) six miles of broad beach barely touched. One of France’s last great untamed coastal stretches, it’s essentially a sandbank backed by dunes, themselves backed by lagoons and limitless salty scrub. Sea, sun and sensations come unfiltered, notably for naturists who colonise part of the sands. But there’s ample wild space for everyone else and only three cabin beach bars to remind you that you might need a beer.

Back in town, the other beaches sweep endlessly north-south, affording everything you could require of a beach, and largely free of those infernal private beach clubs which clog up the Riviera. These are the people’s beaches. Seek and you will find windsurfing, kitesurfing, kayaking, sailing, deep-sea fishing and pretty much anything else you can do on or under water. Boats will take you out to sea or, alternatively, inland to the Petite Camargue on canals and channels.

You might also explore the landscape by quad, 4WD, horse or bike – with stops at farms to see cowboys working the herds on horseback. To hand also are the Listel vineyards – a fine Camargue wine domain balanced between land and lagoons. Or the Salins-du-Midi, whose vast salt-pans fill in much of the bracingly alien watery flatness between Le Grau and Aigues-Mortes.

A leisurely ride on the beach outside Le Grau-du-Roi

You’ll have heard of Aigues-Mortes and its famous medieval walls. But, between ourselves, all it has is walls (and more ice cream shops and cafés, of which you’ve already got enough in Le Grau). I’d not hang about. Youth would rather to be at Le Grau’s Amigoland funfair, and you would prefer a drink at a bar on the main canal – conceivably that of the Hotel Belle-Vue d’Angleterre, where Hemingway stayed, and there are good dining options too.

And then you might wander to the fishing port proper to watch the boats go out. This is real labouring life. It will be going on when you’re gone. That’s reassuring. And so to bed. There’s another full day tomorrow.

Did you know?

Hemingway’s posthumously-published novel, The Garden of Eden, was set in Le Grau-du-Roi

>Getting there

Nearest airport is Nîmes, served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com ) from Liverpool and Luton. A shuttle bus whisks you to Nîmes city centre, from where there are summer buses and trains to Le Grau. Montpellier airport is only a little farther away.

Where to stay

Odalys Domaine Elysée £
Family campsite with chalets right down to the Lac de Salonique and as much activity as your youngsters can stand (0033 466 357335; odalys-vacances.com ; summer chalet for four or five £716 per week).

Hotel Splendid ££
Central, seafront hotel, blockish from the outside but with a swish of smiling modernity within (514129; splendid-camargue.com ; summer doubles from £76 but, if possible, spring for those with sea-view balconies, from £94).

Oustau Camarguen £££
Lovely old mas in Port Camargue, with low-slung white buildings around pool or garden and Camargue-meets-Andalusia style décor (515165; oustaucamarguen.com ; summer doubles £115).

Rounding up a bull outside the medieval walls of Aigues-Mortes

Where to eat

Au Petit Bonheur £
Astounding value for an admirable seafront spot with terrace onto the lawn (580057; restaupetitbonheur.free.fr ; lunch £11, dinner £16).

Le Palangre ££
On the quieter right bank of Le Grau’s main channel this is where brighter locals go to show they know what’s what, fish-wise (517630; lepalangre-restaurant.fr ; menus from £18).

L’Amarette £££
Tagged on the end of a residential complex and an anything-goes commercial complex, the first-floor place nevertheless has wonderful dominance over the sea and the best, dearest food in town (514763; l-amarette.com ; dinner menus from £34).

The inside track

Le Grau’s Seaquarium is among the finest aquaria in southern France – full of fish from around the globe, sea mammals and France’s toothiest collection of sharks. (515757; seaquarium.fr ; adults £11, five to 15-year-olds, £8. Tickets marginally cheaper if bought at the Tourist Office).

The resort has live music across town on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays in summer, but its key festival takes place from September 7-15 when there are bull-running games, gipsy music, dance and drink.

Le Grau’s Tourism Office is the best starting point (516770; v acances-en-camargue.com ).