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Words: Adam Boatman
I don’t know about the rest of you, but I am a truly awful surfer.
My earliest surfing memories come from a family holiday in Cornwall. Shivering in pants and t-shirt, trying desperately to keep my tiny fibreglass board from sinking every time I clambered on top, aware that one was meant to stand on the board but not entirely sure how you made it go anywhere. I’ve improved since then, but not significantly.
So you could argue that signing on for a long weekend at Sanctuary Surf, a surf camp hugging the west coast of France not far from Bordeaux, was an odd decision. Honestly though, it wasn’t. Surfing culture is much more than just riding waves, and Sanctuary Surf capture this ethos perfectly.
Anyone who has been surfing, even those that are yet to stand up, will know that although that is indeed the ultimate goal, you can still have a fantastic time even when it’s spent on your stomach, belly blubbering out over the sides of the surfboard, flailing around like a baby seal abandoned by its embarrassed mother.
Founded by two friends, James and Olly, Sanctuary Surf doesn’t just release you onto a beach with an angry dreadlocked neo-nazi before bundling you into a scout hall to sleep off the aches and pains of the first exercise your body has done in two years. It’s a full on ‘glamping’ experience with home cooked breakfasts, beautiful dinners and more wine than an Englishman’s boot after a trip to Calais.
The hosts are enigmatic, excitable and just really bloody good at what they do. When you see the skill with which they wield both the skillet and the surf board, it’s hard to believe that they only started this last summer. Hosting fourteen out-of-shape Englishmen, as James and Ollie did during my visit, proved that they’re naturals.
Bordeaux’s beaches, such as the spectacular Le Pin Sec, truly are a sight to behold. They’re culturally rich, too. German WWII bunkers line the sands, covered in beach towels and the odd nudist from the nearby colony at Montalivet. The dunes offer an unparalleled view of the surf and the small smattering of bars and cafes create the perfect spot to sit after a long day in the sea, soaking up the evening sun with a basket full of chicken and chips and an ice cold ‘seize soixante-quatre’ (apparently if you say Kronenbourg they spit in it first).
The beautiful setting and the fantastic people almost make the surfing academic. Almost. Because honestly, lying on your back on a surf board in the late afternoon sun, out past the breaking waves, staring up at a rich blue sky with only the ebb and flow of the ocean for company, is a feeling so euphoric and so unique it reminds me every time why I keep going back. It’s moments like these that punctuate our lives, and a long weekend filled with this and a whole lot more felt like an exclamation mark.
You can’t come to Southern France and get away with only mentioning a basketful of chicken and chips. For that you could’ve stayed in Soho or indeed in bed. On a bad day food it’s why I get out of bed in the morning and on a good day it’s why I jump on a two hour flight to Bordeaux.
Our first night at Sanctuary Surf introduced us to James’s cooking. Sat beside an old stone barbecue hut, concealed from the south and west by a uniform line of pine trees, we were served our first dinner. To its east, eight very happy Englishman spun and shouted, making mostly vain attempts to kick a football over a volleyball net. Meanwhile, I sat expectant in front of a series of stretched and battered wooden benches grunting and straining under the sheer weight of a feast. Bladders and bottles of ruby red wine and teeny tiny French beers lined the edges like sentries dutifully guarding their owners’ plates.
Further into the fray were plate after plate of sausages. Scarlet Merguez (delicious spicy North African sausages for the uninitiated – and for the French who for some reason think they invented them), earthy, rich venison and pork bursting with flavour. Trays full of steak haché were flanked by crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside French bread. Chicken legs and wings layered with delicious pepper and herb seasoning. Succulent and perfectly cooked chops taken from any parts of the animal not already on show, marinated in their own juices. Giant bowls of opulent creamy pasta, fresh, vibrant salads, gooey cheeses and of course a plastic bowl of ready salted crisps.
Barbecues are hard. Barbecues for fourteen people are ridiculous. And if you’re shaking your head in disagreement, then you probably like carbonised sausages and well done steak. My favourite part of a feast like that is the moment just before the forks fly in. When all is anticipation and smell. The smell was breathtaking. An aroma that took me back to my first steak frites at a tiny restaurant in Monflanquin where I learned for the first time that there were other things to enjoy in life besides chicken nuggets.
Later on that night, after a conversation with James over a chopping board full of brie and a particularly lovely bottle of Angouleme wine I found out that if it weren’t for our sheer numbers as a group he would have cooked even better, finer, French food for us every night. At that moment I truly resented my friends. Sure we’ve all had the odd tinge of resentment towards those we love every now and again, but that one, that was particularly acute.
The next day, on another sun-bleached and quaintly battered table, this time sequestered in the nearby woods, our hosts had laid out a wine-tasting for us. Not just wine either. In truly French style there was also a fantastic spread of gooey, stinking cheeses and salamis. I call it a tasting, I think a more apt description would be a picnic full of good cheese and better wine with a raucousness that precluded any form of actual tasting. It ended as a mad rush to get the best bits before we were once again down to the sangria and plastic bladders, while my friend-cum-‘wine connoisseur’, poked and prodded and parroted on about what made Bordeaux wine “soooo quaffable”. One, wrong description; two, I knew it was delicious, that was why I was trying to drink the damn stuff before everyone else did. It’s hard to remember much more beyond the rosy glow, and the exuberant tingle of getting drunk in a forest in the French countryside while happy voices bounced off the trees and grown men challenged each other to bat and ball epics through the undergrowth.
When we weren’t surfing or eating, or drinking, we were meandering around on bicycles, playing tennis, driving for sorties to the local town, playing football on a makeshift pitch or just lazing in the beautiful surroundings of the Sanctuary Surf basecamp. And it truly is a sanctuary. A twenty-minute cycle from the beach if you’re slow and unfit like me. Slap bang in the middle of the glorious duck and wine filled countryside. It is the French Campagna of my childhood, complete with that set of tennis courts ten minutes down the road, that for once didn’t require me to knock on the door of a creepy taxidermist’s house to get the keys.
This little paradise is situated in the quiet, isolated corner of a campsite flanked on two sides by pine trees, and a small forest. The bedrooms are two sizeable, canvas teepees that evoke the word ‘glamping’, but, and I want to make this clear, not in the ‘I’ve paid £200 for a teepee and an air mattress at a wedding and I’ve woken up in the middle of the night to find that most of the air has gone out of the mattress, and because I’m heavier I’ve sunk to the bottom while my girlfriend has rolled onto me like an immobile and surprisingly heavy oil slick’, sense. They have plentiful standing space, are larger than any room I’ve had back in London and have actual double beds with proper, comfy, cosy duvets and pillows so deep you get lost in them.
The best bit of the camp though, is without doubt the bar-lounge area. Situated in the sizeable marquee forming the other portion of their spot, there’s a raised platform bar, sofas, a polished wood dining table and a book shelf with a truly strange collection of books. They have even salvaged their old broken surf boards to decorate the walls, along with a selection of James’s hats that genuinely give the place a surf shack feel, while the intensely luxuriant smell of cream and eggs coming from the kitchen tucked into one end of the tent, reminds you that this is far, far more. It’s a paradise and I would spend significantly longer than a weekend there if the guys and money would permit me.
James and Olly have created something special with Sanctuary Surf. It is a place you can do as little or as much as you want, climb outside your bubble or sit in the middle with a glass of wine. This is as much to do with the hosts as it is to do with the experience itself. They have an amazing air of laid back calm, that belies their undeniable ability to get shit done. They truly had organised our weekend down to the last slice of Morbier, but if and when we wanted to go off script, or to a 4am beach party, they threw the surfboards on the roof, dragged the bladder of wine to the boot and set about making it happen. Vive Le Surf!