The reaction of the chap on the door at Le Bidule told me that they weren’t used to seeing English stag parties in La Baule. His eyes narrowed and a scowl spread across his face. Marching up to our sober stag, dressed for the evening in typical Gallic attire, he finger-wagged aggressively at the beret, fake moustache and string of garlic. ‘Ça, ça et ça — non,’ came straight from the de Gaulle school of diplomacy. The response to my timid ‘Pourquoi?’ left us in little doubt: if we wanted our aperitif, the outfit had to go.
No, La Baule is not your typical stag destination. The 12km-long beach on Brittany’s southern coast was a place of un-realised holiday potential until the late 19th century. With the arrival of the railways, casinos and luxury hotels were built and wealthy, stylish visitors began to stream in.
Now, following a spate of development in the 1960s and 1970s, it is — to borrow a sporting cliché — a town of two halves. From the seafront it looks like any other resort, with a string of high-rise apartment blocks, all with balconies from which to enjoy the evening sun. But venture one or two roads back and you could still be in the La Baule of the early 20th century, with extravagant villas nestled among the pine trees.
Madame at the charming Residence Les Sylphes was less alarmed than the unfriendly doorman at the sight of 11 Englishmen bearing down on her. That, I am almost entirely sure, was thanks to the Frenchman in our dozen: Pierre is a local, and La Baule was his idea for James’s enterrement de vie de garçon.
And what an idea it was. Prague it isn’t, but to my mind there could have been no finer location. How could you top an evening that kicked off with carafes of rosé on the beach, moved on to dinner at Les Sablons, where platters of fruits de mer and buckwheat crêpes were washed down with local muscadet, and finished off with post-prandial drinks with some local beauties?
It is tiresome to say so, but, with a few honorable exceptions, the French really do seafood much better than us. As I slurped another oyster, picked away with my winkle-picker, and cracked a crab claw, I congratulated myself on following Pierre’s advice and steering clear of Europe’s fleshpots.
Even a strained hamstring, earned on Saturday during the obligatory physical challenge — waterskiing — didn’t dent my enthusiasm for our host town. In fact the only thing that tainted it was overzealous policing of our fun by a few officious locals. As well as committing the crime of dressing like a parody Frenchman, we were told off for being too loud in the restaurant, for standing in the wrong place in the street, for picnicking on the beach, and for ignoring Madame’s demand that we exit our rooms at 10.30 a.m. on the Sunday morning.
On the flight back from Nantes, a thought struck me: if this is the type of welcome that David Cameron will receive at his next set of EU reform negotiations with French officials, I don’t hold out much out hope of success.
Mind you, if he makes the trip west to La Baule for a post-negotiation seaside break, he can’t fail to be charmed.