WHAT might a beach holiday in France look like this summer? We sent French resident Catherine Cooper to find out.
Our host wears a white mask and keeps a polite distance as she shows us to our villa in Moliets on the southwestern Atlantic coast.
“We want everyone to feel welcome and to enjoy their holiday while also following hygiene protocols and keeping everyone safe,” says Joanna La Forge, of holiday rental firm Summer France.
“It’s a tricky balance but we’re sure we can do it.”
I arrive on June 2, the first day of deconfinement phase two in France. The resort has a suitably beginning-of-season feel.
Many bars and restaurants are still closed, while staff frantically sweep, clean and unload stock. Most hoped to open by the weekend.
The few restaurants serving customers were well-organised, with an atmosphere of joy and relief rather than fear.
Grill de L’Ocean, close to the main town beach, is following all the protocols laid down by the French government.
Staff wear masks and customers enter through one door and leave through another. Tables are well-spaced apart on the pretty terrace, though not disconcertingly so.
And while there is no need to wear a mask when seated, you must do so while entering, leaving or moving around the restaurant.
Salt and pepper are in sachets rather than pots. And as each group leaves, chairs are thoroughly wiped down along with the tables.
As we enter, wearing our masks, we are given a squirt of hand sanitiser and download the menu from a QR code at the entrance.
But once seated at the table, it feels almost like any other night out at the beach.
A group at one of the larger tables (fewer than ten, which is the maximum group size allowed for now) raise a toast to their liberté.
At another, a cake is brought out as the group sing Happy Birthday. All the voices around us are French. Usually at this time of year, the crowd would be far more diverse.
“We look forward to welcoming our international guests from June 15 again,” Moliets’ mayor, Aline Marchand, tells me.
“All the beaches in the district are fully open. There are some things we are not able to do.
“For example, our July 14 fireworks will not happen, as we are not allowed crowds of more than 5,000. But smaller events, where we can adhere to social distancing, can still go on.
“Most of the markets will run as usual. There will be golf, guided walks and cycling. There have been very few cases of Covid-19 in our region.
“Our beaches are enormous and people can swim, surf, sunbathe and picnic as they like there.
“We have a lot of green space and plenty of outdoor activities. Everyone is welcome. It might be a little different this summer in some ways but visitors will still be able to do all the things they like to do when they come here and enjoy their holiday.”
Outside of the shops and restaurants, while most people respected social distancing, very few wore masks. Local officials can make decisions on how to safely open up their beaches.
SURGE IN BOOKINGS
For example, some remain dynamique, meaning you have to keep moving, while others may limit numbers once the tourists flood back. To enter the beach in Moliets, we had to go in one way and out another.
That measure will be lifted in a few days’ time when they have finished setting up properly.
Lifeguards and police will check people are distancing, while on smaller beaches they may ensure number limits are being adhered to.
Families needn’t worry about the kids getting bored, though, as most attractions — from golf to zip-lining at Adrenaline Parc — are now open.
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Children’s play parks are open too, as are museums, albeit with strict rules on wearing masks. Joanna tells me Summer France has enjoyed a surge in bookings since phase two was announced at the end of May, especially for villas with private pools.
She says: “It’s reassuring for people to know they don’t have to mix with others more than they have to. Obviously over the past months we have had many people who have had to rearrange their holidays.
“But the vast majority of people, including the British, still want to come. And we’re really looking forward to welcoming them.”