Tootlafrance takes a look at a unique attraction on the French Catalan coast - a signposted underwater trail.
Between Perpignan and the Spanish border in the Pyrénées Orientales region, there lies an area that is fast becoming a popular haunt for Irish holidaymakers.
The coast is very charming with a dramatic topography that you might not readily associate with the Mediterranean. Vine-coated hills roll down to where haphazard lines of high cliffs are broken up by beautiful beaches. While the area is not short of interesting towns to see (particularly the timeless Collioure), this stretch of coastline is also a haven for snorkellers and divers.
Part of the reason it is so good is because there is a an underwater nature reserve along here. It covers 650ha on a 6.5km stretch between Banyuls-sur-Mer and Cerbère.
The idea is to create and maintain a piece of the Mediterranean as it was 2,000 years ago. This task is not as daunting as it may seem. No commercial fishing is allowed, motorboats are restricted only to research needs and the area is patrolled and monitored by the officers of the Réserve Naturelle Marine based in Banyuls and backed up by the national Gendarmerie and other state agencies.
From the point of view of the tourist in this area, the centrepiece is the Sentier Sous-Marin. It’s a snorkel trail that brings you on a 250m journey with five stops.
It’s located at Peyrefite beach just a few kilometres from Banyuls. It’s not the easiest place in the world to find and the normally crystal-clear signposting that is de rigueur in France doesn’t seem to apply here. That’s because the initiative is more scientific than tourism-related. The primary goals are about conservation and educating the local population in the wealth that’s on their shoreline, starting with the very youngest.A winding, potholed road leads down to the shingle-y beach. The location is gorgeous – it feels like a low-key wide cove that few enough people know about. Indeed, most of the people here seem to be intent on seeing what’s under the water rather than worrying about their tan lines. After parking in the rudimentary dusty car park, you walk past a well-equipped diving centre to a white timber hut where explanatory leaflets (mostly in French) are available.
In any case, the snorkel trail needs no translation as the five yellow buoys are laid out in the sparkling sea before you. From the moment you enter the water, you know that you’ve come to a special place. The fish here are accustomed to a life undisturbed by human predators and will swim right up to you and around you. There are strict rules about not touching or annoying the fish and not turning over any stones.As you progress, you’ll need some knowledge of French to read the information panels under water that give you the names and characteristics of the fish you’ll encounter, who get larger and more colourful the further you go from the shoreline.
The whole thing is a fantastic idea and one that could easily be replicated on the Irish coastline. Even for seasoned deep-sea divers, it’s quite an experience as the quantity and variety of sea-life is extraordinary. Unlike deep-sea diving, it is also something that can be enjoyed by the entire family from the very young to very old and the water in summer is usually warm enough so that you won’t need wet suits. You only need to take the very small cost of snorkel gear into account (the best place for which, by the way, is probably one of the Decathlon shops). When we were there, all the children loved it and there were many groups present of all ages.
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Short Amateur Video of shoals of Sea Bream and Saddled Sea Bream on the Snorkel Trail