Bodacious Biarritz

Biarritz: Breathtakingly Beautiful

La Grande Plage

Bobbing Heads in the Surf Capital of Europe

Steve & Me

I took a trip of a lifetime with my boyfriend, Steve, a while ago and now seems like the right time to write about it.

It was stunning and dramatic, sweet and endearing, intense and oh-so memorable–all very much like our relationship. It left us in awe and amazed and full of desire for more.

We both chose the destination; I chose France and Steve narrowed it down to Biarritz, an oceanside resort in southwest France in the Basque region that I had only visited once–very briefly–on a cold winter’s day during the research phase of my book The Riches of France: A Shopping and Touring Guide to the French Provinces. At that time, I did just a cursory tour of the town, one that was more focused on the boutiques of Biarritz than its spectacular coastal scene and its sensational surf.

Biarritz Beauty

Gorgeous

With Steve, it was all about the surf. No surprise there, since this is where the waves roil in with the greatest, most consistent force in all of Europe. And Steve is big on surfing. It sounded like the perfect fit to me; he had the surf and I had France. What came as a surprise, however, was how he became so taken with the whole French experience and the French themselves.

Basque Street Sign

It was his first time in the Gallic land and as a typical Italian (his real name is Stefano), he was practically born with an aversion toward the French. I found this out early on after he overheard me speaking French to someone. “Do you like hearing me speak French?” I asked (obviously fishing for a compliment).

“Not really. I can’t stand the French,” he replied. “They act so superior.”

After having been taken down a few pegs and then feeling totally deflated that one of my best assets was not to be appreciated by him, I knew it was going to be a challenge to see my guy warm up to the country that was so dear to my heart.

Checking Out the Waves

The Surf Scene in Biarritz

Cheers to Biarritz

Surfing served as the conduit and the result was better than either of us could have imagined. Through Steve, I discovered the real, raw beauty of this awe-inspiring coastal destination and through me he embraced every ounce of joie de vivre, gastronomy and savoir faire served up by the French during our stay. It was a match made in heaven. Or at least almost, since his mistress–the surf–did come between us at one point and blew our emotions out of the water. Yet fortunately we survived that explosion, and like the turbulent waters of the Atlantic, eased back into a state of calm like a wave exhaling its force upon the beach.

Life is Good in France

But back to Biarritz, the crown jewel of the Pays Basque, or Basque Country. It’s a sexy destination and the scene is anything but dull. It’s a charming, historic city edged with craggy rocks, jagged coastline and raucous waves that tumble at its feet. It’s a surfer’s paradise, now more than ever; it’s where you find daring athletes, and the vibe is good. (For those of you that don’t know much about surfing, I can tell you that paddling out in the churning surf and then easing up onto a board and riding a wave takes tremendous strength, skill and nerve. No wonder the surfers–male and female–are so incredibly fit. With the fearlessness they show tackling the waves, that makes them pretty damn cool, too. And as you might have guessed, it can be a real turn on for anyone watching their partner from the shore. So have at it people, start planning a trip to Biarritz and let the magic begin.)

Riding the Wave

Surfing first came to Biarritz in 1957 during the filming of “The Sun Also Rises,” a Hollywood movie starring Ava Gardner and Tyron Power. One of the screenwriters launched himself on his board during the shoot, leaving locals in awe. So it comes as no surprise that a hint of California remains today; yet this is Europe, which means it’s much more international, in terms of visitors and surfers alike. Plus, it’s Basque country, a land known for its rugged people, ways and foods steeped in tradition and authenticity. Here you won’t find the pretension of the Côte d’Azur or LA.

“French surfers are super lazy,” Steve tells me. And for an instant, I’m fearful that his Italian nationalism is clouding his view. “You don’t see anyone out before 11 (am).”

“All the better for you then, my dear,” I respond.

“Yeah. And then I met this guy, a Frenchman, and we hit it off and just as we were catching some really good waves, he motioned to head into shore. Once we were back on the beach, he pulled a picnic lunch out of his van. We sat there on a bench eating bread and cheese and sipping red wine. It was actually really nice.”

“Whoa, I can’t imagine you taking a break like that from your surfing to sit back and while away the day,” I said.

“I know, I was surprised myself. But it felt good.”

Such Breathtaking Scenery

This is how Steve rolled during most of our travels to Biarritz, Guéthary and Hossegor, the surfing centers of Europe all within a short distance from each other carved into this mighty outpost on the Atlantic Ocean. (I’ll be writing about Guéthary and Hossegor in separate stories.) He switched out of his typical surfer mode and took time to experience the local culture and cuisine and yes, spend some quality moments with me. We found a nice rhythm, since typically he’s much more get up and go and I’m more about poking around. I took long walks on the beach, explored town in search of new addresses to report on and enjoyed long, leisurely lunches with some of my hospitality contacts.

So Much Good Food

And when we were together, our time was fueled with excitement and contentment of having done exactly what we had wanted to do on our own and then sharing those stories and our own special moments à deux with each other at the end of the day. Steve amazed me how after endless hours of being thrashed about in the surf (only to revel in a handful of sweet rides–but oh, what rides they were), he dressed for dinner and showed up as the perfect companion for me, forever appreciative of the French and their sometimes formal ways. Such a change from his usual surf trips where he’d grab a burrito and a beer and call it a night by 9pm! No siree, my guy enjoyed every bit of the fun and frivolities extended to this visiting travel writer and her surfer dude boyfriend.

We left Biarritz very much how we had arrived, enthralled with its crashing waves, its labyrinth of narrow, one-way streets and the delicious mixture of seafood, garlic and salty brine that wafts in the air seemingly at all hours of the day and night. It’s a robust destination, bold and bodacious, one that we will never forget and one that we long to devour someday soon once again.

Bar Jean by Day

When to Go
Steve and I experienced Biarritz the last week of October and we felt that was a primo time. The weather was glorious (as it often is in the fall), the waves were generous and the crowds were thin. Most people, especially those with kids, go in the summer; expect lots of vacationers then and calmer waters, which, depending on your likes, can be a plus or a minus. In the spring, there are usually world surfing competitions in Biarritz at the end of May. (You can check the Biarritz surf report right now at Surfline.)

Biarritz: A Land of Contrasts

Where to Stay, Play, Spa and Eat

Hôtel du Palais Biarritz

Hôtel du Palais by Night

Hôtel du Palais Biarritz
For a major splurge that will make you feel like an emperor or an empress, reserve a suite at this legendary property. This world-famous establishment oozes with all the elegance and grandeur of an era when Biarritz became the seaside destination par excellence of the highest ranks and other illustrious people. In 1855, the wife of Napoléon III chose this prime piece of oceanfront land as the site of the Imperial residence, the “Villa Eugénie” a summer home of sorts on the coast. As one can imagine, during the eighteenth century it became the epicenter for arts and culture for many privileged people, including the English who adopted Biarritz as one of their favorite resort destinations.

Exquisite

Zee Lobby

Hôtel du Palais Lobby

The Grand Staircase

From vintage photographs to finely crafted moldings and exquisite furnishings, the Hôtel du Palais rings in as one of the most divine properties–or palaces–I’ve ever visited. And I’ve been to all of the top ones in Paris, bastions of art and tradition that have been transformed into luxury hotels of the highest caliber. A handful of palaces, or palais, have been graced with the distinction of a “Palace Hotel” and it comes as no surprise that the Hôtel du Palais has been included in that prestigious club as well.

What makes it so special? Why, the ocean, of course. If you look beyond its guided walls, whether in the hotel lobby, the bar, the restaurant or if you’re lucky enough, from your room, you can usually perceive the uproarious surf in a distance. Its churning presence against the florid elegance of the Hôtel du Palais makes for a startling contrast.

Ready to Knock Out Some Laps

The Pool at the Hôtel du Palais

Replete with Black Lines

Step in here–don’t be intimidated by the imposing wrought iron gate–and take a look around, even if you’re not checking in. You can just admire the resplendent décor or enjoy a drink at the bar or lunch and a swim at their glorious, saltwater, California-styled pool built in the fifties. (Frank Sinatra loved it!) Or, plan a day at the Impérial Spa, a regal enclave that showcases Guerlain products and treatments within a soothing space that also offers many views of the water. The whole ensemble at the Hôtel du Palais is one of the must-sees of France.

A Travel Writer Welcome

Our Bedroom

A Bed Fit for a King

Room with a View

Take a Look

Steve and I practically swooned upon entering our room, which fitting our fiery temperaments and passion, was enrobed in voluptuous tones of ruby red. We slept with the windows open, lolled to sleep by the crashing surf below and the most luxurious bed linens one could imagine. By the time breakfast was rolled in in the morning, we truly felt like characters living within a movie set.

Palace Breakfast

C’est Bon

Yet it was not at all intimidating, nor dare I say, over the top. The French with all their professionalism and discreet gestures, know how to make guests feel at ease. Why, it felt almost like a regular occurrence–as though this is how I lived every day–that a server lifts up the cloche, or silver bell-shaped warmer, from my eggs as I sit primly in my negligée waiting for my tea to be poured.

Une Belle Cloche

Even Steve thought nothing about strutting through the lobby board in hand as he headed to the surf.

Steve Heading Out to Catch Some Waves

No, the Hôtel du Palais is not at all old and fusty. I’d go so far as to say it’s become quite the happening place. Empress Eugénie would be delighted. Or not.

Spa Elevator Entrance

The Spa Impérial Lounge

Spa Treatment Room

I hope you’ll delight in these images from an especially memorable lunch I enjoyed at the Villa Eugénie with Madame Marchetti, an elegant lady that had been the face of this grand hotel for almost three decades before retiring a couple of years ago.

Butter: Flavored with Sea Salt and Espilette

Au Bon Pain

Amuse-Bouche

Une Petite Entrée

Une Filet de Sole Pour Madame

Bien Preparé

Et Voilà le Dessert

Une Petite Friandise Pour Finir

Looking Out Past the Lobby Bar onto the Signature Restaurant of the Hôtel du Palais

Sofitel Biarritz le Miramar Thalassa Sea & Spa Hotel
No sense tangling yourself up in this big name, just call this hotel the Miramar. It’s another one of the best known properties in Biarritz and also another that boasts a big pool, somewhat of a rarity in the area.

View from the Miramar

Thalassa Spa Health Drinks

Zee Spa Lounging Area

Miramar Biarritz: Where Balconies Abound

The Scene

Steve and I actually began our European adventure here and it proved to be the perfect way to ease into the sweet, seductive scene of Biarritz. Virtually every room affords an ocean view with a balcony. As usual (in Biarritz lighting the rocks appears to be their forte), the ocean vistas are stellar 24/7. And the sound–mon dieu! I don’t think I’ll ever forget the incessant din of the waves crashing upon the shore. Decorated in a timeless and soothing style replete with fluffy, white duvets and bright pops of color, you understand that the emphasis of this Sofitel is on the sea, serenity and health and well-being.

It comes as no surprise that housed within this luxury hotel you can experience Thalassa Sea & Spa, the leader in thalassotherapy in all of France. The French discovered long ago the healing and nutritive properties of seawater and here they have them in a tides. Virtually every treatment incorporates the healing benefits of seawater, nutrient-rich water that’s pumped in directly from the bubbling surf outstretched in front of the hotel.

Miramar Lobby: An Ocean of Blue & White

Sweet Dreams

If you haven’t tried it, you must. Steve and I both were soaked and rubbed into an even deeper state of relaxation. Landing at the Miramar felt glorious. And we quickly surmised that hydrotherapy–thalassa-wise–was for the gods. Or at least weary travelers.

Regional Ham for Breakfast

In terms of food, we were so content with the whole property that we had breakfast and lunch here twice and dinner once. Each meal from Le “B” was enjoyed outside by the pool with the ocean and the sound of the surf forever present. We feasted on local specialties such as Serrano ham and prawns, washed down with perfectly chilled swallows of Irouléguy, the quintessential wine of the Basque region. (It comes in red as well, however, we favored the white.)

Poolside Dessert

Evening Pool Glow

View from the Miramar

Miramar Sun and Sky

Truly, it’s my dream to spend a week here and try a tidal wave of treatments from their menu à soins.

La Pizzeria des Arceaux

La Pizzeria des Arceaux
I often say that you rarely have a bad meal in France. We randomly picked this pizza place just up from La Grande Plage and were very happy with our dinner. Good value, too.

Apps at Bar Jean

The Barman

New Friends

Our Apps

Charcuterie

Gåteau Basque

Bar Jean Biarritz
Steve and I loved this place just steps from Les Halles, the marketplace of Biarritz. We dined here our first night in town and it proved to be a great introduction to this vibrant land–so much local color and flavor, and lots of Basque food offerings as well. Be prepared to wait and sip a glass of rosé outside alongside a convivial bunch of Biarrots and Biarrotes (people from Biarritz). That’s all part of the fun.

Les Halles de Biarritz

Fresh Catch

L’Essentiel: Sauce au Beurre Blanc

Little Bar at Les Halles

Basque Cheese

Love the Flowers in Europe

Les Halles de Biarritz
I returned here one afternoon when Steve was busy getting dunked in the surf. I’ll let my pictures tell the story.

Miremont

Oui Madame

J’Aime le Chocolat

Gâteau Basque

I Don’t Even Remember How I Took this Shot

Miremont Biarritz
Enter this historic establishment, founded in 1872, where queens would come to take tea. This pâtisserie/confiserie, or pastry and candy shop, remains lovely today and fortunately you can also enjoy a bite for lunch. Let yourself be astonished by the gorgeous cakes and the ocean view. May I suggest a slice of gâteau basque.

Maison Arostéguy

From Floor to Ceiling

The Goods

Maison Arostéguy
May your senses be aroused within the aromatic world of this reputable house lined from floor to ceiling with wood shelves. Since 1875, Arostéguy has been showcasing spices and other comestibles from the Basque Country as well as other fine products from all four corners of the globe. Let yourself be transported within this festival of autumnal colors. You’ll surely procure many great gift items that will end up being some of your best souvenirs from your travels. I suggest starting with the piment d’Espilette, a savory red powder ground from the peppers of Espilette, a Basque town, bien entendu. It’s an essential ingredient for poulet Basquaise or Basque chicken, one of the favorite comfort foods from this vibrant region of France.

Love the Home Décor at La Fonda

Basque Tiles at La Fonda

La Fonda
Here’s another one of my addresses originally discovered during the research of The Riches of France. All three of these establishments–along with Les Halles–are within a short vicinity of each other, so be sure to visit them all for a wonderful taste of Basque life. Go up one flight of stairs to La Fonda to view an eloquent display of Basque linens and a variety of other home décor items. Expect lots of blue and white, a beloved combination whether you’re at the water or not.

Using My Book in France

How to Get There

Steve and I were amazed by how we traveled from our remote town in Telluride, Colorado to Montrose (one and a half-hours in a car) then flew from there to Paris (via Denver) where we hopped on the TGV, the high-speed train for Biarritz. It felt like a cinch and that’s after having taken a taxi from Charles de Gaulle airport to the Gare d’Austerlitz in Paris. Plouf! Within much less than twenty-four hours, we were transported from our bold mountain landscapes to the stunning seascapes of Biarritz in southwest France. It felt remarkable.

Having said that, however, I might recommend spending a night in Paris before driving down to southwest France. Or, you could see about flying into Biarritz via Paris or another major European city. Either way, much of it depends on whether or not you have a surfboard in tow. Steve brought his, which, despite its cumbersome size ended up being a breeze to manage on the train ride down. On our way back, however, it became a nightmare of sorts when we were stopped for having transported such a beast on board. (I guess no one cared on the way down.) So know that however you travel, check first to see if your board can be accommodated with you as well. (The same goes for any over-sized piece of luggage, bicycles or other sporting equipment.)

Steve at Our Paris Taxi

For car rentals, I recommend Auto Europe, one of the most reliable U.S.-based car rental companies for travel across the pond. Make your arrangements ahead of time; you don’t want to reserve your car once you’ve arrived in France–it’s neither convenient nor economical. Along with excellent customer service, Auto Europe offers some of the best rates as well.

And, of course, remember to order or download a copy of my book, The Riches of France:  A Shopping and Touring Guide to the French Provinces. It’s still current because most of the places I feature in it have existed for ages!

Bon voyage!

One more thing:  Know that Biarritz by Night is especially spectacular. I think they illuminate the water as much for the onlookers as for the surfers. Hope you’ll enjoy these shots.

The Biarritz Casino by Night

Le Phare

The Waves Keep Rolling In

Les Rochers

Bonne Nuit

 
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