Biarritz: Timeless Chic in the Pays Basque Where the Smart Set Comes to Surf

Written By: Karen Hockney

It’s not often that I’m lost for words but Biarritz has that effect on me. So, where to start in terms of the very many good reasons why you should go there?

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There’s part of me that doesn’t want to share my little ‘Black Book’ of hidden gems that has taken me over 10 years to compile. That’s because, despite its growing popularity, I still like to think of it as my piece of (relatively) undiscovered French Atlantic coast, exclusive to me and me only.  

Having spent 16 years living and holidaying in the more obviously glitzy and glamorous South Eastern corner of the Côte d’Azur, I’ve visited more gorgeous spots than you can shake a stick at along this stupendously dramatic coastline, which stretches from Monte-Carlo to Marseille.

In winter, you can literally piste to plage it, spending a morning skiing or snowboarding in fresh powder at one of the Alpine style resorts of the sun-drenched Alpes Maritimes’ Mercantour region before zipping down to the beach, a mere 90 minutes’ drive away, for a lingering late lunch with your feet in the sand.

And come spring, you can immerse yourself in the glamour of Cannes Film Festival, star-spotting along the legendary Croisette or wander around the excellent market and enduringly pretty narrow streets of gloriously over the top but still charming Saint-Tropez.

However, when it comes to summer, it’s la Côte Ouest, and Biarritz in particular, which wields a little extra je ne sais quoi, completely and effortlessly eclipsing the Côte d’Azur.

Maybe it’s Biarritz’s proximity to Spain, just 35 km away, edged by the stunning Pyrénées mountains. Cross the border and explore the gastronomic delights of San Sebastian’s legendary pintxos scene (stopping off at the pretty towns of Guéthary and St-Jean-de Luz) before heading a little further west to Bilbao, home of the excellent BBK summer music festival and, of course, the spectacular Guggenheim Museum.

It could also be the town’s colourful history. Originally known as Bearids in the 12th century, it was a lively fishing and whaling hub for hundreds of years before segueing into 18th century folklore as a place of pilgrimage when doctors declared the ocean’s therapeutic properties a cure for many ailments. Even Napoleon was seduced into ‘taking the waters’ and thalassotherapy centres operate there to this day. 

Novelist Victor Hugo was equally mesmerised, declaring: “I have not met in the world any place more pleasant and perfect than Biarritz.”

Its position in high society was sealed in 1854 when Empress Eugenie built an elegant palace on Grande Plage (one of the town’s most famous landmarks, it’s now the newly renovated five star Hôtel du Palais). European royalty flocked there along with rich and famous aristocrats and actors and it became the seat of Europe’s surf scene when American film director Peter Viertel borrowed a Californian friend’s board to ride the waves at Biarritz’s now world-famous Côte des Basques beach in the late 1950s.  

Today, it’s the stylish Parisian, Bordeaux and Madrileño set which have made the capital of Pays Basque their regular summer hang-out, and in recent years, the area that locals dub petit Californie for its laidback vibe has rapidly gained favour among the Brits, Dutch, Americans and Scandinavians too.

Despite competition from other stylish west coast enclaves like Cap Ferret, le Bassin d’Arcachon and Ile de Ré, it remains in a class of its own because it somehow manages to be so damn cool without even trying.

Picture wide open, ruggedly beautiful Atlantic beaches that stretch for miles, disappear with the tides and have barely a soul on them, even in July and August, when the rest of the Med is at crushing point.

There is a pleasing lack of sun loungers and cramped swanky private beaches where a couple of coffees and a light lunch will set you back a small fortune. No-one likes to be ripped off, not even the super wealthy, which is why you might find yourself queuing for a €3 latte or a €4 perfectly chilled Côtes de Provence rosé at one of the unpretentious bohemian beach shacks behind a salty selection of fresh-out-the-surf dudes and the odd Silicon Valley tech bro.     

It's for all these reasons and more that a wonderful sense of calm envelopes me every year on our drive out west. I’m guessing there are not many women of a certain age who happily choose to swap their daily fix of Vogue and The Times for to check out the tides, the swell and confirm whether it’s going to be an on or offshore breeze.

There simply must be something in the air for me to voluntarily squeeze myself into a skin-tight wetsuit (not the most flattering look unless your first name is Cameron or Elle) but do I care when there are dreamy metre high sets rolling in?

Summer surf is unpredictable. It can be as flat as a pancake one day, gnarly and a little bit terrifying the next. Hossegor, where the Quiksilver Pro surf competitions are traditionally held, is just a short ride up the coast.

The locals, or Biarrots, many of whom decamp to French Polynesia and the southern hemisphere during the winter months, reckon the best time to surf here is September and October. In my book, that’s when the waves become a little more local, a lot more territorial and yes, quite a bit scarier too. The summer season, ideally June or July, suits me just fine and generally, at this time of year the surf is pretty kind to beginners.

That feeling of catching a decent wave and getting up on your board is indescribably thrilling (and I speak as someone destined to plateau at a certain level having caught the bug at the ripe old age of 40.) Then there are those ultra-special days when the waves are clean and perfectly formed and you experience a surging 100m ride towards the beach; the buzz and endorphin rush is incredible.

Surf might be the main attraction for me but foodies will also find Biarritz one of the most delicious and gastronomically excellent spots to eat out in the whole of la belle France.

You could do a lot worse than start your day in les Halles, the vibrant daily undercover marketplace in the centre of town, where delicious boulangerie stalls offer freshly baked oranais apricot pastries, croissants aux amandes and pains au chocolat, as well as a very decent cup of coffee. Savouries include freshly made tortilla with brebis or chorizo and perfectly cooked omelettes. 

Rock up for lunch at Bar Jean opposite, where the friendly and charismatic boss Emmanuelle and her charming son César will look after you (there’s always a queue for tables). You can mingle with le beau monde watching the world go by while tucking into mouth-watering platters of chipirons à la plancha, chargrilled piments de padrons and codfish stuffed piquillo peppers.

After a few hours of surfing, shopping (check out the sportswear, swimwear, vintage and eclectic home boutiques as well as some fabulous art and photographic galleries populating the central streets around rue Gambetta) and sunning on la Grande Plage or Cote des Basques, thoughts should rightly turn to apéro hour.

A sundowner mojito at buzzy Extola Bibi is absolutely de rigueur at sunset, where you can watch the hardcore catching their last waves of the day against the glistening Atlantic backdrop. At Olatua, a cute clifftop bar reached via Port-Vieux, you might even be lucky enough – as we were last summer - to catch a pod of dolphins larking about just as darkness falls.

Another favourite spot is Bar du Marché. Like most of the town’s best tapas joints, it’s hugely popular but if you’re prepared to order a drink at the bar and patiently join the pavement crowd (rushing is just not the done thing here), eating supper at midnight is no problem.

L’Artnoa, serving wine, charcuterie and cheese platters, Saline, where ceviche rules, Scandi-inspired fish bar Carøe and hidden away El Callejon, which dishes up the region’s most delicious Basque cuisine, are also well worth a visit. 

In the last 12 months, the hotel landscape has significantly upped its game, with Experimental Group, whose upscale signature speakeasies, restaurants and hotels are dotted across Paris, London, Verbier, Venice and Menorca, expanding to Biarritz’s avenue de l’Impératrice with le Garage and Regina Experimental.

The former, a renovated - yes, you’ve guessed it - garage, is a fabulous choice for an early evening cocktail and a light snack by the pool which could well continue into the night thanks to the resident DJ in tow at weekends. Opposite, Regina, formerly a century old Belle Epoque hotel, offers a whole new take on fine dining with Frenchie, the beachside cousin of the quirky Paris original, run by Michelin star chef Greg Marchand.

A delectable menu includes dazzlers like hot smoked trout with Granny Smith apple and wild aniseed, Normandy style scallops served with black pudding and pickled butternut squash, roast monkfish with chorizo gnocchi and St-Jean-de-Luz line-caught merlu with girolle mushrooms and beetroot.

You didn’t hear it from me but if I were you, I’d go before anything else changes. It’s already perfect.

Images via Tourisme Biarritz: Halles de Biarritz & Grand Plage de Biarritz - CJerome; Golf Ibaritz & Casino (day) - cjpeg Studios; Casino (night) & Port des Pecheurs - C Aurelia Mathieu. All others by Karen Hockney.