Listen to this article
When Victor Hugo visited Biarritz in 1843, it was still a fishing village. But with its craggy cliffs, splendid arc of sand and effervescent surf, he quickly noted its potential for gentrification. “I do not know a place more charming and magnificent,” he wrote. “I only have one fear: that it will become fashionable.” A little more than 10 years later, the empress Eugénie fell for the spot too; her husband Napoleon III promptly built her an enormous Belle Époque villa in the shape of an E, overlooking the sweeping grande plage below. And that was that. Biarritz was on the map.
The villa became the luxurious Hôtel du Palais in 1883, graced by royalty from around the globe and, later, the likes of Coco Chanel, Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. Today, it still dominates the mishmash architecture of the seafront, and receives a regular clientele of well-heeled French, Spanish, Americans and Brits, who return year after year. The decor is remarkably unchanged — the hotel’s chandeliered dining room, all heavy curtains and ironed tablecloths, is a glamorous relic from an era when continental travel was reserved for the lucky few.
The rest of Biarritz has long moved on, however. It became the surf capital of France in the 1960s (legend has it that Peter Viertel, Deborah Kerr’s husband, was the first to ride its waves in 1957) and, for many decades now, visiting European gentry have happily rubbed along with the perennial influx of flip-flopping, shaggy-haired surfers.
That lively duality still drives the place today. On the sunny terrace of l’Hôtel du Palais, I watch a Russian family with two identical and immaculately dressed young boys stroll across the lawn to the curvaceous heated pool. On the beach below, surf-school students, boards in the air, head out to the waves like a line of ants carrying leaves. It’s a grey day but the sea is a pearlescent green, the surf frothing invitingly over the fine sand.
Behind it, the parade of shops and cafés along the promenade is a blur of surf labels — Quiksilver, Rip Curl, Reef — that clearly caters to the neoprene set. A couple of streets back, a window cleaner is busy polishing the already sparkling vitrines of Longchamp and Hermès, while the sales assistant looks out patiently. Further away from the seafront, things liven up a bit. A constant stream of customers files in and out of Pare Gabia, purveyor of classic Basque espadrilles since 1935, its shop front ablaze with canvas and jute. After a lengthy consultation, I purchase a pair in canary yellow — toe-crunchingly small, but I am assured that they will give within half an hour of wear.
Just up the road, I stumble upon a hive of local activity around Biarritz’s fragrant covered daily market, Les Halles. White asparagus and strawberries are in season, alongside regional staples such as Bayonne ham and gâteau basque. In the next street is Arostéguy, a delicatessen that has been in business for five generations. Inside, dark wood panelling reminiscent of an old apothecary showcases beautifully packaged jars of piment d’Espelette, tins of Spanish Ortiz tuna and frosted bottles of Provençal rosé.
Food is, of course, taken seriously across all of France but the Côte Basque is a particularly gastronomic corner, its cuisine infused with heat from across the border with Spain. At the top of the sloping rue Gambetta, you could be in the trendy 9th arrondissement of Paris if it weren’t for the warm salty air and pristine pavements. A young crowd is filling up the terraces of three new eateries: Saline, a ceviche restaurant; an artisanal burger joint; and La Cabane à Huitres. Saline and La Cabane have made it into Le Fooding, France’s online bible for hipster dining — no small feat. The chef at La Cabane is from San Sebastián, the elegant Spanish seaside town half an hour from Biarritz that glitters with Michelin stars — a heritage reflected here in the delicious small plates of chipirones (cuttlefish) and gambas a la plancha (grilled shrimp) and the laid-back Iberian vibe. This kind of eating is a far cry from the brasserie fare of the traditional French seaside resort — silver-tiered platters of fruits de mer, îles flottantes — and even further from the starched pyramidal napkins and creamy sauces of the Hôtel du Palais. And all the better for it.
After this fruitful reconnaissance mission in Biarritz, I’m quite happy to spend the next few days wearing my espadrilles in and around our villa in Bidart, a clifftop enclave just to the south of the city. Ocean View is a fabulous six-bedroom house in the local Basque architectural style. With its dramatic chalet-style sloping roof, whitewashed walls and deep-red timber, it has a definite Pyrenean feel — unsurprising given the foothills can be seen from the east-facing windows. To the west is the staggering view the villa is named for, which looks over rolling surf and the curved headland down to Spain.
Like an increasing number of the traditional Basque houses in the area, it has recently been restored and reinvented as a glamorous holiday home. This one is the beachside bolthole of the Goring family, hoteliers by royal appointment and owners of the Goring Hotel in London. (Guests at the coronation of George VI and the Queen stayed there, the late Queen Mother ate at the restaurant, and it’s where Kate Middleton spent the night before her wedding to Prince William.)
The villa’s interior is a fitting mix of stalwart British quality — John Lewis crockery, Burlington taps — and local Basque linen and wicker furniture. Its airy extension, with its giant island kitchen and glass-walled TV snug, was finished a couple of years ago, and only recently the family started to rent out the property with luxury travel company SJ Villas.
Bidart and neighbouring village Guéthary are home to some of the most exclusive villas in the Basque region — enormous detached houses owned by wealthy French, English and Russian families that sometimes remain shuttered for most of the year. Ocean View is part of a growing trend among owners to open up their houses for rental during the shoulder seasons, when the weather is balmy and, particularly in September and October, the sea reliably warm. The Gorings are professed surf-lovers, and both Bidart and Guéthary boast some of the top surf spots in the region. Guéthary even has its own wave, the Parliamentia, a right-handed reef break that draws surfers from all over the globe.
I was too timid to venture into the waves — especially after having seen a rescue helicopter hovering — and preferred to bask by the villa’s small heated swimming pool, set at a pleasant 26C year-round. Watching the surfers in action, however, is strangely mesmerising, I discover. From the villa’s top balcony — an ideal spot for an early-evening aperitif — you have an almost aerial view. And long after the sun has set and the waves are tinged with gold, they are still out there, bobbing around, waiting for that perfect swell.
Back in London, Jeremy Goring, the fourth generation of his family to run the hotel, tells me he first went to the Côte Basque on a school rugby tour. He ate oysters straight from a fishing boat at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, fell for the region and is now a keen surfer, going as often as he can get away. That is becoming easier — British Airways launched direct flights to Biarritz from Heathrow last month, and there are now nonstop services from Geneva, Madrid, Stockholm, Strasbourg, Southampton and many more cities. “It’s more connected than ever,” Goring tells me. “The area is very definitely on the move . . . Everybody hopes it won’t go too far.” The spirit of Victor Hugo lives on.
Classic coastal grandes dames
Grand Hotel Heiligendamm
Founded in 1793 by Duke Friedrich Franz of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, whose doctor prescribed sea bathing, this is the oldest purpose-built seaside resort in Europe, a cluster of majestic neoclassical and gothic buildings, writes Claire Wrathall. Even in summer the Baltic here rarely warms above 20C, but there’s a heated indoor pool and first-rate spa, and the beach has Strandkörbe — wicker seats with awnings — to keep off sun and wind.
From €220 per night; grandhotel-heiligendamm.de
Belmond Villa Sant’Andrea
Given the scarcity of great beaches in Italy, its grand hotels tend not to be noted for the sand out front. Belmond’s Villa Sant’Andrea in Taormina is a rare exception, a handsome mansion built in 1830 directly above its own stretch of sand on the Bay of Mazzarò, where it has sunbeds, a beach bar and six private cabanas (from €495 a day), each with its own sofa, table, tented veranda, loungers, minibar and WiFi. Guests at venerable sister property the Belmond Grand Hotel Timeo can also use its beach.
From €1,101 per night; belmond.com
Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc
Little raises the spirits like a first glimpse of the “flushed facade” of, in F Scott Fitzgerald’s description, this “summer resort of notable and fashionable people”, the most splendid, most cosseting seaside hotel in France. The beach — nothing more than some rocks with ladders down to the sea — is not the point. Instead, the beau monde gather by the huge saltwater infinity pool, dynamited out of the headland in 1914 when the hotel was used as a Red Cross hospital and the manager noted that the nurses liked to swim.
From €1,100 per night; hotel-du-cap-eden-roc.com
Photographs: Alamy; Tyson Sadlo