Classic Biarritz Beach Vacation
Biarritz is the classic European beach vacation, newly reinvented as a laid-back, surfer-bohemian hot spot.
I met a lot of people from Paris in Biarritz, and they all said the same thing. They were refugees. They were here because life in Paris was relentless, all business, too fast. But here was the ocean, and surfing, a resort town, a community. And yes, that could be said of many places but this one was different. This was not the Côte d’Azur. There were no mega-yachts floating in the harbor here, and there were no private beach clubs or trendy nightclubs or Lamborghinis stuck in traffic like you see in Cannes and St.-Tropez. This stretch of the Atlantic coast in the southwest of France—La Côte Basque—was a less polished place, a little wild, a little young. The landscape was stunning and the ocean was vast and powerful (hence all the surfers) and the general attitude was low-key bohemian.
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“I came here in 2005,” Antoine Piechaud says. “And I stayed.” Biarritz is that kind of place: scruffy, charming, and seductive.
We were sitting in Providence, his art-gallery-surf-shop-boutique-café in Guéthary, a few miles down the coast from Biarritz. Guéthary is set on a bluff, a pretty village with one main street, a sleepy café or two, and a few restaurants, including Café Le Madrid, with a wide terrace overlooking the ocean. This is where people gather in the late afternoon for drinks and talk and an order of sardines or jambon cru.
Antoine is a shaggy, bearded, sleepy-eyed, baseball-hat-wearing hipster. When he’s not running the gallery, he’s a music and video producer; he installed a studio in the basement of Le Madrid, where he was staying when he moved here.
Providence puts on more or less weekly shows of art and photography, and sells everything from lithographs to limited-edition board shorts to bottles of wine. There are surfboards leaned against the wall. There are books and pamphlets and T-shirts and a few beautiful leather handbags designed by Angela Schmid, a young Swiss woman who also lives in Guéthary. “You should meet her,” Antoine says. He seemed to know everyone, and indeed, everything in the gallery and shop was somehow connected to the area, made by local artists and craftspeople, or by small French surf brands, or collaborations between street artists and companies like Quiksilver.
“Providence is not a brand,” Antoine says, “it’s not a gallery, it’s not a shop—it’s an idea.” He opened the place four years ago, and the point was to bring people together—locals and newcomers, artists, musicians, surfers, fashion designers. “In the beginning, people looked at us like—what are you doing here? Why aren’t you selling ice cream?” But it wasn’t about selling anything, really. The new Biarritz surf culture, as broadly defined by Antoine and displayed in his shop, was the coming together of creative people in an idealistic, out-of-the-mainstream way. “There is history in Guéthary—Kandinsky came here in the twenties,” Antoine says. “This is not the beginning, it’s the rebirth.”
Biarritz is an old-fashioned resort town fallen on a half-century or so of hard times, and now in the midst of a revival. The glory days were at the turn of the last century through the 1920’s and 30’s, when French, English, Spanish, and Russian aristocrats summered here in grand style, in grand hotels set along the beach. There was the Carlton, the Continental, the Victoria, the Grand, the Angleterre, the Miramar, and, of course, the Hôtel du Palais, which is today the only one left. By the 50’s most of the others had been converted to apartment buildings and the Palais was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
It took decades for the comeback, led in recent years by a booming surfing culture. And yet the stately glamour of Biarritz is still very much present, nowhere more so than on the pool deck at the Palais, with its commanding view of the ocean, town, and beach. The hotel was once an actual palace, built by Napoleon III in the 1850’s, an ornate, dark-red-and-cream building in the neo–Louis XIII style. The cabanas, chaise longues, umbrellas, and cocktail- and ice-bucket-bearing staff are all overseen by the deeply tanned Jean-Claude, pool impresario, who shows us to our spot. He is exceedingly charming and energetic and also winningly ironical about his role. He’s been here a long time. “He knew Frank Sinatra,” someone says, and Jean-Claude neither confirms nor denies it, just starts singing “Strangers in the Night” as he tosses towels on our chairs. My wife, friends, and I order drinks and take turns watching the kids, taking them down the stairs and into the waves.
One way or another, every day, we went to a beach. Some of them were mad carnivals of blazing heat and people and sand (the Grand Plage, for example), others were quiet, narrow strips backed by cliffs (just down the coast at the Plage Marbella). But in every case the water was a kind of absolution. The waves were awe-inspiring, all-encompassing, they could throw you 20 feet at a time if you caught them right. Every beach had a clearly marked area for swimming and another for surfing, and we would watch the row of surfers waiting for their waves, patiently paddling in place, anticipating that fleeting moment of glory when they’d stand up and ride. In the late afternoon the waves seemed to get bigger, and everyone would get in the water at the same time, crowds of people gathered in the surf waiting for the next big wave, the pure, visceral pleasure of the ocean.
Like any self-respecting French town, Biarritz is full of excellent bakeries, confiseries, butchers, épiceries, food shops of all kinds. There is a covered market in the center of town, with steep, narrow streets leading up to it from the Port des Pêcheurs, the harbor. Here were fishing boats and the kind of restaurants that served grand, three-tiered trays of fruits de mer. Of course, proximity to the ocean is always good for food, especially in Basque country, where a Spanish influence and energy drift across the border. We ate quantities of grilled fish, marinated anchovies, olives, and tiny hot peppers stuffed with tuna. The traditional local dessert is a dense, crumbly almond tarte with a bit of cream or cherries at its center, called a gâteau basque. The best were at a place called Maison Adam, an institution founded in 1660; today, they’re packaged in beautiful boxes with ornate, 1920’s-style typography.
The food in Biarritz is casual, fresh, eaten outdoors whenever possible, on the way to or from the beach. Our favorite restaurant, the Beach House, was in Anglet, just north of town. The surroundings here have none of Biarritz’s classicism or Guéthary’s charm—the generic, low-rise buildings look as if they were built last week, condos set right up against the beach. But the scene has a certain sunbaked, southern-California appeal, complete with ticky-tacky surf shops and acres of parking lots. The beach here is vast and wide, the landscape flatter and less dramatic.
The Beach House is a light-filled, ramshackle joint with lots of shade, green plants, and tables out back next to a small swimming pool. It is open for lunch, a place to escape the heat, and was built for long evenings after a day in the water. The restaurant opened two summers ago; the owners are three old friends who know each other from the international surf and snowboard scene. The idea was to create a home base, says Kinou, the woman who runs it—“a chill-out place for family and friends.”
She’d come from Paris 10 years ago, and had seen the changes in Biarritz. “When I first arrived, all the big surf brands were here. But now there are many small companies, people coming from other cities, artist collectives doing small exhibitions, galleries, a lot of new energy.” The Beach House is a hub of that energy. And once the preternaturally chic waiters started bringing us our food—burgers for the kids, linguine crustacés and curried chicken for the adults—it was clear this was something else too: a great restaurant, perfectly suited to its location.
We found ourselves drawn back to Guéthary. I enjoyed the teeming crowds of the Grand Plage in Biarritz as much as the next person. And the wide-open sprawl and endless beaches in Anglet had their own epic qualities. But down the coast we had some of the smaller beaches all to ourselves. At low tide, expanses of rocky terrain would reveal themselves; at high tide we’d be pressed up against the cliff. The rhythm of the water took over our days, and the rhythm of our days turned on the late afternoon stroll through town, passing by Antoine’s gallery with its pirate-ship logo beneath the Providence sign, passing by the crowds at Le Madrid, stopping for a drink at Heteroclito, a bar with a terrace overlooking the ocean. Heteroclito is a Guéthary institution, open for 22 years, a bright, colorful place with a hippie-junk-shop aesthetic, overseen with Gallic cool by proprietor Patrick Espagnet. He’s old-school, a surfer, and has seen it all. “Yes, today this is a place à la mode,” he says with a shrug, referring to La Côte Basque. “But the spirit is still the same.” The sun was setting, the light was softer, and we could see a few surfers out on the water, catching the last waves of the day. He was right. We could feel the spirit of the place, and it was right here.
T+L Guide to Biarritz
Hosted Villas Rentals by the week all over France and beyond, including access to a local guide. hostedvillas.com.
Beach House 26 Ave. des Dauphins, Anglet; beachhouseanglet.com. $$$
Café Le Madrid 563 Ave. du Général de Gaulle, Guéthary; lemadrid.com. $$$
Heteroclito Chemin de la Plage, Guéthary; 33-5/59-54-98-92. $$
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Appeared as "The Return of Biarritz" in T+L Magazine