Biarritz, a small town of 30,000 people on the south west coast of France, is often described as ‘Paris on Sea.’ And it certainly looks impressive. So I wanted to find out why so many British travellers don’t know about this alternative to the crowded Côte d’Azur.
Maylis Cabanieu from the Biarritz Tourism Office told me that Napoleon III developed the resort in the Victorian era and the rich and royalty from all over Europe flocked to the coastal town to spend for their summers. Britain’s King Edward VII reportedly loved Biarritz so much, ministers had to travel to France for meetings. Can you imagine the outcry that would create today? Coco Chanel also lived in Biarritz.
You’ll see grand buildings influenced by those aristocrats, many of whom brought in their own architects. The impressive, domed Russian church is an example of the international influences that have shaped the town. The casino, climate and social scene meant that Biarritz remained buoyant, even during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Walk away from the seafront, going beyond the outdoor cafés in the pedestrianised areas and you’ll find streets of boutiques and small shops that make this French town vibrant all year around. Isabel from the tourist board explained why. “We are a town on the seaside. We’re not only a resort,” she told me. Today Biarritz has retained its sense of grandeur. You won’t find empty or tacky shops here, or that run-down, faded glory you notice in some seaside towns. You’ll need to bring your own ‘kiss me quick’ hat!
Isabel recommended that I should take high tea and eat fancy cakes served on silver stands by white-gloved waiters in one of the elegant Belle Époque-era hotels overlooking the Atlantic waves. “You can drink afternoon tea at the Hotel du Palais which was Napoleon III’s summer mansion. Between 1854 and 1868 he and his wife came for three months during the summer, each year. It’s an amazing villa,” she added.
Biarritz is all about the beaches – whether the sun is shining or setting. Maylis recommended La Côte des Basques beach where you can pick one of the three beachside restaurants for drinks as you watch the sun set. “It’s all very romantic,” she told me. I liked it.
Biarritz has the feel of a number of quality British seaside resorts rolled into one. The main town centre beach is Grand Plage, hemmed in by cliffs on either side. Impressive, 19th century, Parisian-style hotels and promenade-side art deco restaurants flank this beach. There’s a touch of posh Bournemouth here. Along the side you’ll find some colourful stripy windbreak and umbrella combinations for hire. It’s a family beach and kids clubs share the sand with surf schools. Heading north, it runs into another stretch of sand, Plage du Miramar, which is rockier. There are a few rocky islands on the tideline to add to the impressive Atlantic coastal scenery. Cliffs rise up alongside and form a headland, which juts out into the sea, topped by a 75 metre-high white lighthouse.
At the southern end of Grand Plage the main beachside road rises up onto the cliff top. If you don’t fancy the climb, you can take a small side road that drops down to the tiny fishing harbour, where quayside restaurants offer outdoor dining. Tour guide Nadège recommends sardines with sangria. The proximity of Spain, 22 miles away, creates an interesting mix of menu items.
As you sit on the small harbour looking out towards the rocky coast, the seafront climbs along the cliff behind you and cuts through the rock face via a short tunnel before twisting around a small, U-shaped cove. This is Port Vieux Beach, which is intimate and the safest for kids.
The road turns again around another headland. That’s what I like about the town – the scenery and views change every few minutes. Next, you’ll see a short wooden pier that you can walk along to reach a large rocky island. On top is a statue of the Virgin Mary – a tribute to lost fishermen.
Follow the next twist in the road and as it cuts to a sharp left you’ll find yourself standing on the top of the towering sea cliffs. The wide, custard-coloured beach, La Côte des Basques, stretches into the distance. As far as I could see, surfers bobbed up and down in the water, riding the white horses.
It reminded me of Woolacombe in North Devon. The shoreline appears blurred by the Atlantic spray and massive breakers rolling in. The backdrop of the jagged, sharp peaks of the Pyrenees Mountains leading to Spain is impressive. They look like iron filings, standing to attention from a magnetic pull.
I’d experienced four very different beaches in just twenty minutes of strolling. This beach was clearly the Surfers’ Paradise. If you’ve surfed in Newquay, Newgale or Portugal, you can thank Biarritz. It’s the birthplace of European surfing. Hollywood actress Deborah Kerr shot a movie here in the mid-fifties. Her husband, a keen surfer, came with her and introduced the craze from California. Biarritz now boasts surf schools and a major surf championship, which make the most of the Atlantic rollers and 24°C summer sea temperatures.
“We have eighteen surf schools and we surf on five of the six beaches. It keeps the town young,” smiled Isabel. You can ride the waves without getting wet too. Five minutes drive from town you’ll find the Cité de l’Océan. It’s an interactive ecology centre set inside a stunning, white concrete structure with a curved roof that the architects must have dreamed up with winning awards in mind. I was going to try indoor surfing.
Instructor Sam tried his best to get my two left feet moving on a virtual surfboard with some sort of rhythm. You can stand on a marker and when you put on virtual reality goggles it turns into a surfboard. I was as stiff as the board and Sam tried to help me ride the waves that I could see in my viewfinder by moving my shoulders up. A camera monitors your movements and it appears that you’re riding up, over or under waves as you sway to remain on the board. I was useless, as predicted, and went under a massive breaker. No virtual David Hasselhoff or Pamela Anderson came to rescue me. It was game over, but good fun.
There are some educational displays and I suspect that this centre is on the school-trip circuit. Some locals were a bit snippy about the centre but I thought it was well done. The cinema is designed to resemble a submersible, and you put on 3D specs for a close up view of the undersea life. The seven-minute experience is superb. Watch out for the squid leaping out at you, tentacles outstretched. It made me duck and reconsider having calamari for lunch.
On other levels in the centre you can learn about coastal erosion and how it impacts on islands in French Polynesia. There’s also a mock-up of a polar base, which explains how global warming affects the oceans.
The Cité de l’Océan is twinned with the impressive Aquarium. It’s contained within a cliff-top, art deco building a few minutes drive up the coast, near the town centre. Stephane took me on a tour of each of the zones, which replicate each major sea and ocean.
The first level is home to the temperate sealife found in and around the Basque Country coast, including seahorses and dogfish. An octopus, unsuccessfully trying to hide behind a rock, was getting a great deal of visitor attention. Stephane knew how to make it appear using a Basque fishermen’s trick. He flashed a white handkerchief. Fishermen do the same but theirs are attached to sticks and hooks. Again, more seafood was scratched off the menu I was mentally planning.
You’ll need to watch out for the weaverfish on Biarritz’s beaches. Stephane showed me the fish that live in the sand and, if stood on, sting like a bee. There’s also an incredible jellyfish display – a huge tank of them backlit in blue. It’s like a decoration from a James Bond villain’s lair. The lighting colour changes every few seconds and it’s captivating – a sort of giant, living screensaver. The aquarium uses light really well. There’s another tank filled with silvery horse mackerel and more blue lights in the water reflect on the fish.
The aquarium’s Caribbean collection includes twelve pools and features the brilliantly coloured angel, parrot and clown fish you’d expect to see as well as larger sealife including a big Moray eel. “It’s huge – like the Loch Ness Monster,” I joked. Stephane admitted that the glass in the tank was curved to make the eel appear larger. They also have giant grouper. These fish often grow to 100kg in the wild and the world record is 400kg.
Next, it was the pièce de résistance – the sharks. “It’s our biggest aquarium with twenty different shark and seven species, including black tips, zebra and hammerhead sharks, barracudas and stingrays,” Stephane told me proudly.
You obviously can’t put your hand in that tank but there is an interactive, feeling and touching area that’s popular with kids. “It’s a small aquarium open to hands and fingers,” he said. “There are anemones, starfish, hermit crabs and more local species. The kids love it.”
Here are two more reasons to visit the aquarium. When the beach is getting hot, it’s a cool 20°C inside. And you can visit late at night, for a more peaceful tour when they kids are in bed. In July and August they are open until midnight. The aquarium’s roof top terrace offers stunning views out to sea where you can sometime spot passing dolphins.
You’ll be spoiled with great views if you love Biarrit’z most popular pastime – golf. The attractive climate, which put Biarritz on the aristocracy’s social circuit, also encouraged golf courses. “An English architect designed the Le Phare golf course in 1888,” Maylis told me. “You can also find courses in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in a pine forest or by the beach,” she added.
Four of the town’s eight courses are ranked in Europe’s top 100 places to play. And they’re not as expensive as you might think. “You can play from €55 per person,” Maylist said. You’ll find even more courses within a short drive, pardon the pun, and there’s a 14-acre training facility for both professional and amateur players.
Biarritz was not what I had expected of southern France. The countryside is lush and it isn’t parched like much of the Mediterranean coast. The street signs are in two languages too. That didn’t seem very French. Government officials often heavily promote the French language and there’s some disdain for the media using non-French words. The unusual use of letters like the Ñ with the tilda squiggle on top looked more Spanish. Tour guide Martin from Biarritz by Locals explained that the town is in the Basque territory, which straddles the French and Spanish border.
“Some people say that the French Basque country is not part of France,” he told me over coffee in the vibrant Les Halles Market area. “It doesn’t seem like the south-east of France or Paris. I always have my scooter on the street and my surfboard on my terrace. I don’t lock my house either. It’s really safe and everybody knows everybody in town.”
Martin will show you Biarritz through the eyes of a local and his tour includes an overview of the area’s sporting passions. The town loves rugby and enjoys a friendly rivalry with neighbouring Bayonne over which club is best. You’ll also see the racket sport pelota being played around the area. That’s a game that you’ll find all over the Basque country. It’s played against a wall with a glove-like racket. “It could be the forerunner of squash,” Martin explained.
Nadège is also keen to show visitors the best of the Basque culture. Many people fly into Biarritz, which has direct flights from London, but they’re really coming to visit the European Capital of Culture, San Sebastian, around an hour away in Spain. Nadège can make sure you see the best of both sides of the border. Her company is called Ze Chauffeur. “Why the unusual name?” I ask her. “Well it should be ‘The Chauffeur’ but French people have trouble pronouncing the TH sound” she laughed.
Nadège will meet guests at the airport or in town and take them to see her favourite Biarritz spots including the lighthouse. “The view of the mountains and over to Spain is spectacular,” she says. She then transfers guests in her people carrier over the Pyrenees to northern Spain. You can choose your route – along the coast or inland – and stop to taste Basque cuisine off the beaten track. “You can experience the food, the wine and authentic villages on my tour,” Nadège me. “You don’t want to see the touristic sights but you will taste wonderful food in small villages where locals wearing berets tend to sheep. You have to try the hard ewes cheese, the goats cheese and the hams, pate fois gras, chillis and black cherry jam.” It sounded delicious.
Biarritz town’s covered market is a must for foodies and has all you’ll need for the perfect picnic or meal inside. It’s full of breads, pastries, chocolates, fruit and veg. I stopped there to chat to Hugo who was working on a truffle stall, Maison Balme. You can buy this exotic fungus or taste it served with charcuterie or in an omelette in their small café.
Martin arranges a foodie tour, which lets you experience the highlights. You should sample Biarritz’s tapas. Many bars serve a mouth-watering selection of cheeses and cold meats, displayed colourfully and creatively on pieces on French bread. Martin says visitors can be unsure what to do. “Don’t be shy, you just help yourself to the snacks on the counter,” he told me. Each piece of tapas, or pintxos as it’s known locally, is speared by a cocktail stick. The barman will count the sticks on your plate to calculate your bill. I could have grazed all day.
I had another foodie stop to make – the Planète Musée du Chocolat. It displays its owner’s personal collection of vintage chocolate advertising posters and ornaments. You’ll be able to watch a video about chocolate making, a local industry since the 1600s. As you watch the movie you can nibble on free samples of their chocolate coins, manufactured on site. The museum includes chocolate sculptures that you’ll want to eat. “They are fourteen years old, so they won’t taste too nice,” my guide Phillipa told me. But the chocolate models of local landmarks that you can buy are delicious. They’ve created a unique line of edible souvenirs like the rocky beach islands, the lighthouse and chocolate golf balls. Each tour includes a cup of thick and really creamy hot chocolate. “It’s 100% pure Madagascan,” Phillipa explained.
Another taste of Biarritz to look for is the local liqueur. Izarra is Basque for ‘star.’ The drink is a boozy concoction of between 13 and 16 herbs and tastes either of almonds or peppermint depending on the variety you buy.
I loved Biarritz. I had expected to feel out of place in an overpriced millionaire’s playground, but it’s not the Riviera. “It’s not flashy. The old money comes to Biarritz not the nouveau riche. They got to San Tropez,” Martin explained.
I should mention that the beautiful medieval port city of Bayonne is right next door. I discovered it by chance on my last evening and I wish I’d spent longer there. It’s just 8 km away from Biarritz but a world away in looks, with its narrow streets and half-timbered buildings set around a twin-spired cathedral, chateau and two rivers. The main quay is lined with bars and cafes. It’s well worth a visit.
There are direct flights to Biarritz from London, Birmingham and Southampton. Martin will take you on a city tour and you can book him at BiarritzByLocals.com. Nadège’s tours and transfers can be found at ZeChaffeur.com. Both guides speak excellent English.