Biarritz: a 19th century location for 21st century vacations

by Julia Hunt

From fishing port to elegant seaside resort, surfing zone to spa centre, golf and gastronomy hot-spot, Biarritz remains one of South West France’s most popular holiday destinations

When French novelist Victor Hugo visited the Basque coast in 1843 he proclaimed “I know of no other place more charming and magnificent than Biarritz.” A decade later, when Napoleon III’s wife, Empress Eugenie, chose the area for her holiday home, Biarritz’s transformation from small fishing village and whaling port to a fashionable destination was underway. Queen Victoria, the future King Edward VII, the King of Spain and other European aristocrats came to enjoy the sea bathing and social life. By the start of the 20th century, Villa Eugenie had become the Hôtel du Palais, welcoming a wider audience drawn to the first casino.

Thanks to its mild climate and large waves, Biarritz was one of the first places in France to attract surfers. By the end of the 20th century, the health benefits of the sea were recognised once more, as Biarritz became a thalassotheraphy centre. Into the 21st century, golf is one of the most popular sports, with 10 courses within 15 miles of Biarritz, while the gastronomic scene is also thriving.

Surfing: The first surf boards were brought to Biarritz in 1957 by Peter Viertel, husband of actress Deborah Kerr who was filming in the area. Adopted by a small group of locals, surfing became popular in the early 1960s. Biarritz became the headquarters for the French Surf Federation (FFS) and home to the country’s first surf club and surf shop. Today Biarritz hosts the Roxy Jam Women’s World Longboard Championships each July ( ) and has 10 surf schools offering lessons for all abilities. ( Expect to pay about 35 Euros for a group lesson (including equipment) or 80 Euros for an individual one.

Spas: Thalassotherapy is essentially spa treatments using sea water, seaweed and sea mud. The Thalmar Biarritz, at L’Hôtel La Biarritz on Marbella Beach, has a 350 metre square heated sea water area. Treatments include a half-day package with heated mud, hydro-massage and jet shower for 60 Euros, (Tel: +33 5 59 41 75 43; The Sofitel Thalassa is one of the area’s smartest spas with a large outdoor heated seawater pool overlooking Miramar beach, a smaller indoor pool and acres of treatment rooms. Packages which include accommodation, half board and three treatments a day available from 440 Euros.

Golf: Wedged between the Pyrenées and the Atlantic, Biarritz is the St Andrews of France when it comes to golf. Its first course, Le Phare (2, Avenue Edith Cavell, Biarritz; Tel: +33 5 59 03 71 80; was built in 1888, making it the second oldest course outside the UK. There are four Top 100 Continental European golf courses near Biarritz; Golf de Chiberta, (104, Boulevard des Plages, Anglet; Tel: +33 5 59 52 51 10;; Golf de Seignosse, (Avenue de Belvedere, Seignosse; Tel: +33 5 58 41 69 30) Golf d’Arcangues (Chemin Jaureguiborda, Arcangues; Tel: +33 5 59 43 10 56; and Golf de Hossegor, (333 Avenue du Golf, Hossegor; Tel: +33 5 58 43 56 99; while Golf de Moliets, ( Rue Mathieu Desbieys, Moliets; Tel: +33 5 58 48 54 65; a 27-hole course on the European Circuit, is about an hour’s drive. You can play at six regional courses for the price of five from 240 Euros with the Golf Pass Biarritz, available from Le Phare and other participating courses, (

Gastronomy: Neither French, nor Spanish, Basque food has a unique flavour. Local specialities include Piperade, a rich red sauce made from peppers, tomatoes, onions, aubergines and garlic; Brebis, ewe’s milk cheese; Gateau Basque, an almond cream pastry; and, of course, Jambon de Bayonne, a fine, salt-cured ham. For fish dishes, try the Port des Pêcheurs, where restaurants line the waterfront. Chez Albert (Allée Port des Pêcheurs; Tel: +33 5 59 24 43 84; is one of the best, with its wide terrace and spacious interior. Typical dishes include a platter of fruits de mer (from about 40 Euros), or dorade, sea-bream fried with garlic and white wine. For a chic dinner overlooking the Grande Plage, Opale (17 Avenue Edouard VII; Tel: +33 5 59 24 30 30; is a black and white pre-club haven with oriental nuanced cuisine. For lunch, Blue Cargo, at Bidart, 10 minutes' drive south of town, (Avenue d’ Ilbiarritz, Bidart; +33 5 59 23 54 87;, stretches out from its original villa to the sand. Enjoy dishes like grilled tuna or platters of gambas, ham and olives, interspersed with a glass of rosé and a paddle.

Accommodation: Like a giant cruise ship on the edge of the Atlantic, the Sofitel Biarritz Miaramar Thalassa is excellent for luxurious relaxation. The 122 rooms are all king sized, with generous balconies and limestone bathrooms, while the entrance lobby contains a piano bar perfect for pre-dinner tapas. From 250 Euros a night, room only. (13 Rue Louison Bobet)
A Member of the Leading Hotels of the World, L’Hôtel du Palais is still the most opulent place to stay in Biarritz. Most rooms are decorated in a traditional Empire style, while suites feature original details such as ornate fireplaces and painted panelling. Low season rates for a classic garden facing double from 375 Euros, room only. (1 Avenue de l’Impératrice)

Travel: Fly direct to Biarritz from Stansted with Ryanair from 30 Euros return, Flights are three times a week throughout the year and take about one hour 45 minutes. By train Biarritz is just over five hours from Paris; TGV tickets from 50 Euros return.

Julia Hunt

Julia Hunt is a freelance travel writer based in the Channel Islands. Since starting her career as a graduate trainee with one of the UK’s best selling newspapers, Julia has worked as a news reporter and a features writer before moving into travel. Her articles have appeared in a wide range of national and international publications including The Sunday Telegraph, The Herald, The Sunday Mail and Travel Africa. Julia is the founder of The Good Taste Guides and editor of The Good Taste Guide: Jersey, Jersey's first independent restaurant guide.