France’s Atlantic coastal resorts generally lack the pretensions of their Riviera counterparts, and Biarritz is no exception. Even though the city became the playground of choice for European royalty from the mid-19th century onwards – thanks to Napoleon III and his Empress Eugénie – any snootiness you might expect has been kept at bay by the laid-back surfing culture that sprang up in the 1950s.
It’s regal and relaxed at the same time, an alluring combination when you add the six kilometres of beaches that snake down this part of France’s Basque Coast. Stroll along the Grande Plage and you see the wonderfully ornate Hôtel du Palais, with surfer dudes mixing with families in the beachfront cafes. Although it’s heaving in July and August, September and October bring a mellow warmth that’s hard to resist.
A comfortable bed
The five-star Sofitel Biarritz le Miramar Thalassa Sea & Spa rather resembles an ocean liner drifting along the Plage Miramar, which borders the Grande Plage. Its white-balconied rooms, most with sea views, cluster around the giant outdoor pool, and the hotel’s overall easy-going feeling extends to the large thalassotherapy spa and indoor pools. Double rooms cost from €185 (Dh739).
Tucked away from the buzzing Rue Gambetta and housed in one of Biarritz’s oldest buildings, the four-star Hôtel de Silhouette has stylish, individually designed rooms to go with its funky restaurant. Try to get one of the rooms overlooking the peaceful gardens. Doubles cost from €165 (Dh659).
Find your feet
Biarritz is relatively compact, but its long beaches make the city seem bigger than it is. There’s a free bus that shuttles from the north near the 1834 lighthouse down to the family-friendly Plage de la Milady. The main sights are within walking distance of the Grande Plage, including the tourist office at Square d’Ixelles. Carry on farther and you come to the old fishermen’s port, the Port des Pêcheurs, which recalls the days when Biarritz was a major whaling centre. Now, its quayside is full of restaurants and diving centres, many set in old fishermen’s huts called crampottes.
Just beyond is the Rocher de la Vierge, the rocky outcrop named after the statue of the Virgin Mary and accessed via a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel. It’s one of Biarritz’s emblems and gives some of the best views of the city and the surrounding coast. Nearby is the Plage de la Côte des Basques, the main surfing beach and the place where the pastime had its Biarritz debut back in 1957. If you fancy some lessons, you’re spoilt for choice among the surf schools set up on the beach.
Meet the locals
The area around Les Halles, Biarritz’s superb covered market, is thronged with bars. Bar Jean on Rue des Halles does an excellent selection of pintxos – Basque-style tapas.
Le Comptoir du Foie Gras (Rue du Centre) is a classy place for an aperitif and some nibbles. Around the corner, Rue Gambetta packs in a dozen or so bars and restaurants including more tapas on offer at Puig & Daro.
For sunsets, head to the rooftop bar at Les Baigneuses de Biarritz, in a prime spot overlooking the Plage du Port Vieux.
Book a table
Book ahead for a table on the vine-covered terrace at Le Clos Basque (Avenue Louis Barthou) or settle in the cosy, stone-walled interior for well-crafted French and Basque dishes. The menu changes, but could include such classics as lièvre à la royale, a rich hare stew (€26 [Dh104]).
Soak up the convivial atmosphere and Basque-tinged cuisine at Gaïxoa (Avenue Joseph Petit). Start with grilled small squid known as chipirons with Espelette peppers (€10 [Dh40]), before tucking into a big plate of duck confit (€13 [Dh52]).
Set back from Plage de la Milady on Biarritz’s southern reaches is the sleek Le Sin, a fine-dining restaurant on top of the Cité de l’Océan multimedia museum. Floor-to-ceiling windows give views of the sea as lovely as the cuisine, which could include roasted brill with parsnip purée (€30 [Dh120]) or steak tartare (€24 [Dh96]). The two-course, €30 (Dh120) lunchtime menu is very good value.
Biarritz’s easy mix of bourgeois and bohemian is reflected in its shopping. Hermès and other designer boutiques line Avenue Edouard VII, while big-name surfer brands Quiksilver and Reef face the Grande Plage under the casino. Small independent shops mingle with souvenir stores along Rue du Port Vieux, with a few more among the bars and restaurants on Rue Gambetta.
What to avoid
Check the tide times before heading to Plage de la Côte des Basques. The beach disappears completely at high tide. The Plage du Port Vieux is the most sheltered, making it the best for those with children. Plage Miramar doesn’t allow surfers.
If you have a head for heights, it’s worth the trudge up the 248 steps of the lighthouse. The views from the top are marvellous and stretch well into the Spanish Pyrenees.
Etihad flies from Abu Dhabi to Biarritz via Geneva from Dh4,400. The flight time is about 10 hours.