The French Basque Country, on the border of Spain, is famous for old-fashioned glamour. But, Amy Hopkins discovers, the region also has awesome surf spots and a low-key family atmosphere, and it's much cooler than you think.
Lying in bed at La Réserve, a hotel on France’s Basque Coast, I'm reminded of the scene in Hook where Peter Pan tells the kids to always sleep with the windows open. I would give the same advice to anyone staying here.
In this case though, it’s not so Tinker Bell can fly in and out of your room, but so you can hear the huge waves rolling in off the Atlantic and crashing onto the rocks. You see, La Réserve is perched high on a clifftop overlooking the sea. It's hard to imagine a more dramatic setting for a hotel.
Built in the 1950s, La Réserve is part of the Floirat hotel group. It’s less fancy than others in the group, like the famously glam Byblos in St Tropez, but it more than lives up to its four-stars and its relaxed atmosphere means its popular with families.
Inside, terracotta walls, red tiled corridors and wooden furniture create a homey atmosphere. This isn’t the kind of place where you live in fear of the kids cartwheeling across a pristine reception and crashing into a floral display.
As well as double rooms and suites, there are a number of apartments that sleep up to seven people, with panoramic ocean views. Whichever you choose, you’ll want to open your French windows the minute you arrive and leave them that way until you leave.
With La Réserve as your base, read on to discover how to make the most of your weekend.
Wake to pale light streaming through your French windows and your curtains fluttering in the sea breeze. Head downstairs to enjoy breakfast on the terrace, with plunging views over the Atlantic.
La Réserve's breakfast buffet is laden with the kind of treats that make you nostalgic for family holidays in France. Enjoy fresh pastries and great coffee while the kids fill up on talo, round corn parcels filled with Nutella.
Depending on what kind of day you fancy, either spend the morning lounging by the pool (opening summer 2018) or take the pretty 20-minute walk to Saint-Jean-de-Luz.
Leave the hotel early, before the beach at Saint-Jean gets busy, turn right out of the hotel and set off along the clifftop path. Below, dogs dash across the sand and surfers run into the surf, diving heroically onto their boards.
The beach sweeps all the way around the bay. On sunny days (of which there are plenty between March and September), the allure of the golden sand is irresistible to tourists and locals, and by mid-morning the sand is dotted with towels and stripy parasols.
To get a true taste of life here, head to Place Louis XIV, Saint-Jean-de-Luz’s main square. Here, musicians play and sing, while local kids skateboard around the bandstand in the centre, giggling as they dodge shoppers. Overhead, branches of knobbly trees spread like outstretched arms, forming a canopy of welcome shade.
Restaurant tables spill out into the square and diners lean back in chairs, wearing huge sunglasses and enjoying lunches that stretch long into the afternoon. The town square sums up Saint-Jean-de-Luz – it’s chic and oh-so-French, but people here don’t take life too seriously and families take central stage.
The town’s historical claim to fame is that, in 1660, Louise XIV married the Spanish princess Maria Teresa in the town’s Basque church, the largest in France.
Retreat from the hot sun by popping in to admire the church’s Renaissance style. Kids love the unexpected addition of a wooden ship hanging from a vast cable in the ceiling. See if they can guess what causes it change direction (answer: humidity).
This peculiar addition is a model of the Emperor Napoleon’s yacht. The story goes that the boat sank off the coast of Saint-Jean-de-Luz and the Emperor’s son was saved by local fisherman, so the grateful Emperor gave the model to the town as a thank-you gift in 1865.
As the sun starts to dip, take a gentle walk along the promenade and admire the handsome seafront mansions, faded by years of sea spray, but still magnificent. Some of the grander houses have their own bridges to the beach, which is pretty cool.
There are plenty of great places to eat in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, but you’d be missing out if you didn’t have at least one dinner at La Réserve.
With his shaggy dark hair, sleepy smile and tanned, tattooed arms, 34-year-old Fabrice Idiart looks like a typical Basque Country surfer. And he is. But that’s not all. Fabrice’s main talent is gastronomy - the 'surfer chef', as he's known, heads up the culinary team at La Réserve’s restaurant, Ilura.
Unsurprisingly, seafood plays a starring role in Chef Idiat’s delicious menu and his chocolate desserts are well worth leaving room for.
Ease into your second day with a massage or beauty treatment at the hotel (a nanny service is available if you need someone to watch the kids for a couple of hours). La Réserve doesn’t have a spa, but there's a treatment room and a talented beauty therapist on call.
You can’t visit Basque Country and not spend a day in Biarritz. Twelve miles from the Spanish border, the old town is famous for old-fashioned luxury, but the massive ocean waves mean it’s become a mecca for surfers. These days, Biarritz is the bohemian darling of the Atlantic Riviera.
Long before Biarritz was crowned the European capital of surf, it was known as an extremely smart holiday spot – a favourite among royals. You’ll still find posh boutiques and jacket-and-tie restaurants, but they now sit side-by-side with surf shops and pizza joints. Surf fans might want to bring an empty suitcase to Biarritz, as O’Neill, Roxy and Quicksilver all have their HQs in the town and come Easter, there are some seriously worthwhile sales.
If shopping is on the agenda, you’ll want to head to one of the town’s many espadrilles shops to pick up a pair of colourful fabric shoes that the town is famous for. At Les Sandales d’Eugénie, Vincent Corbun runs the family business his grandfather started in 1935, making and selling rainbow coloured espadrilles. Vincent will even customise your laces while you wait.
In the Rue Mazagran area, you’ll find shops selling gifts, fashion and food. Don’t miss the famous 'mouchou' macaroons and Basque cake at Pariès bakery. For more local flavours, weave your way through Les Halles, the red brick covered market, and stock up on sausage, cheese and bread for a picnic on the beach.
Head to the beach along the promenade, where glamorous, slender older women walk their poodles, and barefoot long-haired men wax their surfboards. The Grand Plage in Biarritz lives up its name and the vast beach has been the place to be seen since the days of Napoleon II.
For an Instagrammable beach day, hire one of Biarrtiz’s iconic stripped beach tents or an umbrella. Half-day rental of a tent and two beach chairs costs around £12.
For the best views in town, head to the rocky outpost known as Virgin’s Rock. The tiny island is topped by a statue of the Virgin and Child, said to be lucky because it’s saved many a whaler from shipwreck.
To get there, cross the iron footbridge (designed by Gustav Eiffel) from the mainland. Watch out though, if the swell is big, you’ll end up getting soaked (which can actually be quite refreshing on a hot day). From Virgin’s Rock, you’ll see for miles, all the way to the Spanish mountains.
After a day sampling the treats of Biarritz, take a 20-minute taxi ride along the coast back to La Réserve. There, flop into bed and let the sounds of the Basque country’s untamed coast lull you to sleep.