Sunday, January 25, 2009

Surf in Biarritz

Miarritze is redefining itself according to this article that comes to us via Irish Times:

Surf's up, m'lord

BIARRITZ: Once the preserve of royalty and the superwealthy, Biarritz has been reinventing itself as the destination of choice for avid windsurfers, writes Peter Cluskey

IF EVERY grand-but-fading seaside resort dreams of reinventing itself to meet the quick-fire demands of the 21st century, they have a role model: Biarritz.

For centuries it was the glamorous spa town of choice for the crowned heads of Europe. Today its award-winning beaches are regarded as some of the best windsurfing coastline in the world – and its wealthier regulars mix quite happily with an international parade of,well, beach bums.

It has been an extraordinary transformation. Perched at the southernmost point of France’s Atlantic coast, on the border with Spain, Biarritz first appeared on the radar of Europe’s elite in 1854, when Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III, built a magnificent white palace on cliffs just outside the town.

The British royal family, including Queen Victoria and Edward VII, were regular visitors. So were Alfonso XIII of Spain, Leopold II of Belgium and even Germany’s Iron Chancellor, Otto Von Bismark. But republic replaced empire, and in a sign of the times Villa Eugénie, as it was dubbed by les Biarrots, was bought by Banque Parisienne and reopened as Hôtel du Palais Imperial Resort Spa in 1893.

The clientele changed but the hotel’s cachet remained unassailable. A new royalty replaced the old – the shah of Persia, Frank Sinatra, Jayne Mansfield, Bing Crosby, Hemingway, Chaplin and Stravinsky – although the duke and duchess of Windsor remained loyal to the end. And while some of the glamour of Biarritz was usurped over the years by the Côte d’Azur, and Saint Tropez in particular during the 1960s, the town remained a byword for high-end leisure and sophistication.

Why does the history matter? Because it’s what has made Biarritz the charming, relaxed and welcoming place it is today. The ancient split-windscreen VW campers with fading anti-nuclear stickers may outnumber Rolls-Royce Silver Shadows; more holidaymakers may arrive by no-frills airline than by private jet; more waitresses may be speaking French with distinctly Aussie accents, but Biarritz is more vibrant than ever. It has made the journey from chic to cool. And the celebs are coming back: the iconic designer Karl Lagerfeld bought a holiday home here last year.

Place Georges Clemenceau, in the centre of town, is where you’ll find yourself as you get your bearings. Almost everyone starts by taking a walk along the promenade, Quai de la Grande Plage, which gives a magnificent view of the crescent of apartments, hotels and restaurants overlooking the bay.

At one end you’ll find the Hôtel du Palais, still the reserve of those with five-star budgets. At the other there’s the less-than-exclusive Casino Municipal, where you can choose between an informal section with slot machines and a more elegant section with table games.

By day, if you fancy your chances, there are numerous surf schools on the Grande Plage. Given the town’s elite background, golf is popular, with five top-class courses within an hour’s drive. Biarritz’s Basque heritage is most evident in the food and in the souvenir shops, which sell intricately-sewn Basque tablecloths, antiques, jewellery and handmade sandals.

To spoil yourself, there are a a number of famous local chocolatiers and one or two still-demure tea rooms. Or, for something healthier, there’s thalassotherapy at the Thalassa Institute, at Hôtel Miramar, and thermal seawater baths on Rue de Madrid.

When the sun goes down, relax in a deckchair with a cocktail at Côte 57, nibble some tapas at Le Bistroye or head to Chez Albert for some memorable local seafood. And while you tuck into the house speciality – steak de thon rouge aux saveurs douces, confitures d’oignons au vinaigre balsamique et croustillant de pommes de terre aux pieds de porc – remember the old Basque saying “To know how to eat is to know enough.”

Where to stay, eat and go

5 places to stay

Hôtel du Palais . 1 Avenue de l’Impératrice, 00-33-559- 416400, www.hotel-du-palais. com. If you need to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford to stay here. But we all have special occasions – and it is one of the world’s historic hotels.

Sofitel Thalassa Miramar . 13 Rue Louison Bobet, 00-33-559-413000, A luxury hotel incorporating the Institute of Thalassotherapy (sea-water spa treatment), and with a golf course just a stone’s throw away. High-season rates for a double room go as high as €544, with breakfast €27.

Radisson SAS Biarritz. 1 Carrefour Hélianthe, 00-33-559-011313, It may not be the Hôtel du Palais, but it’s luxurious nonetheless, and only a short walk from the centre. Rates begin at about €350 for a double standard room with an ocean view.

Hôtel Mercure Thalassa Régina et Golf. 52 Avenue de l’Impératrice, 00-33-559-413300, The thalassotherapy centre is very popular here. High-season rates for a double are around €240.

Hôtel Centre-Biarritz . 7 Rue de Gascogne, 00-33-559- 223654, www.hotel-centre This is a nice quiet hotel just two minutes’ walk from the centre. The high-season rate for a double room is about €72.

5 places to eat

Hôtel du Palais. 1 Avenue de l’Impératrice, 00-33-559- 416400, www.hotel-du- The hotel has three restaurants: La Rotonde, overlooking the ocean; Hippocampe, by the pool; and Villa Eugénie, for foodies.

Chez Albert. Allée Port des Pecheurs, 00-33-559-244384, Bright, colourful, buzzing seafood restaurant with large outside terrace and Basque specialities.

Café de Paris . 5 Place Bellevue, 00-33-559-241953. If you fancy eating well, with the ocean and the Grand Plage spread out below you, this is the place to soak up the atmosphere.

Le Bistroye . 6 Rue Jean Bart, 00-33-559-220102. If you’re looking for fresh, authentic Basque cuisine in a friendly atmosphere, this is the place to go.

Bar Jean . 5 Rue des Halles, 00-33-559-248038. A relaxed bistro atmosphere with excellent tapas – after all, Spain is just 35km away – and grilled langoustines.

5 places to go

Russian Orthodox Church, 8 Avenue de l’Impératrice. Located right next door, this extraordinary church was built for Russian aristocrats who visited Hôtel du Palais before the 1917 revolution.

Chocolate museum (Planète Musée du Chocolat). 14 Avenue Beaurivage, 00-33-559-232772, The history of chocolate, how it’s made, and best of all, a hot-chocolate tasting. Pretend it’s for the kids.

Rocher de la Vierge (Rock of the Virgin). On the outskirts of the town, this outcrop, which you reached over an old iron footbridge, is topped with a celebrated statue of the Virgin Mary. It’s a popular stroll, with great views right along the Basque coast.

Asiatica Museum of Oriental Art, 1 Rue Guy Petit, 00-33-559-227878, This is reputed to be one of the best oriental art collections in all of Europe. Don’t miss it.

Créations Jean-Vier, 58 Avenue Edouard VII and 25 rue Mazagran, 00-33-559-222936, Basque linen has a big reputation in France, and Jean-Vier is where the renowned Parisian chef Alain Ducasse buys his table linen.

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