Whether you're aiming to rub shoulders with Russian oligarchs at a former royal residence, splash with the surf set on the Côte des Basques or head off on a Pyrenean climbing odyssey, Biarritz is the holiday destination for you.
Make no mistake, the former French fishing village-turned-luxury seaside resort definitely has notions. (Let's just say this is one beach town for which you needn't pack your flip-flops.)
Safe to say, too, that it mightn't be your go-to location for a cost-conscious family camping holiday, at the height of summer, with the G8 Summit in full swing. In fact, that sounds totally crazy. So of course, I booked us up.
In my life BC (before children), I had travelled to the area many times, for all of the reasons above. I found in it an intoxicating otherness, a location that was not quite French, and not exactly Spanish. Situated in the Basque region of France, on the border with Spain, Côte des Basques has a rhythm all its own. Pintxos (as the Basque tapas/canapé-like snacks are termed) regularly appear on menus. The local drink, kalimotxo (or calimocho), is a crazy blend of equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola - making the drink an anathema in French wine culture but an icon of Basque culture - and all too drinkable, too.
On a past surf trip here, I imbibed far too much of the Bordeaux/cola combo at the popular roadside café Etxola Bibi. I had stopped there to marvel at the Atlantic swell from atop the steep hill that drops away to the majestic Côte des Basques beach. A jug of the stuff was about all I could afford in the town, where the surfers were unimaginably good, the women unimaginably chic, and the prices unimaginably high. Window shopping earlier that day, a boutique owner had proclaimed frostily that he would have to go into the back of the shop to find an "extra-large" to fit me - and me thinking I was doing well for myself as an Irish size eight.
Ah yes. This is the essence of Biarritz, and it left me wanting more.
The region's proximity to Spain brought me back, next time on a climbing holiday. Biarritz Airport is small and easy to navigate, and a short train ride from the town brings you over the Pyrenees via the ridiculously pretty mountain village of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and into San Sebastián (above) - another town with a big personality. From here, a friend and I mapped our way along the Pyrenees via a network of hiking paths stippled with refugios, the Spanish mountain hiker huts. We free-camped on the side of a mountain in a snowstorm (in August!) and generally enjoyed the solitude of the real high life.
On yet another trip, I overnighted in the palace of Napoleon III (now the five-star Hôtel du Palais), created in the shape of an E to mark the arrival of his Empress Eugénie. Don't fret if your funds don't stretch to a stay; the palace is best viewed from the Phare de Biarritz, the lighthouse on the town's northernmost bluff which looks down over the yellow sands and candy-coloured beach huts of Plage Miramar. The royal couple's architectural stamp on the city can also be viewed from the nearby 19th-century chapel, Chapelle Impériale, and entry here is at least free.
I hadn't a notion of bringing my family to the town that had held me in thrall during my carefree days. But the idea began to germinate when my children got the surfing bug on a bank holiday weekend in Mayo. "When I was in Biarritz," I bragged, "the sea was warm enough to surf in your swimsuit!" Immediately, they wanted to go. But I had my reservations - ones that went beyond the price.
There's the travel time, for a start. Biarritz is a day's drive from the ferry port of Roscoff, which is the usual landing point for the majority of Irish families on a French camping holiday. This journey, I reckoned, would be more than we could bear. We have previous on these sorts of trips; the children can't sit squished into the backseat for more than 20 minutes without fighting; and 'driving on the wrong side of the road', the adults can't sit peaceably for more than 10 minutes in the front.
However, for not much more than the price of the ferry, we were able to book direct flights from Dublin to Biarritz (a neat two hours in the air) and afford a decent-sized hire car to take us and our sizeable luggage to a campsite only 20 minutes up the coast, in Labenne-Océan.
We had booked the campsite, called Sylvamar, through Eurocamp (eurocamp.ie), plumping for an older, more affordable mobile home in the belief that our time spent there would be minimal. Mobile homes in French campsites are not cheap, with prices rising for newer models and those with more mod cons.
The campsite was larger than those we are used to, which we knew would mean a busier swimming pool and a busier environment overall. However, the good people at Eurocamp were true to their word and located us in a quiet cul-de-sac requested at the time of booking. The modern flumes at the camp swimming pool were a big plus for my water-obsessed family, as was the extensive waterpark next door (aquatic-landes.com). But ultimately we chose Sylvamar for its proximity to the ocean, with the express purpose of signing the children up for daily surf lessons.
However, lazy parents that we are, we adopted a wait-and-see approach to the surfing requests. With so much to do in the area, we weren't quite sure how much time we would dedicate to the sea. The boss of the house is big on history and art, the little boss is a big train enthusiast, and we all love the mountains, so between the jigs and reels I didn't want to ring-fence all our time beating back the waves. So despite corresponding with local surf school teacher Guillaume in the weeks before departure, we didn't, in the end, book ahead for lessons (surfinglabenne.com).
When we arrived in Labenne, we found that the children were just as happy messing about on my ancient bodyboard by day and riding the flumes at the busy campsite pool as it emptied out, just before closing time.
I delighted in the savings we had made on the surf lessons, and the family time we were reaping as a result. I also felt real relief that I wasn't handing over the children to Guillaume and the ocean when I saw the size of the waves in Labenne. Under a 30°C sun, these smashing great monsters battered and peeled across the shoreline, day and night, with an intensity I'd seen only once before, that night with the wine/cola combo on the hill in Biarritz - and back then, I hadn't been in the water.
It was an overwhelming feeling, to stand on the searing sand and suck in the sight and sound of the turquoise sea as it loops along the coast, darkening to a midnight blue against the haze of the Pyrenees beyond.
By day, the beach was patrolled by watchful lifeguards who, on good days, repelled the pro surfers from the narrow strip of coastline that was safe for general swimming and, on bad days, banned entry to the water altogether. I had taken enough senseless batterings in the Atlantic to be grateful for their vigilance but, still, it was hard to shake the children's disappointment on those few no-swim days.
In the evening, as the sun went down, we would return to the beach to watch the sun set over the ocean. The children would attempt to fill up the sea with stones, running in delicious fear from the crashing monsters. In these moments I enjoyed the insignificance of us all.
The campsite was overflowing with means of entertainment and this suits many families. We took pony rides on-site and went on night-time forays to the sandy playground while groups toasted marshmallows on the communal barbecues. There was nightly entertainment in the amphitheatre, amazing ice creams and even a visit from the circus. You got the general sense that the majority of people left the campsite only to escape the daylight robbery being meted upon them by the on-site supermarket. Not us. We don't do kids' clubs or lazing around particularly well. And so, on many days we ventured beyond the sandy lanes and cycle paths of Labenne into the Côte des Basques region beyond.
A great highlight of our holiday was to be a trip on the Petit Train de la Rhune, a funicular locomotive that links Col de Saint-Ignace, 10km to the east of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, to the summit of the La Rhune mountain. Views of the region were said to be spectacular but, for us, the train was the thing. In case you, like our six-year-old, are interested, it's a four-wheeled electric locomotive that pushes two coaches up the mountain, and leads them down, and the line is one of just four in the world still using three-phase electric power.
Booking in advance is advisable and when we arrived, the mountain was shrouded in mist. No matter. Hot chocolates were bought to steady the nerves and then we were off, pulled on the cogs for a 35-minute journey to the top.
For those who crave solitude, there's nothing quite like the silence of a mountain in cloud and we passed the journey quietly, spotting the occasional Pottok, a breed of rural ponies in the western Basque Country, before hitting the summit souvenir shop. We looked out from the observation point to where France and Spain and the beautiful Côte des Basques beaches would be, in better weather.
Having travelled the heights of the region, our next foray was underground, at the Grottes d'Isturitz caves. This was crowded with tourists and scary for some of the children, which unfortunately took away from the experience of this amazing natural spectacle.
Eccentric French playwright Edmond Rostand wrote his masterwork, Cyrano de Bergerac, nearby, and his house and gardens at Arnaga are open to the public after extensive restoration work. The gardens are split in two, to facilitate Rostand's "nervous temperament". His English garden is an organic, tree-lined meadow perfect for hiding away in, while the formal French garden displays his love of pomp and luxury. The house itself is now a museum to Rostand, giving an absorbing insight into his family life.
'Have Chupa Chup, will travel' is our family motto. So with the children sucking on the ubiquitous French lollipop, we travelled the region as the whim took us, blowing the budget in the excellent Biarritz Aquarium and cutting our cloth while hand-feeding crocodiles at Labenne's Reptilarium.
Rustic Labenne Zoo - which doled out bags of popcorn for us to feed the animals - was the sleeper hit of the holiday. Where else could you hold hands with a tiny lemur, wander through woods with albino wallabies and be leapt at by ravenous, teeth-baring Canadian wolves? And I don't care what anyone says, I wouldn't linger long by the wire. If they really wanted to, I'm quite sure those beasts could leap the fence.
Yes, sand, sea, surf, society and salivating wolves, Biarritz and its environs has it all. Turns out it has the makings of an excellent family-holiday destination, too.
Fly from Dublin direct to Biarritz with Ryanair (ryanair.com). Fiona and family were guests of Eurocamp at Sylvamar in Labenne (eurocamp.ie). One week in high season costs from €1,648 for seven days in a two-bedroom Comfort Vista mobile home.
Bodyboards, rash vests and sun hats. Good books and beach towels. Bed linen, tea bags for the minute you arrive, a vegetable peeler and a sharp kitchen knife (mobile homes often don’t have one). A plentiful first-aid kit and medicines. And don’t forget the sunscreen...
A bite over the border...
Travel into Spain for a taste of jazz in San Sebastián. There’s tapas on tap, dulce de leche ice cream, a sandy bay for safe swimming at the end of the main street, and it’s much cheaper too!
For the birds
Hide in the nature reserve of Marais d’Orx in Labenne. Along with a multitude of birds, there are turtles nesting, water rats, lizards and wild boars to spot; €7.50/€3.50.
A traditional tart of the region made with a butter-sugar pastry dough and filled with either pastry cream (in the south) or black cherry jam (in the north); €3.
Isturitz and Oxocelhaya are part of a chain of Pyrenean caves displaying prehistoric carvings. It includes a rock cathedral but challenging weekend parking; €11/€4.50.