Queen of Resorts

Costa Rica

One of the many royal visitors to the Queen of Resorts would send this message when he set off: ''Chill the champagne, pack the pearls, and tune up the Bugatti.'' Gareth Huw Davies, travelling more modestly to this famous old town on France's southwest coast, just 12 miles from the Spanish border, found plenty of old-fashioned luxury. But he says you don't have to belong to the international elite to enjoy Biarritz, with its long beaches, big waves and mild weather. His list of six includes a choice of low and no-cost options. Photo by the writer, 2010

Stroll smart

Biarritz offers one of the most attractive seaside saunters in France, on a route lined with tamarisks and hydrangeas. It starts at the lighthouse on the high headland, and passes France''s second oldest golf course (it''s municipal, so quite easy to book) and the Russian Orthodox Church, built for visiting C19th Russian nobility, with its glorious blue dome. The famous old promenade along the Grande Plage leads past the Casino Barriere, with a fine art deco ceiling and floor, the peaceful old square Place Ste-Eugénie, and the Museum of the Sea, with its handsome facade and shark feeding sessions. On to Fishermen’s Port, built by Emperor Napoleon, and the Rock of the Virgin. The statue of Madonna, set up to keep local fishermen safe, is over a bridge designed by Gustave Eiffel, of Tower fame.

Surf’s up

The idea of riding ashore on the crest of a wave is an obvious and exhilarating way to harness natural forces. So you''d think people always did it at the seaside. But it wasn''t until 1957 that surfing reached Europe. And it happened here, on the Plage de la Côte des Basques. Hollywood screenwriter Peter Viertel (husband-to-be of Deborah Kerr) was in town for the filming of Hemingway''s ''The Sun Also Rises.'' The powerful waves so impressed him, he asked for his board to be sent over from California. Europe''s first surf club launched soon afterwards. Surfing has widened the resort’s appeal to a younger generation, who don''t need much money to have fun here. If you come only to watch them ride the waves, the Pyrenees make a fine backdrop.

Palatial stay

One way to judge the pedigree of a hotel is to count the number of times you don''t mind taking the stairs if the lift''s just gone. I took the grand descent to the lobby on the Belle Epoque staircase four times during my one night stay. Which is exactly what Napoleon III intended guests to do when he designed this sumptuous place in the 1800s, originally for his wife Eugenie. This hotel commands the best spot in town, directly above Grande Plage. It seems serenely adrift in an earlier age. Rather than update it, they simply refresh the elegance in Napoleon''s original vision, adding the odd modern touch such as a salubrious spa. The suites, Edouard VII, Sarah Bernhardt and Winston Churchill, all Burmese teak, Carrara marble and Italian mosaics, recall starry clients.

Climb high

Take an easy day trip from Biarritz. North is the old and interesting town of Bayonne, and the beaches and huge echoing forest of Les Landes, which cloak the coast almost to Bordeaux. A few miles south are the attractive Basque towns of Saint Jean de Luz in France, and San Sebastián, just inside Spain. But for the most exciting view in the region, take the rickety, antique mining train, Le Petit Train de La Rhune. It struggles up to the 2700 feet summit of La Rhune on cog wheels, to conquer the extreme gradients, up past the strange, wild Pottok horses. The view from the top, three stars in the Michelin Guide, is immense and spectacular. If you''re feeling fit, buy a single ticket. A well signed walk brings you all the way down to the bottom.

Smart shops

One of the delights of the French High Street is the triumph of small, independent shops over the international names. In an hour''s town centre window-shopping, I saw only one big store. There are specialist cheese shops, grocers and a serious outbreak of chocolate, confectionery and cake shops. Windows are spread with elegant selections, as artistically arranged as a display of jewellery. Bonbon making is a town tradition. One speciality, the chocolate caramel Kanouga, was devised in 1905 to honour visiting Russian nobility. The Chocolate Museum (“a greedy walk through 3000 years of chocolate”, is worth a visit. And try the Basque Cake, deliciously shot through with black cherry jam. You drink Iazarro liqueur, made from local mountain herbs, with these sweet delights.

Red hot

Red is one of Biarritz''s theme colours. It is in the ubiquitous Basque flag - this is one of the Basque country''s seven provinces - in the cheerful red and green half-timbered buildings, and the town''s passionately-supported rugby team shirt. It’s also the colour of that cornerstone of Basque cuisine, the versatile Espelette pepper. Just as the French protect their wines, to maintain quality they''ve bestowed an AOC designation on this very special chilli pepper. A local man who voyaged with Columbus brought it back from Mexico. Today the autumn ritual is to fill every spare space in the villages around Biarritz with drying peppers. They sell it ground up, puréed and pickled. It''s the staple ingredient in the local dish piperade, made with scrambled eggs, tomatoes, onion, green peppers, and local ham.

The writer travelled by train, (about 9 hours from London, via Paris - book through Rail Europe), from £119 return.

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