Biarritz, France --- The old whaling port of Biarritz on France's southwest coast became a glittering seaside resort in the late 1800s.
Led by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, high society flocked to Biarritz. It became the Atlantic coast's answer to the Riviera, with a casino, grand hotels and luxurious villas. Biarritz is also said to be where sea bathing first became fashionable.
But times have changed. The glitterati of today have moved on to other watering holes. I wondered: Is there still some ritz in Biarritz?
I arrived in town with several friends at the end of the summer. We made our way to the beach simply by driving downhill. At each intersection, we picked the road that slanted down. Finally, we parked and went on foot, following a series of steps and plazas.
At the main beach, the Grande Plage, a wide sidewalk runs parallel to the ocean. Carefully coiffed elderly women strolled this promenade alongside couples with strollers. Sun-bronzed young men sauntered by.
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On the sand, women lay topless in the sun. We saw a performer juggle sticks of fire and pretending to swallow a fiery sword.
The truth of Biarritz today is that it is has become a destination for serious surfers, as well as a haven for affluent retirees. (One-fourth of the population is retired.)
Each summer, the Roxy Jam, a world championship in women's longboard surfing, is held there. The event, July 11-16 this year, includes concerts, art exhibits and a celebration of 50 years of surfing in the area. Each August, the next-door town of Hossegor hosts the RipCurl Pro international surfing competition.
Beaches in Biarritz have special sections marked for surfing. Big Atlantic waves crash dramatically against the rocky shore. Surf shops and snack bars abound on the edge of Biarritz near the neighboring town of Anglet. A youth hostel in Anglet is surfer-friendly, with classes posted on bulletin boards. At the Grande Plage, the crescent-shaped beach is bordered on one end by the Hotel du Palais and on the other by the Biarritz lighthouse. Several huge rocks dot the water, adding a sense of drama.
As in Miami, art deco architecture reigns, only in Biarritz, it's grander and more palatial. The elegant proportions and curving iron scrollwork of buildings like the 1924 casino lend Biarritz an air of grace and charm.
Visitors can climb the 248 steps of the lighthouse for a breathtaking view. The Musee de la Mer (Museum of the Sea) tells about the area's marine life and includes several aquariums, one with seals.
The Musee Historique, in a former church, tells the story of Biarritz's evolution from a Basque fishing village to the "resort of kings and king of resorts."
In addition, the Musee du Chocolat describes chocolate-making in the area. A number of spas offer seawater baths and mud and seaweed treatments, said to cure specific ills such as rheumatism and (dubiously) nicotine addiction.
The area is part of Basque country, and cafes and restaurants near the beach serve regional specialties, including jambon (ham) de Bayonne and gateau basque, a cake filled with rich cream and cherry preserves.
In the early evening, I walked along the promenade again. Just at the bottom of some stone steps leading down to the beach, I came upon a large sand sculpture. It was Poseidon, god of the sea, regally seated, holding his trident.
A blond, dreadlocked Spaniard said he and his companion had sculpted it. Like street buskers entertaining for money, Tomasz Och and Jan Simko make sand sculptures. Beachgoers pay them a euro or two in appreciation. The men were spending the summer in a nearby campground.
At Biarritz you can find both the posh and the offbeat, as well as a beautiful beach in a graceful little city.
IF YOU GO
Round-trip flights from Atlanta to Biarritz can be $1,500 in the summer months. If you happen to have a bargain flight to Paris, round-trip fares from Paris to Biarritz can be found at $200-$300.
Where to stay
It's best to book ahead if you will be in Biarritz in July or August. Many French vacationers stay in nearby Bayonne.
Accommodation information in English: www.touradour.com/towns/biarritz/biatour.htm
The Biarritz tourist office: www.biarritz.fr/en
On the high-luxury end, the Hotel du Palais could set you back 260 to 550 euros ($352-$745) a night. Suites are extra. 1 Avenue de l'imperatrice, 64 200 Biarritz: www.hotel-du-palais.com
A more moderate choice: Hotel Maitagaria, 34 avenue Carnot Capital. From 49 to 90 euros $66-$122: www.hotel-maitagaria.com
Hostels offer much cheaper accommodations with few frills: touradour.com/shops/auberge
10.70 euros ($14.50) for those under 26; 15.30 euros ($20.75) for those older. Must have a membership in Hosteling International: www.hiusa.org/hostels/index.shtml
Anglet Youth Hostel, 19 route de Vignes, 64600 Anglet: hihostels.com/dba/hostel020029.en.htm
Biarritz Youth Hostel, 8 rue Chiquito de Cambo, 64200 Biarritz: hihostels.com/dba/hostel020043.en.htm