The basque country is the perfect region for French culture and holiday activities
It can be quite a task these days to find a European coastal resort which hasn’t had its natural and traditional beauty tainted by high-rise hotels, tourist shops and unclean beaches. While they are becoming few and far between, there are still a few of hidden gems that you needn’t travel far and wide to discover.
Situated just on the south west of France, only six miles from the Spanish border, lies the quaint fishing village of Saint-Jean-De-Luz. Located in the Basque country, the destination oozes tradition, culture and character. While it attracts a number of tourists each year, the authentic charm of the region remains very much intact and true to itself.
What’s on offer?
Only a short flight from London and a 20-minute drive from Biarritz airport, this beautiful spot is the perfect destination for spontaneous holidays or weekend breaks. Few regions provide the opportunity to travel between sea, mountains and charming countryside all in one trip and you’re guaranteed to find activities to satisfy all family members, no matter their age or their preferences. Whether you’re seeking a holiday based on culture, water sports, relaxation or food and drink, this spot is sure to satisfy everyone’s holidaying agenda.
Raise your glass
If there is anywhere in the world you should drink wine, it’s France. It would be almost criminal to take a trip here without popping a cork and taking part in a spot of wine tasting. Visit Egiategia and feel like a wine connoisseur as you and your party go on a guided tour of the cellar and discover the unique art of Emmanuel Poirmeur’s underwater winemaking. Finish off your visit with a selection of white, rose and red aromatic beverages to sample on the private terrace as you take in the stunning views of the bay.
Take a dip
The calm of the seas in Saint-Jean-De-Luz offer the ideal conditions for water-based activities that both children and adults can enjoy. The bay can be discovered in a kayak, canoe or paddle board. For the younger - or more adventurous - parties, you can enjoy a 30-minute dive followed by a snorkelling tour of the bay. For the less adventurous, a simple swim can be just as enjoyable.
Travel back in time
Marriage place of King Louis XIV and Princess Marie-Thérèse, Saint Jean De Luz is full of French and Spanish influence. Budding historians can pass by La Maison Louis XIV – arguably one of the most beautiful houses in the area. Built between 1643 and 1645, this house was listed a historic monument in 2003. To delve deeper into the history of the region, take a guided tour of Cibour and Saint Jean De Luz and discover its relationship with art, fishing and religion.
Explore the surroundings
Wind through roads lined with beautiful greenery to the village of Rhune and enjoy a family day out that everyone will appreciate. The cog railway is a must-do highlight. At a speed of only 9 km/ph, the 35-minute journey takes you up the La Rhune, entertaining you with views of mountains and ocean. If you’re lucky enough, you might even spot a few furry residents on the way, such as the pottok horses, manech sheep or Pyrenean vultures. The beautiful panoramic views of the coast and mountains can be seen at the summit on a clear day.
Another must-see place to go in the region is Sare. Being named as one France’s most beautiful villages will come as no surprise when you pay this quaint place a visit. Each building is painted in the traditional red and green colours of the Basque flag and many 17th century buildings still remain here. Though there is plenty to see and do, you won’t find yourself spending too long on your feet getting around this small area.
Famous for the sport Pelota, Sare is host to some of the best players in the world. Sit by the outdoor court and enjoy the show as different teams go up against each other throughout the day. If any family members are daring enough, get a taste for the sport with a one-to-one introduction session led by a coach.
Along the coast
Some of the most beautiful views of this region can be discovered along it’s coastline. Take a short drive to Guéthary and meet the dramatic cliffs, unspoiled beaches and fresh sea air which give you a feeling of wellness that is priceless. Stop off at the local beach cafés or bars and watch as the surfers tackle the waves. The rugged Lafitenia beach is favourite for both locals and tourists and gives you a real feeling of being at the coast.
A taste of France
Food is an important part of the Basque culture and they certainly do it well. You don’t have to be a fanatical foodie to enjoy the cuisine, but if you are, your taste buds will be in paradise from the moment you arrive. Eat till your hearts content at a number restaurants in the region, many serving the freshest seafood the ocean has to offer. The following venues serve the best of the Basque cuisine:
La Boëte – An intimate and authentic bistro restaurant which serves the freshest of fish and shellfish caught in the region. The rustic nautical interior has you feeling relaxed and ready for a taste of the sea. You know it’s a good sign when the locals dine there.
Le’ocean at the Grand Hotel Thalasso Spa – A visit to this beautiful restaurant provides you with the opportunity get dressed up and feel special. Look out onto the bay of Saint-Jean-De-Luz as you experience French fine dining at its best at this Michelin star restaurant run by the charismatic Christophe Grosjean.
Hotel Arraya – Located in the village of Sare, this charming building is full of historical character with its original beams and beautiful stonework. If you’re going to try foie gras anywhere in the region, it has to be here.
Restaurant Alaïa – Located in Belharra, this beach front restaurant is a lovely little spot to enjoy your food outdoors. The set menu offered is both great value and delicious. The perfect place to stop after a wine tasting tour at Egiategia.
Guingette d’Erromardie – If passing through the area of Guéthary, this is a nice little restaurant to stop off at for lunch. A very relaxed, family friendly environment, offering a range of meals for any palate and views of the beach.
Wonder around the centre of Saint-Jean-De-Luz and you will find your willpower tested as you pass the superb patisseries and delicatessens dotted around. Satisfy your sweet tooth with some original-style macaroons, traditional Basque cakes and other French favourites that you just cannot turn down. If you find yourself too spoilt for choice, you certainly won’t be disappointed by the sweets offered at Maison Pariès or Les Macarons.
Where to stay
As with any holiday, choosing the right accommodation can be a tricky affair. Here are some top picks that the Basque region has to offer:
Hotel Helianthal – Inspired by the 1930’s Art Deco period, this hotel promotes wellbeing and relaxation and a slower pace of life. Wonder through the hotel in your robes as you try out the spa facilities, including the marine wellness pool, sauna and steam room.
Hotel Ithurria – A peaceful and quaint hotel located in the peaceful and quaint village of Ainhoa. As with many buildings of the region, this hotel has plenty of charm and character. Journey down to the garden and cool off in the pool. Enjoy a superb dining exerience at the hotel’s Micheline star restaurant.
Maison Tamarin – A stunning villa located in the area of Guéthary. Pristine gardens with views for miles. Guests can book individual rooms or the whole villa for special group occasions and have their own chef cook for them.
If going by train, you can take the Eurostar from London St. Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord and then take a train from Paris Montparnasse to Cibourne.
Once you have arrived, travel between Biarritz and St-Jean-De-Luz via bus with Chronoplus, which runs regularly throughout the day with each trip taking 30 mins.
- For any further enquiries about Saint-Jean-De-Luz, please contact the Tourism Office on: + 33 5 59 26 03 16 or visit http://www.saint-jean-de-luz.com/en/
- For more great travel advice, see Yours magazine, out every fortnight on a Tuesday.
- Words by Gabrielle Albert