Taking the Waters in Biarritz

Two hours outside of Paris, in this chic seaside resort, the French ritual of thalassotherapie

A combination of chic and wellness has always been the draw in Biarritz. Empress Eugénie, Napoléon III's Spanish wife, elected it as her summer residence when the craze for thera-peutic sea treatments was just beginning in Europe, during the mid-19th century. The small fishing village soon saw the opening of one of the first seawater spas in France, Les Bains Napoléon, and the fashionable hordes plunged in. A host of new hotels followed, further establishing the city as the ideal playground for the rich and fit.

In the mid-20th century, however, the nouveau jet set abandoned Biarritz for the French Riviera, and for a while the heart of France's Basque region beat a little slower. Helping keep the area alive as a vacation spot was its bracing sea air and unspoiled landscape. It was during this period that Biarritz became increasingly known for thalassothérapie, as the traditional seawater treatment came to be called. Today, dotted in an 18-mile radius around the city are five thalassothérapie centers, often referred to as thalassos.

Derived from the Greek thálassa, meaning sea, and therapeía, meaning cure, thalassos have long been the little French secret to staying trim and getting in shape. Belief in the healing power of seawater is part of the national culture, and indulging in thalasso treatments—which range from bubbling baths to high-pressure hose showers to seaweed wraps—helps replenish the body with minerals usually found lacking because of poor diet, stress, and polluted city air. The weeklong thalasso stays, known as cures, are modern versions of the ancient practice of using seawater to improve circulation, accelerate the elimination of toxins, and prevent a variety of illnesses.

If thalassos call to mind scenes from a Thomas Mann novel—long tiled corridors reminiscent of public pools or sanatoriums with rows of patients lined up on plastic chairs—the vibe in Biarritz is decidedly different. Thanks to spas such as the Sofitel Thalassa Miramar, which recently underwent an overhaul, executives and young mothers alike are flocking to this coastal town to dip their tired feet in ocean-filled whirlpools. Much as the imperial elite who once patronized the area to breathe in the sea air, today's smart set frequents the region's thalassos to balance out a year of caloric business lunches and assorted French excesses. "Here the whole environment is turned toward well-being," says Florence Lude, director of communication at the Miramar. "People live outside more; they're very athletic—they walk on the beach, they surf."

I arrive on a sunny September day, when the sand at the Grande Plage, Biarritz's main beach, is scorching and the surfers are out in droves. Since the ocean laps right up to the city center, businessmen in suits walk alongside casinogoers leisurely strolling steps away from bikini-clad sunbathers. The whole picture is very invigorating and somewhat uncharacteristic of the French and their classic Riviera image. Francine Brandhof, whose sleek eponymous boutique sells Lanvin dresses and Chloé shoes to local trendsetters, introduces me to the coinage "La Petite Californie," and there is some truth to the idea—a teeny California does seem to be thriving in southwestern France.

Biarrots, as the inhabitants are called, take understandable pride in their coastline. It's unspoiled. There's little construction done by the beaches and you can see mountains and pine forests in the distance. I'm repeatedly told that the region is "not for everyone," especially not for "people who vacation in Saint-Tropez." "Those who come here look for authenticity," explains Jean-Louis Leimbacher, director of the landmark Hôtel du Palais, Eugénie and Napoléon III's former summer residence. "The Basques are welcoming, but they're also very protective of their environment, and things here haven't degenerated the way they have elsewhere. Our visitors are not the type who show off and want to be recognized; they aren't into what's superficial."

Almost immediately upon arrival, I'm briefed on the air quality. "People used to the Mediterranean are struck by it when they first visit," says the nice lady who takes me up to my suite at the Palais. "The ocean oxygenates everything." I soon learn that s'oxygéner, like bien-être, or well-being, is a key Biarrot expression. It sums up the local belief that the Atlantic air blanketing the area is purer than that of the Mediterranean (and certainly the inland cities)—just breathing it, the French say, has therapeutic value.

If you're looking for a little oxygenation, the most tantalizing place in town is undoubtedly the newly renovated Miramar. Located at the end of the Grande Plage, the hotel has dramatic views of the rocks out at sea, a soothing Zen decor, and an ultramodern local restaurant, which make it feel more like an upscale high-tech spa than a maritime clinic of yesteryear. On the morning I visit, a group of trendy thirtysomething Parisiennes are in the very process of s'oxygéner on deck chairs by the outdoor pool. "The idea was not to make it ostentatious," Lude tells me when I ask about the refurbishment. "Ten years ago thalassos were serious and medical, and though we haven't forgotten about health, our clients today demand a more pleasant environment."

Downstairs, tiles and gracefully curving architecture immediately make me feel I'm in the right place. The thalasso is separated into four pavilions, or treatment areas, that have their own name, decor, and fragrance. It's all done to create a very intimate atmosphere, which makes a difference for thalassogoers, called curistes, who usually spend half the day here. Although the Miramar has a regular spa with dry massages and beauty rituals in another area, this section devoted to traditional seawater therapy is the most impressive.

Each pavilion consists of separate rooms equipped with bubbling tubs, powerful hoses, and massage tables that have gentle, misting spray showers hanging overhead for wet body kneading. For kicking back and clearing nasal passages be tween treatments, there's a darkly lit relaxing room called aérosol, where tiny particles of seawater are released into the air. When these drops hit the room's special ultraviolet lamps, they emit the kind of negative ions that charge the atmosphere after a storm. Breathing this in is believed to have an overall calming effect.

Outside the pavilions are a Moroccan steam bath and three seawater pools, two of which are devoted to underwater therapy and exercise classes. A "relaxation lagoon" filled with salt-saturated water, à la the Red Sea, is where classes are held for sophrologie, a French method in which a therapist guides you through meditation techniques that include visualization and controlled breathing.

As I walk through the facilities with the formidable Hélène Grespinet, a former therapist who is now director of development, she leads me to the end of the central corridor to admire the sea view from the lounge and herb-tea salon. A few steps down is the Azur pavilion, whose dark blue walls and Verner Panton-ish white chairs are said to be "more tonic" and allegedly appeal to the male clientele.

"We have more and more businessmen who need attention because they work too much," Grespinet tells me. "We even have a cure tailored just to their needs."

Although the Miramar has done much to alter the traditional thalasso model, offering short three-day stays and à la carte treatments, it still largely relies on the cure system of inclusive-package stays devoted to themes like weight loss and stress. The Masculin Tonic, as the male cure is called, pairs customary thalasso fare like underwater exercise and massage baths with spa features such as hair conditioning and facials. Whereas the eighties saw men reluctantly come to thalassos as a "plus one" to their wives, recent years have seen them returning for personal holidays after attending high-end corporate retreats in the area. According to Miramar director Marc Dannenmuller, they're seduced by the combination of great food and the outdoorsy, athletic feel of the Basque region.

The Miramar is not alone in staking a claim on this younger clientele. The Hôtel du Palais just opened a new fifth-floor penthouse with a contemporary vibe and this summer will be debuting a 31,750-square-foot Guerlain spa, with indoor pool, steam baths, and treatment rooms. The charming Grand Hôtel in the port town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz a few miles south is also starting work on an intimate, upscale thalasso for its guests.

Yet women remain thalassos' typical patrons, and weight-loss programs like the Miramar's Minceur Marine are still geared toward them. Minceur Marine offers a variety of treatments that are regularly tweaked and updated, such as the Cellu-Marine Shower, an anticellulite variation on the painfully powerful underwater hose massage, which has attributes that might only appeal to some one well versed in the joys of bikini waxing. Using a rotating nozzle that resembles the end of a handheld vacuum device, the shower emits water in a scooping motion to supposedly break down deep-seated fat. "It's very draining," says the head therapist, Armelle. "It really feels like we unstick the fat."

State-of-the-art techniques notwithstanding, what's striking at the Miramar is its cocoonlike feel. At other thalassos, I sometimes felt as if I were just another slab of flesh to knead and tone, hurtled from one treatment to the next in a loud, busy environment permeated with a strong seawater smell. Here I enjoyed the calm, the sweetly perfumed air, and the small touches that made all the difference: the mist heated to just the right temperature as it drifted down during my body massage and scrub, the call button placed near my hand while I lay mummified in moisturizing wax, saran wrap, and a blanket. After only a half day of treatments, I felt rested, my cheeks rosy and somehow plumped up, my lower limbs lighter and drained of excess water and toxins (I hoped).

I ate lunch at the sleek diet restaurant Les Pibales, right next to the regular gastronomic dining room. Its decor is actually more pleasant and airy, with pretty turquoise water glasses and cool color combinations of brown and bright pink. Year-round, the menu features fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, and the catch of the day. The vegetables stuffed with a salt-cod brandade and peach soufflé for dessert sounded as tantalizing as my own picks of prawns served with a mushroom cappuccino, the sea bass with chanterelles, and a bitter iced chocolate fondant. My meal came to less than 400 calories and was surprisingly filling. The chocolate was indeed bitter but the appetizer was perfect and the chanterelles were so fresh they barely needed seasoning. The extensive menu went a long way in proving that taste does not always depend on fat or sugar.

The chef, Patrice Demangel, has written a lo-cal cookbook, Légères Gourmandises, and hosts daily cooking classes in a fantastic state-of-the-art kitchen. Mondays are designated for appetizers, Tuesdays for fish, Wednesdays for meat, and Thursdays for desserts. On Fridays students choose their last meal of the week and make sure they have understood the principles of diet cuisine.

"The cure will help you jump-start a diet, lose a few inches, and change your skin's appearance," Grespinet explains. "But it's really about picking up good habits."

Touring Biarritz after visiting the Miramar, I am bemused by the idea that anyone could pick up good habits here. The city has an incredible array of restaurants and local specialty shops. The hour of aperitif, right before lunch, sees shoppers stopping for drinks and tapas at nearby cafés.

Most Biarrots, however, look toned and fit. At La Table de Don Quichotte, a high-end Spanish ham store, the owner explains that the hilly streets help you work it all off. Surfing, golfing, and jogging on the beach probably don't hurt either—though the maddening French habit of balancing heavy and light meals and eating smaller portions is probably key. "It's a way of life," says the Belgian countess Van der Straten, who tells me she has been coming to Biarritz for 75 years (summers at the Palais, winters at the Miramar). Timelessly chic in a little fuchsia dress, her figure impeccably trim, she sips a curaçao and reveals her secret to staying so slim: "I don't drink too much and don't eat too much." Then she adds, "Of course, Biarritz keeps me in shape." That, it is hoped, is what one learns at the thalassos in this chic resort town where temptation abounds.


HOTELS

Sofitel Thalassa Miramar From $470; 13 Rue Louison Bobet, Biarritz; 33-5/5941-30-00; www.accorthalassa.com.
Hôtel du Palais From $490; 1 Av. de l'Impératrice, Biarritz; 33-5/59-41-64-00; www.hotel-du-palais.com.
Grand Hôtel Saint-Jean-de-Luz From $330; 43 Bd. Thiers, St.-Jean-de-Luz; 33-5/5926-35-36; www.slh.com/grandhotel.


RESTAURANTS

Chef Jean-Marie Gautier delights at La Villa Eugénie in the Hôtel du Palais's grand dining room (1 Av. de l'Impératrice; 33-5/5941-64-00). The quieter Sissinou is perfect for langoustine ravioli and tuna carpaccio (5 Av. Foch; 335/59-22-51-50). For simpler fare, you can't beat Bar du Marché ($ 8 Rue des Halles; 33-5/59-24-16-91) and Bar Jean ($ 5 Rue des Halles; 33-5/59-24-80-38).


SHOPPING

Most of Biarritz's high-end shops are along the Avenue Edouard VII. Natacha is four boutiques in one that sells Prada, Marc Jacobs, and Sonia Rykiel (3 Av. Edouard VII; 33-5/59-2243-42). Soft is the place for cashmere and Jamin Puech bags (21 Av. Edouard VII; 33-5/59-22-14-73). Francine Brandhof is the most fashion-forward, stocking Rick Owens, Lanvin, and Miu Miu (1-3 Av. de la Reine Victoria; 33-5/59-2472-43). At Le Rond dans l'eau, a gallery-cumboutique, design fans can find Ettore Sottsass ceramics amid lamps by Ingo Maurer ($ 6 Av. Victor Hugo; 33-5/59-24-35-48). Across the street, Maison Arostéguy provides straying dieters with local black cherry jam, veal casseroles, and ibérico ham from Spain (5 Av. Victor Hugo; 33-5/59-24-00-52). In the same league is Chocolaterie Henriet, a Biarrot institution renowned for its confections laced with Basque Espelette pepper and luscious rochers (Pl. Clém enceau; 33-5/59-24-24-15).


SURFING

The Basque region is fast becoming one of Europe's foremost surfing destinations, and Biarritz has some of the oldest schools in the country, including the Ecole de Surf Jo Moraïz ($ 33-5/59-41-22-09) and the Plums Ecole de Surf ($ 33-5/59-24-08-04). To catch a wave or simply watch, the Côte des Basques beach is a reliable spot.

ELISABETH FRANCK-DUMAS WROTE ON SHOPPING IN BUENOS AIRES AND PARIS FOR THE NOVEMBER/DECEMBER 2005 ISSUE.

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