Biarritz—It is the name that is the first beguilement. “Biarritz.” It functions in the same way as Monte Carlo or Acapulco, as Punta del Este or St.-Tropez—there is something inherently glamorous in what the place happens to be called. I know that is why I first went there. It was 1990 and my wife, Susan, and I were celebrating the publication of my novel Brazzaville Beach by treating ourselves to a short gastronomic holiday in France. We found ourselves in the Dordogne, in the southwest, at a smart, highly regarded hotel with a manicured park and a Michelin-starred restaurant, but we realized we weren’t enjoying ourselves: too prissy, too stuffy, too boring. We need the sea, I suggested, the ocean. “Let’s go to Biarritz,” Susan said spontaneously. So we canceled our reservations and drove three hours toward the Spanish border. Biarritz was waiting.
And so was the Hôtel du Palais. The Palais and Biarritz are inseparable in my mind. The Palais sits at the northern end of La Grande Plage, an improbably grand hotel right on the ocean’s edge, surf crashing at its feet. This is what makes it unique. There are many grand hotels that front the sea or the ocean, but all of them have a road or a busy promenade between the main door and the water. Streams of traffic, avenues of trees, pedestrians, sidewalks intervene. Not so with the Palais. You open the window of your room and look down on foaming breakers, spume flying from rocks. The thump and roar of waves unfolding on the beach fills your ears.
It was love at first sight. Since then I have been to Biarritz and the Palais almost every year—sometimes twice a year, so compelling is its allure. The original building was constructed by Napoléon III for his wife, the empress Eugénie, in 1855. Though it was rebuilt and enlarged after a severe fire in 1903, it still resembles the royal summer palace it once was. Inside you are welcomed by a vast marble hall with elaborate chandeliers, gilded pillars, mirrors, and antique furniture. Expensive jewels flash in glass display cabinets—you could be in Paris or London or Rome—but then someone wanders by in a bathrobe heading for the pool, and you remember you are in a small resort town on the Atlantic.
It was Napoléon III and Eugénie who made Biarritz fashionable, long before the Côte d’Azur began to achieve prominence in the twenties and thirties. Anton Chekhov visited in 1897 as part of a cure for his tuberculosis, escaping the severe Moscow winter; Biarritz was very popular with Russians at the end of the 19th century. Chekhov didn’t stay in the Palais, but I like to think of his ghost haunting the town’s backstreets, dining in a restaurant by the harbor, walking on the promenade.
Though Chekhov’s Biarritz is gone, you can still sense the town’s prewar charm. The essential geography remains unaltered: the beach with the Palais at one end and a casino at the other, the bridge (designed by Eiffel) to the jagged rocky island of Le Rocher de la Vierge.
In 1934 the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson’s love affair achieved its first flowering in Biarritz (Mr. Simpson conveniently absent). My novel Any Human Heart incorporates the couple’s presence there. The protagonist, Logan Mountstuart, encounters them on the golf course and thus begins an association with the pair that inevitably ends in tears. In fact Mountstuart first comes to Biarritz in 1925 as a young undergraduate, about to start a walking tour in the Basque Country. Later, during World War II, he writes in his journal, “Fantasy: driving south from Paris to Biarritz and the Atlantic, with a suite booked at the Palais.” Ah, the Palais…I know what he means—for once a fictional character’s thoughts can be happily identified as the author’s.
When I’m feeling self-indulgent, I stay in the Hôtel du Palais’s Winston Churchill Suite, which has floor-to-ceiling windows, balconies, and amazing views of the beach and lighthouse ($640–$5,680; hotel-du-palais.com). The other great asset of the Palais is its restaurant, La Rotonde—a semicircular room with huge windows looking onto the surf crashing on the rocks (dinner, $80). Other than that, I usually eat very simply in Biarritz: Chez Albert (dinner, $55; chezalbert.fr) at the old port, or the tapas bars in the covered market (local wines, delicious nibbles). For fine Basque Country gastronomy, I go to La Table des Frères Ibarboure (dinner, $90; freresibarboure.com) in nearby Bidart.