The Cote Basque, that splendid, hilly, 20-mile stretch of Aquitaine from Biarritz down to the Spanish border is known for many good things, among them, its fine beaches, its prickly chefs and their amazing French Basque cuisine, its mercurial weather patterns, and not least, its surfing. The image of southwestern France as a surfing capital might seem counterintuitive, if not flat-out wrong – it is, after all, 8000 miles from the sport’s 3000-year-old Polynesian roots.
But with its harsh Atlantic winds whipping up the breaks, Aquitaine in general, and the tenderloin of the Cote Basque in particular, have become major destinations on the globe-trotting surfers’ bucket list, hosting over fifty international and local competitions annually. Biarritz, the somewhat over the top and rather shopworn grande dame of a 19th century touristic resort, has had its scene thoroughly revivified with some ten surf schools and their attendant masters, acolytes, surf shops, bars, and hangs. The surf schools, shops, and funky beach bars continue in an unbroken daisy chain down to the Spanish border and into Spain.
Truth be told, you can surf the Cote Basque any time, but the next thirty-to-forty days, which we could call in climatic terms ”greater October,” is the sweetest time for the breaks and a simply delightful time to be in the region. Three reasons: the tourists have evaporated in a back-to-school rush, the weather is sunny, and the ocean is still warm from the summer. Not that warm water matters especially to the neoprene-clad boys up at seven in the morning to catch this or that set off this or that tide. The monsters – the fifty-footers that pay no heed to any tide and are so beloved by those who like being towed out a few miles to catch them – come with the fall winds into the Bay of Biscay.
Southwestern France owes its vibrant surfing status to a notable American, we can be proud to report. In 1956, Hollywood screenwriter and avid surfer Peter Viertel was, with his wife, the actress Deborah Kerr, in the Basque country at work adapting Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises for its 1957 release. Struck by the (to Viertel alone) delightful strength and regularity of the waves at Biarritz, he sent for his surfboard back in California. Bang, the scene was born. Viertel’s hearty approach is the reason that every third dude at that cool bar in St. Jean de Luz seems like he might be a budding Kelly Slater, or a Quicksilver executive. Or both. Biarritz, we will note for the aficionadi, the home of the regular, longboard-friendly sets.
A few villages, and their charming stretches of beach, below Biarritz are worth noting. In Bidart, best at low tides, both local and international guides alike tell us to beware the rocks at the end of the run. In Guethary, the swells can regularly get head high, and then double that. Stop by the charming Guethary harbor for a look, and enjoy a meal at Brikitenia, the Ibarboure-family culinary hot-spot back up in the hills. St. Jean de Luz is the record-holding home of the monster waves off the Belharra Reef, two miles out from the village. In 2003, two Frenchman successfully surfed a 60-footer out there. Strictly for the hard-ass mother-ship and towing crowd.
As classical boardsports have expanded to include wind- and kite-surfing over the past decades, the Cote Basque has upped its game to accomodate those athletes as well. Whether you’re in a good spot for waves, or not, hardly matters if you’re keyed on the wind. Which can be ocean-strong. One kite-surfer met his end in Biarritz two months ago when a gust picked him up, rode him a couple of hundred yards in the air, across the beach, and fatally slammed him down in a garden in town. As in all endeavors involving, wind, the North Atlantic, the Cote Basque, and long pieces of fiberglass, cave canem.