When I visited Bilbao and San Sebastián as a carefree twenty-something, I fell in love with the Basque country – the passionate people, beautiful beaches and weather, but mostly, the fabulous food. However this, of course, was all in Spain, whereas the ‘Pays Basque’ actually extends up into the south-west corner of France, and it was this region I was keen to explore – this time with my husband, Mark, and two children, Esme, 7, and Ben, 5, and in accommodation that was a step or two up from the hostels of my Interailing days.
So when a friend recommended the La Reserve – a charming four-star Groupe Floirat hotel on the French Basque coast famed for its fine food – as being perfect for families, I investigated for myself online and had to agree.
A great thing about the Basque area is that as it isn’t as far south as Mediterranean resorts, flights there are shorter – London Stansted to Biarritz (the nearest airport) is under two hours, so it was easy to keep the children entertained for that time. And more good news on our arrival in Biarritz, La Reserve is just a 25-minute drive away.
Although a fairly modern building, La Reserve’s reception has been decorated and furnished to give the welcoming feel of a family house (albeit one belonging to a very stylish, wealthy family!), with liberal use of warm red tones – the traditional hue of the region – and dark wood.
But what struck us most was the sound – and smell – of the ocean. Even though we couldn’t actually see it during check in, the unmistakable crash of waves against rocks drifted through the open doors leading to the gardens. It was so tantalising that before checking out our room, Esme and Ben begged us to take a look outside. And what a view it was.
La Reserve overlooks three hectares of rolling lawns, furnished with palms, flowers and even the odd sculpture, all topped off by an irresistible infinity pool, its turquoise waters melding with the azure of the ocean and, then, the sky. The air was filled with the ozone-fresh scent of the sea, and we knew it was time to go to change into our swimming gear, pronto!
Our suite was one of six in the hotel (which has 41 rooms in total) with a sofa bed for the children, and the warm and comfortable theme of the reception area was continued within. And again, our roomy terrace gave us another gorgeous ocean view.
As Mark and the children headed to the pool, I took the opportunity to slip away to one of the hotel’s spa treatment rooms for a Ren Clean Skincare facial I’d booked beforehand. I’d given my face a quick wash to remove my make-up, so my sensitive skin was a little pink. My therapist noticed this immediately, so promised to use only the most gentle products on my face. Under her expert touch, I was soon drifting off into holiday mode, and left with my skin soothed and glowing.
Refreshed and relaxed, I was ready to join Mark and the children poolside. Later, we had a family game of tennis (next time we might ask Esme and Ben to act as a ball girl and boy, rather than actual participants!) in the hotel courts, and there’s also ping pong by the pool should you tire of sunning and swimming.
What we did
Although the hotel feels wonderfully private, the town of St Jean de Luz is a surprisingly short walk away. A stroll along the asphalted coastal path (easily accessible for buggies) affords more fantastic views of the ocean, which alter dramatically depending on whether the tide is in or out, which the children were delighted to witness. Also on the way down is a hillside play area, complete with benches to relax on while the children let off some steam – that is if you can manage to stop them racing down to the bay, once they catch sight of the beach below…
You may not of heard of St Jean de Luz, its name somewhat overshadowed by glitzy Biarritz. But it hasn't always been this way. In the 17th century, Biarritz was a small fishing village, while St Jean de Luz was an important port and, due to its proximity to Spain (San Sebastián is just 30 minutes away), was the site of Louis XIV’s marriage to Maria Theresa the Infanta of Spain, a union designed to unite the two countries.
This grand heritage is evidenced in the town’s beautiful Renaissance-style architecture, combined with traditional Basque buildings, making it a joy to wander round. And as the centre is pretty compact, Esme and Ben didn’t get too weary, especially as we stopped in one of the pretty patisseries to sample local sweet specialities, such as macarons and torta Basque (rather reminiscent of a Bakewell tart!).
The area is also famous for its high-quality household linens, in attractive striped designs, while the footwear de jour are espadrilles, with all manner of the canvas comfies in a myriad of colours for sale. I couldn’t resist buying everyone in the family a funky new pair.
But the real draw (certainly for Esme and Ben) was St Jean de Luz’s ‘Grande Plage’ – a sweeping crescent-shaped bay, with soft golden sand and tranquil waters. The incoming Atlantic has not always been so kind, however: before the 19th century the town was often flooded in stormy weather, until 1864 when work began on the three huge sea walls that now protect the bay – an immense project that took 12 years to complete.
Today, more protection comes in the form of lifeguards who are on duty at weekends in May, then daily from June to mid-September. Grande Plage is also home to four beach clubs, including children’s clubs, as well as outlets renting tents, parasols and sun-loungers.
And if all this fresh air and exercise has you feeling hungry, the Les Halles food market held on Tuesday and Friday mornings (as well as Saturday mornings in July and August) is a must for foodies – brimming with fruit, vegetables and spankingly fresh fish, as well as masses of fromage and charcuterie from the area, many of them featuring ‘d’Espelette’, a variety of chilli cultivated exclusively in the northern Basque region.
Such is the quality of the produce from this market, it’s where La Reserve’s talented young chef, Fabrice Idiart, chooses the finest ingredients to base his menus around. And it was this food we were lucky enough to sample during our stay...
What we ate
No ordinary hotel fare, Fabrice’s food is adventurous with playful touches, but always stays true to the ‘terrior’ and its produce. It’s a combination that pays off – memorable dishes from the à la carte menu (prices range from 14-30 euros) included a starter of poached egg that, very cleverly, had a very thin, crunchy crumb coating and oozy yolk within, served with asparagus and broad beans in a cockle sauce that echoed the ozone of the sea air. A signature dish of beef cooked two ways: slices of tender rare steak and meat slow-cooked in beer until it was dark and melting, served with tangy shells of onion and smoked potatoes, was another triumph.
While Ilura’s food is gourmet, the atmosphere is relaxed – this is not a formal dining room but an intimate extension of the hotel’s stylish lounge area, while on balmy summer nights, dining on the ocean terrace is an experience not to be missed. As diners from the surrounding area, as well as guests, flock to Ilura to eat, there’s always a warm buzz about the place – we felt like we were in on a local secret.
Children are also made to feel welcome – as with most of France and Spain, it is normal for them to dine with parents until quite late. If you’re worried the fare may be a bit too fancy for your child’s taste, there’s also a children’s menu, featured simpler dishes that still allow them to experience a taste of the region: eggs mimosa, duck rillettes, fish of the day and free-range chicken from Souraïde (a small village of the Aquitaine region), for example, with homemade desserts including cakes, fruit salad, sorbets and ice creams.
On our final evening we treated ourselves to the Carte Blanche menu (70 euros pp), where Fabrice surprised us with a succession of six dishes personalised to our table: creamy, cooling vichyssoise garnished with lightly breaded spring onions and Bayonne ham; sweet scallops with peas; megrim sole with morels and decadent fried potatoes; juicy pigeon breast with local spring vegetables and two desserts – one almost savoury, with salted caramel and cereals, and the other a sweet celebration of local rhubarb and strawberries.
A wonderful feast not easily forgotten in this exclusive corner of France – but now the secret’s out, it might not be long before it’s as famous as its more well-known neighbours!
A standard room from May to July costs from 140€ per night at La Reserve. With two children in an interconnecting room the starting rate is 280€. Alternatively, you could opt for a Junior Suite, or suite where the sofa converts into a bed. The starting rates are 345€ and 390€ per night respectively. For details visit hotel-lareserve.com/en For more on the area, visit saintjeandeluz.co.uk/en We flew to Biarritz from Stansted with Ryanair (flights from £24.99 each way), ryanair.com
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