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The Belle Of Biarritz

The Hôtel du Palais may be the jewel of Biarritz, France, But the town offers plenty of other attractions
William Echikson
From the Print Edition:
Bo Derek, Jul/Aug 00

It stands perched on a rocky promontory overlooking the ocean, a grand Belle Époque red-brick building topped by gray turrets and towers, strong waves beating at its massive base. A Baroque sculpture of two nubile boys guards the entrance. My taxi purrs up a long driveway, past a manicured putting green and spectacular pool, circling to a stop at the regal entrance of the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz, France.  

Ever since Napoleon III built the hotel in 1855 as a summer retreat for his wife, Eugénie, this French institution, located in a coastal town 15 miles north of the Spanish border, has ranked as one of the world's greatest destinations. However, as I approach the ornate entrance, everything seems Old World and a tad tired. Will this be a stuffy getaway for rich retirees?   Inside the gilded, chandelier-lit main hall, the bellhops are decked in traditional peacock blue. Concierges and receptionists are garbed in black or white smoking jackets. The pert receptionists sport bright blue suits and prim red bow ties, their hair tied back in severe buns. Period portraits of a youthful, mustachioed emperor and his slender, attractive wife hang on the walls and original Napoleon III pieces--slim, curved mahogany desks and wardrobes shimmering with gold--decorate the lobby.  

My worst fears seem to have been realized when I walk to the reception desk. Veteran Spanish Tour de France cyclist Pello Ruiz Cobestany stands there decked out in full race uniform as Spanish television films a scene for a travel magazine. Hôtel director Jean-Louis Leimbacher is shocked at the display. "This is a palace and there must be a certain amount of dignity," he says, affronted. The TV team is urged to finish quickly.  

A bellhop shows me to my room. It is spacious and attractive. The windows open to reveal a magnificent, rocky bay. Even more impressive is the immense closet, almost as big as the room. In Europe, that's rare. "Because this was built as a real palace, not a hotel, every room has a different shape," the bellhop explains.  

Until Napoleon III arrived on the scene, Biarritz was a simple fishing village. The native Basques mastered whale hunting in the twelfth century and began exploring the New World for cod in the sixteenth century. It became a luxurious resort in 1853 when Napoleon married Countess Eugénie de Montijo of Spain. She had grown up summering on the nearby Spanish coast and had fallen in love with Biarritz's spectacular beachfront vista.  

Napoleon III built a palace for her. The happy couple summered at the Villa Eugénie for more than a decade. It was transformed into a hotel after Napoleon and the Second Republic were defeated at the Battle of Sedan in 1870 and, until the Second World War, continued to draw nobility such as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Even a fire in 1903 couldn't stop the crowds from coming. The Hôtel du Palais was rebuilt and a wing added. The British brought golf to Biarritz in 1888 and built what is now the second-oldest course on the European continent (it's only a 10-minute walk from the hotel). Russian aristocrats also loved the resort and constructed an Orthodox Church across the street.  

After the war, the jet-setters moved to the more pleasant Mediterranean climate of the Côte d'Azur. Many of Biarritz's Belle Époque mansions were dynamited to put up large concrete apartment blocks. The Hôtel du Palais was open only five months a year and starved of investment. "Everything became a bit faded," says Leimbacher. He first worked in the hotel as a receptionist in the 1960s and followed his clients to the Hôtel Martinez in Cannes. "The new money all went to the Riviera," he recalls.  

When Leimbacher returned to Biarritz in 1989, the hotel's owner, the Biarritz city administration, launched a $15 million renovation. Air conditioning and modern bathrooms were installed. A spectacular egg-shaped open-air pool, filled with heated seawater, was carved out of the cliff. More importantly, from a financial perspective, a large, comfortable conference room was built and marketing offices opened around Europe and the United States.

Today, the Hôtel du Palais is open year-round, filled in winter by upscale corporate meetings. About a third of the clientele is American. "Until 10 years ago, Americans never thought about coming here," Leimbacher says. Wealthy Russians represent another growing group of visitors.  

I decide to take a walk and see if the rest of Biarritz also has recovered. Cranes and scaffolding stretch to the horizon. Finishing touches are being put on the transformation of the original Belle Époque casino into a modern congress hall with seating for 2,000. A new casino has opened on the beach, and inside the sound of slot machines resonates. Between the casino and the Hôtel du Palais, a manicured formal garden has replaced the former eyesore of a parking lot.  

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