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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

(continued from page 1)

A generous number of jewelry stores and luxury clothing boutiques, such as Hermes, crowd the downtown shopping center. Not surprisingly, saleswoman Edie Pic says Palais guests are her best clients. However, I am in for a surprise: young women sporting tank tops and tattoos outnumber elegantly decked-out middle-aged women sporting giant sapphires and diamonds. Lucille Kunz, a saleswoman at the Rip Curl Pro Shop, says that in the 1960s surfers discovered that the Basque coast had the best waves in Europe. "It livened up the town," says the 28-year-old Kunz. The worlds of Old Money and youthful fun would not seem to mix and I can't imagine that the clientele from the Hôtel du Palais goes surfing. "We get lots of them from the Palais," corrects Miriam Gleonec, who runs another surf shop called Rusty's.  

For the athletically inclined, Biarritz offers plenty of other attractions. A dozen superb golf courses lie within an hour's drive of downtown. Le Phare, the original layout within the city, is short (less than 6,000 yards) but offers nice views over the ocean. Other farther-flung courses are more modern and challenging, particularly designer Robert Von Hagge's killer layout at Seignosses. Basques invented jai alai, and it is played here for the sheer passion of the sport, not for gambling purposes.

Basques also love rugby. These days, Biarritz's club team is one of the best in France, having hired several stars from New Zealand's Rugby Union champion All Blacks team. One afternoon, I attend a showdown match with neighboring Pau; Biarritz wins 34-31 by racing down the field and scoring the rugby equivalent of a touchdown as time runs out.   Sadly, the Hôtel du Palais's own athletic facilities are subpar. Although the outdoor pool is stunning and a generous beach lies just below the hotel, it rains during my trip and there are no indoor alternatives. "We have to build an indoor pool and fitness center," admits Leimbacher. He hopes to break ground on the project by the end of the year.  

It's soon time for dinner. In recent years, Biarritz has become quite a culinary destination. The Basques are blessed with world-class products such as small snapper, sardines, sea bream, proscuitto-like ham and a sheep's milk hard cheese. For dessert, the specialty is gateau Basque, a creamy cake filled either with almond cream or cherry preserves. Within a short drive of the Hôtel du Palais are two Michelin shrines: Michel Guérard, in Eugénie-Les-Bains, and Restaurante Juan Arzak, across the border in San Sebastian, Spain.  

Even within Biarritz, the food is fantastic. One evening, I dine at the stunning Café du Paris, located at the far end of the boardwalk from the Hôtel du Palais. There, Didier Oudil and Edgard Duhr, two Guérard veterans, produce light, fresh, sparkling food. This evening, however, I descend to the hotel's rococo Rotunde dining room, with bay windows overlooking the sea. Chef Jean-Marie Gautier has been at the Palais since 1991 and his reputation for haute cuisine is rising. Michelin has given him a star and the Gault Millau, one of the leading restaurant and hotel guides in France, this year upped its grade to an impressive 17 out of 20.  

When I arrive at the shimmering dining room, a half dozen children are scampering about. Leimbacher, so severe on first appearance, is smiling. "We don't just want grandparents here," he says. During summertime, he is proud that three generations often come together to vacation. "It's much more pleasant to look at all the young women in front of the pool," he says.  

The tuxedoed waiters are treating the little ones like princes and princesses. One orders pasta and roast chicken, which is carved tableside in grand fashion. I am just as satisfied. A waiter lifts a silver cup to reveal a dish of steamed snapper, salmon, monkfish and turbot accompanied by a typical Basque piperade tomato and pepper sauce. It's a perfect marriage of haute cuisine techniques spiced with regional accents. For dessert, I choose a fancy twirl of pastry and strawberries and devour every last piece of fruit.  

Although the 12,000-bottle wine cellar concentrates on Bordeaux--with impressive verticals of Chateaux Margaux and Mouton Rothschild and other first-growths--sommelier Pierre Reffay is also pleased to present diners with interesting, less expensive regional choices.  

"The Bordeaux are our war horses, but the Basque wines are getting better and better," Reffay says. He offers me a white Xini d'Ansa Irouleguy '98. When I find it too harsh and grassy, he moves north to the Loire Valley and picks a voluptuous white Anjou Blanc from Pierre Bise '97. For dessert, the sweet local Domaine Lasserre Jurancon '97 matches the sweetness of the strawberries. It might go even better with a foie gras from the nearby Landes.  

Early the following morning, I visit the underground kitchen. A 25-strong brigade is already hard at work, slicing vegetables, cleaning fish and marinating meat while the smell of baking croissants wafts through the air. "We bake them fresh ourselves every morning, starting at 6 am," says Chef Gautier. He is a thin 44-year-old, with a wispy mustache and fierce pride. Since his arrival in 1991, he has invested a significant amount of money into the best equipment so that he can produce everything in-house. His breakfast buffet includes not only fresh croissants, but cured Bayonne ham, sausages, local brebis cheeses, and fresh and preserved fruits, all topped by a famous gateau Basque.  

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