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Hotel du Palais, Biarritz, France

Biarritz is tucked away on the Bay of Biscay in southwest France. Known for more than a century as the "queen of resorts and the resort of kings," the small but elegant seaside town is nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenées Mountains. Well before its "discovery" by French and European aristocrats in the mid-1800s, Biarritz had long been admired for its picture-perfect beaches, bracing sea breezes and temperate climate.

The key to this resort's worldwide renown is the Hôtel Du Palais, formerly the Villa Eugénie, summer residence of Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III. (As the nephew of Napoleon I, Napoleon III was France's self-styled imperial head of state from 1852 to 1870, a period known as the Second Empire.) After the fall of Napoleon III in 1870, the villa was shuttered.

The Hôtel Du Palais opened in 1883, and although fire destroyed the original Villa Eugénie in 1903, working from original plans, the hotel was immediately rebuilt and expanded. Faithful to its belle epoque origins, the Hôtel Du Palais has remained a majestic, if small, luxury hotel, whose high level of service is only rarely encountered today.

Inside the Hôtel Du Palais, second Empire decorative riches reign supreme: On one side, a sweeping, red-carpeted staircase leads guests to suites above, while overhead, immense crystal chandeliers from the original Villa Eugénie illuminate the gleaming inlaid marble floor of the hotel's main reception area. Befitting its illustrious past, the hotel also boasts a large ballroom. And just off the ballroom is the cozy hotel bar, which is run by Guy Déleris, who won the coveted "Meilleur Barman de France" Award in 1991.

Awarded one star from Guide Michelin, the hotel's restaurant, La Grande Siecle, offers menus gastronomique, or tasting menus, for serious epicures in an intimate salon near the ballroom. At La Rotonde, the hotel's main restaurant which overlooks the ocean, imaginative seafood dishes dominate the menu's offerings.

The hotel's sommelier, Jean-Jacques Place, can be trusted to make excellent recommendations. The hotel's cellars stock a good selection of Bordeaux and Burgundy, as well as fine wines from such neighboring regions as Jurançon and Irouléguy. Try sampling Irouléguy, Domaine Brana, 1991, a crisp white wine from the Pyrenées Mountains, which was a perfect match for the hotel's array of fresh seafood; or Château Montus, 1989, a hearty red wine from Madiran in Gascony, which paired wonderfully with Chef Jean-Marie Gautier's roasted squab.

After dinner, be sure to have a look at the hotel's cigar menu. It's the inspired creation of barman Déleris. Featuring a choice of more than a dozen fine Cuban cigars in various sizes and shapes, the handwritten menu is for love, not money, according to Déleris. "It's to please my clients, because it's not a business of the hotel." Stored in a well-stocked humidor, best-sellers include Montecristo No. 3, Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2 and Partagas 8-9-8.

When you're ready to turn in, the hotel's accommodations, from luxurious multiroomed suites to garden-side rooms on a smaller scale, bespeak comfort, more comfort and still more comfort. The towels are incredibly thick and fluffy, the pillows oversized and plump, the bed linens smooth and cool to the touch. In the morning, room service is quick, and thankfully, quiet.

Beyond its stunning beaches and surf, Biarritz is known across Europe for its annual card tournaments--gin rummy and bridge. These high-stakes contests take place at Biarritz's Casino Bellevue. The casino also offers gaming for devotees of roulette, black jack and other games of chance. The casino is located at the Place Bellevue, a leisurely walk or short taxi drive from the Hôtel Du Palais.

After a full day of activities, you'll be ready to retire to the "resort of kings" at the Hôtel Du Palais.

-- David L. Ross

Hôtel Du Palais
1, avenue de l'Imperatrice 64200
Phone: (33) 59-24-09-40
Room Rates: Double Occupancy, Peak Season: $715--$1,200
Seaside Rooms: $380--$500