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.
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.
On my last visit to the hotel, I ask, "What makes a true palace?"
"It's our staff's attention to detail," Leimbacher says. He arranges for me to go behind the scenes with furniture maker Sebastian Doué. Doué, a thin, precise man of 47, has been at the hotel for 20 years. His job is to fix the antique furniture. "We buy rundown pieces and restore them to their original glory," Doué says, pointing to a shining gold-laced desk.
In the hotel's basement, Doué shows me the room where two tapestry workers sew all the bed coverings by hand. All the laundry is done in-house. "You get better results that way," he insists. There are even three full-time electricians, two plumbers, two gardeners and another furniture repairman. As I emerge into the glittering front hall to say thank you and goodbye, there's no doubt in my mind that the Hôtel du Palais is up to pleasing a prince--and not just an aging European aristocrat, but anyone who loves good food and fun.
Brussels-based William Echikson is a writer for Business Week and a frequent contributor to Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado's sister publication.
HOTEL DU PALAIS
1, Avenue de l'Impératrice 64200 Biarritz, France Tel. (33) 05 59 41 64 00 Web site: www. hotel-du-palais.com
Room rates: from approximately $218 to $402, suites from approximately $375 to $865
at Hôtel du Palais
Dinner: approximately $43 without wine