Sophisticated sunseekers say south-west is best
On the French-Spanish border, Guéthary offers the drama of the Atlantic – plus Michelin-starred food, says Frank Preston
Arrive in Guéthary, in the province of Labourd in south-west France, and you know the holiday is going to have character. There is nothing vague or undefined about the French Atlantic coast as it bangs into Spain: this is Basque country. Cliffs, heathland and woods drop to beaches harder-won than the vast stretches of sand of the flat littoral zone to the north.
The ocean rolls in over rocks, chucking surfers about. Sea and sky are huge. The Mediterranean seems effete by comparison.
For centuries the Basques farmed, whaled and fished from here, building their white houses trimmed with red woodwork. Well-to-do outsiders began arriving in the 19th century to build holiday villas. These days, smart Parisians who are too cool for the Riviera congregateon this stretch of coast in summer. Warm July and August nights in the village (population 1,300) are as lively as you like at buzzing Le Madrid or the Bar Basque.
The first of the village’s four beaches, by the port, is so small that it barely counts: one game of volleyball and it is pretty much full. Along the jetty, though, is Harotzen Costa, a long and wild beach with a combination of sand, pebbles and rocks sufficient, at low tide, to leave rock pools in which your children can taunt crustaceans. Farther south, Cenitz beach is rocky to the north, and then curves sandily the south.
The final and best beach is Parlementia, at the other end of the village. Here you will find a long sandy stretch, with great opportunities for bathing and making sand castles – and it draws fewer people because it’s further from the centre.
The surfing is also good but, as throughout Guéthary, not for the neophyte: the combination of decent Atlantic rollers and underwater rocks could shred bodies. The best Parlementia waves are, anyway, hundreds of yards out. Guéthary surf schools take absolute beginners a few minutes along the coast for easier conditions at Hendaye or St Jean de Luz.
None of the Guéthary beaches has a bar, though there are several decent ones nearby. Hippest is Heteroclito – a mix of surfer hang-out and junk shop – up the slope to the village from Parlementia.
Back in the village, visit the pelota court, play tennis. Better yet, set off on the coastal path, a cracking 15-mile ramble to Hendaye on the Spanish border. Behind, a yeoman’s countryside rises, settled and prosperous, to the Pyrenees.
And so back to Guéthary for sunset. Serenity is probable, on one condition: don’t talk politics. Talk rugby or surfing or sex or cuttlefish (a local speciality). Anything, but leave separatism alone. It’s not your affair. You will lose. And a little lustre will be knocked off the holiday brilliance.
● At the very top of the village, the Briketenia is, like all Basque businesses, a family affair. The Ibarboure ladies look after the renovated hotel, with father and son in charge in the Michelin-starred restaurant (doubles from £61; 0033 559 265134; briketenia.com). ● A true Basque villa near the centre, with flowers in the garden and retro-swish within (doubles from £93; 559 475900; villa-catarie.com). ● Best first-stop for self-catering accommodation around Guéthary is this British-run outfit. They have a duplex
The tiny beach at Guéthary port, left; and sandy Parlementia, top