French Magazine

CATCHING THE FRENCH TUBE (French magazine, July/August ’02)

The coast of south-west France is the place to be if you want to ride the waves in Europe says Alf Alderson, editor of Surf magazine

Don’t quote me on this, but it’s probably a fair bet to say that the 150 kms or so of coastline that stretches south from Arcachon to Biarritz is the longest beach in Europe. And even if it isn’t, it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful sweeps of golden sand on the continent.

Broken only by a few inconsequential rivermouths and the occasional small town, and backed by pillow smooth sand dunes and verdant pine forests, this corner of Aquitaine is also renowned for the sparkling blue cylinders of water that crash onto its beaches to provide some of the finest surfing on the planet. Each summer surfers from all over the globe create a league of nations in the bars of towns such as Biscarosse and Cap Breton as they knock back a Stella or six after a session in the region’s warm, clear waters. 2001 British Champion and pro surfer Gabe Davies is a regular visitor to the area each summer, and says “It’s a great place to hang out, not just for the waves though – the whole atmosphere is fun, and anyone who enjoys surfing is bound to enjoy a surf trip here”.

The quality of the surf is acknowledged by the sport’s ruling body, the Association of Surfing Professionals, which every August chooses the beaches around Hossegor and along the more rugged coastline around Biarritz’ Cote de Basque as the venues for major international contests. Visit the area then and you can be sure of seeing the very best surfers in the world pulling off seemingly impossible manoeuvres in the waves, and if you’re inspired enough to give it a go yourself you’ll have no problem finding boards to rent and instructors to get you up and riding.

A combination of factors come together to make this region the ideal destination for surfers from first timers to seasoned pros. The focal point of the surf action is Hossegor, a fairly unremarkable town in itself but buzzing with life in summer when the ranks of the local surfers are swelled several times over by visiting Brits, Aussies, Kiwis, South African, Germans – the list goes on and on. The beach at Hossegor picks up the biggest waves along the Cote d’Argent thanks to a deep submarine channel just offshore which funnels swells onto the shore, where they rise up into waves which trip over themselves, curl inside out and form the legendary ‘tube’ or ‘barrel’, to ride the inside of which is the very raison d’etre of half the town’s population.

You may be surprised at the power of the waves here – even on a small swell they can pack quite a punch, and if your idea of catching a tube involves the words London and underground you may feel like you’ve been hit by a tube train if you make a mess of riding one of Hossegor’s powerful ‘barrels’.

However, if you head north of Hossegor (where there’ll also be fewer people hassling for the waves) to somewhere like Vieux Boucau or Mimizan Plage you’ll discover more forgiving surf to play in. Indeed, one of my favourite ways to surf the French coast is to take the ferry to Bilbao in northern Spain, head up into France, then spend a couple of weeks slowly making my way north from Biarritz and stopping off at as many breaks as possible. It’s all essentially the same beach, but despite this each section has it’s own indefinable character both in and out of the water.

Combine this with water temperatures in the low twenties throughout the summer and regular blues skies and hot sunshine and this is as close as Europe gets to surf paradise. That said, this is of course the Bay of Biscay, and from time to time rain clouds will roll in off the Atlantic for a day or two, but that’s no problem – take a break from the surf and head down to Biarritz to wander it’s elegant, busy streets and get a feel for the local Basque culture.

Even better for immersing yourself in the Basque lifestyle is the atmospheric port of St. Jean de Luz, a few kilometres south of Biarritz, where in one of many intimate old restaurants you can enjoy fresh local seafood dishes alongside mouth-watering wines and delicious cheeses produced on the slopes of the nearby Pyrenees (another nearby attraction for hikers and mountain bikers when the surf goes flat).

Back by the sea, from Biarritz north all along the coast you’ll find ecole du surf and their bleached blond instructors ready to initiate you into the mysteries of wave riding. Some of these guys have been surfing since the seventies, when the sport first took off in France, and chances are their children and maybe even grandchildren have followed them into the waves. With three generations of surfers in many families it’s little surprise that, with one or two exceptions like England’s Russell Winter and Wales’ Carwyn Williams (who lives in Hossegor) France is generally regarded as having the best surfers in Europe – guys like Mickey Picon and Didier Pitier compete at the highest level around the world but always love to come home and surf their local breaks whenever they can.

Once you’ve surfed France’s south-west corner yourself you’ll understand why these guys would never live anywhere else. I first paddled out into the waves near Biarritz in 1979, and still look forward to my annual surf trip 23 years later – it’s all a far cry from shivering in a wetsuit on a cold and windy beach back home.

What to take: You can hire all the gear you’ll need for surfing, and if you decide to buy your own equipment there are plenty of surf shops throughout the region. Look for a 3/2 mm ‘steamer’ wetsuit (although bear in mind it won’t be warm enough for winter back in Britain) for around £120; if you decide to buy a board, look for a 7’6” – 8’ ‘mini-mal’ for between £200 – 350 depending on whether you get a cheaper plastic moulded board or a more expensive custom-made model.

Other accessories you’ll need include a board leash (around £15) which attaches to your ankles and prevents you losing the board after a wipeout, and surf wax (£1 a block) which prevents you slipping off the board.

On hot, sunny days it may be possible to surf comfortably in board shorts, but you’ll also need a rash vest to prevent the board rubbing your chest and sunburn. Also, don’t forget your waterproof sunscreen.

To find the best breaks, check out the Stormrider Guide – Europe (£24.99, Low Pressure Publications).

Hire shops and specialist operators: You’ll find plenty of hire shops in and around Biarritz and Hossegor, many of which will also offer lessons with qualified instructors.

Getting there: You’ll need a car to make the most of the surf, and the most relaxing way to get your vehicle to SW France is on the two-day P&O Ferries cruise from Portsmouth to Bilbao (0870 2424 999) from where it’s an easy two hour drive to Biarritz, but at £930 return in August it’s not cheap. Brittany Ferries (0870 5360360) offer a 24-hour service from Plymouth to Santander, which is also within easy reach of Biarritz, for £982.

The shorter Portsmouth to Le Havre service with P&O costs £496 return in August, and Portsmouth to St. Malo with Brittany Ferries is £523. Both these routes allow you to drive down the Atlantic coast and check out the waves north of the Hossegor/Biarritz area en route.

All fares quoted include cabin accommodation on board.

You can also fly direct to Biarritz from Heathrow from £169 return in August, with car hire available from £149 per week. Ryanair also offer a service from Stansted from £49 return, but there’s limited availability and it’s almost impossible to get through to them by phone.

Outings: If the surf goes flat take a trip into the nearby Pyrenees. There’s some great hiking here, and excellent lift-accessed mountain biking at Cauterets and Bagnere du Luchon.

Another option is to drive along the coast of nearby Spain – the Basque culture is very evident here and you can visit historic sites such as Guernika, or the impressive new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.

Or, if you really can’t bear to leave the beach and the wind picks up, try kite surfing, a cross between surfing, windsurfing and kite flying. There are kite surfing schools in the Hossegor and Biarritz areas.

Where to eat: Hossegor’s Rock Food Café above the beach is the haunt of everyone from world class pro surfers to pasty-faced wannabes, and goes off most nights. In the town centre the Café de Paris is a great place for coffee and people watching, whilst Biarritz has a good selection of beach bars and pavement cafes.

When to go: August and September are the prime months for surf, sun and warm waves, but the whole area will be very crowded. To avoid the crowds try early summer – although the water isn’t as warm there’s more chance of getting the waves to yourself