Great Waves and Wine: Surfing in France

I didn’t expect the weather and ocean temperature to be warmer in France than in Southern California. But as I emerged from the Easy Jet flight in Biarritz after a long flight from San Diego via Paris, it felt like a hot Santa Ana day back home.

About an hour later I found myself at the Cote de Basque beach in Biarritz packed with vacationing families, stand-up paddlers and about 50 kids learning to surf in the 1- to 3-foot low-tide sideshore-offshore emerald waves.

Just another perfect fall day in southwest France, the best place on earth for a surf trip that combines great waves, outstanding food and cool cosmopolitan surf culture.

Surfing in the fall in France means enjoying the change of seasons with sunny skies and ocean temperatures that keep surfers in spring suits or short-arm fullsuits through the end of October.

I was in France’s Basque country for the second time in a few months. In July my sons and I had combined a family visit (my dad’s family is French and lives in Paris) and took a Basque country detour for five days to sample waves I had dreamed about surfing since I first read a Surfer Magazine article about France back in the late ’70s.

This time I had been invited to speak at the inaugural Global Wave Conference that took place in Biarritz and San Sebastian Oct. 24-25, organized by the Surfrider Foundation Europe.

So along with surf conservationists from around the world, I found myself overlooking offshore barrels at Biarritz’s Grand Plage from the Bellevue Conference Center.

“You should have seen how good it was in September,” said Gregory Le Moigno of the Surfrider Foundation Europe, who had invited me to Biarritz along with surfer conservationists from South Africa, Australia, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, New Zealand, England, Japan and the U.S. “It was perfect almost every day.”

My time in France only reinforced my opinion that Biarritz has emerged as the European surf capital. There are plenty of surf shops, arguably the best “surf” restaurant in the world (Le Surfing), hundreds of outstanding surfers, and enough breaks along the coast to keep the crowds down (compared to California).

For surfers, this is the place for you to bring your significant other to divide time between the water and enjoying the sights of the Basque countryside and taste of some of Europe’s best food and wine (Bordeaux is a couple of hours to the north).

With their red-tiled roofs, aqua shutters, outdoor cafes, and a laid-back surf culture that is Laguna Beach meets Paris (but in a completely unpretentious way), the small towns that lie north and south of Biarritz, Saint Jean de Luz, Guethary, Anglet, and Hossegor, provide a great respite for surfers seeking to balance a surfing holiday with something extra.

My base at the Hotel Amaia, a simple surf boutique hotel (with free breakfast and high-speed free Wi-Fi) a few walkable blocks to the beach, was a perfect location for nearby surf and day trips.

“I love visiting the little towns up in the mountains,” said Zach Plopper of WiLDCOAST, who studied here while an undergrad at UCSD, and spent a lot of time living in his car in the seaside parking lots while competing on the European WQS circuit. “After a great surf in the morning, it is nice to get away to and eat good food.”

The sandbars around Hossegor provide endless opportunities for empty offshore barrels. If there is a crowd at one sandbar, just walk down the beach to the next one.

Saint Jean de Luz and Guethary are home to reef and pointbreaks waves with wonderful cafes that overlook the surf and stunning coast.

While in the U.S. the stereotype of unfriendly and rude service in France still persists, I was pleasantly surprised overall by how friendly everyone was and how when I attempted to speak in French  (I speak passable “surf” French), most everyone I dealt with immediately switched to English.

During my last evening in Biarritz, I walked around the nearby Les Halles district, a short walk away from my hotel. I wandered into the inviting, warm and colorful Le Bistrot de Halles, with colorful early 20th century posters. I took a seat at the bar and ordered a grilled steak and fish soup.

The owners hovered around me and the other customers, taking time to chat, pour wine and provide a perfect French bistro experience.

After a long day that had started out with a great surf in overhead offshore barrels, I appreciated the hearty and delightful soup, a perfect steak and crisp frites, warm smiles and attentive service.

So make your plans now to enjoy surfing France next year, the best surfing experience that fall has to offer.

You won’t regret it.

Note on Travel: I flew to Paris on Air France and Biarritz via Easy Jet. Air France doesn’t charge for surfboards if they are under 6 foot 6 inches, but you have to “register” your board in advance (check their website). The service and food on Air France was excellent.

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Global Wave Conference 2011

Conference poster on a street sign in Biarrtiz. This is a real surf town.

I’m at the first ever Global Wave Conference in Biarritz, France. The conference organized by the Surfrider Foundation and Surfrider-Europe, Save the Waves, and Surfers Against Sewage and especially Dr. Tony But,  is an attempt to bring together wave-saving activists and organizations from around the world to discuss tools and techniques from around the world. Zach Plopper and Ben McCue have joined me from WiLDCOAST.

I will be talking in San Sebastian, the second day of the conference on “Saving Wild Waves: How WiLDCOAST Saved 30 Miles Coastline in Baja California, Mexico.”

Dean LaTourrette of Save the Waves (left) and Dr. Tony But (with the sweater)

The conference is taking place today, Monday, October 23 in Biarritz and tomorrow in San Sebastian, Spain on Tuesday October 24.

Mot of us arrived on Sunday evening and had a great dinner with about 20 activists from France, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England and the U.S.

The GWC Activist dinner on Sunday evening.

The conference is taking place at the Municipal Auditorium overlooking the Grand Plage of Biarritz. There is simultaneous translation of talks–which is great since they will be given in French, English and Spanish.

Outside of the beachside-auditorium in Biarritz. There are posters plastered all over the city.

The view from the conference location. The surf was 2-3' most of the day and offshore. It is a school holiday so the groms were on the pack most of the day.

 

Stéphane Latxague, CEO of Surfrider Europe who have helped to organize the event and who is the moderator.

Basque Barrels Part I: Surfing in France

The left at Alcyon

There is a photo from a 1970s era Surfer Magazine of a man leisurely sitting on a bench in the Basque Country of France. He is overlooking a perfect right—a blue-green bomb–peeling into an empty channel.

For me the photo encapsulated all the reasons to travel—finding empty beautiful waves in picturesque and exotic settings.

So two weeks ago, I was elated to find myself in exactly the same spot as the photo. I was above the legendary Parlementia reef in the picturesque seaside village Guerthary, France.

Just like in that historic photo, the waves were pumping.

Daniel at Alcyon

I had come to France to introduce my children to the country of my father, whose family still lives in and around Paris. The boys flew over with my dad first.

After they had spent a couple of wonderful couple of weeks in Paris and the French countryside, I flew over to take them south to the Basque Country—ground zero for the European Surfing scene.

After a couple of days of sampling the sights and bubbly delights of the Champagne country southeast of Paris, where my uncle has a house, the boys and I loaded up a 2002 Renault mini-wagon, with our surfboards and camping gear.

Israel, Vincent, Margaux and Daniel.

My cousins Vincent and Margaux accompanied us. Both had enjoyed spending summers in Imperial Beach (Vincent was even an IB Junior Lifeguard) and love the ocean.

Vincent has spent last year’s summer vacation in the village of Seignosse, home to what Surfer Magazine recently called the world’s best beachbreak and one of the world’s best waves.

Guethary and the beach of Bidart.

After an uneventful eight-hour drive, we arrived in Guethary that is located just south of the French surfing capital of Biarritz. The village is precariously perched above the Palmentaria reef.

While the waves were small, we could see waves capping and rolling on the reef.

At the Basque Surf Company Pro Surf Shop in Guethary, where I rented a 6’8” epoxy fun board and Vincent rented a soft-top, we met shop proprietors Romo and Esteban, both longtime locals.

Alcyon

“The surf is going to get big tomorrow, 8-10’. Palmentaria is the Sunset Beach of France,” said Esteban, who had grown up speaking Basque in Guethary and was of mixed Spanish and American ancestry.

The boys and Vincent paddled out at a nearby beachbreak. The waves were small, but the water was a balmy 68 degrees.

That evening we sat around our tents in a nearby campground eating pizza and imagining the waves we would surf the next day.

The following morning, the boys and I were up early. While a bit of south wind was making things a bit sloppy, the sets at Palmentaria were in the six-foot range and there were just a handful of surfers to sample them. We all caught a few rights and then paddled in as the wind came up.

Later that morning, we realized that there was another wave to the south of Palmentaria, a left called Alcyon, that is the “Big Rock” of France.

Alcyon is a grinding left that is best at low tide.

Israel at Alcyon

Israel paddled out and caught a few gnarly 4-6’ lefts. “It was super shallow and the takeoff was super tight,” he said. “Some guy started yelling at me in French, and I had no idea why he was angry.”

The next day the wind was offshore and the waves were pumping. The sets at Alcyon were in the 6-8’ range. Only a handful of guys were out.

Across the bay I could  see triple overhead peaks breaking over the Palmentaria reef. The scene reminded me of a winter-day at the Sloughs.

I snapped a few photos of the boys surfing Alcyon. Then I put on my rashguard, grabbed my board and paddled out at Palmentaria.

The waves were breaking close to a half a mile from shore. Big peaks came out of deep water and heaved across the reef.

An eclectic crew of hardcore longtime local surfers were out on 9-10’ big-wave guns. There were a couple of visiting Japanese surfers and one other American.

Everyone is friendly and stoked to be surfing an overhead swell in the summer.

I am completely undergunned on my 6’8”. But I manage to catch a few of the smaller set waves (I can’t even paddle into the larger ones), get caught inside and hammered. I appreciate why Palmentaria is compared to Sunset.

While I wish I had been able to surf on of my own big-wave boards, I was still glad to experience a wave I had dreamed about since I was a teenager.

On our last surf day, we headed to the fabled beachbreaks of Hossegor north of Biarritz. Miles and miles of sandbanks provide deep and often empty tubes for visiting and local surfers.

The world’s best surfers assemble here each fall to compete in the Quiksilver Pro France.

Daniel at Le Penon

The boys and I popped over the sand dunes of Le Penon in the village of Seignosse. The waves were 3-5’ and offshore.

“It is going off,” said Daniel.

For the rest of the day, we catch dozens of waves. Israel broke his board on a stand-up barrel.

At low tide I found a sand bar spitting out A-frames. One other surfer joined me, a local, who like me was mystified that on a Saturday afternoon during the height of summer, we were the only ones out.

I can’t wait to go back.

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