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Footloose in Biarritz

Fashionable French City Has Universal Appeal

October 16, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers .

BIARRITZ, France — In 1842 this was just another sleepy little fishing village on France's southwest Atlantic coast, where a young Spanish girl was spending her holidays and falling in love with the place.

The senorita was Eugenia Maria de Montijo, who grew up to marry Napoleon III and become Empress Eugenie of France, one of the most beautiful, chic and headstrong ladies among all of Europe's 19th-Century royalty.

Eugenie cajoled her husband into any number of state decisions, mostly bad, but her first order of business was to talk hubby into building them a little pied-a-terre in Biarritz, the not-so-little Villa Eugenie that went up in the shape of an E in 1854 and is now the town's most gorgeous hotel.

Royalty of the era tended to move in packs, so it wasn't long before Russia's czars, Spanish grandees and a regal ragout of other titled types homed in on this spectacular stretch of seashore.

Today the Biarritz crowd is a comfortable mix of a few royals, the rich and not-so-rich, even a clutch of California surfers who make their headquarters on the sunny veranda of a small beachside hotel.

Empress Eugenie, Queen Victoria, Franz Josef and assorted other crowned heads may be gone, but the belle epoque of Biarritz just keeps rolling along, making starry-eyed converts with every chic season.

Getting here: Fly Air France nonstop to Paris. Air Canada, American, TWA, Delta, Pan Am and Continental can get you here with changes. Take a one-hour ride on Air Inter to Biarritz, or use a France Vacances rail pass to visit Biarritz and other towns.

How long/how much? Biarritz is a beach resort with many cultural events. Give it at least three days, more for visiting nearby Basque villages in the Pyrenees or on the coast. Lodging costs are very reasonable, dining prices moderate to very expensive.

A few fast facts: The season starts in June. July/August are the busiest and September is the best month. From late fall to spring it can get nippy. Don't forget that you need a visa for France.

Getting settled in: Hotel de l'Ocean (9 Place Sainte-Eugenie; $63 to $71 double) has a magnificent site on a small sunny square near the town center, yet is just steps from the water. There's an old-fashioned bar in the lobby and a cheerful restaurant on a terrace overlooking the square, which is ringed with other small hotels and cafes in lovely pastels of peach, cream and lemon. Smallish contemporary bedrooms are done in brown and beige, with TVs and mini-bars. Many have balconies overlooking the water.

Florida (3 Place Sainte-Eugenie; $55-$69 double), like the above, bills itself as a hotel-restaurant and shares the same fine location. Pretty bedrooms are on the small side, with blue plaid bed covers. Balconies look down on the square. The restaurant, inside or on the terrace, is a study in pinks and roses, with food good enough to draw locals to its tables.

Chateau du Clair de Lune (Route d'Arbonne; $50-$75 double) is an imposing turn-of-the-century chateau set in a wooded estate a few minutes from town center. It's a storybook setting worthy of a honeymoon: magnificent bedrooms with period furnishings covered in English prints and huge, elegant baths. Downstairs there's a library with fireplace and a baronial dining room for breakfasts set amid antique tapestries and crystal chandeliers. Tres joli are the words for describing the chateau and its extensive gardens.

Regional food and drink: Seafood is the big thing here. Some of it is rather exotic. Louvine is the local word for a sea bass that's marvelous when grilled with tarragon butter. Lotte, an angler's fish, is cooked with fresh red peppers and is also a specialty. Salmon and squid are local favorites.

Every autumn people come from all over France for Basque dishes made with cepes (wild mushrooms) and wood pigeons, while ham from nearby Bayonne is treasured any time of the year. Irouleguy is a red or rose wine made in a nearby village, both very good, and Juracon a fine regional white, perfect with fish. You shouldn't miss the gateau Basque, a scrumptious almond cake with a variety of fruits or jams.

Good dining: L'Operne (17 Ave. Edouard VII) is just off the main street overlooking the Grande Plage, the town's major beach. Whether dining in the beamed-ceiling room with fireplace or on the beachside terrace, L'Operne offers you the most imaginative seafood menu in town. Try the sole aux cepes , or perhaps a Basque version of hake. Have the locals' favorite first course: oysters with black bread and chipolata , which are little Basque sausages.

Le Chalut (46 Ave. Edouard VII), a less elegant seafood establishment across the street from L'Operne, has nautical decor in blue and white that creates a Mediterranean feeling. The menu is loaded with just about anything that swims or clings to a rock, and reasonably priced. The chalet's owner is a friendly type. Ambiance is joyful.

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