An Anti-Tourist Guide to the Most Under-Appreciated Seaside Town in France


Grand Plage at Biarritz from the LighthouseIn conversations about French seaside destinations, most of the hype attaches to the glamorous towns of the French Rivera: Cannes, Nice, Saint-Tropez and such. But what about the Atlantic coast? What about Basque Country, Normandy and Bretagne?

Biarritz, a small, beautiful town in the southwest of France near the border with Spain, rarely makes it to the top of anyone’s bucket list. Yet, after living there for a month last summer, I’ve come to believe that this town is greatly under-appreciated.

Biarritz has been around for almost a thousand years. It has a long and rich history as a summer spot for the French monarchy, the House of Bonaparte, and many other significant figures in European history. Now, though, it gets more publicity for its surf culture. This is how I ended up there in the first place.

For most of the year, Biarritz is a provincial seaside town with population of approximately 25,000. Around July and August, though, its population blows up, increasing by as much as tenfold, all thanks to the Parisians and English who invade the town during their summer vacations.



Tourist Stuff to Warm Up With

There are a few major attractions that anyone visiting Biarritz should be interested in checking out. Here’s a quick rundown, before I move on to some of the more unique experiences the town has to offer.

La Grande Plage – The main beach in the town center. La Grade Plage is good place for sunbathing, or for sitting in a cafe drinking coffee or a cocktails. During the winter, it’s a great surf spot; in summer the waters warm up but the surf conditions become less ideal.

Biarritz the Main Plage


Le Phare – “The lighthouse” is visible from virtually anywhere around La Grande Plage. It’s a nice observation point. On the opposite side from the cliff, a staircase leads to the other side of the horn, with a view towards Anglet, the next town to the north.

The lighthouse in Biarritz


Hotel du Palais – This resort was originally built as a villa for the wife of Napoleon III. It sits just above La Grand Plage and boasts a nice walking path on its seaward side. Good luck walking the path during the high tide without getting wet!

Hotel du Palais in Biarritz


You May See the Roxy Pro Biarritz Surfing Competition

If you’re lucky. But if you’re not…

It was 2013, on one of those late June mornings when the waters of the Bay of Biscay are still cold and the sun is still hiding behind the clouds. I was surfing La Grande Plage, wearing a wetsuit. All of a sudden I saw a girl in bikini and a pink rash guard picking up her board and paddling out. A cameraman followed her out towards where I sat. I actually had to move aside a couple times, as I kept getting in between the surfer and her cameraman. I was curious what it was all about; I found out a few days later, as this video started blowing up in surfing communities around the world:



The closing shot of this teaser was filmed just in front of me. I was no more than ten feet behind the cameraman.

Back then I was thinking, boy, it takes a lot of commitment to shoot a hot video in such cold conditions.  My respect to Stephanie Gilmore, a five-time ASP Women’s World Tour Champ.

The contest itself was to be held at the Cote de Basques beach, but was called off after five days due to the waves not being cooperative. This didn’t stop the public from talking about the sport and its representatives, though, as that promo video was barreled in the wave of controversy.

Without wading into the debate over nudity and sex appeal, I’d like to point out Steph’s list of “Favorite Cities to Visit”.

All of them, especially NYC, Paris and Biarritz

I second that! May I just add Buenos Aires even though it has zero surfing? If not, Montauk will do but that’s another topic:)!

Biarritz Architecture

In many, cases my adoration of a city begins with a study of its architecture. While many of the more modern buildings in Biarritz are nothing to rave about, the older castle and palace-like structures are inspiring. Who would mind living in a Hotel Particulier kinda mansion?

Biaritz living to its best


This one below is my ideal retirement home. Overlooking two best surf spots in Biarritz, washing its feet in the open ocean, gazing out from its dramatic overlook, this mansion on a cliff has it all.

Well, one day!


Biarritz Castle on the cliff

Villa Goeland could make such a dream a reality for only $200 to $300 per night:). And why not? We live only once, and some Bed & Breakfasts are totally worth the extravagance!


Villa Goeland, the best of Bed and Breakfast

The “Best Crêpes Outside of Brittany” Award

A few years back, I spent some time in the town of Saint Malo, in Brittany, where the art of making crêpes is alive and well. I’ve also eaten many times in the Monparnasse area of Paris, where bretons (the folks from Brittany) settled in the early 1900s and opened up many traditional restaurants.

One little family restaurant just off the Grand Plage in Biarritz completely blew my mind. It’s called La Crêpe Dentelle. It’s run by a couple from Brittany, who ran two restaurants there until deciding one day to move to Biarritz. The owners explained to me that the climate in Biarritz is more pleasant—and, apparently, no one else here knows how to make authentic crêpes. A win-win situation for crêperie owners, then.

Their specialty, a pot of mussels with cider sauce and different types of crêpe blé noir, is to die for. Truly remarkable! These mussels, after a good surf session, are worth flying across the Atlantic for.

Restaurant Breton in Biarritz Crepe Dentelle


Who Would Guess That Golf Is So Much Fun?

Golf course in Biarritz

I would never have learned how to play golf if it wasn’t for Biarritz. Right up until the moment that I hit the ball first time, I hadn’t realized how exciting this sport really is. Golf had always seemed like boring entertainment for rich retired folks. Oh boy, I was wrong big time!

A friend of mine I’d met in Montauk a year before lives in an apartment just over the golf course in Biarritz. We managed to sneak in a few rounds before a big tournament took over the course. What a fun time we had!

Thank you, Jon and Kasia, for introducing me to golf and teaching the basics! There is plenty more to learn—but in the meantime just look at my shoes and pants, what a joker!

Playing golf with friends at Biarritz Golf Course


Centuries-Old Traditions Well Preserved by the Basques

Basque traditional shoes Espadrilles

While Biarritz is situated in France, it has a different flavor to it. It’s a part of the beautiful Basque Country that runs along the Atlantic coast of Spain and across into a little section of French territory.

Espadrilles made in Basque Country by handsOne thing I absolutely adore is their espadrilles, the traditional shoes made in the region for centuries.

Espadrilles usually feature canvas or cotton fabric over a flexible sole made of rope, or rubber material moulded to look like rope. The jute rope sole is the defining characteristic of an espadrille, while the upper part can vary widely in style.

One incredible thing about these shoes is that there is no left or right: the pair is identical. I bought two pairs for my sister and myself. Check it out to the right!

From 14th century up to today, the Basques still make these shoes by hand in many towns in both France and Spain. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the average price of a pair is still somewhere in the range of $10 to $30.

A year later, my espadrilles have gone through mud and tropical rainstorms but still feel solid and comfortable. Depending on my mood I wear them with their back up, or flipped down like sleepers.

I can tell they are made with love, as everything in this world should be:


Have you ever been to this part of the world? What was your experience?


An unexpected discovery one hour from Santiago: one of the most beautiful beaches



Tunquen Beach near Santiago Chile with Seagull Flying Over

I’ve lived here long enough to know it all… right?

We lead our lives secure in the knowledge that we’ve seen it all around our own ‘hood. We believe there is nothing left to explore, unless we head out to the opposite side of the globe. Then someone fresh arrives to ask:

What? You haven’t been to this café around the block? These guys roast the best coffee in your neighborhood. It’s a must!

Life experience has reinforced my belief that there are new, amazing discoveries waiting just around every corner of your life’s routine. Embrace the world around you like it’s uncharted territory: all that’s required is to have eyes and ears wide open.

We lived in Santiago, Chile for a few months before realizing how close we were to one of the most beautiful, abundant beaches in this part of the world—and yet also one of the least known.

This adventure started with a humble attempt to recruit at least four or five friends for a quick beach getaway in early spring. At first I had trouble getting people on board, but we eventually had to turn down requests as the house we rented filled to capacity. And then we discovered something truly amazing, something hiding just in front of our noses.

The video below is a courtesy of ASP production. So enjoy.

Tunquen weekend video


Tourist attractions, or world explorer’s distractions?

If you ask anyone in Santiago to recommend a nearby beach, you will consistently hear the same two answers. Half the people you ask will speak enthusiastically about Vina del Mar, and another half about Valparaiso, which is essentially the same thing.

Night view over Vina Del Mar from RenacaThe photo above was taken from a 20th floor balcony in Concon, looking towards Vina Del Mar. It looks and feels great!


You need to realize….

Vina Del Mar is a major attraction for anyone coming from the east, the north, the south… did I miss the west? Well, there is only New Zealand to the west of Vina del Mar, but it’s 6,000 miles across the Pacific. Not every kiwi will make it that far.

Vina del Mar and the surrounding area is a summer playground for all kind of people, carrying all kinds of passports, coming from all kids of social circles, from the metropolitan areas of Chile to Argentina and Brazil, and beyond.

What the hell is Tunquén?

A very small handful of the people you asked, though, would tell you about a small beach town south of Valparaiso called Tunquén. Historically, Tunquén was a refuge for artists looking to escape the hustle and bustle of Santiago. Now it mostly consists of vacation homes sitting on a bluff above an incredibly beautiful beach, or scattered over the hillside adjacent to a pine forest.

Abundant beach of Tunquen

Tunquén residents have developed a self-sustaining community that produces its own energy and water, and deals with its own waste.

Some of the recently built structures serve as examples of contemporary architecture, and very fine examples at that:

Topcliff House in Tunquen

… or take this one, designed by Grupo-7:

Tunquen Residence by Grupo 7

The show begins

My Canadian friend Alain was visiting us in Santiago and we were looking for a quick weekend getaway. My intention was to find a short-term house rental for ten to twelve people, somewhere near a surf break. I was looking at options in Concon and Renaca but this Light House With Garden in Tunquén Comuna de Algarrobo caught my attention. As I started reading about the area I learned that the Playa de Tunquen could be surfable. That proved to be the only hope left unfulfilled by this fantastic weekend trip.

For a group our size, we needed to rent a van. In the United States, a regular rental minivan seats up to eight people—if you have more friends than that, good luck. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that in Chile, every car rental company offers vans seating up to fourteen people. The most economical option I found, also offering a very convenient pick-up option, was Chilean Rent a Car, with offices in the Bellavista and Las Condes barrios of Santiago.

So off we went to discover something unknown.

Google Maps does not give you good directions once you start navigating small coast roads in Chile. Based on the owner’s instructions, though, we finally found the artist’s house we had rented, within a gated community on an unpaved road winding through the forest. It was quiet and fairly isolated.

We enjoyed some great moments sharing the space and food during the day.

Teh artist's house in Tunquen commmunity

By evening we were the only ones out on the hill, disturbing the peace with a BBQ and marshmallow feast running late into the night.

Having marshmallow BBQ in Tunquen


It’s worth mentioning that there is a better-known beach town about 17km south of Tunquen. The neighboring town of Algarrobo is much more developed, and boasts a few attractions of the sort you’d expect from a seaside resort town.

Algarrobo is known for the world’s largest swimming pool. It’s a kilometer long, covers 20 acres, and contains 250 million liters of filtered seawater from the Pacific Ocean. It’s hard to justify the existence a pool so huge that maintenance costs run to almost $4M USD annually. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out.

The worlds largest swimming pool Algarrobo


Algarrobo is also the place you go to stock up on food supplies. We went to a market near the gas station to pick up some fresh fish for the grill. Fish merchants there will fillet you a whole fish in a matter of seconds. They put on a great show, slicing it down quickly with two massive knives.


Time killed outside is time well spent

The following morning, we set off to explore the area and get our hands sandy at the main attraction. The enormous beach we found at the end of the road exceeded all our expectations.

Panoramic ocean view from Tunquen community

We spent a few afternoon hours occupying ourselves with some silly stuff. Some practiced their bouldering skills on slippery, algae-covered rocks:

Climbing on the slippery rock at Tunquen playa

Then ran around scaring the crap out of the seagulls:

Scaring off the birds on the playa de Tunquen


Nothing would stop the bravest and the strongest of us from experiencing an early-spring swim. (The quantities of beer consumed the previous night should also be taken into account.) Chile’s coastal waters may be turquoise, but don’t get fooled thinking that they’re warm. The average water temperature is 12C / 56F year-round. Anyone would find this refreshing. This beach also features a very strong rip current, so it’s necessary to be cautious about venturing into the open sea.

Swimming at la playa de Tunquen

Some would take clever pictures of the cave hole:

Circling cave openning

And others would shoot a silly photo of the clever photographer:

Silly photo of a clever photographer


My wife got inspired by Steve McCurry’s photography and produced some close replicas:

Steve McCurry replica

Dragging giant kelp around was also fun. It weighs much more than one would expect. No wonder, since there is so much healthy stuff in it 🙂

Caring kelp around

The Chilean coast is famous for its sea kelp, also known as cochayuyo or simply cocha weed. Locals harvest it and then sell it restaurants, where it’s turned into one of the most delicious salsas I’ve ever tried. The best batch I’ve had was at Pepi restaurant at Punta de Lobos, near Pichilemu.

There’s no shortage of cochayuyo in Chile. The stuff practically comes crawling out of the water.

Giant kelp on the beach at Tunquen


It was very amusing scaring my friends by pretending that the kelp was moving around like a sea creature, beached on shore but still alive. Just look at these priceless facial expressions 🙂

Scare moving giant kelp


That was one of those perfect weekends, getting out of Santiago, having fun and getting energized from nature. At the end of the day, you just sit on a rock, enjoying the surf break, dreaming of how cool would it be to live right here on top of this cliff.

Sitting on the rock at playa Tunquen


Do you have any stories to share about your own unexpected discoveries?