This past spring during NYFW, I had the pleasure of meeting the effortlessly chic Stephanie Szoztak. It was at the Prada Iconoclasts party, and post chatting it up with Gab Union & her beau, I found myself talking to the Satisfaction star and being absolutely spellbound by her energy. From the suburbs of Paris, with a back-of-her-hand knowledge of the SW of France, and a charm and perfectly disheveled mop top that only the French can do, I was smitten. When Stephanie suggested doing an Insider’s Guide on a devastatingly beautiful (yet relatively overlooked) region of France, I said, “Mais, oui!” As Stephanie describes it: “When people travel to the south of France, you hear about them going to the French Riviera, known as the Côte d’Azur in French. This incredibly scenic region is often associated with celebrities, glamour, yachts and luxurious cars. Perhaps because of all of that, the Southwest of France may be the best kept secret that American tourists don’t yet know all that much about. In June 2015, the NY Times called it “the little sister who did not get invited to the dance.”
Who’s ready to pack their bags? I certainly am! Merci Stephanie – for guiding us through this impossibly magical place. “Satisfaction” returns this fall on USA Network.
I discovered the Southwest of France as a teenager. I traveled there to play in some of France’s top amateur golf tournaments, “Le Grand Prix des Landes” and “La Biarritz Cup,” back when I had a low, single-digit handicap. We were a group of young adults and our days consisted of playing golf, spending endless afternoons at the beach, eating together and partying at a night club in San Sebastian, Spain until the wee hours of the morning where we’d end up eating “chocolatines” (chocolate croissants) on the beach while watching the sun rise. Beautiful memories.
Since then, my parents kind of retired to Capbreton, a low-key seaside resort in the Landes region. This southwestern tip of France makes up the Basco-Landes region. It’s an hour and a half drive south of Bordeaux and just 20 minutes north of the Basque Country. Every summer my husband, kids and I make the trip to this dreamy spot.
In July and August, loads of French families storm the region to set up shop at outdoor camp sites, fit into one of the tiny beach bungalows, or open their sometimes quite opulent summer homes. They spend their days biking, fishing, golfing and swimming in the ocean or the ocean lake. Unlike the Mediterranean Sea with its small sandy or rocky beaches, the beaches of Hossegor, Capbreton and Seignosse are lined with huge dunes and gigantic sandy beaches with big waves for the surfers, boogies boarders and brave body surfers.
The food is another gem of the region. My American mother-in-law says the produce from the local markets bring her back to her childhood when tomatoes used to taste like tomatoes. The cuisine, like everything else in the region, reflects French and Spanish influences. Make sure you get to enjoy local specialties such as charcuterie, duck, foie gras and the extraordinary and incredibly fresh local seafood, many simply cooked “a la Plancha.” Here are some of the best restaurants to check off your list, as well!
Jean des Sables - For a special evening in Hossegor, come to this wonderful restaurant located in the dunes and facing the ocean. The sunset over the Atlantic Ocean is worth waiting for and the “creative menu showcases fish, seafood and seasonal produce” (Michelin Guide Review). Make sure you save room for the inventive deserts!
Le Relais de la Poste – Same owners as Jean des Sables, and the “parent” restaurant of the Coussau family in Magescq, a tiny village about 25 minutes north. Certainly the finest restaurant in this area (2 Michelin stars).
Le Barrio – Enjoy tapas on a terrace while looking at the sail boats in the beautiful Hossegor Capbreton Marina.
MB – In Capbreton, the chef-owner and his wife have remodeled this early 1900’s hotel along the canal. It has a charming interior courtyard and an inventive menu featuring local meats, vegetables and fish.
Le Fou aux Pieds Rouges - In Capbreton, the American chef-owner, Christian Dreyfuss, and his French wife do an excellent job. Very creative with influences from South America, San Francisco and France. Small and intimate, you will need a reservation.
Les Hortensias de Lac – Beautiful and luxurious hotel with panoramic views of the Lake of Hossegor.
LE BAYA - In Capbreton, located on the beach. There are rooms with ocean views and you can enjoy the spa.
Capbreton Market – Delicious! If you rent a house, as many of the French tourist do, check out our favorite butcher, Mme Aimé. Aimé still has its own slaughter house where local farmers bring their cattle, pigs, lamb, and rabbits, and the local poultry producers reserve their best – chicken, duck, pintade, but also pigeon, quail and coquelet. Aimé serves some of the very best French restaurants, including some in Paris. Get some spices to bring home from La Maison Philippot. On Saturdays the cheeses from Mme. Girardin are as good as any. Opposite Mme. Aimé is a fish shop with oysters from Gillardet, considered the finest of the French coast. While in the middle of the aisle, just in front of Aimé, is Edouard, who trucks down from near Bordeaux with some of the finest tasting vegetables I have ever eaten.
Fish Market in Capbreton – Located in the harbor of Capbreton, this is one of my favorites. It is exceptional. Only one other port along the Atlantic coast sells their catch daily. Some 15 overnight boats bring in the fish and sell “du cul du bateau” – stalls at the back of the boat. My parents take our boys there and go from one stall to the next chatting away with the fishermen who present their day’s catch! A couple of the boats fish only with lines, no nets which makes the fish taste even better (ask why!). No fish fillets on the ice here, just whole fish.
Check out the distinctively patterned basque linen shops, shoe stores for espadrilles and Boutique 64 for the unique French surf clothes adorned by #64 (the number for the department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques where Biarritz is).
La plage de la piste de Capbreton - Protected by huge sand dunes, this beautiful beach is the place to go for big waves (less crowds too). A couple blockhaus (bunkers, not the golf course kind) from WWII are found on some beaches and covered by colorful graffiti. Much better use for those bunkers than seven decades ago.
The Salt-Lake of Hossegor - A nature reserve, this beautiful lake is connected to the ocean and surrounded by a pine forest and trails reserved for pedestrians. Great option for swimming, paddle boarding and, if you have kids, they will enjoy the break from the big waves. Make sure to check the tide before you go!
Golf d’Hossegor - The Southwest of France is a paradise for golfers! Built in 1927 by an architect, Morrison, who worked with the great British architect, Simpson. Cabell Robinson, another architect, updated the course between 2002 and 2007 (although he definitely kept its English flare). This course hosts the Grand Prix des Landes. An excellent championship course and still friendly for all levels of play!
Biarritz - 20 minutes away. A glamourous old resort town. The Hotel du Palais is breathtaking and sits spectacularly right on the Grand Plage. It was built as a palace in 1854 by Napoleon III. Make sure you see La Chambre D’Amour, Le Rocher de la Vierge. Beaches are very crowded there and a bit of a scene, but fun, nonetheless. If you go next door to Anglet and Chiberta, you will find bigger beaches and less crowds…You could have a bit of a surprise, as some of those beaches are nudist beaches! If you want to do some fancy shopping, Biarritz is the town. Chanel, Hermes, and I love the freelance boutique for funky sneakers! Great restaurants worth checking out in Biarritz include La Table d’Aranda, AHIZPAK, and ARRANTZALEAK.
Saint Jean de Luz – A must! Here you will be able to visit the church where Louis XIV married the infanta of Spain in 1660. Stroll around the fish port and the beach where 17th century seaside homes stand in all their elegance. Have lunch in the town square where artists set up their canvas and paint. Enjoy some macarons for desert at Maison Adam (the macaron is the town’s specialty). If you love shoes, make sure to stop by Buxiki Chaussures (17 Rue Loquin). This is a local shoe maker. The owners are feisty and fun, and they have hundreds of models from floor to ceiling. The quality is fantastic, the price is right, and the designs are anything from classic ballet slippers to cool, edgy boots. They make each model in a vast array of colors. Last time I went, I left with four pairs of shoes (something I never do!).
Bayonne – Ten minutes away. This old town is gorgeous and surrounded by fortifications. It is known as the capital of the French Basque Country. The streets are narrow and hilly, and cobblestones add to the charm. There are many bridges as the Adour and Nive rivers both meet in Bayonne. The feeling here is more of a small city as opposed to the beach town feeling you get in Biarritz and Hossegor or Capbreton. The Cathedral Ste. Marie is a must and you can enjoy lunch or dinner in the center of town or in the restaurants that board the river.
St. Jean Pied de Port - This centuries-old town, in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains, is well preserved. You get the feeling of walking in the 15th century. When viewing the valleys around the town from the top of the fortifications, it’s extremely easy to imagine what hell soldiers tried to live through in attacking the town. About one hour and 20 minutes from Capbreton. In town, the hotel Les Pyrenées is well-known, and not only in France. The restaurant, now with the son of the family Arrambide, is certainly one of the best of places to appreciate classic Basque cuisine at its highest level.
Spain – Thirty minutes south of Capbreton. Visit the old city of San Sebastian and go from bar to bar to taste the different tapas. The beach is again wonderful and right smack in the center of town.
The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao – This museum is commonly seen as one of the most important structures of its time. It’s a one hour and forty five minute drive from Capbreton, and well worth it.
And a little extra l’histoire from our trusted tour guide, Stephanie:
The Basco-Landais style architecture is unique to the region. You will recognize it at once and see it in all of the neighboring towns. All of the houses have names (in Basque very often), they are typically white with green, red or blue shutters and sometimes windows are adorned with red peppers (in the tradition of Espelette, another beauty of a town near by). The style is simple yet elegant with not an ounce of pretense. Countless chapels, churches and architectural treasures dating from the 12th century, sometimes before, make for great day trip opportunities. Almost every tiny village has a remarkable church.
Images via: Clochet.com, Wikimedia, Travel Channel, Hortensais du Lac, Venere, Wikipedia, Biopol, Wikipedia, Instagram