Postcard from Biarritz - Golf in South West France
The Ernest Hemingway room has portholes for windows and a helm for you to cling on to. Far below the Biscayan sea surges against the tall, rugged cliffs of the Grand Beach. This is the highest of the 22 suites and 134 rooms of the Hotel du Palais, Biarritz, “La Grande Dame” of the Gascony Coast, and it’s a make-believe world as memorably unreal as the day you broke ninety.
Well, unreal to a degree. After the requisite tour of the oldest and most revered hotel in the south-west of France, bastion of the “Belle Epoque”, once a palace built by Napoleon III for his beloved Scots-Spanish wife Eugenie, you are reminded of the true reason you are there – the world of sport, and golf in particular, for all of which this place provides an air of timeless enjoyment and breeding. Down to items such as the succulent moules of Les Pecheurs harbour restaurants, steely Jurancon white wines of the nearby Pyreneen slopes, succulent ice-creams, seductive chocolates.
The Palais general manager, Jean-Louis Leimbacher, greets you as you sip his champagne beneath the chandeliers and gilt ceilings of the Grand Salon. You ask the score and he knows what you mean. Biarritz have won their rugby match. Last time we met, Toulouse had beaten them with a penalty kick in the dying seconds. Quelle tragedie! No matter, the grand dukes, the Windsors, the Chaplins, the untold list of true-blue celebrities who have enjoyed this city, its sporting legacy is an everyman experience. Just ask the surfers and fishermen out there. This, historically, was a whaling port, a poor second maybe to St Jean de Luz down the road towards the Spanish border, but never an overgrown holiday camp.
A Biarritz Golf Pass offers five courses well worth a visit; Chiberta is not one of them, but don’t let that stop you including it on your itinerary. It’s a classic
Biarritz I have to begin with, though our Press golfing trip took us first to Pau, capital city of the Pays Basque/Bearn, 75 miles inland from it; then to Bayonne, five miles back from the coast on the River Adour, and Biarritz’s administrative senior. Makila Golf Club is American architect Rocky Roquemore’s gift to the Bayonne scene, and Pau boasts the oldest course in Europe. But Biarritz gives its name to a Golf Pass for five different courses (Biarritz Phare, Arcangues, Makila, Moliets and Seignosse), and whacks it out with the phrase, ‘The Other South of France’.
That deserves more careful explanation, but the marketing label shows the attention golf is getting in these parts, and at prices on the worthier side of the over-valued Euro, and reflected, you ought to find, in internet or British tour operator quotations. Cheap flights are readily available, Ryanair running regular services to Biarritz and Pau, albeit with their £40 top-up for a golf bag. Many will take the option of a cross-Channel ferry and a nine-hour drive south, usually with overnight stop. More exotically, there can be a semi-cruise via Brittany Ferries to Santander or Bilbao, then a shortish drive north-east via San Sebastian across the border. Hitler is said to have stayed at the Palais in October, 1940, when he failed to persuade Franco to come in on his side, but we won’t go in to that.
So, plenty of golfing options, and a wide variety of accommodation choices. Five hundred metres from the Palais I stayed at the Tonic Hotel. Well, why not: an Art Deco makeover, an intimate bar and a top-rate restaurant. What more, other than a large gin, ice and lemon, except you hardly need it in these grape-conscious parts. One of our party had stayed at the hotel on a golf trip and was well satisfied all round. The cheapest place for a drink or meal is probably the Casino, just over the way, and, as you might guess, Biarritz is alive with bars and pretty girls.
But to the golf. Biarritz “Le Phare” is named after the lighthouse hard by the Palais Hotel and well visible from the fourth fairway. You can hardly get more traditional, and one or two of the regulars could still be mistaken for the Duke of Windsor in plus twos. In fact the course is much changed from the 1888 design of the Dunn brothers and the adaptations of Harry Colt, having lost its seaside holes in 1945. What remains is an attractive parkland course with many a quirk. It is split by a narrow road, which gives it separate lungs, each with thin lines of trees and shrubs which are likely to cost a shot with any looseness off the tee.
The fabulous Hotel du Palais – ‘La Grande Dame’ of the Gascony coast – stands sentry over the chic playground that is Biarritz in high summer.
There are sudden quarry-like traps which add to the entertainment, and the greens run fast and true, though with some subtle and tricky contours. Our younger players liked it a lot, which says something.
Seignosse, one of the Golf Pass ‘Five’, I know well from previous visits, and beneath a hotel/clubhouse almost the burlesque of a Louisiana clapboard manor, a great course falls away amid pine and corkoak, sinuous, curvy fairways spliced with sand, grass and water traps, representing Van Hagge at the peak of his design powers. It isn’t excessively long – par-72, 6,129 metres – but your iron game needs to be as much on-song as your driving.
Makila is relatively benign in comparison. It is as close to Biarritz as it is to Bayonne, but this gateway to the Basque country, its port founded by the Romans, its 13th century cathedral a UNESCO World Heritage site, sees Roquemore’s wide-open, US style par-72 as its own, and hilly terrain with distant views of the Pyrenees make for a very separate experience. Shorter handicap players claimed they were at some disadvantage against those off the middle tees, but visibility is not so much a hazard as some of the drainage problems of the back nine, which conspired against the longer hitters. A course well worth the visit, all the same.
Golf D’Arcangues is included in the Biarritz Golf Pass, as is the spectacular Seignosse, a Robert Van Hagge design that is testing from start to finish
So, backwards in time, anyway, to Pau (pronounced Poe), and a number of surprises, all of them pleasant. Po-faced it is not. Golf historians will know that officers of Wellington’s army relaxed from their victory against Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Orthez by hunting fox or hitting featheries along the Billere plain, alongside which the river Gave and minor streams were an engaging hazard. Some returned in retirement to this pleasant region to form a British colony, among them Lord Hamilton, Colonels Anstruther and Hutchison, Archdeacon Sapte and Major William Pontifax, who were to be the club founders. Pontifax had played himself in founding the Guildford club.
In 1856, Pau’s original nine-hole course came into being. It was extended to 18 holes by Willie Dunn in 1860 and its 150th birthday celebrated in 2006. A clubhouse went up in 1880, alongside a Bearnaise farm, and today it is much as it was, a museum of Victorian names and trophies, restful leather, a Scotch as much in order as a blanc de blanc, a meal to be enjoyed under comfortable shades and awnings, and hosts genuinely pleased to show you around. It is worth a special journey, it really is.
Plane trees and poplars now provide avenues for outward holes of charm rather than vast distinction. Tightness of fairway, sand and small greens are the prime risks. You cross a narrow road for two par 4s to take you to the par-3 sixth at the farthest reach, then return with out-of-bounds the primary hazard to the right. The par-five 10th is visually pleasing, with stream, tree and out-of-bounds firmly in the bargain. The riverside 12th, a 342- metre par four, is yet more scenic, but the return is largely defined by four par 3s. So the prime test now is iron play and a firm putting nerve.
Golf is not all. Pau is the distinguished capital of Pyrenees- Atlantiques, a compound of the Basque and Bearn regions, and supremely proud of its English associations. A city of 100,000, three times the size of Biarritz, it was the birthplace of Henry IV. In the Victorian sporting and “watering place” era, around 15% of its population were English and its twin, unsurprisingly, is Cheltenham. It has the only French steeplechase course outside Paris. The terraced road from which you view glistening 10,000-feet Pyreneen peaks to the south is one of the great boulevards of France, fine civic buildings backing the lively bars and restaurants.
Outside our hotel, the Parc Beaumont, a small-scale evocation of the 1841 Crystal Palace, sits the latest Mini Cooper convertible in dashing yellow and black, pored over by British motoring correspondents who know this place as a perfect grandstand, glass in hand, for the annual Historic Racing Car Grand Prix, like Monaco, through the city streets. I’m a bit of a cheat in that I know this region well from visits to my daughter’s holiday home 40 miles to the north in Les Landes forest. The sea, I can tell you, is amazingly warm from the Gulf Stream, and surfing and playing in the rollers is a delight, if needful of discipline. The helicopter ambulance is rather too busy in July-August. But after a round of golf in sunshine, sometimes at the mercy of Atlantic pressure systems, the Biscayan sea is one of the pleasures of a visit.
The “Other” South of France? No, it is entirely itself.