On The Beach In Biarritz

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On The Beach In Biarritz

Words by Mr Chris Elvidge | Photography by Mr Cedric Bihr | Styling by Ms Eilidh Greig

28 June 2017

To celebrate a decade of swim brand Orlebar Brown, we visited Biarritz, where surf culture mingles with café society.

Think of the south of France, and any number of images might pop into your head. The red carpets and flashbulbs of the Cannes Film Festival, the purple haze of lavender fields streaking across Provençal hills, the palatial white hotels looking out over the still-blue waters of the Mediterranean. Of course, the Mediterranean. For it’s here that the mind naturally, inexorably travels when we think of France in the summer. But what of the country’s other, less iconic coastlines?

Less than a day’s drive from the glitz and glamour of the Côte d’Azur lies La Côte des Basques, a craggy stretch of coast running along the Atlantic Ocean from Biarritz in the north to the Spanish border in the south. Once frequented by the Empress Eugénie and her husband, Napoleon III, La Côte des Basques is now more famous as a surf destination than a high-society hotspot.

In 1956, the American screenwriter Mr Peter Viertel arrived here to work on a cinematic adaptation of Mr Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He took one look at the glassy waves rolling in from the Atlantic and immediately called for his surfboard to be sent over from California. Since then, surfing has blossomed along this coast. Soorts-Hossegor, or Hossegor to locals, has established a reputation as Europe’s surfing capital, playing host to a stage of the World Surf League’s global tour.

It is this contrast between stately, faded resort and bustling surf destination that defines Biarritz today, ensuring the town and its surrounding coastline have something to offer everyone. Not to mention the enchanting culture of the Basque Country, a region that spans the French-Spanish border, or the added appeal of a world-class food scene. With the Michelin-starred tapas restaurants of San Sebastián less than an hour away, more and more people are seeing southwest France as an increasingly attractive alternative to the pebbled beaches and superyacht-infested waters of the Riviera.

To find out more about the area’s thriving surf scene, we visited Guéthary, a typical Basque fishing village just south of Biarritz, and the location of a popular reef break, Parlementia, which draws surfers from miles around. The trip presented the perfect opportunity to celebrate 10 years of Orlebar Brown, a beachwear brand founded by photographer Mr Adam Brown, built on smart, tailored swim shorts. His core product range – less swimming trunks, more shorts that you can swim in – has since been joined by T-shirts, polo shirts, hoodies and sweaters, all of which reflect the brand’s easygoing philosophy. Summer, sunshine, good times. It’s an ethos shared by the international cast of characters that washed up on the beach at Guéthary for MR PORTER’s first trip to the area.

MR DAMIEN MARLY, 39

It says something about the international character of southwest France that, of the six men who feature in this roundup, only one of them grew up here. Mr Damien Marly – no, not the reggae artist – was born and raised in Hossegor, and in his 39 years he has watched it grow from a sleepy seaside resort into one of Europe’s premier surf destinations. A ski instructor throughout his twenties, he now runs a custom surfboard shaping company, Chipiron, which takes its name from a local seafood delicacy. Chipirons à la plancha are small squid flash-fried on a griddle and served with paprika, parsley and an inordinate quantity of garlic (this is France, after all). Make sure you try them on your next visit to the Basque region.

Did you never feel drawn to the bright lights of the city?

I did live in <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/style-council/places/london">London</a>; for nine months, but I couldn’t make one year. When summer came, I decided that it wasn’t for me. It was a lot of fun, but I prefer the simple and sane life down here.

What attracts people to the French Atlantic?

The lifestyle is all about freedom and fun. When you’re stressed out at work, you can just hop on a plane from London to Biarritz and in a couple of hours you’re in the water. There’s something very therapeutic about it. You can just disconnect from reality. When you’re in the water, it’s like your problems no longer exist.

How has the area changed?

It’s more popular now than ever before. Guéthary, where we are now, used to be so quiet. I did a summer season here 20 years ago, back when I was 18. Now, there are Parisians migrating down here and buying everything. It’s good for business, of course, but it’s not great if you’re local and you want to buy your own place.

Where are the opportunities in southwest France to find the quiet lifestyle?

Further north from here, out of the Basque Country and into Landes, you can still find more of a traditional lifestyle. And, of course, there’s always the winter. Out of season, it’s quiet everywhere.

What does peak season look like?

In the summer, I work. I don’t go out. I lose my friends. We don’t see each other for four months. Then, come October, November, when everything shuts down, there’s a big reunion. Everyone’s like, “Where have you been all summer?” It’s good, though. You’re never bored.

MR ADRIEN WITTE, 28

Riding high on Hossegor’s health-food wave is Mr Adrien Witte, a chef from Brittany. He can be found running the kitchen at Waxed, a coffee shop owned and run by Messrs Cai Thomas and Will Wright (whom you’ll meet later). Though he specialises in aesthetically pleasing vegan food – check out his Instagram account @thegreenshacks to see what we mean – Mr Witte’s culinary skills are by no means limited to vegetables. He spent last winter working at Bæst, a meat-centric pizza restaurant in Copenhagen run by Michelin-starred chef Mr Christian Puglisi, and he hopes to one day set up on his own.

So, you didn’t start out as a chef?

Initially, I worked in finance, first in <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/style-council/places/paris">Paris</a>; and then in <a href="https://www.mrporter.com/style-council/places/paris">Sydney</a>. I did it for three years before realising that it wasn’t for me. I needed to find something that I could see myself doing for the next 40 years. And that wasn’t working in an office.

Why did you move to Sydney?

I wanted the Australian lifestyle that I’d been dreaming of since I was young. I lived near Manly Beach. I had a surfer’s life at the weekend, but I was miserable Monday to Friday. My friends told me I should think about working with food. I loved cooking, and I’d become accustomed to working long hours, so it seemed to make sense. Then I decided to follow my heart and return to France.

Why did you choose southwest France?

After Australia, I knew that going back to northern France would be difficult, so I thought to myself, where can I go that has a similar lifestyle? So I came here, to Bayonne, and attended culinary school.

And how did you meet the guys from Waxed?

I dropped in to visit Cai and Will just after they opened the shop last summer. They recognised me from my Instagram profile, and we hit it off. There’s a lot of shared ground in what we do. Coffee, health food, surfing… they’re all elements of the same lifestyle, so it makes sense that we found each other.

The French have a reputation for enjoying their meat. Do you see vegan food catching on?

I hope so. I’ve seen a lot of my friends go vegan. But, look, it’s not my moral crusade to convert people to veganism. I don’t want to be that guy. I just want to show them that it’s possible to eat well without eating animal protein every day. This might sound obvious, but vegan food won’t ever catch on because it’s the right thing to do. It’ll catch on because it’s good.

MR SEBASTIAN THOMAS, 30

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Mr Sebastian Thomas was born in Sydney, Australia, but holds a claim to French nationality through his father, who was born in France but emigrated Down Under four decades ago. He was offered the chance to retrace his father’s steps and relocate to Hossegor while working for SurfStitch, an Australian fashion company that was looking to expand its business into Europe. Eleven-thousand miles, five years and one heavily pregnant fiancée later, he’s still here. A keen photographer and filmmaker, Mr Thomas now puts his creative talents to use in the wedding industry. His company, MotionCraft Creative, provides videography services to weddings throughout the south of France and beyond.

How does your life in France differ from your life back in Australia?

I love Australia, but you can drive for five hours in any direction and nothing really changes. Same language, same culture, same people. What attracts me about southwest France is how accessible everything is. I can drive to Spain in under an hour; Paris is only three hours by train; I can fly from Bordeaux to Morocco for the same price as lunch for two.

Tell us about the international community here.

That’s another reason why I fell in love with the place. Hossegor’s known as the surf capital of Europe, so it attracts a big English-speaking crowd. We’re so close to French culture and Basque culture, but there’s a strong international community, so I never really get homesick. It’s the best of both worlds.

Speaking of home, do you ever plan to return to Australia?

My fiancée and I have our first child coming – that’s really going to consolidate our lives here. We still want him to experience Australian culture, though, so at some point we might go back there for a couple of years. Who knows where the future lies? For now, though, this is home.

What is it that draws people to this area of the world, and what keeps them here?

My fiancée is Parisian. She moved down for the same reason I did: to escape. She was sick of big-city life, and was looking for a sea change. Like a lot of people, she moved without knowing too many people, and without much in the way of a job. But that’s just the way it works. You come because you want a change, you stay because you fall in love, and everything else just falls into place.

MESSRS WILL WRIGHT, 26, AND CAI THOMAS, 28

Hailing from Cardiff, Wales, Messrs Will Wright (above, left) and Cai Thomas (above, right) are two friends who bonded over a shared passion for travel, surfing and good coffee. After visiting Hossegor on a surf trip and finding themselves unable to get a half-decent flat white – a first-world problem we can surely all relate to – they decided to band together and turn their passion into a business. Waxed, a small shop that serves speciality coffee and healthy brunches, opened on Allée des Pins Tranquilles in the heart of Hossegor in June 2016.

A quick roll call: where have your surf tours taken you?

Mr Thomas: Indonesia, Australia...<br><br>Mr Wright: Bali, Lombok… Brazil…<br><br>Mr Thomas: The US…<br><br>Mr Wright: The Canary Islands…

So why choose here to launch your business?

Mr Thomas: We didn’t want to go too far away. It’s only a one-and-a-half-hour flight back to London, so we can still keep that connection to home while being somewhere culturally quite different.<br><br>Mr Wright: And it’s such an international hub. People from all around the world have managed to set up businesses here.

What’s it like running a seasonal business? How do you make it through the winter?

Mr Thomas: There was concern about how bleak it could get, but when we reopened after Christmas, we were pleasantly surprised. We’d spent the winter running a pop-up store in Cardiff and returned to Hossegor the following February. We had people coming in and telling us, “Thank God you’re back. Nowhere else is open.”

I suppose it helps that you’re selling a warm drink.

Mr Wright: Exactly. It’s not like we’re trying to sell sangria in howling, gale-force winds. It’s a cosy little coffee shop with good, healthy food. As a concept, it works outside summer.

Coffee, health food and surf culture seem to go hand in hand. Why was nobody doing this before?

Mr Thomas: Sometimes, all it needs is a spark.

MR ADRIEN TOYON, 27

Frizzy-haired pro surfer Mr Adrien Toyon is still buzzing from his recent surf trip to South Africa, during which he managed to ride some of the biggest waves of his life. The experience left him so stoked he didn’t seem to mind at all when someone made off with his phone and laptop. “It’s no big deal,” he grins. “I was getting addicted to them, you know?” The 27-year-old was born on Réunion, a French island department 500 miles east of Madagascar, and moved to southwest France around a decade ago in order to be closer to the surf industry.

You chose to live in Biarritz rather than Hossegor. Why?

Hossegor is pure surf. Better waves, but less to do. Biarritz is a more cosmopolitan city and it stays busy in winter, too. Summer is crazy in Hossegor, but it’s kind of dead from November to April.

So what else can you do around here other than surf?

I play a lot of golf, and it’s great for that. There are courses everywhere. Plus, Spain is so close. You can go to San Sebastián, eat some tapas and come back in half a day.

Do you see yourself remaining in Biarritz?

If you’re French and you want to be pro, you have to live here. This is undoubtedly the place to be, and the place to be seen. But as long as there’s plenty of ocean and good waves, I feel like I could live anywhere.

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