The Global Life: Basque Fishing

3 minute read
David Lincoln Ross/Biarritz

Every summer, as the hordes amass along France’s Mediterranean coast, savvy travelers head southwest to the Atlantic and the relative quiet of the Bay of Biscay. There, in the region known as Basque Country, flat beaches give way to the soaring Pyrenees, which separate France and Spain. Those willing to forgo the glitz of the Cote d’Azur will be rewarded with splendid outdoor activities, including some of the best fly fishing to be found.

Visitors should make their base in the seaside town of Biarritz–as chic as Cannes but less flashy. Biarritz is blessed with wide beaches, fashionable boutiques, bustling bistros and the Hotel du Palais (011-33-559-41-64-00), originally the summer palace of Empress Eugenie, wife of France’s last Emperor, Napoleon III. Rooms start at $455 a night and range to $11,000 for one of three 5,000-sq.-ft. royal suites. The Palais is among the world’s last “grande dame” hotels and offers impeccable service, fine dining and a modern spa.

From Biarritz, it is a quick trip into the verdant Pyrenees, where one can take advantage of the region’s piscatorial plenty. The Nive River in the foothills is home to Atlantic salmon, sea trout and native brown trout–all of which attain exceptional size in this region. Hubert Anglard, 55, a fly-fishing guide, says he has caught brown trout as large as 19 lbs.–but remember, this is a fisherman talking. More typically, une belle truite weighs about 7 lbs.

The Nive River valley has lush, steeply sloping hills in which small villages are nestled, the houses painted in the traditional Basque way: white with red shutters. The Nive, and other rivers in the area like the Gaves, can be 75 ft. across in places, though tributaries are much smaller and easily fordable in waders. The best fishing is often at nightfall, when the trout feed on immature insects. A guide can be booked for $90 a day through the concierge at the Hotel du Palais.

Visitors seeking a more vigorous water sport might try surfing. The beach at Bidart, just south of Biarritz, is considered the most challenging in Europe. Under certain conditions, waves can rise to 21 ft. but more often range from 6 ft. to 10 ft. For lessons or to rent a board, visit the Jeff Hackman Surf School in Biarritz.

For those inclined toward terra firma, golf is an attractive option at the renowned Fontarrabie club, located 20 minutes south of Biarritz. (Reservations can be made at The wooded course with exceptionally fast sloping greens is home to Basque golf great Jose Maria Olazabal. Explains Mike Magher, a New Jersey native who runs the American Golf School in Biarritz: “If you play here, you will understand why Olazabal won the Masters twice.”

Even if you only stroll along the beach, Basque Country is an exceptional place to whet–and sate–your appetites. Reserve a table at Les Platanes (011-33-559-23-13-68), where one-star Michelin chef Arnaud Daguin specializes in dazzling interpretations of the classics of southwest France, based on local foie gras, duck and seafood. He also offers a collection of rare vintage Armagnacs. On another night, try the Auberge Iparla in Bidarray owned by famed French chef Alain Ducasse. Iparla features regional specialties like sauteed baby trout and duck-leg confit, along with local wines. These fine restaurants, like the rest of the region, aren’t wholly undiscovered, but if you get there soon, you might beat the rush.

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