If you’re not a big fan of flying, the ferry to Brittany makes a lot of sense. However, unless you treat the crossing like a cruise, the travel will cost you a day of your holiday — and the climate can sometimes feel a little Celtic, to put it politely.
I’m a big fan of Spain, though going for a dip on a busy beach on the Med can sometimes feel like sharing someone else’s bathwater. Then there’s the novelty factor — it’s always nice to try somewhere new.
So last summer we plumped for Biarritz, a seaside resort which became famous as a retreat for royalty in the 1850s then reinvented itself as a surfers’ paradise in the 1950s.
Its miles of sandy beaches — Milady (best for young families), Marbella, Cote des Basques (best for surfing), Grande (best for the shops), Vieux Port (best for swimming) and Miramar — are wonderful, the Atlantic waters clean and clear, the weather reliably warm.
If you want a picnic or just fancy good local food in an interesting setting, check out the covered market, Les Halles de Biarritz. If you want something grander, the Port des Pecheurs or Fishermen’s Port is the place to go for great seafood restaurants in pretty former fishermen’s cottages.
The main sights to see are the Hotel du Palais, the former seaside palace or holiday home of the wife of Napoleon III — think of a bungalow in Brittas Bay, only bigger; the art deco casino; the Rock of the Virgin, a tiny island with great coastal views, connected to the mainland by the Eiffel Bridge, designed, as you might guess, by the Eiffel Tower guy; and the Sea Museum and Aquarium next door.
Another factor in picking Biarritz was its proximity to the Spanish border and, in particular, the beautiful city of San Sebastian, the foodie capital of Spain, with countless tapas bars lining the streets in the old quarter where you can line your stomach with delicious dishes.
The town is built around a lovely sheltered bay where we swam out to pontoons 100 metres or so offshore with slides to dip back into the sea. You know you’ve chosen well when the kids are asking if they can come back before we have even left.
For many Basques, of course, San Sebastian — or Donostia in Euskadi — and Biarritz are as much part of the same country as Belfast and Dublin, but getting from one to the other by train makes you hanker for the much maligned Enterprise.
You’ve got to change not just trains but stations in the border town of Hendaye as the train from there to San Sebastian runs on a smaller gauge.
Ballinasloe-based Kelair Campotel has been sending Irish families to Le Ruisseau for 30 years now and it’s easy to see why. Despite its tranquil rural location, with the beautiful Pyrenees on the horizon, the family-run campsite is just a 10-minute drive from Biarritz airport and the resort town itself.
Its facilities are as impressive as its surroundings. It has two large pools, one outdoor, complete with waterslides, mushroom fountain and jacuzzi. The second, indoor pool, is part of a fitness centre that also includes a sauna and gym (which costs €2 from 10am-noon and €4 from 2-6pm).
It is, however, free to use for the early-morning aquarobics sessions, which have the additional benefit of making you feel better about your chocolate croissant for breakfast.
There are also several football pitches, a basketball court, table tennis and tennis courts, a petting zoo and a decent track for jogging around the site. The campsite mini-market is well-stocked and you could easily do all your shopping there, but Lidl and Intermarche are just a five-minute drive away.
There is entertainment every night, from a foam disco party for kids to an Irish band and Basque games of strength.
The site is a manageable size and feels safe and secure for the kids to wander around by themselves. The cabins are clean and well-equipped, with barbecue, decking, picnic table and chairs and sun loungers.
The staff are friendly and helpful, and the Campotel couriers, Elaine and Jeff from Manchester, have been there for years, which means they know the place inside out, whether it’s the best place to eat in Bidart or where you can watch an English Premiership match, if the campsite bar is showing a French match instead. There is a very good restaurant on site but it is best to book in the evening as it gets busy. It also does excellent takeaway pizzas (€8.50-€11.50) and chips.
There is a free bus service, which will take you to the nearby beaches of Bidart, Biarritz and Bayonne. You have to get your tickets in advance from the campsite office every day, though the main issue is overcrowding. When you’re left waiting half an hour for the next bus as the first one is full, you realise free isn’t everything.
Bidart’s beach is fine, the restaurants are decent, particularly the pizzeria next to the tourist information office, but the best things to do there is to watch the sunset from the clifftop and then watch a game of pelote (Basque handball). The players catch and throw the ball against a large wall with a curved narrow wicker basket or chistera strapped to their hand. It’s great fun and at a bargain price, just like the rest of our holiday.
Ryanair flights to Biarritz are currently available for €280 return on Fridays and €330 on Saturdays this summer. See Ryanair.com.
A week’s stay for a family of four in a two-bed chalet in Le Ruisseau campsite with Campotel costs from €769.26. See www.campotel.com or tel: 090-9648750.
Main towns to visit: Biarritz; Bayonne; St Jean de Luz, a lovely beach resort with great shops and restaurants; San Sebastian; St Jean Pied de Port, a pretty mountain town on pilgrim route to Santiago, near Roncevaux pass in Pyrenees; Sare, an inland town with famous caves; and La Rhune, a funicular railway to the top of the highest peak in the Pyrenees; Lourdes, a two-hour drive away.
Places to eat in Bidart: Moulin de Bassilour (great outside dining area); La Pizzeria (good food, great view from terrace); La Tantina de La Playa (great fish, right on beach).
Local delicacies: Basque chicken in piperade (a bit like ratatouille); Bayonne ham; gateau basque, pastry with either almond or cherry filling; toro – fish soup.