La Réserve Hotel review: bask in the Basque Country
A gastronomic getaway to the French Basque Country with a laid-back Californian vibe
Palm trees and surfing, yoga and meditation. Such images may conjure up cities like Los Angeles or San Diego, but this also describes the “California of France” - as the Basque Country to the west of the Pyrenees-Atlantique is sometimes known.
This beautiful region may be only a short hop from the UK but it feels a million miles away - a secret escape where visitors can unwind and enjoy a slower pace of life, not to mention fantastic cuisine, striking scenery and a fascinating, largely unsung culture.
Encompassing parts of France and Spain, the Basque Country has a strong nationalist tradition that survives to this day. The region has its own language and a unique cuisine, which is an enticing hybrid of French and Spanish food. Today, the Basque Country attracts laidback travellers, who are drawn to its distinctive character, its striking clifftop walks and its pounding surf.
The subtle and stylish appeal of the four-star La Réserve hotel, part of Groupe Floirat, exemplifies this region’s unique character. Situated in a beautiful, quiet residential area just north of the charming coastal town of St-Jean-de-Luz, it offers stunning views across the clifftops to the sandy surfing beaches of Biarritz and beyond. A short stroll along scenic paths lined with scented bushes takes you down to the harbour.
Designed as a Basque-style villa, La Réserve is surrounded by impeccably kept palm trees and an infinity pool overlooks the plunging cliffs. Its 41 spacious rooms are beautifully furnished, with a hint of traditional Basque character, while the six suites, most of which are self-catering, all have terraces or balconies facing the ocean. They are individually decorated with a beach theme featuring the locally made linen made famous by espadrilles.
Catching sight of the hotel’s virtuoso chef Fabrice Idiart at work in the Ilura restaurant, you could be forgiven for thinking that a surfer had wandered off the beach into the kitchen. His work typifies the people of the region: talented and imaginative yet understated.
During our visit Idiart was joined by Thierry Bamas, who helped design a six-course menu on the theme of “Les classiques de la patisserie Francaise”. My dining companions and I were treated to a superb tasting menu that included foie gras with honey, hibiscus cream, asparagus matches and an array of sublime desserts.
The Elaia restaurant offers a more relaxed alternative, with lunch, sunset cocktails and tapas served on the terrace among the palm trees. The signature Basque cake is impossible to resist, combining the crispness of golden pastry with a delicate almond cream. Fortunately, it is available for breakfast as well.
You can actually try your hand at making your own Basque cake with the help of Maison Paries, a café in St-Jean-de-Luz, that sells a do-it-yourself kit for the brave home patissier.
In the morning, the buffet at breakfast offers delicious local ham and cheese, beautiful bread, an array of hot food as well as a range of detoxing, ready-made smoothies such as the zingy kiwi, avocado and ginger.
The atmosphere at La Réserve is calming and the service impeccable, being relaxed and discreet. The hotel group is family owned and includes Byblos in St Tropez, a five-star establishment renowned as a destination for discerning A-listers, and Les Manoirs de Tourgeville in Normandy, which is open all year round with roaring fires and a country house meets hunting lodge feel.
Out and about
The sea views and hotel facilities mean you may not wish to leave La Réserve, but a range of activities are close at hand. You can burn off the calories by trying the new sport of BungyPump, which has been imported from Sweden. Sounding dangerously close to bungy jump, it is in fact a fun new way to work out using Nordic-style trekking poles. They have an elastic band inside the pole to provide resistance and offer an upper-body workout that is far more effective than just walking or running.
With the help of trainer Fabien Drougard, we bungy-pumped our way along the coastal path and on to the beach, where the resistance exercises continued on the sand in front of the rolling surf. It was an invigoratingly fun fitness class, albeit somewhat quirky.
Other experiences include a gastronomic tasting tour in the delightfully pretty St-Jean-de-Luz, where the local suppliers are rightly the stars of the show. King Louis XIV married Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660 in the church of St John the Baptist here. The plaque on the wall says the doorway, known as the Louis XIV door, was walled up immediately after the king and his bride walked out.
You can also stop off to enjoy the famous macarons from Maison Adam, which claims to have invented these delightful creations for Louis XIV’s wedding feast. Duck sausage, ham, cheeses, pastries, cider and chocolate also await the hungry visitor. The town also offers an array of fish specialities. We enjoyed merlu (hake) and octopus as well as local oysters.
The Basque Country provides a refreshing travel experience and an insight into a fascinating culture that is both French and Spanish but also entirely its own. Staying at La Réserve, it is easy to understand why the locals are so proud of their culture, their language and their cuisine.
Rooms at La Réserve start at £133 per night for two people in a standard room. For reservations visit hotel-lareserve.com
Ryanair flies daily direct from Stansted to Biarritz from £29 return and easyjet flies from Luton to Biarritz from £59