Paris is grand and Nice is nice—and Marseille is marvelous—but sometimes you want to wander deeper into “la belle France.” Next time you need a taste of “l’art de vivre,” consider these three locales in the Aquitaine region in the southwest of France.
Biarritz: Known as “the queen of beaches and the beach of kings,” Biarritz has been one of the world’s most glamorous resorts since its 19th-century incarnation as a playground for European aristocrats. And yet, as the birthplace of European surfing in 1957, Biarritz is also known as the “French California” for its appeal as a destination for surfers. The combination of old-money glamour and laidback surf culture evokes something like 1970s Miami Beach: a casual chic vibe complemented by natural beauty.
For years, La Côte des Basques has been named the most beautiful beach in Europe—and after sunset, the “pearl of the Atlantic” becomes even more seductively romantic. Located in the heart of Basque country, Biarritz is but 90 minutes from Bilbao and two hours from Bordeaux. Surrounded by charming Basque villages, Biarritz is also home to a number of grand hotels, several of which have undergone complete renovations.
Built as an ornate palace by Napoleon III in the 1850s, the five-star Hôtel du Palais opened in 1883 and quickly achieved renown for its illustrious and royal guest list. The hotel’s ballroom was the favorite of 1930s Europe. Completely renovated in 2014, the Salon Imperial features a glass ceiling and frescoes that complement the hotel’s Second Empire architectural style. At the hotel’s Imperial Spa, a 50-foot indoor swimming pool overlooks the ocean.
Located in front of the lighthouse on the bay of Biarritz, Le Regina Biarritz Hôtel & Spa underwent a complete restoration in 2014. Known as “the Petit Palace,” the 65-room Belle Époque structure features a hammam and heated outdoor pool, as well as the Michelin-starred Restaurant N° 1 by Georges behind the helm of Georges Blanc, the celebrated three-Michelin-starred chef.
In the evenings, Biarritz becomes an enchanted realm, transformed by the lights of Pierre Bideau, the lighting wizard who illuminated the Eiffel Tower.
Saint-Émilion: For the first time in 1999, UNESCO included a vineyard landscape on its list of World Heritage sites—and that unique honor went to the jurisdiction of Saint-Émilion for its distinctive landscape of river, vines, chateaux, manor houses, and monuments.
The vineyards of Saint-Émilion are composed of more than 13,000 acres of vineyards, which are divided into two appellations: Saint-Émilion and Saint-Émilion Grand Cru. While Merlot is the primary grape, the wines of Saint-Émilion have earned their world-class reputation with blends that also feature Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec.
Of course, it’s not all wine in Saint-Émilion. One of the area’s latest attractions is a brand-new, five-star golf course framed by vineyards and centenary oak trees, which opened in May 2015. For those of a more equine bent, Saint-Émilion’s equestrian circuit wends through area wineries on its way to various luxury properties.
And then there are the region’s delectable macarons, which utilize a 17th-century recipe derived from the Ursuline sisters who established their convent in Saint-Émilion in 1620.
Périgueux: For many Francophiles, Périgord is synonymous with truffles. Also known as the Dordogne area, the region is famous for the prehistoric Lascaux caves and medieval villages, including the fortified town of Périgueux.
A center of historical heritage, the ancient town offers a broad spectrum of landmarks from the Gallo-Roman period to the Renaissance. Medieval castles and streets alternate with outdoor markets—as well as the city’s iconic Byzantine cathedral, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1998. Throughout the summer, gourmet night markets transform the town into a veritable food and crafts festival.
Traversing the banks of the Isle River, the city’s greenway offers a 10-mile sanctuary for pedestrians, joggers, and cyclists. Canoe tours are available on a 14-seat vessel with an experienced guide.
And, of course, what would Périgueux be without truffles?