Learn to surf in Biarritz
As soon as we arrive at the airport we know where everyone is going. I have never seen so many items of special baggage in my entire life. Dedicated surfers mix with families used to maneuvering strollers and miniature boards. Groups of friends and couples meet in the arrivals hall and the mood is feverish. Many of my Nordic traveling companions have come here for the same reason – a weekend course at Swedish surf school Surfakademin. The company specializes in guided tours in Biarritz – simply book your flight and Surfakademin will help with the accommodation, loan of equipment, and local transportation, and introduce you to the town’s best surf spots and restaurants. For many who come here, the food is just as important as the surfing.
Started: In 2006
Destinations: Galicia, Costa Rica, Sri Lanka, and California and Biarritz.
The surf camp prices include accommodation in the center of Biarritz, surfing lessons, and day trips around the Basque country.
Week package: Six nights’ accommodation (Sunday-Saturday) and a five-day surfing course (Monday-Friday). Prices from SEK 5,990
Weekend package: During Easter and at weekends in May, September, and October, a weekend package (Thursday-Sunday) is also available. Prices from SEK 3,690.
Don’t forget to check your insurance policy before you go, especially if you plan to surf!
If you want to hire equipment locally, there are lots of stores and rental companies to choose from next to the beaches, as well as local guides who speak both English and French.
"Great surf culture, turn-of-the-century architecture and amazing food"
There are seven of us in our group. We have never met before, but we obediently pile into a minibus with a stack of surfboards on the roof. You can almost feel the energy. Jonathan Kjell jumps into the driver’s seat and introduces himself as our group’s personal guide for the journey, before turning up the car stereo to maximum volume. The view from the bus offers a mixture of grand French houses and beautiful coastline.
“Biarritz is a bit like a mix of California and Paris. Or like a Kinder egg. You get great surf culture, turn-of-the-century architecture, and amazing food, all in one place,” Kjell calls out to the back seat, in an attempt to speak over the music as he drives us from the airport to the hotel.
“I promise you, amigos, you’ll not only get to try some great surfing while you’re here, you’ll also have a gastronomic experience like no other!”
After a while he pulls into a turnout and makes a sweeping gesture with his hand.
“I like to say that this is Europe’s Highway One. Check out how beautiful it is!”
A never-ending vacation
Steep rock gardens and lush vegetation frame the view. At La Côte des Basques bay, the cliffs tower up to the coastal strip and the foaming waves beat rhythmically onto the beach, creating a light mist of water vapor just above the surface. But the lasting impression is of the huge number of tiny black dots bobbing around on the sea. These are surfers of all ages, who are paddling around and floating out, waiting for the next wave. One by one, they set off like projectiles, performing works of art at breakneck speed on the top of the waves. All kinds of people are here – young and old, experienced and beginners, locals and tourists. What they all have in common is a love of the sea and the energy that flows out of the waves. The camera shutters clatter at the viewpoint and I immortalize the evening sun going down behind a building that teeters on the edge of a cliff at the bay.
“That was built by Napoleon for his mistress in the 19th century. I think.” Kjell says that nowadays it is available for rent through Airbnb.
I make a mental note of this, so sure am I already that I will be back, before we have even checked in at our hotel. A quick change of clothes later, we all troop down towards the center of Biarritz and sit ourselves down at a small table with a checkered cloth at the noisy Café du Commerce. On the other side of the terrace stroll well-dressed Frenchmen and long-haired surfers, and it isn’t long before Surfakademin’s founders Peter Sahlberg and Jens Holmer appear from the crowd and join our group. They tell us briefly about how they studied journalism in Hawaii many years ago, and how depressed they were when they then moved back to Sweden and could only surf during a few weeks each year. It was a bit too far to travel to America all the time, so they looked around Europe and discovered Biarritz, which at the time was an undeveloped gem with lots of potential.
“The call of the sea was too strong, so Peter resigned his job and I sold my business, then we moved down here and started up a new business together,” says Holmer, who grew up on Brännö outside Gothenburg. “We want to make other people’s vacations the best we can, and in return our lives are one long, never-ending vacation.”
Waves for all levels
“Biarritz has changed a whole lot over the past few years, not least in terms of the experiences it offers other than surfing. The choice of restaurants has increased and become infinitely better. I have eaten some of the tastiest meals of my life down here, and that’s something we love to share with our visitors. Then of course there are waves to suit all levels, whether you are a beginner or a veteran of the world surf league.”
Surfakademin has 15 guides in Biarritz, and accepts guests from Easter to mid-October. On the day the surfing course begins, we make a quick stop at the Ocean Coffee bar before gathering on the beach. Kjell helps us into our wetsuits and positions the boards in a semi-circle on the sandy beach. Then he lies down flat on one of them and shows us the easiest way to move from paddling to a standing position.
“As the wave catches up with you, you are about three paddle strokes from standing up using this technique. Once you are on your feet, it’s all about finding and keeping your balance as you ride the wave. Are you with me?”
Other instructions are to keep a safe distance and to take turns and allow surfers who have been waiting longer for a wave to go first. And to get up in time before we tire out our bodies too much. Then we have some time to practice on dry land before we all run down to the water, boards under our arms. It doesn’t take me long to realize why surfers have such well-toned bodies. Just paddling out requires a lot of power.
Ten minutes later we are lying on our boards and bobbing around on the sea, wetsuits sparkling in the sun. Here and now there is only space here. The waves are rolling in in sets of seven, then they calm down for a while, and then start all over again. I paddle, count to three and jump up.
To my surprise, I master the wave at the second attempt and a feeling of joy flows through my body. When I look around, I see that some of the others in the group have caught a wave too. With the right guide and friendly waves, it is not as difficult as it looks.
Two hours later, my body aches and my muscles are full of lactic acid. We pack up and head off for lunch.
Bitten by the Biarritz bug
On a ledge above the foreshore is The Beach House restaurant, which has prepared hamburgers for our party of travelers. Revitalized by a good meal and a hefty bottle of water, we decide to go for a walk around the town before a sunset dinner at a surf restaurant outside of town. Wearing comfortable shoes, we follow the promenade that runs from the more casual surfing area at Côte des Basques, through a fishing port, off towards the more refined part of town by the historic Hôtel du Palais. Another example of Napoleon’s handiwork, who is said to have built it in the late 19th century as a summer house for his wife Eugénie. So she did not feel too homesick for her native Spain. The area is home to luxury and frivolity, not least in the form of stores such as Hermes and other premium French brands.
I buy some French leather sandals and a straw bag before we return to the hotel and change for tonight’s dinner. Kjell collects us in the minibus and drives to a restaurant located 20 minutes from the town center, near some of Biarritz’s biggest waves. A surf spot where he broke a rib last year, although that has not stopped him giving it a try again earlier in the day. We eat dinner while the sun dips below the horizon and as the darkness settles in, the restaurant fills up with people and the music is turned up a notch at the bar.
The next few days provide some of the most fantastic meals I have ever eaten. Salmon burger with freshly baked bread, guacamole, lemon juice, and caper dressing. Lime-baked tuna with cilantro. Kobe beef with sun-dried tomatoes and sea salt. Michelin-starred tapas and French cheeses. Add in the experience of nature in the water, the adrenaline-fueled feeling of mastering the waves (small ones, but even so), and the atmosphere in the town and I can understand why people get bitten by the Biarritz bug. All I can think about as I board the plane to fly home is how soon I can come back here again.
Text: Frida Ramstedt
Published: July 15, 2015
Last edited: October 20, 2015