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The California style beaches of Biarritz

By the age of 17, I’d established my two life-long travel crushes: California and France. So when I first laid eyes on the beaches of Anglet, it was no wonder I fell in love. The wide stretches of sand, surfer waves, and relaxed bohemian vibe immediately reminded me of the beaches of Southern California. Soon I learned that Anglet, nestled between Biarritz and Bayonne, is indeed known as “Little California.”

My visit was in September, so the summer crowds had departed. Still, surfers and sunbathers lingered on the warm days, and locals and tourists frequented the colorful seaside bars and the foot-path that runs the 4.5-kilometer length of the beaches. The eleven beaches are contiguous, but each bears a name and possesses its own flavor. The area is renowned for championship surfing and many surf schools crop up along the coast.

If it had been summer, I would have happily plunged into the chilly Atlantic waves. Instead, I indulged in my favorite beachside pleasures: walking and people-watching, all within view of the water. On the first afternoon, a friend and I began our beach promenade at the mouth of the Adour River,  just outside Bayonne, calculating that we could conclude our excursion at cocktail hour close to the cafes at the southern end. Thus, our walk started on the Plage de la Barre, a small, isolated beach between two rock jetties that jut into the sea.  This beach and the next, the Plage des Cavaliers, have blended several WWII blockhouses into terraces along the promenade, some decorated with colorful graffiti.

We paused along the Plage des Dunes to admire the beautiful Chiberta Golf Course, which sits just beyond the low dunes. This quiet beach and the adjacent Plage de l’Ocean have been chosen by naturistes as a suitably welcoming spot, although nudity is technically prohibited. Continuing our walk, we reached the Plage de la Madrague and Plage de la Petite Madrague, popular with families. No wonder. The landscaped grassy areas that border the wide stretch of sand are excellent for kite-flying and football, creating the perfect parental paradise: happy kids frolicking on the sand and turf while the adults sip cocktails at a très sympa café close by.

Anticipating drinks for ourselves, we picked up our pace and strode past the Plage des Corsaires. No pirate nowadays, of course, just more green space for games and family-friendly activities. When the Plage des Sables d’Or and its row of restaurants and bars came into sight, it was tempting to grab a seat.  Not us. We refused to call it quits until we’d traversed the entire route. We march on to the Plage Petite Chambre d’Amour, the last Anglet beach, picturesquely perched at the foot of the Cap St. Martin cliff and the Biarritz lighthouse. The beach takes its name from the nearby cave where legend says two star-crossed lovers illicitly met and were carried out to sea during a storm— proving that every pretty place profits from a doomed-lovers tale.

At last, our dogged determination to finish the entire promenade was rewarded  with a perfect “California” vision: a band playing rock and roll music outside a beach bar shack. A friendly, relaxed crowd lounged on the wide wooden deck. We ordered bière pression and watched the shimmering late-afternoon waves beat a white froth at the shoreline. When the light turned golden and the sun took on an orange tinge, we strolled back to Sables d’Or and selected a restaurant on the paved esplanade. We dined on faux filet grillé and frites, and raised a glass to “California dreamin’ on the coast of France” as the sun dipped into the silvery sea.

Martha McCormick is a former journalist and handmaiden to two growing daughters,  with a love of travel. She works in the retail shop of an award-winning French restaurant, where she gets to practice her “coq au vin” and “foie gras” pronunciation all day long.

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