Biarritz is one of Europe's hottest surf spots. With her marriage on the rocks, Wilma Johnson learnt to surf at 40, moved there, and has written a book about it. Oliver Bennett meets the Surf Mama
At sea, a line of surfers straddle wild, white-topped waves. Back on the stately Quai de la Grande Plage, wetsuit-clad surf-bums stroll alongside ladies with lapdogs. It is time for that great French unifying ritual: lunch.
I’m in the grand old resort of Biarritz, expecting to find the pomp and stuffiness of retired nobility. Instead, I discover France’s top surfer hangout, and a beguiling mix of the regal and the beach-scruffy.
In prime position on the south-western French Atlantic coast, on the Côte Basque, the town forms the apex of one of the best-loved stretches of French seaside. Long beaches, buffeted by the Bay of Biscay’s winds, lead all the way to the Spanish border.
Biarritz still boasts the stately old buildings that attracted luminaries including Queen Victoria and Napoleon III in the late 19th century. By the 1970s, it had become a little too stuck in the past. Now, the town is France’s comeback kid, fashionable with the natives as well as foreign hipsters.
“The surfing has really bought the energy back,” a local hotelier told me. Companies such as Ripcurl and Billabong now have their national headquarters in Biarritz. It’s home from home for Karl Lagerfeld and chef Alain Ducasse, and currently to Londoner Wilma Johnson, 54, artist and author of her memoir, Surf Mama.
Wilma took up surfing at 40, after a move to the region and an end to her marriage. With Johanna, a Swedish friend, she set up the Mamas Surf Club for women (their motto: “Out of the kitchen and into the surf”) and her life fell into place.
“Once I learned to surf, none of the rest of it seemed to matter any more,” she says.
“It wasn’t just the need for the adrenaline rush. I felt as if I had to get off the land for a while, to see the world from a different angle.” Attempting to perch atop these rolling waves will certainly give you that.
“When you’re out in the surf, your problems tend to dissolve into the foam,” says Wilma.
“The next wave about to crash over your head seems a lot more important than the tragic state of your love life, your career or your bank balance. Or how to frame your latest masterpiece, or whether your 12-year-old daughter is too young to wear lip gloss or whatever else has been keeping you awake at night.”
Wilma showed me Guéthary, the prime surf village south of Biarritz, where the breaks are at their most magnificent. I gazed at the sea galloping in, then explored the leisurely resort behind, a scene replete with well-heeled maisons secondaires, many of them the fashionable Basquaise houses with eyebrow gables and ox-blood beams that look for all the world like a splash of Surrey en France.
After watching a furious game of pelota in the center – think Basque squash with added machismo – I went for a beer before heading back to Biarritz for lobster and white wine.
The current allure of the Côte Basque means that traffic along the corniche throbs all summer. To escape a particularly steamy lunchtime jam, I nosed into Bidart, a hilltop vantage point that looks over the sea on one side, and the foothills of the Pyrenees on the other. (There’s another thing about the Côte Basque: you can surf and ski on the same day and have foie gras for lunch.)
That afternoon, I headed into the hills and strolled through wildflower-strewn Alpine pastures, where the only sounds were tinkling cowbells and the distant roar of the sea.
It was tempting to try the famous Atlantic-to-Mediterranean walk, but I’d leave that for another day as I’d been told by Wilma that St-Jean-de-Luz, close to the Spanish border, was the kind of heaven-sent, easygoing French town that makes you start looking involuntarily in local real estate agents’ windows.
I drove in, found a café on the wide bay, and watched couples pad down to the beach in white toweling dressing gowns. St-Jean’s seafront Helianthal Hotel is a thalassotherapy spa (it uses sea water in its treatments) and, in the early evening, the beach turns into a living brochure photograph.
For a couple of days I swam, ate seafood, enjoyed the surf and remembered Wilma saying: “This could be the California of Europe”. She’s right, you know.
• Surf Mama by Wilma Johnson is out now, published by Summersdale