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Stormrider Guide to surfing La Côte Basque

France, EUROPE

Avalanche Marc Fenies


+ Variety of reef and beach - Wet climate year-round
+ Beginner or big-wave zone - Pollution and crowds in summer
+ Same day snow and surf Cultural interests - Cold water in winter
+ Rich surf culture - Expensive

The Côte Basque shares many characteristics with the north-facing Spanish coast and is blessed with some decent submarine geology. Slabs of reef dot the coast, focusing some of the most organised and unadulterated swell trains into scary, big-wave arenas, but there are also calm beginner coves, headlands, famous reefs and great jetty surf, offering a cornucopia of fun waves for all abilities and surfcraft.

When to Go

The coastline faces due west around to due north, catching the bulk of the very consistent North Atlantic swells. Unfortunately, it is not so well orientated for the dominant NW winds. When a low pressure approaches the coast, winds usually blow from the SW before turning WNW. Big storms are common and the surf can remain blown out for several days. Combine this with rain and cooler temperatures and it can get a little depressing! On the other hand, when a high pressure covers the country you will be blessed with sunny skies and in the mornings, light offshore breezes (about 1/3 of the time). In the afternoons it’s usual for a light to moderate NW sea breeze to kick in. Tidal ranges can reach 4.50m on spring tides, at which time very few spots work properly, so timing the tides is crucial.

Surf Spots

The famous wave of La Barre has all but disappeared with the Adour river jetty extensions but peaks still form between the shorter jetties in heavy swells. Peak summer/autumn season often sees over 100 surfers in the water at Les Cavaliers, looking for tubes rivalling those of Hossegor or simply something to surf when everywhere else is flat. Handles stronger swells that unfurl over the outer banks at low tide, before edging inside and ending up as proper shore-dump for a couple of hours at high. Rips, pollution, surf schools and aggressive crowds bickering over the pretty A-frames. There’s a lack of jetties and therefore less crowds sitting on the transient sandbars of Plage de l’Ocean, La Madrague through to Les Corsaires and Marinella, which can all be magic one day and junky the next, depending on the sand distribution and wind. Swell angle often dictates whether the longer Sables d’Or rights or hollower lefts will be better, with powerful tubes appearing on the good days. The jetty rips can help avoid a pounding when the swell jumps. Handles all tides and a bit more swell than the open spots just to the north. Crowds can be crazy with waterfront parking spots, surf shops and restaurants. Le Club often entertains a defined, bowly right off both the short and long jetty. When it works, good tubes are on offer, especially in the bodyboarder-friendly shorebreak at higher tides. VVF’s half-kilometre of sand pitches short sucky peaks or long, lined-up walls onto a variety of banks from the short jetty peak to the left in front of the crumbling cliffs below the lighthouse. All tides, all swell sizes up to 3m and it is nicely protected from all S winds. Grande Plage is the Basque coast’s chic city beach that receives less swell than Anglet, but handles a very large variety of conditions. Rocks at the south end shape the banks and block S-SW winds. Sometimes the fat rolling peaks are fun and easy, other times they are sucky and close-out. Côte des Basques is popular with longboarders and surf schools enjoying mellow walls sheltered from northern winds. There’s usually a peak close to the headland and another defined peak a bit further down the beach. High tide disappears the beach all the way down to Marbella and Milady. Better known for golfing and dining-out, Ilbarritz also hosts a couple of beaches that can produce good waves among the scattered reefs. It is often ill-defined and a mushy closeout, but lines up some shallow, bowly rights and a choice of peaks down the beach in front of the massive Camping Pavillion Royal. With mellow waves breaking over a mix of sand and rocks, Erretegia beach has long been popular with surf schools. Tucked beneath low cliffs, the beach all but disappears on big high tides so dropping tide is better on small to medium swell. Bidart has occasional memorable days with both fast walls outside and fun shorebreak hooks on the inside. Closes-out in bigger swells, is often crowded and there are some gnarly rocks to contend with. Next town of Guéthary is home to the rumbling rights of ✪Parlementia. The terrace gives the best view of this Sunset-like right with a shifting peak and short shoulder that holds up to 6m faces on a clean, NW swell. The outside bombora-style reef is quite deep, so the peak draws up a lot of water and only invites those on large, long, voluminous boards to get in early. There is also an attractive left off the peak, which rumbles back across the inner reef, sometimes walling up steeply or else sectioning and closing-out. On small to moderate days, faster rights break over this shallower reef shelf that entice the shortboarders, but eventually the sets off the west peak will punish with a circuit via the inside then the channel. Can be some fun, steeper, inside runners for the less gun happy and the wide playing field does give everybody a chance. Paddle out from the harbour to avoid the rock slalom at lower tides. Always deceptively bigger than it appears and it’s always crowded with the longboard and pintail gun locals, who dominate the peak by knowing it backwards, plus a whole flotilla of others from groms and surf schools to granddads. Across the bay, Les Alcyons short but powerful left reefbreak jacks on take-off and barrels across a shallow shelf. A heavy liquid and local current dominates the experts-only line-up. The outside reef of Avalanche is where a handful of experienced locals paddle into the biggest waves in the country and tow crews also frequent the line-up. Best on low tide, the long walls flex and flow with some high pockets and muscular shoulders. The rocky bay at Cenitz can tempt surfers to a few fun lefts and rights but needs a peaky swell and high tide to not close-out. Can be annoying with soft shoulders and not connecting up, but check on headhigh with more N in the swell. Lafitenia sculpts a beautiful righthand pointbreak, complete with steps in the steep take-off, that leads into a long fatter wall and occasionally hollow inside section. Frequented by multi ability surfers on various craft, it’s a fairly friendly wave. Lower tides, any E wind and more W in the swell should get the wall lining up across the bay. The neighboring beaches of Mayarco and Erromardie usually lack quality. It’s very rare for the enclosed, fashionable beach of St Jean de Luz to be worth riding, but a long right with a radical, sucky take-off wraps around the jetty on the north side of the bay at Sainte-Barbe. It then runs off through a series of wall to shoulder sections as it refracts around the reef for quite a distance to Inside Sainte-Barbe. Much closer to shore is Les Flots Bleus, a mini wave well-suited to kids and beginners. More N in the swell penetrates better, any NE to S wind will do and a dropping tide keeps it interesting. When it gets huge, spots work inside the bay near Ciboure or a soft peak breaks in the shadow of the Socoa Fort and it’s offshore in a westerly. 2.5km offshore at Belharra Perdun, a 15m deep, seagrass covered shoal creates an A-frame peak on the two or three largest swells of the winter for the European tow-in crew. Has been a previous winner of the XXL contest with a wave estimated at 66ft. Only breaks on low tide unless it is psycho huge and can be watched from the coast road cliffs between Socoa and Hendaye. On the border with Spain, Hendaye Plage is the answer when everything else is closing-out. A long stretch of average beachbreaks offers a wide choice of peaks; usually better close to the casino or the south jetty. The place is perfect for beginners, which explains the amazing number of surf schools. Further out off the eastern headland is Vanthrax, an imaginatively named death peak that spews out massive left barrels a handful of times a year. Crazy bodyboarders and pros only.


dominant swell W -NW W -NW W -NW W -NW W -NW W -NW
swell size (ft) 7 6 4-5 2-3 5-6 6-7
consistency (%) 60 70 70 60 80 70
dominant wind SW -NW W -NE W -NE W -N W -NW SW -
average force F5 F5 F4 F3 F3 F5
consistency (%) 36 37 38 39 31 40
water temp (C) 12 13 17 22 19 15
wetsuit 4/3 4/3 3/2 springsuit 3/2 3/2

Travel Information

Due to the proximity of the Pyrenees mountains, it rains about 1500mm annually on the French Basque coast (1 day out of 2), which is less than the Spanish Basque country, but more than Hossegor. Summer stays light until 10pm and in the winter it’s dark by 5.30pm. The weather is reasonably stable from March to October, although March/April will be much cooler than May/June or Sept/Oct, which are the prime months. Water temps bottom out at 11.3ºC (53ºF) in March then climb to 23.1ºC (72ºF) in August. Same wetsuit requirements as Hossegor.

Lodging and Food
Many hotels, from budget up to 4-star. On the N10, you can expect a double from $35, but the average in town is $50, especially in high season. Campsites are plentiful from May to September but beware of the wet climate. Typically, a restaurant bill is $20 not including wine. Hypermarkets have a huge selection of cheap food for self-caterers.

Nature and Culture
There is an aquarium in Biarritz and a Museum of Ocean and Surf (Cité de l’Océan et du Surf). The Longboard Surf Festival occurs in mid-July. If you are in the area in early August, then don’t miss the Fete du Bayonne. Lots more festivals in October. Bars and nightclubs are very lively in peak season. The combination of sea and high mountains found in the Basque country make this area one of the most beautiful and enjoyable places in the world. Local sports that are well catered for include golf and mountain sports in the Pyrenees, whilst Pelote and Course du Vaches (jumping over charging cows in a bull ring) are interesting spectator sports.

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