Even in January you can join the stout-hearted bathers who take a daily dip in the bay of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. It nestles to the east of the Bay of Biscay and is sheltered by strong sea walls making the curve of its golden sandy beach irresistible to Basque Coast bathers and tourists alike.
But in the middle of winter, a town cannot rely on its beach alone, so sample its many charms from traditional Basque architecture to excellent French restaurants, from cliff walks to the Grand Hotel’s Thalasso spa, and from coast to the mountain, for this seaside resort town sits just at the northern end of the Pyrenees and the local hills are perfect for bite-sized walking expeditions.
In terms of the local micro-climate, think Cornwall and then add a few degrees. The weather is generally warm, often wet, but frequently sunny too. So the promenade is lined with palm trees and the streets are festooned with lights: even in the winter it feels like a holiday town, ready to throw open its shutters and party at the first opportunity.
Typical of the Basque style, there’s a simple theme of white washed facades with ruby red roofs while down below the squares are lined with boxy plane trees, leafless and ship-shape for the winter. Towering above them is Saint-Jean-Baptiste, the largest Basque church in France which is famously beautiful, and where the marriage of Louis XIV and the Spanish princess Maria Teresa took place in 1660.
It’s stark white facade gives nothing away, except perhaps the vast scale of the interior. If you have visited the likes of Chatres you might be expecting something cold and austere, but instead you are greeted by the smell of warm timber emanating from its vast wooden galleries.
A few steps further on is the covered market so typical of small French towns, and where you can buy everything from fresh seafood to soft cheeses. If the weather is nondescript, then you could do better to hang out here, since there are plenty of places to eat, from the cute counter of La Buvette des Halles to the less showy cafe next door where locals the stall holders gather for the French equivalent of a swift half.
You’ll find the cafe it by wandering around the fish stalls which are housed in the market’s art-deco extension, the Poissonerie. Just to the right of the lobster tank is a glass window which looks straight into the cafe although (the bar’s entrance is outside the market). As you eagerly await your plat du jour, enjoy the decor which is all taken from old train carriages and other parts of the French railway system. The prices are also traditional – the house wine, for example, is 1.5 euros a glass and therefore cheaper than the average cup of coffee.
In the afternoon a stroll along the cliff path to the east of the town is definitely in order, or if you are feeling more ambitious and have a car then Saint Sebastian is only a few miles away and has five museums including an ecological aquarium.
The outdoor minded could alternatively drive a few miles out of own to walk up the local mountain known as La Rhune. The little railway only functions in summer months, as does the restaurant at the top, so take your own winter picnic, though on all but the finest days you’ll be coming down pretty quickly. However the spectacular view of the rest of the Pyrenean mountain chain heading to the south is worth the effort. You may even be tempted to come back in August and repeat the whole thing at a run in the company of local athletes who race to the top and back in an annual scamper.
Being so near the border with Spain, it’s equally tempting to hop over for a lunch of tapas, or at anytime for a plate of churros, those lovely sugary treats that are the Spanish equivalent of a doughnut. The locals do a lot of border-hopping thanks to bring back cheap Spanish alcohol, cigarettes and tobacco, indeed many a French hill farmer has supplemented his income with a bit of the same, using closely guarded secret routes through the mountains to avoid the border police who are still on the prowl these days. However you may be equally tempted by a visit to a Spanish branch of Zara, fashion mecca for all age-groups, as the prices are reported to be 30% lower than in London or Paris, and lower still in the January sales.
As with a Cornwall holiday, be prepared for times when there is no alternative but to stay indoors. At such times head to the Thalasso Spa at the Grand Hotel. Have every part of your body pummelled by the underwater jets in the natural salt-water pool which overlooks the immaculate beach. You are practically in the sea, except that you are warm. Tropical birdsong bursts forth as you take your shower between the sauna and the steam room, and there’s a plethora of herbal teas and fruits to sample as you while away the afternoon on a sun bed overlooking the Bay of Biscay.
St-Jean-de-Luz is about 20 minutes’ drive from Biarritz airport, which is served by Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) from London Stansted.
Where to stay The Grand Hotel de la Poste, rue Gambetta 88 (0033 559 260453) has shuttered rooms filled with antique furniture; b+b from 30 per person.