Biarritz, FranceThis past summer, a holiday in France’s Pays Basque saw us for the first time  in elegant, seaside Biarritz.

I’ve always been curious to visit this well-heeled watering hole. I have a soft spot for 19th century Grandes Dames, and Biarritz certainly fits the bill.

Tucked away in the southwestern corner of France, along the Atlantic Ocean, this town was most famous as an old whaling port until the late 19th century when seabathing became the fashion. Luckily for this outpost, this coincided with the boom in the railways, and this tiny whaling post developed into an elegant escape for the leisure class.

It helped that it became a favored destination for Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, meaning that many other well-heeled patrons followed in their path.

Biarritz, FranceBiarritz became even more exclusive during the Belle époque – and billed itself as an upperclass resort. An array of Art Nouveau buildings and sumptuous villas were built. A glittering casino was built in art deco style 1924 and appealed to the wealthy French and international visitors.

Biarritz afficionados included French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, Sissi Empress of Austria-Hungary, King Edward VII and the British royal family and the author Emile Zola.

The sumptuous Hotel du Palais was built on the site of the former Empress Eugénie’s Imperial Palace.

Biarritz, FranceLuckily for today’s visitors, these well-preserved buildings add to the jewel-like atmosphere of this town, and it doesn’t take too much to imagine what it would have been like teeming with horses and carriages and women strolling the seaside promenade in elegant Parisian fashions from Monsieur Worth.

Symbols of the town today include the picturesque lighthouse, the Phare de la Pointe Saint-Martin and the impressive Rocher de la Vierge: the Rock of the Virgin Mary.

This rocky outpost is reached by an iron walkway built by Alexandre Eiffel. The rock is topped by a statue of the Madonna, who is often bathed by the violent waves that crash into shore.

Biarritz, FranceA note of warning – unsuspecting visitors may be soaked, too.

This glittering resort saw a decline after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the lead-up to World War II. But the post-war years led to a new fashion – surfing, introduced by American GIs.

This past summer celebrated 70 years of surfing in Biarritz, and there were wonderful, old photos showing the rise of this new tourism. Surfers flock to this region today alongside beach-goers and tourists.

When you’re in this region, be sure to visit beautiful, ocean-side Biarritz.

Biarritz, France

Biarritz, France