This Bank Holiday weekend we have a triple bill of a travel feature. As the sun arrives in Blighty, Tom Garton sets off for a road trip through the Basque Country. First stop, just south of Biarritz, is a property fit for literary setting…
“Would you like to upgrade to a convertible sir? It’s only 10 euros more”
I always upgrade. Top down. Ray-Bans on. Luggage flung onto the back seat, before stalling my way out of the airport car park.
I’m embarking on a journey from Biarritz down to San Sebastian. My first stop is Saint Jean de Luz, and the five-star hotel Parc Victoria.
My blonde companion has been reading Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and is expecting the decadence of fin-de-siècle France. We venture out onto Autoroute 63 from Biarritz airport to Saint Jean de Luz. The Basque country’s craggy, yellow green mountains strike out against the verdant mist.
Everything seems to be going well when, without warning, golf balls of ice slam into our heads. This most violent hailstorm carries on for the rest of our journey until we drive up through the wrought-iron gates of Parc Victoria, and scurry into the hotel reception. So much for the convertible.
On first impressions, Parc Victoria seems the perfect setting for an Agatha Christie novel. It’s an erstwhile magnificent 19th Century mansion on the outskirts of Saint Jean de Luz. The main property is surrounded by luscious overflowing gardens and vegetation. It’s a tranquil spot, and you can breathe in all the greenery.
I run into the reception, the hail storm still pounding. I’m met simply by the ticking of a clock. The chap on reception leisurely checks us in and books us in for dinner at 8.30.
As he leads us down to the junior suite – a semi-detached cottage at the bottom of the drive – I’m struck by the total silence at the hotel.
The suite is large. Decorated in an art-deco style. There’s a replica print of The Kiss on the wall. There are parquet floors. Everything seems to be of a high quality, with dark wood beds, rich, crisp sheets, and ornate free-standing wardrobes, but it does feel like you’re staying at your grandmother’s house. It looks like it was expensively renovated thirty years ago, with nothing much done since.
Unpacked, we wander up past the pool to the hotel’s restaurant – Les Lierres. It’s heated, encircled by white sun loungers under the cover of trees.
It’s a Wednesday night. The restaurant is carpeted, lit by an amber glow from standing lamps, and populated by art-deco style trinkets. Jazz plays faintly over the sound system, punctuated by the semi-audible mumblings of the local, well heeled, octogenarian clientele.
We’re offered champagne aperitifs, and some foie gras amuse bouche. We are guided to the restaurant. The warm lighting, white tablecloths, and heavy silverware is contrasted beautifully against the midnight blue of the warm spring night outside.
The restaurant is the showpiece of the hotel. Being a Relais and Chateaux property it’s unsurprising that the food is exquisite. Fresh fish and seafood from local fishermen dominate the menu and are given a sophisticated, light and traditional treatment by chef Guillaume Applaincourt. Order the lobster roll, it’s utterly, exquisitely divine in its sweet, confident Frenchness. Other highlights are the local langoustines, and the extensive cheese board. After cognac, and several bottles of Basque wine we head back to our room.
Breakfast is in the hotel’s conservatory. It feels like the parlour of a batty, wealthy, old aunt who insists your family has a link to the Royal Family. It takes a while for the single waitress-cum-chef to realise that we’re here for breakfast and bring out the coffee.
The coffee is French. French coffee, like French cigarettes, somehow manages to evade EU health regulations. Two cups and you’re on the edge of an aneurysm. I like it. Deliciously salty French butter, gloopily, fruity French jam, dense, creamy French croissants, and the anxiety of an imminent cardiac arrest. A perfect start to the day. But for the Parc Victoria’ disproportionately elder guests, they must be dining with the Devil every time they have breakfast; never knowing whether this coffee will be their last.
It’s odd. When Hemingway was writing The Sun Also Rises, the pretty young things of the last century would live it up at a place like Parc Victoria. At some point in history it must have been a grand, frolicking, tranquil temple to pleasure. Today the atmosphere is luxuriously conservative.
Saying goodbye to this quiet monument to the last century, we hop back in the convertible, and head to Biarritz.
Hotel Parc Victoria is part of the Relais & Chateau collection. For more information about the property, including details of special offers and what to see and do in the region, visit www.parcvictoria.com.