With a distinctive language called Euskadi, piment d'Espelette-spiked cuisine, a passion for jai alai and an architectural style dominated by red and white, the Basque country -- located in southwestern France and the northern tip of Spain -- is a region of discovery.
If you're looking for a European beach getaway that gets you away from the clich's of the Côte d'Azur and Spain's golf-course-covered Costa del Sol, this rugged coastal region fringing the Atlantic might be just the ticket.
Basque beaches deliver a range of fun-in-the-sun experiences -- from the blinged-out scene at posh Biarritz, to the true-blue international surf culture that thrives in the wave-happy towns of Hossegor and Mundaka. Just across the French border, in Spain, the sophisticated metropolis of San Sebastian (aka Donostia) offers big-city culture, lively tapas bars and 2 picture-perfect sweeps of broad beautiful oceanfront.
The grande dame of France's Atlantic Coast beaches, Biarritz is a civilized little ville with a population of predominantly pensioners during the winter months. Come summer, the slow pace gives way to a bustling beach scene studded with topless supermodel types. You'll be hard-pressed to find a spot to unfold your towel during the annual Biarritz Surf Festival in July. Happily, there are several beach areas to enjoy in Biarritz. The Grande Plage, dominated by the Casino Barriere de Biarritz, is a sheltered stretch with an urban feel -- seagulls forage for picnic leftovers, runners pad along the promenade and restaurants are within an easy walk of the sand. Around the headland, at the C��te des Basques, the beach is backed by rocky cliffs that lend a more rugged feel, and the waters are plied mostly by surfers out for a paddle. Engage in a natural healing practice with a spot of thalassotherapy -- offered by many resorts in the area, it's a rejuvenating saltwater-therapy method.
During the autumn months, hurricane swells in the Atlantic Ocean bring the promise of big waves to this tiny seaside community north of Bayonne. Surfers from around the globe flock to Hossegor to make the most of ideal wave-riding conditions, especially during the annual Quiksilver Pro professional surfing competition, which draws the sport's biggest names. The beach at Hossegor is a wide, sandy stretch, with none of the rocky headlands that dominate the coastline to the south. Modest beach homes, some available for weekly rentals, dot the dunes, and there are scant few hotels and restaurants to mar the pristine oceanfront setting. Just inland, the Lac d'Hossegor is a saltwater estuary lined with pretty walking and biking trails. And if you need some urban entertainment, Bayonne -- famed for the cured ham that hails from here, as well as the annual Fete de Bayonne -- is just a short drive away.
St. Jean de Luz, France
A short ride south from Biarritz brings you to this typically Basque fishing village turned stylish resort town. The architecture in St. Jean de Luz is much more traditionally Basque than what you see in modern Biarritz, giving the town a special charm. Stark white row houses shuttered in green, blue and red dominate the main crescent of city beach. It's worth strolling to the grassy headland that hugs the cove, where you can enjoy fabulous views of the town. St. Jean de Luz's sardine and tuna fishing industries aren't quite as thriving as in yesteryear, but they still do a brisk business. You can count on tucking into great seafood meals at the many cozy restaurants lining the streets that stretch back from the beach.
Spain's answer to Hossegor is this tiny beach town, home to a renowned left-breaking river-mouth surf break that is the longest in Europe and considered among the best waves in the world. Mundaka is dead in the wintertime. But during the summer and fall, vacation homes in the tiny Basque village fill with Spanish families and international wave riders. Much of the land here is part of the Urdibai Natural Preserve, a UNESCO-designated biosphere; few European beach towns can claim such a heady mix of surf adventure, culture and downright natural appeal.
San Sebastian, Spain
With what is arguably Europe's most beautiful urban beach, backed by a dining scene that's the stuff of any foodie's fantasies, the seaside resort city of San Sebastian appeals to the most decadent senses. Just west of the French border, San Sebastian (called Donostia in Basque) is the cornerstone of Spain's Basque country. Wide boulevards and ornate bridges lend a Belle ��poque feel to the city, but the famed pintxos bars (Basque for tapas) are entirely Spanish and Basque. Two sandy beaches straddle a rocky headland that's forested with trees and has a nice walking trail, and there's another beach at the base of Mount Igeldo. Your perfect beach day might involve starting your morning on the city's main beach, called La Concha, grabbing lunch in town, then strolling around the headland to soak up more sun on La Zurriola beach.