Atlantic breakers, craggy cliffs, nearly two miles of gold sand and lashings of seafood spiked with sizzling Basque chili pepper. This salt-of-the-earth border town in the far southwestern corner of France is fast becoming an amateur surf destination de rigueur.
Forget the celebrated surf glamor and rad barrels of high-octane Biarritz. A half-hour drive or train ride south along the same wave-stitched stretch of Atlantic Coast unveils the mellow Basque town of Hendaye. Smart on the border with neighboring Spain and encased by Pyrenean foothills, this is the clandestine seaside spot to savor Basque culture, cuisine and low-key surf minus le mega crowd.
Medieval pilgrims trod the ancient coastal path here on their slow, spiritual journey to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Ernest Hemingway waxed lyrical about the beautiful views of the fortified Spanish town of Hondarribia across the water from Hendaye in his 1940s novel Garden of Eden. In 1945 Winston Churchill, seeking a peaceful retreat from war-ravished London, summered here with his wife and daughter. French families learning to surf, amateur surfers and savvy foodies on the hunt for unpolished locavore flavors are the cool set today.
If you’re tempted by this quaint little spot, take a look at our suggestions to discover the best things to do in Hendaye.
The catch of the day, yellow or pea-green Izarra liqueur (sublime in cocktails) and the glorious Basque tradition of chili-pepper spiced pintxos or tapas fuel the dining scene. Eateries are clustered on the seafront, at the pleasure port, and uphill in the old town.
Set back from the Grande Plage beach, Nanou and Michel Antraygues at Itsas Zaldi make a formidable team. Franco-Spanish chef Michel’s seasonal bistro dishes draw on a childhood spent in the deeply rural Auvergne and a lifetime of world travel, and fittingly burst with contemporary Basque flavor. Monkfish, sea bream, hake, razor clams, the complimentary bowl of teeny gray shrimps as amuse-bouche, arrive fresh from St-Jean de Luz fishermen and are all truly sensational. A catchy mix of eclectic French tunes and a generously warm welcome by the gregarious Nanou are the icing on the cake.
Old-town dining revolves around the leafy green plane trees and shaded pavement terraces of Place de la République. At Gigi Burgers, Gigi and Antho cast an inspired Basque spin on the ubiquitous meat patty with toppings of fiery chili sauce, sweet piquillo peppers and smoky bacon. Culinary curios can’t get enough of the tasting platters of artisan Pyrenean cheese and Basque charcuterie curated by cheesemonger Pierre Derognard at Piarres. The hybrid fromagerie-épicierie (fine grocery) only opened in December 2021 but is fast setting a new trend for zero-mile deli dining.
Playtime in sun-scorched Hendaye cartwheels around three dramatically different districts. Begin in the bijou old town where centurion plane trees, pollarded at summer’s end, tango past traditional Basque half-timbered townhouses with distinctive burned-red paintwork. Pop into the whitewashed 16th-century Église St-Vincent on the central Place de la République to admire the same Basque-red altar walls and elegant dark-wood church galleries, which were off-limits to women in times past.
Mooch downhill next to the water—if the tide is in—filling Baie de Txingudi, a sheltered bay polka-dotted in summer with sailing boats, stand-up paddles and tangoing kayaks. Enjoy ring-side vistas of the Spanish town of Hondarribia across the bay from Chemin de la Baie, a well-kempt walking and cycling path running eight miles from Hendaye to Spain. Or hop aboard a shuttle boat at the pleasure port and sail to Spain for $2.
It is impossible not to feel giddy with delight at the first sighting of the glorious stretch of Hendaye’s pristine sandy beach, book ended by the pleasure port and the town’s two spectacular landmark rocks at sea called Les Deux Jumeaux (‘the two twins’). Colored flags by the water signal different zones where you can safely swim and learn to surf—neighboring Baie de Txingudi is a natural windbreaker, ensuring friendly small waves for beginners and children.
Saunter east along the belle époque seafront, lined with weathered neo-Basque villas, and at the far end duck onto the fine golden sand to access the Sentier du Littoral. This gorgeous coastal footpath jaunts for 16 miles northeast to Ciboure, St-Jean de Luz, Guéthary, and beyond to Bidart. The first section traverses Domaine d’Abbadia, a nature reserve of rolling sheep-specked fields atop rugged flysch cliffs. The 19th-century chateau and local flora and fauna exhibitions in the Maison de la Corniche Basque, both on the estate, are worthy pit stops.
Soothing mountain views unfold from most rooms at Hôtel Santiago, a contemporary hotel-restaurant where old-world Basque hospitality is very much alive and well. Charismatic hotelier Philippe Berra draws on the 20-plus years his father ran Hendaye’s original Hôtel Santiago in the 1970s to ensure a heart-warming welcome. Scandi-styled rooms embrace well-designed open-plan bathrooms and pastel hues with bold accents. The hotel considers practical details—complimentary mineral water and in-room kettle with tea and coffee are by no means a given in hotels in France. The restaurant, with talented chef Damien Camilleri in the modern Basque kitchen, is an address in its own right and summertime spills outside around the pool, jacuzzi and café terrace. Count 10 minutes on foot to the train station or old town, and another 20 to the beach.
Hôtel & Spa Serge Blanco
Enviably wedged between the golden sand of Grande Plage and clanking boat masts of the yacht-filled Port de Plaisance, Serge Blanco is Hendaye’s go-to spoiling address. Contemporary interiors with bright white palettes, minimalist décor and the occasional ocean-inspired artwork allow soul-rousing views of the big blue from vast bay windows to take center stage—from pretty much every balcony. Seawater fills the heated indoor pool and guests can freely indulge in the marine spa with toasty-warm seawater baths, saunas, hammam and outdoor jacuzzi with a romantic Spain view. Cocooning extras include seaweed wraps, white sand and coconut scrubs, mango butter massages and plenty more heavenly treatments to pamper and energize. Dining in the gastronomic restaurant Le Bidassoa, overlooking the pleasure port, is equally indulgent.