Words and pics: Alan Taylor (SUP North)
School’s out for summer! So, with family where do you venture for your summer break? France – that’s where! (Well, you do if your name’s Alan Taylor, you’re one of the founding owners of SUP North and looking a family friendly stand up destination).
Here is where the problems start with two adults and two children… The cost of travelling in the summer holidays can soon spiral out of control. With flights, accommodation and, if you’re anything like my family and me, you can never have enough toys with you – be it skateboards, kites, surfboards and paddle boards – toys to enter our ever growing quiver of fun.
This is where I have a solution; a van trip to the South West corner of France. Bidart, near Biarritz, is an area littered with amazing surf spots and unusually warm waters.
As a child, I spent many a summer vacation in the same area of the Basque Country, as my dad was, and still is, a super keen surfer. So I am familiar with all the area’s breaks – mainly from a lying down point of view as a grom on a body board.
So this is where we base ourselves; Pavilion Royal, a campsite sitting right on Bidart beach. There are three vans in total; my Dad’s, my sister’s and mine, all loaded to the brim with all manner of surf equipment.
As every surfer knows the best time to surf uncrowded clean waves is first light before the sun peeps its sleepy head over the horizon. This is where every day begins for us, checking out the family’s favourite break Guethary, just a short drive south of our camp. Here a fat, lonely wave breaks a 10 minute paddle out from a small, old time whaling harbour surrounded by deeper clear waters, promising long, fun rides over a bumpy reef.
Guethary became the setting for one of our heaviest sessions with only the boys choosing to venture out into the imposing double over head monsters sucking up off the rocky bottom. Guethary is a break that can hold huge size and as a child, eating with my family at some of the local restaurants, I had often stared at pictures hung on the walls of colossal waves breaking out in front of the town. Well, these where not as big as those winter storm giants but plenty big enough to give you a good washing machine experience to remember.
After dropping into a few bombs on my Starboard 9ft carbon Nut board and successfully avoiding a beating my time came and, missing a drop on a wave, I was caught in the impact zone of a monster set readying itself to go full spin cycle on me. I stared at the beast rearing up, exposing its ridiculous mass and volume, knowing I only had seconds before the eventual pummeling. I took time to breathe, calming myself for the impending impact I knew was coming my way.
After a gulp of air I sunk beneath the surface, holding on to my paddle with a vice-like grip, swimming down deep. Then it started, a violent tug from my leash followed by what many fairground rides try but fail to imitate; a G-force of roll, pull and push, squeezing my lungs of any air left inside like a rag in a crazed dog’s jaws.
Exhausted of air, as the beating subsided I swam towards the surface and eventually rose to the top gasping for breath amongst a surface now filled with a swirling mass of white foam. But this was the first wave of a set which wasn’t finished with me. Like a gang of school bullies, it released its beating another two times – letting me know who was boss. I tried as hard as I could to stay calm and let the ocean do its worst until it eventually relented and it allowed me to escape.
Like a half drowned cat running across ice, I made my escape from ground zero, paddling fast to the side and then into the shore, first lying and then standing as my composure returned. Exiting the water in front of the tapas bar, where cool locals and tourists were snapping pics of the carnage and riders, I was welcomed in with respectful smiles and nods, like a warrior returning from battle. Even though I had taken a hammering, I could not help but feel like a hero.
Gladly not everyday was like this and most afternoons were spent on our camp beach as travel around Biarritz at any time other than first light is nothing short of horrific, with busy holiday and local traffic making it almost impossible to park at most popular breaks and destinations. The camp beach line up, along with many other surf breaks, is just like the traffic with many a near miss and the occasional collision, loaded with surf schools and learners who have yet to learn any surf etiquette.
As a stand up paddle boarder this is no place to learn your craft. A short leash, board control and impeccable surf manners are recommended to avoid a dressing down from a local ripper. Having said that, with a short walk down the beach you can find a space providing a great learner’s playground as during lower states of tide long lines of foamy white water are in infinite supply with smiles on every face as they bump along on the mushy lines. But beware, nudist beaches are in full effect and with just a short wash down the beach you can get a nasty views of things much further south than you would ever like to see.
On a day of no waves Saint Jean de Luz, a huge harbour to the south very close to the border of Spain, is an excellent choice for a flat water paddle. With SUPs available to rent here, over 40 paddlers can often be seen on the water. But Saint Jean de Luz does not only offer flat water SUP action – as we found on a huge day when we used the harbour as a bolt hole to shelter from the giant waves crashing along the Basque coast line. The spot then comes alive and offers a great SUP/longboard wave, jacking up right on the edge of the northern most harbour wall. However this drop is not for the faint hearted, as the outside take off spot is almost as steep as the harbour wall itself; the set waves smash over it as if to intimidate any challengers to its peak.
The Basque coastline has many more exciting breaks to surf, some of which did not show their hand on this trip. It’s certainly is a great experience on a paddle board. I was made up that my whole family took to the water swimming, paddling and surfing on every day of our two week vacation. Saint Jean de Luz offered lots of flat water terrain and possible long, small, learner waves on the right days on the inside. There are many more powerful beach breaks dotted all along the coast, giving a full on short board, lip smack experience.
This corner of France has a lot to offer the SUP community!