A Beginner Surf Trip – Biarritz
The “goldilocks” day landed on day 5. Offshore winds, decent groundswell. Clean 4-5ft faces. Big enough to get my heart pumping.
Pulling on the trusty 3-2 O’Neill wetsuit, I felt the pain. That bittersweet feeling somewhere between deep muscle ache and paddle readiness that can only come out of surfing twice a day, day-in-day-out. My body was starting to lag, but I had it, no worries.
“Taking On” Proper Waves
As it turned out, I didn’t have it. In fact, I was knackered. With my usual half baked duck dives, bad timing and terrible line, it took everything I had to get out. Spaghetti arms were in full effect by the time I’d battled my way through the beach break onslaught to make it to the line up at central Cote des Basques. The first decent day for waves and I’d screwed myself out of a good chance at taking it on. Damnit.
I paddled on, counting twenty strokes even after I was beyond the bigger waves. I took a breather, happy to at least sit and feel the rhythm of the waves passing through. Then the set waves came through.
That sensation. The full blooded, gut wrenching, wide-eyed fear that comes from taking on tougher conditions hit me front on. Adrenaline kept me going after that. My useless, weak arms somehow kept my 7ft minimal moving, and I gave it shot.
The waves were fast moving and easily the most powerful I’ve ever felt. Stunned with fear, my first two attempts were half baked. I wasted crucial energy by paddling, then bottling it just before the pop up. I scalded myself. By the time I actually committed to a wave, my arms gave out and I faceplanted the board. After what seemed like a lifetime, I resurfaced; my first introduction to being “rag-dolled”. I took the next few set waves on my head, before numbly clambering back onto the board and inching back to shore.
Lesson learned. I’m an idiot. Also…
- Surf check: It’s absolutely vital to check out conditions and weigh them seriously. 5 minutes won’t cut it either. Spend a good bit of time watching how things are working from the shore. Wave sizes can be seriously deceiving from the shore – compare them to the other surfers in the water, ask life guards and locals.
- Ability check: A huge part of surfing is about pushing your own ability, so don’t take this as a warning to duck out of any scary looking opportunity, but make sure you’re prepared. Can you handle it? If it’s it bigger than you’re used to, do you have enough energy and back-up plans if it goes badly?
- Fitness: As basic as it sounds in hindsight, this day taught me how essential it is to get fatigue taken care of before heading off on a trip. Swimming at least during the week before is a good start. It might sound too little too late, but I’ve learned that even two or three swimming sessions in the build-up can noticeably boost your stamina.
These are foundation lessons, ones that should be drummed in to all beginner surfers. Sadly, as with my case, it usually takes a real-life wake up call to get the job done.
Beginner Surfing In Biarritz
We chose Biarritz for a few reasons:
- Beach breaks. The best place for beginners (soft, sandy bottoms and white water to build up from).
- It was close. Within three hours you can be suited up and stepping into the water at Cote des Basques.
- We found dirt cheap flights and accommodation.
We stayed at Surf Hostel Biarritz. Not great, unless budget is the name of the game…
The vibe was really weird, with just as many drifters as there were surfers. The staff knew nothing about surfing, and spent more time worrying about the 11pm curfew than anything else. If you check the website you’ll see they do “Bed + Breakfast + Bike + Board”. The beds were fine, but the bikes and boards were hanging on by a thread and the breakfasts were… well, marginally better than going hungry. Then again, it was dirt cheap, so it worked for us.
Our first session was strange. The tide was rising quick – with a high tide mark half way up a 15ft wall of rocks – and the sandbars seemed to be shifty. The wind was up and the water was pretty choppy, so we jumped at anything that came through slightly cleaner. We traded a few, my best effort was an occasional trim down the line, but the rest of the session was a dreary battle.
The main lessons I learned that day were that I needed to improve my positioning and (after applying some advice from a surf coach friend to one of the photos Biels took from the shore) be more conscious of my centre of balance and leg positioning when I’m paddling. I picked up a mantra. “Legs together, paddle close. Legs together, paddle close”.
The best day was barely knee high. The press was off, and with the hostel’s massive foam boards to use, we focused on fun.
We took on all kinds of conditions. The tide was immense, and with a drift pulling us ever South, the paddling was constant. We definitely earned our waves, especially with the climb up the hundreds of steps back up the cliff.
Off Season Biarritz – Where’s The Surf Culture?!
Aside from the locals ripping in the water and the occasional surf school, our time in Biarritz didn’t serve up any real surf vibe. Actually, there wasn’t any kind of vibe.
First impressions were walking through the sprawling terracotta neighbourhoods that connected the airport and the town. Aside from some elderly couples; smiling and waving from their front porches, there weren’t many people out and about. More quiet streets, more elderly folks. The young, pumping Biarritz I’d seen in surf films and brochures was more like a sleepy retirement district.
The downside was the quiet night out, with the bars, restaurants and shops that were usually geared up for tourists closed for business most of the time, but the upsides were obvious.
Relatively calm surf (perfect for beginners), not-too-busy line ups, cheap flights, space in the hostel, not many tourists and plenty of locals to interact with. It’s worth mentioning that all of the locals were really friendly – even in the water.
A few off peak Biarritz tips:
- Cheap flights
- Cheap hostel
- Everything closes at strange times – be wary of getting caught out for dinner!
- Pubs are expensive
- Shop-bought wine is cheap!
- Surf is constant but beginner friendly
- Rain is a given
Luckily, being France, the wine is still great even in off season…
So we rewarded ourselves with a couple of bottles of red. Every day.
A Quick Word on the People
Our group totalled three. A good mate, Biels; an English-Spaniard with tongue firmly in cheek, and Mike; the source of all things profane. Off kilter cuts of banter accented in a thick Mancunian twang.
Staying in the hostel we met a lot of new people, all learner surfers. Josh and Jack; tennis instructors, Ian, a teacher who was only around for a day or two but left a lasting impression with a disgusting hostel story and Julia, a Swede who was as lovely as she was loopy, jogging god-knows how many miles on a hangover before the rest of us had even made it to breakfast at 8am. Then again, I can’t knock her after delivering eyeball reports of the surf on the far side of town to our breakfast table. She was pretty handy in the water as well.
Between surfing we filled our time with cycling to nearby villages, practicing on the hostel balance board and prepping dinner with the best shop-bought food and wine we could find. Budget was the name of the game, so we avoided eating out too much. We also learned the value of stocking up pretty quickly; Biarritz shut up shop completely without any warning more than once. Miss the magic hour and you go hungry for the rest of the day.
The one time we did venture out for a night in the bars, Biels and Mike managed to hone in on a craft beer joint selling pints for €10+ a pop. Too polite to say anything after the pint had been poured, poor old Biels sat staring at his beer until our laughter got too much for him. He never did finish that drink.
The surrounding area was awesome; coastal cycle paths and old architecture set against a backdrop of rolling green fields and the far-off Pyrenees. At one point we found an old Basque Pelota court (a cross between tennis and squash played with wooden rackets) in Bidart. Josh and Jack took the lead.
Final word – Surfing In Biarritz
This trip was my first ass-whooping in the water, and as stupid as I felt at the time, I can see how crucial it was.
As I dig further into this sport, the challenges are getting tougher and the lessons more poignant. Trips like this remind me how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned. If you’ve read this far (thanks!) I hope I’m giving you some inspiration to get out there and challenge yourself. Surfing is a challenge, and it takes a certain amount of calculated risk, but with a bit of research and a good head on your shoulders, you’ll be giving yourself the best chance to keep pressing on.