Beyond delightful coquetries of rings, dresses, bags, and other baubles, the supreme gift a man can offer a lady love is a house; in return she will transform it into their home. A place to host friends and family, for celebration, but also for intimacy, a place of repose. For Empress Eugénie de Montijo, wife of Emperor Napoleon III of France, this house, offered to her by her husband, would be a palace on the Atlantic Ocean, on the outskirts of Biarritz. France’s windswept West Coast is ever more a favorite of French and European travelers — notably for its paradisiacal surfer shores, and picturesque neighboring fisherman villages like Espelette and Saint-Jean-de- Luz. Years ago, it was the childhood playground of Empress Eugénie, a formidable swimmer, for it was a stone’s throw from her native Spain. Designed in the imperial style, this vast palace with polished marble floors and golden lusters, features a rotunda overlooking the ever-changing cinematic sky. The former imperial home became the Hôtel du Palais Biarritz part of the Hyatt Group, and the only ‘Palace de France’ on the Atlantic coast. Here, guests enjoy fresh croissants while contemplating the swirling waters as they crash against gargantuan boulder rocks.
There’s a haunting air of mystery to Biarritz. A stone’s throw from the palace and overlooking these impressionable waves stands the landmark ‘Rock of the Virgin Mary.’ A statue of the Madonna has watched over fishermen since 1865, when, legend has it, a terrible storm caught men out hunting whales and a divine light guided them back to shore. Napoleon III carved a tunnel through the rock and erected a bridge, making the statue accessible from the oceanfront. If the first bridge was banished by waves, in 1887, Gustave Eiffel would soon create a new one, the same year he brought to life the Eiffel Tower. Flanking the palace in the opposite direction is the Biarritz lighthouse. Built in 1834, it stands 73-meters high with 248 steps leading to the top panorama overlooking the cape. It also marks the boundary between the Landes coastline and the Basque country coast and serves as one of several markers of Biarritz’s rich patrimony.
Over time, like the seed of love, the palace grew. Wings were added to create the form of the letter ‘E’ and the couple’s initials are woven throughout the imperial architecture. Golden bees, the symbol of Empress Eugénie, pepper the plush royal blue carpet. Inside the lobby, the curtains are light, and the blue and red color scheme is a nod to the uniform of Napoleon III. All this is set against white and gold leaf walls. Should there be a nick to the paint, or might a cushion seam come undone, a team of in-house artisans — craftspeople, woodworkers, upholsterers, and seamstresses — are available at all hours to maintain the hotel’s pristine nature. In fact, it is the only palace hotel to have such a dedicated team. The hotel is a member of the Comité Colbert, an association founded in 1954 by Jean-Paul Guerlain, which includes over 100 companies and institutions that uphold French artisanal savoir-faire.
Beyond the décor, the first thing guests will notice is the perpetual stream of natural light shining through single pane windows from the lobby through to the fine dining room where the one-star Michelin restaurant helmed by chef Aurélien Largeau is located, offering 180-degree views of the ocean. Don’t miss out on the chef’s signature lobster. If the palate calls for something sweet, try a pastry from chef Aleksandre Oliver, winner of Le Guide Michelin ‘Passion Dessert’ prize. While savoring a sugary delight, look up. Hanging from the ceiling, a 410Kg period chandelier commands the attention. Two hundred and fifty hours were spent returning it to its original splendor along with changing all its bulbs to economical LEDs.
After a long lunch or dinner, venture upstairs to one of the 56 suites or 86 rooms ranging from 28 to 100sq m . The suites bear the names of former guests who are now the stuff of legend. Princess Sissi, Ernest Hemingway, King Farouk I of Egypt, Romy Schneider, the Duchess of Windsor, and Errol Flynn, to name a few. Historic details abound, from ceiling woodwork to Napoleon-era gold leaf and wall hangings. Meanwhile period furniture is mixed with contemporary pieces and many suites feature unique toile de Jouy wallpapers. In the bathrooms hang paintings by Georges Ancely, chronicling the public baths of Biarritz.
Outside, almost caressing the ocean is the hotel’s kidney-shaped pool, which was inaugurated by Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner, in 1957. It is filled with water from the ocean, pumped 400 meters from the shore and heated to 28 degrees. The pool space features cabañas that can be rented for the season or by the day. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau couldn’t resist working by the pool when the hotel hosted the G7, in 2019. A smaller pool is at the service of children, as is a kid’s club for youngsters aged four to 14. Swimming, surfing, and paddle board lessons are available for young and old. Meanwhile, over 3,000sq m are dedicated to the imperial spa, where Guerlain and Leonor Greyl products offer the finest care through the hands of dedicated professionals. A hammam, sauna, and fitness center can be used by guests.
Should there be a special occasion to mark, six reception rooms are offered, the highlight being the imperial salon with a winter garden room. Its walls feature mural paintings by Paul Gervais and the original parquet floor. Considered a fashionable painter of the 19th century, the French artist from Toulouse was applauded for his work that featured women, love, and the virtues of civilization. Here, light streams through a glass ceiling at seven meters. Down the hall, a boutique offers local and designer fashions.
In 1830, Victor Hugo wrote that he hoped “Biarritz would never become fashionable,” and yet this coastal town with aristocratic lineage ultimately seduced the likes of Paul Poiret, and in later years, became home to Karl Lagerfeld and Jean Paul Gaultier. Most notably, Gabrielle Chanel sold her hats in Biarritz and opened her first boutique and atelier at the Villa Larralde with the support of her love Arthur Capel. Perhaps Chanel, an orphan of humble beginnings, felt a kinship to the story of the Empress who shared the name of her late mother, and who was considered of a lesser social rank to beloved. Emperor Napoleon once stated of his wife, “I have preferred a woman whom I love and respect to a woman unknown to me, with whom an alliance would have had advantages mixed with sacrifices.” The Hôtel du Palais Biarritz remains a moving symbol of this commitment anchored in self-love and mutual adoration. Its doors open wide for like guests, who seek days and nights away for themselves.
Originally published in the July/August 2022 issue of Vogue Arabia