Surfing in Southern France: The Basics
“What does it mean to pre-board? Do you get on before you get on?” ~ George Carlin
A surf trip is an opportunity to see new places and to discover yourself through the expression of who you think you are beyond the borders of your country—it will expand your mind and enrich your life in very meaningful ways so please don’t wait to do it.
In this article we will explore surfing southern France.
I have been traveling for over a decade in search of waves and experiences along European coastlines and I can tell you that there is much adventure awaiting you.
Surfing in Southern France was written with the help of a French local surfer with over 30 years of experience surfing in southern France, we asked him to help us create this Surfer’s Guide to Southern France. And he said yes, trés cool!
We will talk about the known spots in the southwest of France, unfortunately only the known ones. We were told by the locals that if we speak about the secret surf spots we could never have another chocolate French croissant and believe me this is a great punishment that we want to avoid—with a little creative exploration you’ll find some unknown oceanic French jewels while surfing southern France.
Most of the known spots are crowded in the summer but you can find empty line-ups off the beaten path or during the fall and winter. The fall is our favorite time to travel to surfing in southern France and can be exceptionally warm.
September and October serve up some solid swell with spring-suit or trunkable type conditions and is mostly outside of the European busy travel season—especially October, that's when I'll be there!
The Fall is cheaper and the surf will be more consistent in the off season—June through the beginning of September can be packed like a Mexican pinata and unless you like the sardine feeling we’d recommend staying away from this season.
Of course, you can go in the summer too—it’s a different place with topless girls and bronzed Italians, in winter the only thing topless will be your red wine bottle.
The winter can be brutal—you’ll want a 5/4/3 wet-suit with hoodie, gloves, booties and a bottle of tequila tucked into your wet-suit to keep you warm. You’ll need 3/2 full suit in October and sometimes into November.
I lived in Lacanau in the winter, it can be punishingly cold (like snow-on the-beach cold) and the waves can get so big that you won’t be able to surf.
But there will be many days in the winter with perfect uncrowded waves. Spring can also be enjoyable but the swells are less frequent and come from a different direction—May can be fun.
In mid September the tourists go back to work, so the surf is not too crowded, except in the areas of Biarritz, Hossegor, and Lacanau.
The best surf is around Hossegor and Biarritz/Anglet.
There are always a lot of surfers there, no matter of the season and sometimes a few pros dangling about—especially before the professional contests (usually in October).
A surf trip is an opportunity to see new places and to discover yourself through the expression of who you think you are beyond the borders of your country—it will expand your mind and enrich your life in very meaningful ways so please don’t wait to do it.
The Surf Basics Southern France: Best Time September, October & November
The French southwest coast is mainly exposed to full west swells (much like southern California), which means that the offshore wind is mainly from the east. Here are the wave facts:
- The swells come from the Northwest or the West.
- The best swells come from the Northwest.
- The biggest and most powerful waves break on sand bars.
- There are some reefs in the south, around Biarritz, mainly to the south of the city.
Insider’s Tip. There are a lot of small towns and unknown surf spots between Soulac and Lège-Cap-Ferret; in the Médoc between Biscarosse and Seignosse; in Les Landes between Capbreton and Anglet, and further south of Biarritz. Don’t limit yourself to the top name breaks, get in the car and explore and you’ll find some real gems.
The best surfing in southern France is in fall during September, October and November. These three months are synonymous with ze’ French Power, with off shore winds, barrels, and some big swells. Water temperature is still good south of the Aquitaine region, between 60° - 70° Fahrenheit.
View Southwest France Surf Spots in a larger map
Getting There & Away Surfing France
There are various ways to travel to Southern France. The biggest French airport is obviously in Paris, but there is one small international airport in Bordeaux called Bordeaux Mérignac and hour flight from Paris.
Flying into Bordeaux is the most convenient and most direct route to the surf. There is also a national airport in Biarritz and this is a good second option if you can find an airline that flies there.
There are numerous trains from Paris to Bordeaux (3 Hours on the TGV Fast Train) and Biarritz (5 hours)—in fact train travel in Europe is a great way to get around and if you take the fast train it can be quicker than flying and much cheaper to transport your boards. You can take your boards on the train no problem.
From the States I recommend flying into Paris or Bilbao, Spain. It will cost you about $800 - $1200 round trip in the off season to fly from the Los Angeles, California, and it takes about 12 hours.
I recommend flying into Paris and hanging out there for a few days before or after your surf adventure (always depends on swell of course).
The first thing you need to know is that Paris is split into districts, think of them as small neighborhoods. I also suggest at least two days in Paris near the 6th district, it’s close to most everything and has great shopping and dining.
It will cost you 50 euros to take a taxi from the Airport to the center of Paris and it will take between 20-40 minutes. You can also take the train but it’s a pain in the arse if you have boards and luggage with you. You’ll save like 30 euros, no really worth it in my opinion.
Insider’s Tip. One of my favorite places to eat in Paris is La Maonnina Italian restaurant at 10 rue Marie & Louise. The telephone number is 01 42 01 25 26. There are tons of places in the 6th to eat.
All trains departing for the Southwest of France leave from Gare Montparnasse in the 14 district (an easy walk or Taxi ride from the 6th). You’ll want to take the TGV fast train to the south of France to Bordeaux, Dax or Biarritz.
The train ticket to Bordeaux costs about $100 each way. Once you get to the south you’ll want to rent a car at the train station or airport ($500 for one week).
Booking your train tickets in advance can save you lots of dinero. Book your train tickets online here: http://www.idtgv.com/en/ It’s a little tricky to pre-book the car on the internet at the Bordeaux train station but with a little persistence you can do it.
The train station is called Bordeaux Saint Jean Train Station and the car rental companies on location are Sixt, Avis, National, Europcar.
The easiest way to book is to do it directly through the company websites. Here is the car we got one trip (take some soft racks).
I usually fly into Paris and out of Bordeaux Mérignac (BOD) airport (you can fly to many other European locations from Mérignac) and they always let me pick the car up at the train station and drop it off at the airport at no extra charge.
You can ask them about this when you go to pick up the vehicle. If you fly into BOD and need to get to the train station there is a bus that will shuttle you either way for 7 euros. It leaves every 45 minutes and takes about 30 minutes depending on traffic.
Give yourself an hour if you need to make a train or flight. At BOD airport the pick-up is in front of Terminal B at exit 11.
If you taking the bus from the train station to BOD look for the same sign in front of the train station in Bordeaux. If you decide to rent a car get the insurance.
On one trip when I got home there was a letter waiting for me telling me that the rental car company had charged my card an additional 250 Euros for a small scratch on the fender, not trés cool. Pay a little extra to avoid those unforeseen charges, it sucks to get a large bill that you didn’t expect in the mail after an epic surf trip.
On the main highway watch out for the radar cameras—you’ll see a warning sign before you hit the radar zone but if you don’t slow down and you see a flash you will get the ticket in the mail or the car rental agency will charge your card for the infraction.
Sometimes the police will set up stops or use radar on the smaller roads leading into towns. The French usually have border agents at the toll booths going back into France so you might want to dispose of any Moroccan goodies before you cross the border.
I’ve never seen the Spanish stop or screen anyone going the other way. Take soft racks. Seriously though, cars in Europe aren’t like American behemoths and most likely you’ll end up renting a smallish car.
Once you pile your wet-suits, wine, luggage and boards into the cramped space you’ll wish you had racks. Oh yea, don’t scratch the roof with the racks (see above) or leave your boards unattended—they might disappear.
Another option is to fly into Spain and drive up to the surf in France from Bilbao. It’s about a 3 hours drive from Bilbao to Bordeaux and the flight from the USA is about the same price.
It’s a really easy drive and the car rental companies don’t mind that you cross the border into France or visa-vera.
Do you hate border crossing? Bad memories of Mexico? Well, where to grab your coffee and croissant is your greatest worry while traveling between Spain and France, the border crossing is a non-issue, you just drive straight through. If you do get stopped it will be on the French side at the toll booth by a hot French chick.
Surfboards in France
As we all know, flying with boards is not that comfortable and can be very expensive. That’s why I must talk about surfboards in France. There are a lot of surf shops all along the coast, like everywhere in the world.
You’ll find small funny surf shops, but also the branded surf shops. You’ll find exactly the same brands of surfboards in France as in US or Australia—and let’s not forget those cheap Chinese and Thai surfboards. When you are surfing waves like these you will want your own surfboards.
Another option is to rent your board. Nick at Ocean Gypsy Surf (http://oceangypsysurf.com) has a fine collection of surfboard rentals. He is located in Labenne Ocean, 5 minutes South of Hossegor and 20 minutes North of Biarritz. Send him an email email@example.com or call him 33 (0) 6 33 82 14 26 to reserve a board.
Grub & Vin, uh la la Surfing Southern France
There are many different places for eat, from the worst to the best. Don’t worry about it before you come, if there is one thing that the French people don’t joke about, it is food and wine.
You’ll find very French restaurants, but also food from all around the world. One thing to keep in mind is the afternoon eating schedule, the French tend to start lunch around one and they finish eating around three and if you arrive too late they might not serve you.
Vegans will find it hard to eat in France and vegetarians that eat cheese are in paradise. Grab a bottle of red, a French baguette from the bakery and a chunk of blue cheese and you are golden.
You’ll also find a lot of street markets, organic or not. If you have an apartment, buying food at the street market and cooking it at home is the cheapest way to eat. But you’ll need a place with a kitchen, another reason to get an apartment.
If you like red wine, like me, then you are in the most bountiful wine zone of France with so many delicious Bordeaux’s that your head will spin when you walk into the store to select one. France’s first extensive vineyards were established by Rome in around 122 BC in today’s Languedoc and then later perfected in Bordeaux.
Map of South France Wine
The major reason for the success of wine making in the Bordeaux region is the excellent environment for growing vines. The geological foundation of the region is limestone, leading to a soil structure that is heavy in calcium.
In Bordeaux, almost all wines are blended. The typical blend consists of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon (and/or Cabernet Franc), with small additions of Petit Verdot and Malbec.
So, my friends, the real gift the French have is in how they blend those varietals. However, the French use one other interesting trick call chaptalization, which means they add sugar before undergoing barrel-ageing. In the south you can get a good bottle of Bordeaux for 4 Euros, so it won’t break your wallet either.
Great red wine and sick barrels, what else could you ask for?
Budget Surf Trip France
Accommodation will run $50-$100 a night in most places and your food budget is up to you. Shopping for fresh groceries and preparing meals will be much less than eating out every meal.
Finding an apartment for part of your trip is what I recommend, most breaks in the south are within a reasonable driving distance from each other. You could do a ten day trip (with car) for about $2000 USD, less if you camp and prepare most of your own food.
Add a few nights in Paris, some good meals out, and a few bottles of Bordeaux and that low budget could easily double.
Pillow Time Southern France
If you want to go to France in the summer, during July and August, it will be very expensive.
Insider’s Tip. Accommodation is much easier to rent and most summer rentals sit unoccupied during this season. You’ll be able to get long term rentals for about 40% less. Check out http://www.homelidays.com for great rentals. Also check camp sites (where you can rent mobile homes) and surf camps.
he well-known surf spots are more expensive. Be forewarned, you must book your accommodation very early in the year for travel during the high season—if not you’ll be sleeping on the beach, which might be cool too.
CampingThere are camp sites in every coastal city, prices vary depending on the popularity of the area—for example camping in the popular spots like Hossegor or Lacanau are much more expensive. You’ll find the prices on the internet. Here are some resources: http://www.campingfrance.com/UK/
There are not many guest houses in France. Chambres d’hotes are the way to go, you rent a room in a family house and can share meals and learn about the culture. Rooms can be offered in a home or in a spare room in the garden.
This is highly recommended for people that want to learn about French culture and lifestyle. You can, if you want, eat with the owner in some situations. There are a lot of different prices; this site is a good resource. http://www.chambresdhotesfrance.com
Couch SurfingThis can be a fun way to travel, spend time in someone’s home or on their couch. France has a big representation on this site. http://www.couchsurfing.com
HotelsThere are thousands of hotels in France. You’ll find all types of prices. You can book them on the internet: http://www.hotel-france.com
You might want to consider renting a place for a week or longer. There are lots of websites offering long term rentals. Here are a few links to get you started. I have used homelidays and liked it. http://www.homeaway.com http://www.homelidays.com http://www.airbnb.com
Where to Go First in Southern France?
Lacanau is a small quaint town and a nice place to start your trip. The further south you go the more crowded it will be. From Bordeaux train station it’s about 45 minutes by car to Lacanau or about 1.5 hours to Hossegor.
You’ll want to check the surf reports to see what’s the haps, but if there is swell all those places will be working. Lacanau has a lower profile surf scene than its cousins in the south and is more laid-back, it feels more rustic and is a good place to ease into the southern vibe.
You’ll find less crowds in this region and have the opportunity to explore some of the lesser surfed breaks to the north towards the Bay of Biscay. SearchForWaves.com is a great resource for surf forecast in southern France while on the road.
You can check surf spot information at: http://searchforwaves.com/France Surfline also has a forecast page: http://www.surfline.com/surf-forecasts/france/southwest-france_2955 Wannasurf France section is good for chatting with local surfers and learning details: http://wannasurf.com/spot/Europe/France/ Good site for wind: http://windguru.cz/it But yea, this is the age of the widget so here is the swell forecast for you . . .
Region I: The Medoc Surfing Souther France
The best waves are in Médoc, suggests our French local. Even if it’s perfect, you can surf alone or just with your friends. The waves only break on sandbars and there is a spot on every baïnes—every 300 to 400 meters.
A baïne is a kind of big hole in the beach, parallel with the ocean, made by the currents. At the door of the baïne, you’ll find the sand bars. Be careful when surfing the baïnes, people die every year from the currents and they can be tricky to manage in big swell.
Insider’s Tip. A nice hotel-resort in Lacanau for less than 100 Euros a night is the Vitalparc at Route du Baganais. The website is http://www.vitalparc.com and the phone number 33 (0) 5 56 03 91 00.
I have stayed there a few times, it’s about 5 minute drive to the ocean and has nice dining and even a Spa for your lady. Want a massage after your long session?[/box] The worst thing about the Médoc is that there aren’t a lot of sheltered spots and the wind can cause some real havoc.
When the wind is onshore, it’s best to look inside the mouth of the river called the Garonne—here you’ll find some off-shore waves, but usually a bit smaller than other places. You can also check the waves north of Lacanau towards Soulac.
The waves tend to get smaller as you travel north—depending on the swell and also remember to watch the tides. My favorite place to surf is right in town at Lacanau and here is a surf school if you are look for one.
There are a few really good sandbars and jetties that produce barrelling waves when the conditions are right. This place changes on the tide swings and can look totally uninviting at low tide and then turn on at high tide, so keep an eye on it and don’t be surprised if it jumps within a few hours.
You can go hang at Le Kayoc where they have free wifi and watch it. Le Kayoc is the restaurant at the end of the main drag and looks out onto several breaks. The food is ok.
Region II: The Landes
The best waves in France are around Hossegor, Seignosse and Capbreton—simply put, the surf is world class in this area and this is where they hold the professional surf contests each year.
There is a very deep fault at the bottom of the ocean in front of this region (much like Blacks in California). This means that the swell arrives extremely fast onto the sand bars, creating very large and powerful barrels (like the one on the previous page). Unfortunately, this region is cursed with the same wind issue as in the Médoc.
You can surf big waves in la nord (north) in Hossegor—from 12 to 14 feet. The southern beaches in Hossegor are a bit more sheltered from the larger swells if that’s more your style. So if it’s too big in the north, try hitting the southern beaches. It can be twice as big on the northern beaches—it’s a strange phenomenon, just a few hundred feet north it starts to get much bigger.
If it’s really big try heading for Capbreton, you can surf sheltered waves at the Santosha, but just as in le sud that damn French wind blows hard and could ruin your session. I have had some great sessions over the years in this region and I find the French trés cool in the water. Always remember to be respectful of the locals and other surfers in the water and follow courteous surfing etiquette—no snakes.
Grande Plage in Biarritz
Region III: Pays Basque (Basque Country)
The Basque country has a wide variety of waves with wonderful quality—this is one of the most beautiful coastlines in all of Europe. The mountains and ocean are married at the same place. That means that in winter time, you can have a surf session and a snowboard session on the same day.
In Anglet and Biarritz you’ll find hollow waves on sand bars. If you go south from Biarritz you’ll find a lot of different waves on reefs and sand bars. There are a lot of sheltered spots in the Basque region and it’s the best place to surf when the wind is howling or the surf is gigantic.
A solid swell at Biarritz can be super fun with options at Anglet five minutes away and playful reefs in the southern part of the city.
Insider’s Tip. I recommend the Hotel Le Bellevue in downtown Biarritz located right in front of an excellent surf spot and close to shopping and great food (check out the Italian right across the street). There are also beautiful walks along the boardwalk. The hotel is located at 5 Avenue Edouard VII. The phone number is 33559030450 and the email firstname.lastname@example.org
Surfing at Grande Plage in Biarritz can be really fun, it’s a thumping wave and when it’s going the peaks shift around so you can get waves even in the crowd if you work it. Try sitting outside near the rocks to catch some of the larger sets.
You can find miraculous waves without too many people if you hunt for the right spot, or keep going south to Spain—a totally different experience, one you will not want to miss!
Surf Guide To Northern Spain
San Sebastian is only about 30 minutes from downtown Biarritz and if the swell is too big in France it might be perfect in San Sebastian—check out the map. The winds are also different in Spain and sometimes it can be totally blown-out in France and glassy in Spain.
San Sebastian is a very protected spot that is protected by huge cliffs from the north and south. It's a nice day trip from France. Follow the signs out on the main highway and head toward Spain, the boarder is about 30 minutes from Biarritz.
You’ll go through several tolls on this route so grab some spare change. Depending on how deep into Spain you go you’ll need about 20 euros each way. Most of the tolls are automated, you throw the change into this bucket and the gate opens. It’s a pain if you don’t have the exact change, in fact they will make you turn around if you can't pay.
Once you enter Spain the coast make a large sweeping turn here and the beaches go from facing west facing to north facing in just a few miles. Thus the more northerly swells slam right into Spain, providing epic waves just around the corner.
Surfing San Sebastian Spain
San Sebastian is a fun wave and will hold plenty of swell.
Try and find a parking spot at the north end of the beach against the cliff. There is also a paid parking structure two blocks off the beach, just follow the signs. Don’t leave any valuables in your car.
]Insider’s Tip. Try the People’s Cafe on the main beach at San Sebastian for an awesome post session beer and watch the other surfers while basking in the sun. The have excellent sandwiches and really fresh bread and cold beer.
You can’t miss the wave at San Sebastian, there is a left off the jetty and a fun right next to the rocks at the north end of the beach. Sometimes it breaks in the middle section too, depends on the swell. This is a fun place to hang out for the day and you'll be surprised how different Spain is compared to France.
Surfing Mundaka Spain
If you have crossed the boarder into Spain you are not far from one of the premiere waves in Europe—Mundaka. The tides, wind and swell have to be just right but if you are lucky you might score this wave. If there is a lot of swell I’d check it for sure, it needs 3-5 meters to work.
Mundaka is situated on a beautiful cliff overlooking a breathtaking river mouth. Look up the river and be blown away by the immense beauty of this place. Getting there by car look for the Gernika exit right before (coming from France) the city of Bilboa.
Follow the signs towards Bermeo and eventually you’ll drop right in to Mundaka about 20 minutes off the main highway. If you get lost along the way just pull over and ask any local: “Donde esta Mundaka?”
Once you are in Mundaka prepare yourself for a small maze of streets, work yourself towards the harbor—the main break is right in front of the harbor opening. If you have a van you can even camp right in the main parking lot above the break, but as always be respectful and if the police come to your vehicle offer to buy them a beer.
To get to the main break head toward to harbor and jump in next to the boats (see picture below) and paddle about 30 yards into the lineup.
Insider’s Tip. The best place to stay in Mundaka is the Hotel El Puerto. The hotel is literally right next to the main break and for less than 100 euros you can watch the waves and sip a cervesa. Make a reservation at http://www.hotelelpuerto.com/ or give a jingle at 34 94 687 6725
Check the middle and inside sections of the waves too, sometimes if the peak is crowded the middle section can be super fun.
Most people know Mundaka as a fun left but if the sandbars are setup just right you can also surf a sweet barreling right. When we were there in 2012 we surfed some of the best right tubes of the trip. You just never know in Europe.
There is also a super fun beachbreak across the bay and a reef break near the island at the mouth of the river.
Do some exploring, you’ll be stoked! Bon Voyage! Have a great trip, let us know what you think of the Wave Tribe Surf Travel Guide Series and don’t forget to check out Wave Tribe for great eco surfing gear before your trip.
Go out there and score some waves. Traveling will change your life and is one of the most precious activities you will ever do!
Derek Dodds, Founder Wave Tribe PS. Bali, Cabo, Peru, Brazil, South Africa Surf Guides in the pipeline—always free to the Wave Tribe family!
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