La Réserve stands high above the Atlantic on the cliffs to the north of St-Jean-de-Luz. The rollers hurl on to the rocks, lashing them with sustained fury. It's hard to imagine a more dramatic location for a hotel. Built in the 1950s, La Réserve is part of the Floirat group, which includes the legendary Byblos in St Tropez. La Réserve is less fancy, but it's more than fit for chic four-star purpose after a comprehensive updating of the bedrooms last year. Opening this weekend after its winter break, it is ready to receive guests for the new season.
This being the Pays Basque, the seven stripes of the Basque provinces – three in France, four in Spain – feature prominently in the bar, restaurant and interlinked salons. The regional souvenir of choice is a cotton, striped tea towel in primary colours, but the hotel's approach to the motif is more restrained. Terracotta walls and red-tiled floors contrast with deep brown sofas and striped chairs in muted shades of beige and cream. Antique wooden furnishings, some of unknown purpose but all marked with the Basque cross, potted orchids and vases of cut hydrangeas create a relaxed and homely ambience.
As is often the case in France, the British have brought home pleasures to the area. Circa 1900, they established Golf des Anglais, St-Jean's first course, on the land now owned by La Réserve. No trace remains, but lawns dotted with palm trees rolling towards the ocean evoke ghosts of fairways past.
St-Jean, a 10-minute drive down the hill, had its golden age in the 17th century, when wealth accumulated by pirates supported a city of 12,000. L'Eglise Saint-Jean-Baptiste, wedding venue for Louis XIV, France's celebrated Sun King, and the Infanta Maria Theresa of Spain in 1660, heads the must-see list. Their elaborate his-and-hers palaces are flanked by handsome townhouses built for courtiers and corsairs in the surrounding streets.
There are 41 rooms and five suites in the main Basque villa, plus 44 apartments for two to seven people in the Residence, overlooking the Atlantic. The hotel introduced a radical new concept during the refurbishment, replacing the original traditional style with lighter colours and clean, contemporary lines. The rooms come in assorted colours – the yellow of ripe corn, the blue of the sea and a grape red, reflecting seasonal aspects of the Basque environment. Mine was the red version, but mixed with softer shades of beige to lessen the aggression. Opening the French doors to the panoramic balcony allowed the sound of the sea to roar in through the night.
The food and drink
Basque chef Fabrice Idiart, in his twenties, has been exploring his native cuisine for the benefit of customers in the Ilura restaurant, with its spectacular seascape terrace, since 2008. Txangurro crab with ginger and eggs, baby rabbit or scallops tickle many palates, but his pièce de résistance is l'oeuf piperade, his interpretation of the region's signature dish. The ingredients – locally grown peppers, eggs and Bayonne ham – are simple, the results outstanding.
The Northern Basque Country, as the French provinces are known, have extensive vineyards, but the most typical ones take their name from the mountain village of Irouléguy. The vines are planted on terraces between 100m and 400m above sea level, often on slopes as steep as 60 degrees. Producing robust reds on such harsh terrain requires considerable ingenuity, but the results – on offer at La Réserve – are both affordable and delectable.
The infinity pool, set among bright flower beds, looks as if it falls off the cliff into the Atlantic. Surprisingly for a hotel of this calibre, there is no spa, and the sauna is more gesture than facility. However, treatments can be arranged by request.
There's free Wi-Fi throughout, tennis on site, and the surfing off the long, sandy bay and all along the coast is sensational. Need lessons? There are plenty of schools. And even though the Golf des Anglais is no longer, the Chantaco and La Nivelle clubs are mere minutes away.
Two rooms are adapted for wheelchair use.
Double rooms start at €95, room only.
La Réserve, Pointe Sainte Barbe, 1 Avenue Gaëtan Bernoville, St-Jean- de-Luz, Aquitaine, France (00 33 5 59 51 32 00; hotel-lareserve.com).