This review is taken from our guidebook, Mr & Mrs Smith Hotel Collection: France.
A tanned choux bun of a buttock is peeping above a balcony rail, as a damp Enrique Iglesias-alike surfer peels off his wetsuit on the apartment terrace above a Gue?thary street. Mr Smith and I haven’t even made it to the beach yet but, as views go, it’s an encouraging start.
Gue?thary, between Saint-Jean-de-Luz and Biarritz on the Atlantic coast, is a hilly village sloping down to the waves, its quiet streets lined with the typical timbered white and red Basque houses that you see throughout the region. One such property is Arguibel, our maroon and white home for the weekend, which looks as though it’s just stepped off an Austrian Alp. On the inland side of the village, towards Ahetze, this boutique B&B is separated from Gue?thary-on-sea by the main north-south road.
We are greeted by Franc?ois, a wiry, square-spectacled man with a quiet charm, who co-owns the property with his wife, Mariannick. On closer inspection, Arguibel turns out to be a newbuild, its exterior in keeping with Basque tradition, its setting a carpet of sloping lawn that tapers towards pea-green pastures beyond.
Inside is revealed a rainbow gallery of modern design, with a big teal-painted lounge at its heart. Bokja chairs covered in a kaleidoscopic patchwork of vintage fabrics catch my eye, as do Frida Kahlo-esque collages and sparkly, palette-exhausting paintings by Wilma, a British-born artist who lives in Gue?thary.
Arguibel’s five rooms, peeling off the lounge and first-floor landing, are flamboyantly themed creations, each a tribute to a character with local ties. Mr Smith’s first choice had been the Charlie Chaplin room, an homage in masculine monochrome to the Hollywood star, who holidayed in Gue?thary. But Mr Smith didn’t make the booking. And I preferred the sound of feathery lamps and currant-coloured silk headboards in chocolate-lime L’Infante on the ground floor, named for the Spanish princess who met Louis XV in the Basque country.
Mr Smith plays cursory attention to the decor, so it’s left to me to coo over the details. Light switches. Upholstered switches, no less, in the same praline and gooseberry swirly fabric as the curtains – a real pedant-pleaser. I can tell by the way Mr Smith huffs and puffs around the iPod dock, assuming the manly role of DJ, that he’s feeling a tad emasculated by our feminine, frou-frou surrounds. But, as Franc?ois arrives with glasses of champagne and peanuts for us to enjoy on our private terrace, Mr Smith is soon soothed into holiday mode.
‘There’s a farm... I found it online... I think it’s away from the coast?’ These are Mr Smith’s vague, stilted clues to Franc?ois about where we’d thought of heading for dinner. ‘La Ferme Ostalapia,’ deciphers Franc?ois, without a flicker of confusion. With equal ease, he secures us ‘the last table for tonight’ (‘I bet he says that to everyone,’ speculates Mr Smith ungratefully). The smiley waitress, all confidence and twinkly eyes, brings a mini Kilner jar of rillettes de porc and some baguette toasts with the menus. We’re in the white-timbered annexe of the rustic restaurant, packed out with animated locals enjoying Saturday night out. Mr Smith orders cochon de lait ro?ti – a slab of roast piglet served with moreish fri?tes de maison. I work my way through Rossini de canard, served with a tower of ceps and garlicky saute? potatoes. We somehow find room for an almondy, coulis-drizzled tarte aux abricots.
The next morning, from my prone position, I lie looking at the hills – not the green bucolic ones visible through the arched French doors, but my and Mr Smith’s bulging bellies. Not that this holds us back at breakfast. A trolley is wheeled to our table, bearing a choice of steaming, syrupy coffee or loose-leaf tea, brewed in Asian-style clay pots, as well as a basket of pastries and just-baked baguettes, sheep’s milk yoghurt, fresh tangerines, apples and redcurrants.
We decide to tour the inland villages by car, through Ahetze to Saint-Pe?e-sur-Nivelle, where a scan of the main drag delivers the three Bs of the Basque village: bar, bakery, boules. We drive on. Ainhoa, at the top of the Col de Pinodieta, is an emotional and literal high point, the village centred around a high street of shuttered stone houses and cobbled parking bays. We live the French cafe? cliche?, sipping grands cre?mes and scribbling postcards, only sorry the epicerie opposite isn’t open to sell us a string of dried red peppers, as emblematic of Basque identity as the berets and chalets.
The return of the sun lures us to Biarritz the next day, where good weather, bracing beach views and tempting shops are in plentiful supply. Mr Smith is in patient form, only occasionally muttering ‘Ryanair’ under his breath as I bulk out the luggage allowance with local linens and nuggets of Basque silver jewellery. An evening flight means we have time to catch the sunset at Bidart, Gue?thary’s beachy neighbour. It’s like walking onto the set of Point Break, only with fewer masked bank robbers. Surfers dot the sea like croutons in soup, rollers flop onto the raffia-coloured shore, and the amber sun is as big as a boule as it drops over the horizon. Not that it’s easy to keep focusing out to sea. Left and right, we are flanked by rippling surfer bods, performing feats of modesty with small towels or zipping up neoprene shorties. As with the light switches, it’s left to me to admire the detail. Now, where did my Enrique-alike get to?