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Feeling seedy at the hotel of last resort in Biarritz

Published 24 August 2003
News Review
528th article



Hostess with the mostest: Winner with Mireille Hess in Biarritz (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

"As required our Concierge will arrange the transfer from Biarritz airport to the Hotel by limousine Mercedes," wrote Jean-Louis Leimbacher, general manager of the Hotel Du Palais, Biarritz. So why was the car not there? An airport official said she'd seen it but it had vanished. After 15 minutes the driver turned up. He'd been in the wrong part of the airport. Even though he'd been at the private jet area half an hour earlier.

I gave my opinion of this to the concierge at the Palais. Then Mr Leimbacher bustled up. "Two large flights came in together," he announced, "so there was confusion at the airport." "Two large flights did not arrive," I responded. "I was there with one private jet. That was it." Mr Leimbacher walked away.

The kindest thing I can say about the Hotel Du Palais is that it's odd. Not good. Not even on the way to being good - just odd. The suite was okay, except the bathroom door didn't shut because it had fallen out of line. The toilet door handle fell off, so I did some DIY. There was only one large bath towel for two people on our first night, later there were no face flannels. There was a plate of eight petit fours there when we arrived. I ate three. The other five plus the three dirty paper holders stayed getting staler, dustier and older for 4½ days before being removed.

Maybe once Biarritz was grand. Now, like the Palais, it's seedy. The view of the Atlantic Ocean is diminished by tacky modern buildings and an overcrowded, gritty beach. The sea is dirty, staining surfers and swimmers with oil. I watched them wiping it off with paper towels.

The surface around the hotel pool was blocks of cement with pebbles set in to them. They were so rough I had to wear beach shoes. Some of the widening cracks between the slabs were filled in with cement. Others just gaped. It was like a minor road in a Third World country. The most outstanding sight was a row of white plastic chairs.

The pool restaurant was terrible. All buffets look much the same, the difference comes with the quality. The prawns were soft, the quiche lorraine stringy, the bread cloying. The breakfast croissants stuck to your mouth and the marmalade was too liquid. All the food tasted tired and ordinary. except the chocolate mousse which was rather good. The club sandwich had died long before it got to me.

I was impressed with our "hostess", Mireille Hess, a nice Christian lady who'd married a Jewish man trading in hats and handbags. They lived in Willesden Green until she decided to return to her Biarritz roots. Mireille was the only person offering charm and hospitality. She could give classes for the staff. Mr Leimbacher should be her first pupil.

It was strange. I normally make good choices. The Splendido in Portofino, the Cipriani in Venice, the Villa San Michele in Florence, La Reserve de Beaulieu, La Mamounia in Morocco, the Sandy Lane Barbados - these are seriously fine establishments. In the hotels I frequent the managers run a tight ship. They also walk around making sure their visitors are all tight. I saw no further sign of Mr Leimbacher.

"Why isn't he acting as host and greeting the guests?" I asked a staff member. "Does anyone ever see him?" "When we’re busy at lunch he often takes two tables," was the reply.

Eventually Mr Leimbacher appeared for lunch. "I hope you've forgiven our limousine service," he said. I smiled, "Not the limo service. You, Mr Leimbacher. You're the top man. The buck stops with you." "We put mad people in the ocean," said Mr Leimbacher curtly, "anyway you're privileged." "Why am I privileged?" I asked in amazement. "You have two cabanas," responded Mr Leimbacher. "So what? I'm paying for them," I replied. "You don't want to pay for the second cabana do you?" asked Mr Leimbacher. "Of course I do," I said. "It's free," announced Leimbacher and walked off.

That dialogue should have been filmed for hotel staff training seminars as a demonstration of how not to manage. Leimbacher surely has an English cousin named Fawlty.

It was never-ending. The concierge people gave me directions to local restaurants that were utterly wrong. The hotel's Michelin-star restaurant, which Mr Leimbacher told me twice in writing required a jacket, was full of guests without jackets. The food was standard issue Michelin-star type food. I'm getting bored with it.

The Palais is owned by the Biarritz town council. It feels like it. No professional hotel group would run a place like this. My advice is stay away. Even though you probably weren't going anyway.



Winner's letters

I've always reprimanded my sons for calling food "stuff" . Mr Winner please note. Also, how can you eat so much? Have you had your cholesterol checked?
Patricia Grey, Sussex

Your review of Midsummer House last week was spot on. My wife and I went there and found the whole experience completely naff. David Carter's restaurant in Chesterton Road, Cambridge, is far better, more consistent and less expensive.
David Armitage, Huddersfield

The famous catchphrase in your commercials could be a double-edged sword. It's only a matter of time before a waiter is brave enough to reply, "Calm down Mr Winner, it's only Coca-Cola" or "Calm down, it's only orange juice". Or, after a bout of frantic napkin waving, just: "Calm down dear."
Tony Tsoukkas, Wimbledon

At Quo Vadis in Soho I ordered prosecco. The restaurant, with an Italian menu, does not stock it. My friend had a Stolichnaya vodka. When he ordered a second they said they'd run out and offered Smirnoff which he rightly refused. My wife was served over-salted spinach. After a few bites she sent it back. It remained on the bill. Two of us ordered raspberry creme brulee from the set menu. They didn't have any. Quo Vadis? Anywhere but Quo Vadis.
Ray Moseley, London

What's become of Michael's custom of having his current belle photographed with restaurant staff? I've followed his progress since the days of the delectable Jenny Seagrove The quality has never wavered but suspect now he's old he's afraid of the competition some of us other old boys might give him.
Dennis Pallis, Sussex

At your "best restaurant in the world" - Harry's Bar, Venice - we were greeted by haughty waiters who all but threw their notorious Bellinis at us. The pink restaurant would not have looked out of place in a Scarborough boarding house. Our smoked salmon and two different soups were no better than can be bought at Marks & Spencer.The main courses of liver and potatoes were unmemorable. Maybe your palette is now as faded as the swimming shorts you parade on the beaches of Barbados.
Susan Belford, Leeds

Send letters to Winner's Dinners, The Sunday Times, 1 Pennington Street, London E98 1ST or e-mail michael.winner@sunday-times.co.uk