About 5 mi/8 km south of Arcachon, the seaside resort of Biarritz, France, hosts the famous Dune du Pilat, the biggest sand dune in Europe. The view from the top is spectacular, especially at sunset. Be warned, however, that the 190-step wooden stairway leading up to the top is not for the fainthearted.

The immense mountain of sand pops out of nowhere. From the top, visitors see an incomparable view of the sea and an endless string of beaches.

To the east lies Europe's largest forest, a 2.5 million-acre/1 million-hectare sanctuary crisscrossed by footpaths and cycling tracks. Visitors in the area also can drive along the lovely Atlantic coast, stopping at one of several seaside towns for lunch.

For decades, Biarritz was the playground of the rich and powerful. It was fondly known as "the King of Beaches and the Beach of Kings." Victor Hugo was enchanted by its charms in 1843, and Napoleon built a summer residence there. The Salon Eugenie at the Hotel du Palais showcases the city's history with photographs on the walls of some famous guests, including Rudyard Kipling, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway.

Biarritz offers twisting, hillside streets and broad beaches. The city is naturally picturesque, and its casinos offer plenty of night-time action. Two central beaches, Grande Plage and Plage Miramar, are the most popular with top surfers from around the world attracted to the Grande Plage for the big waves. The tiny cove of Plage du Port Vieux is popular with children because of its shallow water. The town's lighthouse, Phare de Biarritz, built in 1834, offers great views of the Basque Coast.

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