With a seemingly unending barrage of special offers across the Channel, the appeal of a short break in northern France is easy to see. As well as the in-bred tradition of stocking up on your food and wine, it’s a chance to sample the delights of the French culture, cuisine, and style.
But, for a little more of that ‘je ne sais quoi’, try heading half an hour or so south of the main Channel ports, to sample to the delights of the Opal Coast. The pretty seaside resort of Le Touquet may have faded a little since it’s pre-war heyday, but it’s still a pleasant place to spend a few days, and a good base from which to explore the surrounding countryside.
In it’s prime, Le Touquet was a resort to rival those on the Cote d’Azur. A meander around the outskirts will reveal the many lavish villas secreted in large gardens behind the screens of pine trees. It still retains that air of gracefulness and tranquillity, despite the influx of cars and coaches whenever the sun comes out. Nestling on the estuary of La Canche River, though, it has ample beach and amenities for all.
Without a doubt, the long sandy shoreline is prime attraction, stretching from the sailing club on the river estuary, the full length of the town, and off into the distance towards Stella Plage, and Berck sur Mer. In the centre is the impressive award winning Aqualud swimming complex, with its huge water slides and tropical atmosphere. All the family will enjoy it here, and when you’ve worked up an appetite, the panoramic Le Nemo restaurant is part of the same complex.
Away from the seafront, Le Touquet’s main shopping streets manage a quaint appeal that belies their fairly modern style. The many small independent shops demand exploration, and amid the obligatory tourist souvenirs are some excellent offerings of local cheese, pottery, and jewellery. The town still sees itself as a cut above those nearby, and the boutiques of designer clothes are surpassed only by the enticing local speciality of hand made chocolates. The purpose built market place is also worth seeking out, with fresh local produce and crafts at bargain prices in the semi-circular mock-medieval gatehouse.
The bargain prices don’t, unfortunately, extend to the eating-houses of Le Touquet. Prices are generally a bit above average, but then, to be fair, so is the quality of the cuisine. Sit on the terrace of the very agreeable Auberge de la Dune aux Loups and sample the excellent seafood menu, with a glass of typically French wine. This is what a short break in France is all about.
For the more energetic there is a large, well equipped, sports centre on the edge of town, with no less than 33 tennis courts and another large swimming pool. There is also a first class equestrian centre next to the airport. Golf and cycle hire are well catered for, and during the summer months there are plenty of water-based activities to help ease the Euros from your wallet. On the beach there are trampolines for the children, and carriage rides for all. The area has also become a haven for sand yachting enthusiasts.
If you’ve time to explore further afield, the first stop should be Montreuil-sur-Mer. Despite its name, this ancient town is now a dozen or more kilometres from ’La Mer’, although it still commands some wonderful views over the river. And although only a short drive from Le Touquet, it’s a world away from the 20th Century feel of the coast. The fortified hilltop settlement has a long and embattled history, but today you’re more likely to be accosted with a paintbrush than a sword. The pretty narrow lanes, and medieval Main Square, are an artist’s delight. Half-timbered houses line the cobbled streets that were featured in Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’, and the ruined Citadel still houses the coats of arms of the French elite who died at Agincourt. It’s worth taking the walk around the old city walls, as there are good views across the old town, as well as the Canche estuary.
If Montreuil-sur-Mer has whetted your appetite for a little history, then just upstream are two of the most famous battlefields in the region. In 1346, the Battle of Crecy saw Edward III defeat the French, and effectively begin the Hundred Years War. This was the first time the new longbow was used in battle, and also saw the first use of gunpowder in Europe. The spot where King John of Bohemia died is marked by the Croix de Boheme. He was the chap who – somewhat foolishly, in hindsight – led his men into battle, despite being blind. A little further on is the site of the Battle of Agincourt, where the French aristocracy was all but annihilated. Ten thousand French died here in the battle of 1415, and the story is well told in a small museum on the site, and with multilingual information boards around the battlefield.
No trip to France would be complete without stocking up on goodies before you return home. Whether it’s beer and wine to put away for Christmas, or cheese and French bread to remind you of your trip once your home, there’s no denying there is something special about the French produce. There are plenty of large supermarkets marking the approach to all the Channel crossing points, as well as Cite de Europe close to the Channel Tunnel. If you’re planning to buy a lot, then the dedicated drinks warehouses close to Calais port are probably your best bet, and the hypermarkets for the food and other items. Be aware though, there has been a notable clampdown on overloaded vehicles of late, so don’t get too carried away.
Try and leave yourself an hour or so to take a look around your departure town too. Both Calais and Boulogne are worthy of some time. In Boulogne, the old town area around the fishing port is particularly pleasant, and if the weather is kind then it’s a nice environment in which to enjoy one last pavement café. Calais also has an appealing old town area, plus a decent new shopping centre just along the road from the magnificent town hall.
Whichever route you choose, and however you plan your stay, you’ll be surprised just how much a short break in this area can offer.
Where to stay
***Les Jardins D’Ulysse is situated in the verdant countryside surrounding Le Touquet and is just 5 minutes from the local beaches and 5 minutes from the city centre. Set at the edge of the forest, in the resort centre, the striking 4-star Holiday Inn Resort le Touquet offers the ideal backdrop to your family holiday.
In the heart of the beautiful forest of Le Touquet, Le Manoir Hôtel is an early 20th century characterful Anglo-Norman country house fitted with modern comforts.
****Westminster Hotel and Spa. Standing in the heart of one of the most elegant districts of Le Touquet, this 1930’s luxury hotel welcomes you less than 500 metres from the beach and Congress Centre.
Novotel Thalassa Le Touquet provides its guests with a stunning ocean view. Directly connected to the Thalassa Therapy Centre the hotel promotes relaxation and well-being.