I’ll be the first to admit that north France is not high on most Brits’ list of holiday options. But having spent quite some time in this part of France, I have completely fallen in love with the small resorts that cling onto the headlands of the Opal Coast.
So forget rushing through Dunkirk, Calais, Dieppe, only looking for the signs to the south. Think about slowing down and chilling out. Do like the French, and take a short break here along the coastline between Calais and Dieppe.
Think of the advantages!
The north coast of France is near and very easy, and cheap, to get to. Just think of the amount of time, effort and expense it takes to roar through France. Those motorway tolls alone cost the equivalent of a very good meal for 2.
It has some of the best beaches in France (in fact much better than the Riviera and Cote d’Azur beaches which are small and overcrowded).
You can go for a short break, a long weekend or even a week.
My first visit
My first introduction to this part of the country was my first introduction to France. I was four, my brothers were eight and twelve and we went with my parents to Mers-les-Bains. It was an unusual choice (nobody we knew had heard of the little French seaside resort) but as it turned out a great one.
More about Mers-les-Bains later. Here I’ve listed the best resorts on this coast geographically, starting from nearby Calais. If your memories include eating sandy sandwiches on a sunlit beach, sand yachting or kite flying, a short break at any of these resorts will take you back to your childhood.
The Opal Coast
There’s a reason this part of France running between the Somme bay and the resort of Berck and the Belgian border at Bray Dune is called the Opal Coast.
Known for its luminescent pearl-like light, Impressionist painters like Monet and Manet and the English painter J.W.M. Turner came here to follow Eugène Boudin who painted so much of this part of the coast. The Impressionists, as we know, were never wrong,
Sandy beaches are backed by dunes stabilised by the tough grasses that cling onto life here. White chalk cliffs stand high above the sea.
Walk up the 49-metre high Cap-Griz-Nez, just 14 kms north of Boulogne-sur-Mer, and you’re at the closest point to England. No surprise then that in the early 1800s Napoleon considered Wimereux an ideal place for a port to launch an attack on England with his troops from Boulogne.
You’ll see his lonely statue standing high above Boulogne peering towards Britain. He decided to cancel the assault on Britain after seeing the view.
Spectacular walking paths both inland and along the coast take you between the two great headlands, Cap Gris Nez and Cap Blanc Nez.
Or hire an electric bike and go just that bit further.
With the gulls and sheep for company, the sandy paths lead you through the dunes. On a fine day the sea sparkles below you as a gentle breeze keeps the grasses rustling and ferries criss-cross the Channel. You feel on top of the world.
Like many of these northern France resorts, Wimereux grew in the late 19th century when the arrival of the railways brought plenty of wealthy Parisians on their hols. Eager to impress, they built splendid Belle-Epoque villas along the ‘Digue’ promenade facing the sea and lining the streets behind. With their little stone balconies, big windows and pointed towers they still look the part.
There’s plenty to do in Wimereux, from sand yachting to horseback riding, from sailing to golf.
Wimereux has the French government’s official Famille Plus designation which means it’s family friendly. There’s a glorious stretch of beach and a real holiday vibe.
…The Communal Cemetery in Wimereux where John McRae is buried. The Canadian soldier served in World War I in Belgium, and most famously wrote the poem In Flanders Fields. His simple gravestone is surrounded by those of other soldiers and nurses in the Commonwealth War Graves section.
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.“
Where to Stay
Your best bet is the 4-star L’Atlantic. All the bright, fresh, colourful rooms face the sea; some have balconies or terraces.
The hotel has two restaurants and a spa in case you need some wellbeing after all that sea salt. The first floor La Liégeoise has always been the top local restaurant and has one Michelin star (menus 75€ to 95€) and great view. L’Aloze is more casual. 3-course menus are 25€ and 31€. If you’re a fish or seafood fan, you’ll be specially delighted.
6 rue Notre Dame
Mobile: 06 52 45 09 55
Prices 147€ to 250€ varying by room and the season; breakfast is 15€ per person.
Wimereux Tourist Office
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 83 27 17
Website (in French)
La Villa Sainte Claire
Stay just back from the coast in Wimille at La Villa Sainte Claire where the owner, Catherine Debatte, will cheerfully welcome you to her pretty 3-storey 18th-century house.
Choose from the charming double room in the main house with its wooden floor, comfortable bed with a red Toile de Jouy cover and garden view. Or go thoroughly nomadic in one of two gypsy caravans in the grounds. There’s also a gîte sleeping 4 people for weekly rent.
Breakfast in the garden if it’s fine then borrow a bicycle for the mile-long ride into Wimereux.
La Villa Sainte Claire
11 rue de la Presbytère
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 91 99 58
Website (in French)
Prices 98€ a night including breakfast. Gîte for a week is 450€; weekend (Friday to Sunday) 250€
Not many people have heard of Hardelot, which given its illustrious British connections, comes as a surprise.
Less posh and more relaxed than its big sister Le Touquet-Paris-Plage it’s a charming and elegant resort, with its villas and cottages secluded in the wooded surroundings of the centre.
Plenty of activities for families makes this another Famille Plus resort. At low tide the beach of Hardelot-Plage stretches for 6 miles.
The Château of Hardelot in nearby Condette dates from the 12th century. It’s delightful, with William Morris fabrics, grand false fireplaces, overstuffed chairs and plenty of references to the Entente Cordiale between England and France.
The Tudor gardens are full of yew hedges and topiaries but the real gem is the relatively new Elizabethan theatre which can double as a baroque opera house. Go to a performance of one of Shakespeare’s plays done both seriously and jokingly or one of the many music concerts.
Read more about Château Hardelot, its theatre and the famous Entente Cordiale.
1 rue de la source
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 21 73 65
Where to stay in Hardelot
Hotel du Parc
Part of the small Najeti chain, which also includes Château Tilques near St. Omer, the hotel has 80 large rooms and 22 apartments on three stories overlooking rolling parkland. There are tennis courts, an outdoor heated pool, sauna and children’s play area. L’Orangerie is a conventional restaurant and the best bet is to order local fish cooked in classic French style.
Hotel du Parc
111 Avenue François 1
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 33 22 11
Hardelot Tourist Office
476 Avenue François 1
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 83 51 02
Le Touquet Paris-Plage
The poshest of the 20th century resorts built by the English on this part of the coast, Le Touquet today is more relaxed that you might expect from its past history.
Developed by John Whitley as a model resort, villas and grand cottages were built in the woodlands, alongside that absolute priority, a golf course.
By the 1920s Le Touquet had become the north France playground for the likes of Noel Coward, the Prince of Wales and Wallis Simpson. P.G. Wodehouse lived here from 1934 to 1940 but was caught by the advancing Germans and interned then sent to Berlin where he broadcast to the US from German radio.
The British visitors came for the good life: to sail, to play polo and golf, go horse racing during the day and gamble the night away in the casino. You get a taste of the past at the Hotel Westminster, where the guest list reads like a Who’s Who of the great and the…possibly not-so-good.
The sweeping beach still attracts those after water sports; the Centre Tennistique is the fourth largest tennis complex in France with 29 courts and is fantastically well equipped and run. There are 3 golf courses, horse riding and for families, Aqualud, an aquatic centre on the ocean.
The Museum of Le Touquet-Paris-Plage offers some unexpected delights from the School of Étaples. Just across the bay, the little town of Étaples attracted artists from 1880 to 1914. The English artist Dudley Hardy, the Americans Walter Gay and L. Birge Harrison and his wife, the Australian Eleanor Ritchie, joined the better known Eugene Boudin and André Derain.
There are around 200 pictures here from the school as well as a collection of photographs of the great and the good.
Where to Stay
Where else but at the Le Westminster? Built in the local Art Deco Style and named after the Duchess of Westminster, this large red-brick grande dame of a hotel has been the heart of Le Touquet since it opened its illustrious doors in 1928.
With its dark wood paneling and deep colours, its black-and-white photo corridor of past guests, its top restaurant and smart bars, it’s worth every penny. The 115 rooms and suites are elegant and the grandly traditional decor is tempered with pretty modern pastel colours. It’s very expensive in the high season.
Michelin-starred chef William Elliott oversees the two restaurants. Le Pavillon’s menus run from 65€ to 95€; Les Cimaises is a more casual brasserie-style restaurant with menus from 36€ to 45€.
The hotel is closed for a major refurbishment from December 2019 to May 2020.
Ave du Verger
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 05 48 48
Prices From 129€ per night; breakfast is 15€ per person.
Le Touquet Paris-Plage Tourist Office
Palais des Congrès
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 06 72 00
This delightful little French seaside resort starts its summer season every April with a huge International Kite Festival (Rencontres Internationales de Cerfs-Volants).
Huge fantastic sea animals, strange creatures and weird amorphous shapes swoop and dive across the huge open skies.
There are competitions and mock battles, parades, fireworks and much fun. Well worth coming for.
Otherwise there’s plenty to recommend Berck-sur-Mer, apart from the 12km-long beach. Take a sand yacht on the firm sand or a boat cruise out to the bay, go jet-skiing or fishing, or just relax on the beach. The delightful little beach huts you can hire by the day keep you protected from too much sun or wind.
For a bit of culture, try the museum with its models of boats, a typical house interior, paintings by local artists and a remarkable collection of portraits of sailors.
Berck is designated a ‘Station Kid’ resort which means there’s plenty for children to do. It has a Pavillon Bleu Européan status which guarantees its clean beach and sea and is known for its flowers blooming everywhere. There are street markets, annual brocantes fairs and a Sea Festival in May.
Walking along the hiking path by the Baie d’Authie which gives you fabulous views and the chance to see seals frolicking in the sea at low tide.
Where to Stay
With pretty thatched roofs and a blooming garden, this small bed and breakfast offers 4 charming rooms. It’s just 4 kms from Berck-sur-Mer and the Baie d’Authie.
19 rue du Bihen
Tel: +33 21 84 27 10
Prices 75€ per room including breakfast
Tourist Office of Berck-sur-Mer
5 Avenue Francis Tattegrain
62600 Berck sur Mer
Tel: +33 (0)3 21 09 50 00
And so back to the beginning, or at least to my beginning. This thoroughly Victorian seaside resort in the Somme Bay in Picardy was the first place I visited in France – aged 4, with my family.
I’ve been back and it’s still delightful. A remarkable number of brightly coloured, late 19th-century villas built in Belle Epoque style with Art Nouveau details still line the front.
The circular bay with its pebble beach and sand at low tide has children splashing happily in the relatively warm seas (children don’t feel the cold so much) protected at one end by high white cliffs. Friendly little restaurants and street markets bring the French holiday makers here. It’s one of the three towns known as the ‘sisters’, just opposite the smarter and bigger Le Tréport with Eu just inland.
La Fête des Baigneurs on the last weekend in July sees the town return to its Belle Epoque origins. People dress up as they would have done in 1900; it’s a remarkable site.
Where to Stay
Hôtel le Bellevue Beaurivage
I can’t find the hotel we stayed in on my first ever trip to France. It’s not surprising as it was a very long time ago.
But it just could have been the 3-star Hôtel le Bellevue Beaurivage. The hotel is on the seafront looking out onto the little beach huts and has 22 simple rooms, smartly decorated. The restaurant is more a brasserie these days with menus from 24€ to 38.50€ and the welcome is as friendly as before.
Until I learn differently I will treat this hotel as my first French holiday experience.
Read more about that first French holiday experience in my Memories of France
Hôtel le Bellevue Beaurivage
22 Esplanade du Général Leclerc
Tel: +33 (02) 35 96 12 89
Prices 69€ to 139€; breakfast is 12€ per person