It’s good to know some things stay the same
When my mother bought her holiday house in northern France 35 years ago, I had no idea how large a part this lovely country was going to play in my life. I was eleven at the time, and simply enjoyed the trips across the Channel to her little farm cottage located in a tiny village, near the market town of Desvres in the Pas de Calais. I went on to study French at university and eventually found myself working for a French company in the UK. But that was long after my French adventures began.
One of the highlights of our visits in the long summer holidays were our trips to Le Touquet, the gorgeous Belle-Epoque seaside town on the Opal Coast. It was only an hour’s drive from Desvres, but even the journey itself was an adventure. In those days the priorité a droite rule was in full swing, and I remember the time we were motoring fairly swiftly along a major ‘D’ road when a tractor swung out from a tiny farm track to our right. We skidded to a virtual standstill, our bonnet inches from the back of the tractor!
I loved the long drawn-out approach to Le Touquet, which always builds up the anticipation. Once you have left the autoroute, you drive along the Route d’Hilibert, following the Canche river as it winds its way down to the sea. The road ducks down with a sharp ‘S’ bend under the railway bridge and then skims along the outskirts of the pretty fishing port of Etaples. A left hand turn over the roundabout takes you across the bridge spanning the Canche and into the final run to Le Touquet, along the avenue Général de Gaulle, through gorgeously-scented pinewoods where you can just catch glimpse of some of the sumptuous Belle Epoque villas and to the roundabout at the Place de l’Hermitage, past the imposing Palais des Congres on the left. Finally you drive along the Avenue du Verger, with the glorious Art Deco façade of the Hotel Westminster greeting you on your way into the town.
Designed in the early 1900s, the resort town is laid out on an American grid system – which looks very smart but gave us a huge amount of head scratching with its endless 4-way intersections and debates as to who had the priorité a droite.
We loved wandering along the rue Saint Jean with its enticing shops full of chic French clothes, scrummy hand-made chocolates and Pérard fishmongers where we bought jars of the Soupe du Poisson du Touquet – a spicy bright orange fish soup that we would eat at home with plenty of garlic bread. Shopping in Le Touquet remains one of the great things about visiting this chic seaside town.
The golden sandy beach was perfect for sunbathing and on days when the weather was a little indifferent, we’d hole up in the Aqualud water park and spend hours sliding down the whirlpool chute on rubber rings.
Our favourite place to eat was the Drugstore Café at the corner of the rue Saint Jean and the rue de Londres. The pizzas were scrummy, but highlight of the meal was the Bombe Atomique dessert – a huge glass bowl crammed full of ice cream, cherries, walnuts, cream and patisseries. We never ever managed to completely finish one even though there were usually eight or more of us at any one time!
Sadly the Drugstore Café is no longer there, although the Jeans Café, in a similar location, offers the same sort of fare. But thankfully Le Touquet has managed to pull off the feat of moving with the times whilst retaining its 1930’s glamour.
The Centre Nautique, where I used to windsurf with my French friends, is still there and offering a huge range of activities and lessons. Choose from catamarans, dinghies, windsurfers, kayaks and pleasure boats. Aqualud is in the same beachside location and now has over 2,000 metres of slides and plenty of indoor and outdoor pools.
You could easily spend a lazy week in the summer, browsing Le Touquet’s huge market, wandering around the streets, trying out the different restaurants and making the most of the wealth of activities available, from watersports to a gentle cycle ride through the pine forest. And although Le Touquet is chic, if you’re lucky, you can find remarkably cheap but perfectly presentable accommodation in the summer months. A colleague of mine recently tracked down a lovely rental apartment for her family in peak season at a very reasonable price and had a marvellous week’s holiday. And best of all, Le Touquet is only an hour’s drive from Calais, so you don’t have a huge journey ahead of you once you get to France.