On a day trip from Dover to Calais or Dunkirk, you can easily discover the authentic and beautiful countryside, stunning villages and glorious beaches of the Opal Coast. We think one day definitely isn’t enough to enjoy all the charms of the far north of France but here are a few of our favourite things…
The Opal Coast
The Opal Coast, or Cote d’Opale in French, stretches 120km from just outside Dunkerque to Mers-les-Bains, Picardy on the border with Normandy. Along its route you’ll find sandy beaches, hidden coves, Jurassic rocks, dramatic dunes and craggy cliffs. Take the D940 coastal road towards Boulogne. Follow the winding road through the lush landscape of fields, which look like colourful quilts. And enjoy cliff top views – the White Cliffs of Dover can easily be seen on a clear day.
You’ll pass through little fishing villages where you can buy fresh fish from the door steps of the fishermens’ houses. You’ll spot tiny boulangeries and welcoming cafés, monuments and museums for this is a region with an ancient history.
Though there are dozens of places to stop, and you’re bound to find your own favourites, there are some spots that are very special. Here are some of the best along the route from just outside Calais to Le Touquet:
This humble fishing village is like an echo of the past. Here the fishermen still haul their catch onto the beach in traditional wooden boats called Flobards, and then park them in the street like cars. The air is pure and the quality of light which gives the Opal Coast its name make this place quite simply – very special. Here is where the great painter JM Turner admired the views before capturing this coast line on canvas.
The beach is pristine and rocky, little pools teeming with fish where kids can enjoy an old-fashioned net on a stick wade and wallow. There are plenty of very good restaurants round the market square – the perfect location for moules et frites and a glass of wine.
Wine and dine Audresselles
Push the boat out: The Marie Galante (173 Rue Edouard Quénu) is one of the prettiest restaurants on this stretch of the coast and reflects the long history of sea-faring folk from this charming fishing village. It isn’t expensive and is run by sisters Godeleine and Béatrice Cuvellier, they serve the best of fresh fish including lobster landed by fishermen in the village. On a sunny day the terrace is delightful and when the famous breeze blows in from the sea, inside is cosy and welcoming.
Locals Love: La Retour des Flobards (58, rue Marin La Meslee). Set in the main square, this is a charming restaurant with a maritime theme and serves local seafood, crabs, lobster, mussels etc.
Pickled in the past, the little town of Wimereux is one of those genteel, off the beaten-track seaside resorts that people can’t help falling in love with. Its colourful Belle Epoque style villas and quirky shops are alluring and charming. It’s a little faded but still an elegant town with hotels, bars and cafés.
Wine and dine Wimereux
Push the boat out: The Atlantic Hotel (6 Rue Notre Dame) Indulge in a delectable meal created by the Delpierre father and son chefs. Awarded a Michelin Star for their Liègoise restaurant (upstairs) in February 2017 their food is fabulous and as you’d expect – largely fishy. Downstairs is the contemporary style bistro. Here you can enjoy a truly special three course meal that’s great value, including mouth-watering salmon smoked on site by the chef.
Locals Love: Le Sable Rouge (27 Digue de Mer). Traditional French cuisine, mussels and chips, pancakes and beer with friendly service and great sea views.
The old town of Boulogne-sur-Mer is one of the secret gems of the north of France. Looking just like a film set, this historic town has played host to legions of would be invaders of Britain. Quite literally, as the soldiers of Julius Caesar camped here as did those of Napoleon Bonaparte. Enter the walled old town via one of the vast stone gateways and prepare to fall in love with its historic good looks. Nip into the UNESCO listed belfry to spot the cannon balls fired on the town by Henry VIII. Check out the incredible Basilica Notre Dame church with its Vatican style roof and painted ceilings. Then descend to the crypt, the largest in France and decorated by an ancient artist – it’s truly incredible.
Boulogne is home to 1,000 shops, 200 restaurants, five French markets a week and Nausicaa, the largest aquarium in Europe. Missing this world-class aquarium on a visit to the Côte d’Opale would be to miss a highlight of the region. “A close encounter with the sea” is how it styles itself and it’s an apt description. Home to 3,500 different animals including penguins and sea lions. There are engaging exhibitions as well as a stunning Coral Lagoon.
Wine and dine Boulogne-sur-Mer
Star restaurant: La Matelote (70 Boulevard Sainte-Beuve), seafood heaven at this Michelin starred restaurant/hotel on the sea front near Nausicaa. A taste sensation awaits…
Push the boat out: Chez Jules (8 place Dalton) is not expensive. A classic French brasserie where all the food is made on site from the bread to the chocolate. You’re likely to bump into the Mayor here as well as the market stall holders after they’ve finished work. They’re all enjoying the dishes of Chef Philippe Leleu “Master Restauranteur” in a convivial atmosphere.
Locals Love: Le Chatillon (6 rue Charles Tellier). It’s a little bit off the beaten track in the Capécure fishing quarter, and all the better for it. This restaurant opens at 04.00 in the morning for the fishermen who stop off for a hearty breakfast. But, you’re welcome to join them. It has an authentic atmosphere and a 98% lunch time fish menu. Don’t miss the popular “Parillada” mixed grilled fish and seafood marinated in garlic and olive oil. Check the website for opening times (le-chatillon.com)
Le Touquet Paris-Plage
The ”Monaco of the north” is a swish and swanky seaside resort. It’s the secret ‘get away from it all’ destination of Parisians as well as Brits in the know. It’s a taste of France that is hard to beat with its long golden sandy beaches and pretty Belle Époque villas. There are gourmet shops, fabulous restaurants, great golf courses, horse riding, tennis – I could go on and on. For a small seaside resort, Le Touquet packs a big punch. Not only that, the town prides itself on holding hundreds of events all year round.
There are fabulous restaurants, chichi shops – think Paris style. And, a myriad of sports activities in the place that was once the jet set nirvana. Ian Fleming based his book “Casino Royale” on the local casino where Cole Porter tinkled on the pianos keys and Noel Coward entertained his friends. Sean Connery signed his first Bond contract here. This place was THE place to go and it retains its air of glitz, glamour and gorgeousness.
Wine and Dine Le Touquet
Push the boat out: Le Pavillon at the Westminster Hotel (Avenue du Verger). Run by French chef (with an English sounding name) William Elliott, who has one Michelin star. Le West, as it’s known to the locals, is an Art Deco dream building. It’s glamorous in that oh-so-French effortless way. In the elegant setting of the restaurant with its lovely terrace overlooking the iconic lighthouse of Le Touquet you’ll experience an impeccable fine dining experience where it’s all about the food. Relaxed and not remotely pretentious, welcoming and knowledgeable staff, expertly prepared dishes and skilled wine choices ensure this is completely faultless refined dining event.
Locals Love: Chez Perard (67 Rue de Metz) is one of the greatest fish restaurants in France. Don’t take my word for it, ask Lord Alan Sugar, he flies his plane to the local airport regularly – just to eat here. The soup made at the restaurant is famous all over France. Order it from the menu and they’ll offer you a top up – they’re so proud of it. The food here is fabulous. Fresh oysters, sea urchins, salmon smoked on the premises and the best bouillabaisse outside of Marseille (in my opinion).
Fish and Chips: So-Fish (16 Boulevard de l’Impératrice, Etaples-sur-Mer)) is one of the best-kept secrets of the Opal Coast. It’s popular with Parisians who flock to this part of France for a tranquil break at their second home villas in Le Touquet. You’ll find So-Fish just across a pink granite bridge leading from Le Touquet to Etaples. This tiny little restaurant has been featured in Elle and Paris Match for its authentic and tasty fish and chips. Chef Sophie-Perrault uses only the freshest fish. She makes the crispiest batter and piquant tartare sauce, making this a stand-out stop off.
More on northern France
Montreuil-sur-Mer, walled town with an ancient footprint which inspired Victor Hugo to write Les Miserables…
Cassel, the hilltop town where the Grand Old Duke of York marched his men!
What to see and do in Dunkirk