Globalmouse writer Fiona takes in a family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – the perfect Northern France holiday.
When you think of Calais, you might normally think about the port town that signals the start of your holiday in France and a long journey to more southern, sunnier climes. If you’re anything like us, you drive off the ferry and concentrate so much on the shift to right-hand driving and finding the right autoroute junction that you miss Calais altogether. Well, this weekend Calais and the Opal Coast IS the destination for a Northern France holiday. With dramatic coastlines, deserted beaches and delicious food this is a stunning area that will give Cornwall a run for its money and for us is now firmly on the map as a holiday destination.
Being an island nation we often forget how close we are to mainland Europe, and it took us just 90 minutes to cross from Dover to Calais. It was a very different ferry experience to the summer squeeze where we were fighting to find seats for all five of us to sit together. A plate of little cakes and macarons reminded us we were on our way to France and the children bumped into an impromptu face painting session before wandering around the shop. We’d hardly had time to explore the ferry and then settle into our comfy seats before the lights of Calais were in full view and we were being ushered back to our cars. DFDS have crossings ten times a day throughout the year.
A family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – a perfect Northern France holiday – Accommodation
We stayed at the Ibis Style hotel that is conveniently placed in the middle of Calais. No frills but a large open plan family room with comfy beds and an ensuite bathroom was perfect and ensured a great night sleep. Breakfast (included) was a surprise hit with an array of cereals, fruit, yoghurts, cold meats, cheese and hot chocolate machine which was much visited, but the pièce de resistance was the freshly squeezed orange juice machine, which squeezed oranges on demand and ensured a weeks supply of vitamin c in a single meal. Equally interesting was the self-service egg boiler; simply choose the colour of your “egg dipper”, set the portable timer which you can take to your table and wait until it pings.
The reception area has bean bags, a pool table and table football and WiFi.
A family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – a perfect Northern France holiday – Christmas Shopping – Cité Europe
With a full tummy we headed out to the nearby Cité Europe, the large out of town shopping centre, to walk off our breakfast. There are 120 shops, 15 restaurants and a 12 screen cinema. We were pretty pleased to find two French interiors shops ( Maisons Du Monte and Sostrene Grene) which sold everything for the home and they’d just got their Christmas decorations in. Whether it’s simply fir cones covered in glitter or a set of 6 wine glasses, the French somehow manage to do things better and with more style. And all this wonderful European-ness is so much closer than you think. Our girls loved picking out some Christmas decorations and they were very reasonably priced. We also managed to stock up on French gifts (at Terrestrial du Nord) for family and friends as garlic, cheese, waffles, and beer are just some of the region’s delicacies.
And if you really want choice the huge hypermarché “Carrefour” is a shopping experience in itself. Unlike food shopping in the UK somehow French food shopping for children is an altogether different experience. Armed with their own mini trolly, stocked with a tarts aux fraise and a baguette or two kept them entertained for an hour while we stocked up on perfectly drinkable 3 Euro a bottle wines.
A family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – a perfect Northern France holiday -Nausicaa Aquarium
A trip to this area for a Northern France holiday is definitely incomplete without a visit to Nausicaa, a jewel in the crown of the Opal Coast. It would be criminal to let children forego such a highlight. Nausicaa is more than just an aquarium; it has a mission to educate and inspire which it does well without being too “teachy”. Rather than just having rows of tanks, the aquarium is separated into different world zones which make it really easy to understand the origins of the species and at one point you even “board” a plane to travel to a tropical island zone.
A particular highlight was eating hotdogs overlooking the shark tank. The girls’ dresses however became repeated casualties every time a shark fin surfaced and ketchup was excitedly sprayed everywhere.
Whether it’s the mesmerising tank of moon jellyfish, the cold stare of a large bull shark or the sheer spectacular array of colour adorning the coral reef tank, this aquarium will bewitch the entire family and leave you with a much better understanding of the delicate balance of life in the world’s oceans.
A family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – a perfect Northern France holiday – Eating Out.
Boulogne-sur-Mer is a bustling and historic port city with shops and restaurants aplenty and typically French markets, but stepping into the old fortified town reveals a different world – quaint artists shops housed in medieval houses, trendy bars for the well-heeled and lovely atmospheric restaurants. For one night only the girls were banned from the ubiquitous ‘Menu Enfants’ of nuggets and chips and to our relief and surprise actually enjoyed their first foray into truly French food, including garlicky snails and moule’s frites. We ate at La Belle Époque which we enjoyed but there is a whole street lined with restaurants serving similar fayre so it will be pretty hard to go wrong.
A family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – a perfect Northern France holiday – Museums
Given the history of this part of France and the presence of the iconic WW2 forts that dot the coastline we thought we’d try a war museum. There are two nearby museums that people talk of, The Musée 39-45 and the Musée du Mur de l’Atlantique. Both are on the coast road between Boulogne and Calais and are only a few miles apart. Given short attention spans we opted for just one museum – The Musée 39-45, which had fascinating scenes of realistic-looking uniformed soldiers and helped bring to life alien subjects like rationing and what life would be like in occupied France, in particular, the children loved the mock-up Parisian fashion boutique commandeered by the Germans to sell German uniform only.
A family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – a perfect Northern France holiday – Opal Coast Road
To truly experience the Opal Coast is to ditch the fast road and get onto the stunning 26 mile D940 coast road between Calais and Boulogne, that incidentally passes the now infamous town of Sangatte. Despite the internal back-seat lecture on the current migrant crisis, there was absolutely no evidence of any crisis on the outside. The drive takes in a dramatic craggy coastline and twisty roads that cut through undulating green fields that are reminiscent of the best of the English Coastal Path. Standing on top of the cliffs we watched ships pass by and the white cliffs of Dover beyond. You could probably stop anywhere along this bit of the coast but we headed for Audresselles, a small coastal fishing town with lovely sand and shingle beach that if you get your timing right, reveals brilliant rock pools at low tide (worth doing your research on tide times). It’s the sort of beach that brings out the child in everyone. We ran around the dunes, played tag on the beach, then searched the rock-pools for crabs.
After working up a good appetite we headed to the market square of Audresselles that was lined with restaurants all selling fruits de mer. We opted for De Cap en Cap, an unsophisticated but homely restaurant selling good seafood, delightful staff.The children were rewarded for sampling seafood with chocolate-coated waffles.
A family weekend in Calais and the Cote d’Opal – a perfect Northern France holiday – Ferry Home.
We’d only just polished off a Creme brûlée when we realised our ferry was leaving in less than an hour. This is the joy of this place, everything is so close. We jumped in the car, retraced our steps and it wasn’t long before we were sat in the P&O queue. In fact as it was the end of half term, the passport queue was a little slower than we had hoped. We missed our 5.15 ferry by 5 minutes but P&O were so flexible they automatically transferred us onto the six o’clock sailing. Another comfy short 90 minute hop across the Channel. There are up to 23 sailings a day on the Calais to Dover Route.
Fiona and family were guests of Calais and the Cote d’Opal but all opinions are their own.