Back from a lovely week in France and I have been boring anyone who will listen with a litany of Picardy’s virtues. I do have a bit of a soft spot for France anyway. The home of Orangina, Carambars and the Twingo was the scene of my childhood summer holidays and also, later, of a student year that we speak euphemistically of, as having been ‘character building’. In fact, there were moments of great fun, amidst the dismal living and working conditions, and I made friends that I love dearly still, almost 20 years on, but it’s a (lengthy) story for another day.
This holiday was rather a last-minute affair, the arrangements predicated on the basis of availability, convenience and budget, and so my expectations were quite modest. I knew nothing about the area we were visiting – in fact, until we arrived in Picardy, I thought we were going to Normandy.
We travelled by ferry – it’s a jaunt to Dover from Cheshire – about 260 miles for us, but we’re seasoned car voyagers, and knowing that it was barely any distance the other side helped keep tempers in check.
We listened to A LOT of Enid Blyton- a Famous Five and The Circus of Adventure (which raised MANY points for conversation: 1) was it really ever ok to send 3 children under 12 away on holiday alone because Daddy wanted you to go to Scotland with him? 2) is there a better insult than ‘fathead’? 3) how did it take 4 self-proclaimed mystery solvers so long to realised Gussy was a prince? 4) where the heck is Tauri Hessia?) and ate A LOT of breadsticks.
We stayed at La Dune Blanche, just outside Étaples, next to its posh cousin Le Touquet-Paris-Plage (literally, Paris-on-Sea) which is less than an hour from Calais. I’d never heard of Étaples and all I knew about Le Touquet was that it was somewhere Poirot probably visited to get away from all those damned pearl-handled-pistol-implicated murders – frankly, this is enough to sell any destination to me, but I appreciate not everyone will apply this criterion to holiday selection.
The campsite we stayed on was perfectly nice, set in a pine forest (pack the insect repellent) with a swimming pool – I’d go back – but there are, of course, loads of other options. To be totally honest, the Hôtel Barrière Le Westminster looked somewhat nicer than where we were staying; it was built in the 1920s, the roaring heyday of the area, and has loads of gorgeous Art Deco features, but as it would have been about €750 a night for the four of us, it wasn’t something I considered in any depth. If you fancied renting an apartment or house, this website has plenty, or other campsites are La Pinède and Le Côte d’Opale.
In case anyone else is thinking of visiting, here are some of the things we most enjoyed on our trip.
Le Touquet town is lovely. It’s quite upmarket and there are plenty of nice restaurants like Restaurant Le Paris and Les 2 Moineaux if you are travelling with companions who will appreciate fine French cuisine. We had rather a lot of ice creams and cafés au lait. If you’re self catering like we were, the E. Leclerc hypermarket at Étaples is good and also has a petrol station.
There are some fancy shops in Le Touquet – Armani and expensive art galleries and the like. They were disappointed as they saw us skip by, with our sticky hands and uncontrollable urge to touch everything in sight, without entering their premises, but we had other fish to fry in Rue Saint-Jean, which has a mix of lots of different shops – a lot of them terribly French, like the shop which seemed to sell only tinned fish, and the posh chocolateries – as well as loads of cafés and restaurants.
On the sea front in a long promenade with a carousel, a Ferris wheel, a miniature golf course and a skateboard park. Be warned, scooting over skateboard ramps, in flipflops, when you’re over 10 isn’t always a good idea. Anyway, there’s loads to occupy. The Ferris Wheel was the least successful of these (at least the stubbed toes were free) – our little daredevil who relishes all the rides anyone under 1.2m can, when at Alton Towers – was allegedly petrified and clung to me, wailing, for most of the 3 minutes, or however long we were aloft.
There are a couple of parks in Le Touquet, the other side of the town from the beach – one is pine foresty, the other – le Jardin d’Ypres – lawny and surrounded by mansions. Both are good for a run around, neither have much play equipment for the demanding. There is a play area nearer the seafront on Avenue Louis Hubert: should this kind of info to make or break for your holiday there’s a list of others here.
If your life is an endless rerun of Brewster’s Millions, then skip this bit, but otherwise, if you’re planning on spending a whole day in Le Touquet, you might want to take more care than we did with parking. The town is split into zones – all the red areas are €2/hour to park, the green zones are €1/hour. We realised this on the last afternoon, although I had had a map with this information clearly displayed on it for the entirety of the holiday. Over the course of the week we spent a fortune on parking – moving about 50m to the right would have halved it. There is some free parking if you want to go into the town, rather than the beach – the map’s available here, should you prefer to spend the money on fizzy wine.
The area is called Le Côte d’Opale (the Opal Coast) – I had never even heard there was such a place, but I should have because the beaches are glorious. I was amazed. The sand is golden and soft, they are massive and those we visited were spotlessly clean. At Berck we were outnumbered by litter pickers – they weren’t exactly rushed off their feet either. In May the beaches were pretty empty, French children being in school, but they were so vast, I don’t think you’d struggle to find a space to arrange your towels and build a fortress even at rush hour in peak season. I love beaches – I dream of living by the sea and would go literally every day of the year given a chance. My husband and children are less enamoured… my quest to convert them continues.
We visited beaches at Le Touquet, Berck, Sainte Cécile, Stella Plage and Merlimont. All the beaches were really rather nice, but the first two won hands down. Parking at all of these – except Le Touquet – was free and – in May – plentiful. (Merlimont was totally deserted the day we fleetingly visited. It was eerie. Parking not a problem though.)
My children would say, without hesitation, that the highlight of their holiday was going to Opalaventure. I haven’t been to Go Ape, but I believe it’s pretty much the same thing. The whole of this part of France seems to have been carved out of pine forest, so it seemed apt to visit this – and the fact it was about 8 minutes from where we were staying helped the decision.
The instructors are good and it all felt very safe, with helmets and harnesses, but it was a bit strange at first to see a five-year old clipping herself onto a zipwire in the treetops, having been shown what to do and then set off. It was good for independence and teamwork, they soon got the hang of it and all the little harnessed monkeys helped each other with the tricky bits.
There are courses for every age, but they last different amounts of time, so this visit we stood patiently as the little minxes clambered and whizzed down zip wires. Their session on the junior course lasted an hour and they were fairly pooped afterwards. It cost €15 per child and they totally loved it. We’ll definitely go back if we return.
My children’s second favourite thing was the Randorail. It’s pretty much a car that you pedal along a disused railway in the middle of the forest. It doesn’t sound all that much fun, described like that – I’d never get a job in advertising – but it was actually brilliant. It cost €28 for the four of us, and it felt like it had been money well spent (unlike the Ferris wheel) – it was surprisingly thrilling to be rattling along downhill. Obviously, tensions were rife because some little legs weren’t long enough to reach the pedals, and the iniquity of her (longer-legged) sister being able to take part was almost incomprehensible – but then I find it unnerving if we’re too harmonious and agreeable.
There are two routes, and groups are set off on the hour – the time you start determines which route you take. They are both the same distance but one starts uphill and downhill on the way back – the other route is the opposite. I’d recommend trying to get there so that you can start uphill – it’s surprisingly hard work.
There are seals galore in the Baie the Somme and they are much more forthcoming that I would have imagined. I’m no Michaela Strachan and had little to boast of in the way of wildlife sightings to this point, so when I suggested to my husband that we go and try to see them, expectations were pretty low. In fact, so low that I only suggested it because I thought it was ten minutes away rather than the 40 it actually took. My information on local fauna was pretty much based on a bit of eavesdropping combined with a half remembered article that I couldn’t find again, so it all seemed rather unlikely, but he was in a tolerant frame of mind and humoured me.
We eventually found where I thought I’d heard someone speak of and were frankly amazed to see that seals were there in abundance! There must have been 40 sprawled over the rocks. Of course, the one time the National Trust binoculars could have been of use, they were safely tucked away at home, but we were close enough to see them pretty well and to hear them. It was a lovely way to end our holiday – I’d definitely recommend it.
If you were to give it a try, you need to go at low tide – obvs – so check out the timetable. We parked by the Club Nautique at Berck (near the lighthouse) and walked down to the sea. You’re going to need a tight grip on any tots, but it isn’t too hazardous.
We were uncharacteristically lucky with the weather – most of our escapades were conducted in either glorious sunshine or pleasant conditions. One day we had the most ridiculous thunderstorm – end of the world sort of stuff – and it made me wonder what we’d do if we went back and it rained all week. These were some of the things I came up with:
Nausicaa – a massive aquarium in Boulougne. It’s not cheap -€25.90 for anyone over 12 and €19.90 for those 3-12 – but it looks good and it would probably keep the most fickle little mind occupied for a good few hours.
Aqualud – a waterpark in Le Touquet. My children were desperate to go, but it wasn’t fully open the week we went. To be honest, I could think of better ways of spending €70 – it looked a bit dated and razzing down a slide in my swimming costume doesn’t hold the appeal it once did – but most kids would probably love it.
Le Chemin de Fer de la Baie de Somme – probably better on a sunny day (what isn’t?) but if you’ve got someone who’d enjoy a ride on a steam train, this looks like a nice way to indulge their passion. It costs €14.50 for adults and €10.50 for those 4-16.
If you’ve got someone who’s interested in WW2 – it’s an incredibly popular topic with KS2 children – there is a museum at St Omer – La Coupole – which would be another good wet weather option. Obvs this area of France was heavily affected by both the the World Wars and you see reminders of that everywhere. The weekend we arrived, to commemorate the liberation in 1944, there was a parade of 1940s vehicles – civilian and military – complete with Victory Roll-ed ladies and candy-throwing GIs. It was brilliant.
It doesn’t sound like a jolly morning out with two kids – and it isn’t – but we also visited the military cemetery at Étaples. As we drove past it, I had told my two about visiting my great grandfather’s grave in Arras when I was much younger and they wanted to go and pay their respects to the soldiers. We didn’t stay long – there’s only so long you can be respectful for when you’re 5 – but they carefully read the names on lots of the headstones and left a slightly bizarre message in the visitors’ book. It’s not going to be everyone’s idea of something to do on holiday with young children, but I was surprised by how much mine got from the experience.
We had a blast and I have every intention of going back to Picardy, so please do get in touch if you have any top tips!