Feeling at Home at Le Touquet on the Opal Coast
Mark Bibby Jackson visits the seaside resort of Le Touquet on the Opal Coast in the Pas de Calais, France and feels back home.
In retrospect it is a tiny detail midway through the second day of my visit to the Opal Coast that sums up my trip. Above Hardelot Castle flies a combined French and English flag, a symbol of the importance both countries have played in the development of the region.
The flag represents the castle’s current status as the Cultural Centre of the Entente Cordiale. Hardelot is dedicated to the culture and arts of the two nations as well as their close relations. In its ground is the only Elizabethan theatre in France, an impressive wooden structure that resembles the Globe, built in 2016. Unfortunately, there was no performance during our stay.
Hardelot’s history reflects that of the region. The original wooden fortification was replaced by a stone castle in the 13th century. It became a royal stronghold two centuries later, before being reduced to rubble in 1615 as a punishment for its owner’s Protestant leanings.
From the mid-19th century three Englishmen took possession of Hardelot. The first Sir John Hare restored the old castle keep. His successor Henry Guy converted the castle into a home. While the third, John Robinson Whitley – more of whom later –, created the Société Anonyme d’Hardelot in 1905, hosting many a social event here.
Now, the property is under the stewardship of the Pas-de-Calais department. Inside is an interesting collection of artefacts telling the story of the castle. Outside are beautiful gardens as well as a small exhibition space, which was hosting a display on Victorian literature by French illustrator, Benjamin Lacombe. Once again highlighting the close relations between the two nations.
Watching Seals on the Opal Coast
Throughout our trip I feel totally at home in Le Touquet, which I find a very welcoming town, and the Opal Coast. Less welcoming is the strong wind, although this also reminds me of the UK.
That day, our original plan was to explore the glorious coastline, which stretches for 120 kilometres from Calais to Berck-sur-Mer with its beautiful beaches, golden sands, and two amazing cliffs at Cap Gris-Nez and Cap Blanc-Nez.
After breakfast we decide to head to the Bay of Authie, just west of Berck-sur-Mer.
Seals have come to the bay since 1890 at least. Numbers have increased since 1972 when their hunting was banned. Up to 100 seals can be see here. On our visit there must be around half that number. They come to rest on the sandbanks that are exposed at low tide, allowing them to detect any danger, while lounging around. The best time to see them is from two hours before low tide. By the time we arrive the place is full of tourists, within an hour or so all have dissipated as the seals return to the waters. Only a few fishermen remain.
Up Close: Béthune, an Art Deco Marvel
Béthune is a beautiful town an hour and a bit’s drive inland from Le Touquet. We drove here for lunch on our final day before taking the ferry back home. The stand-out feature is its 14th-century belfry in the main square. Somehow this survived both wars, although 90 percent of the town was raised to the ground in the first world war. The town was rebuilt in the art deco style after the war, and both the town hall and the main church are worth visiting.
However, our purpose was to eat at an estaminet. These small cafés that serve alcohol are very popular in Pas-de-Calais, a region also noted for its beer. Bierbuik combines the two, serving small dishes with its own beer – literally bierbuik means ‘beer belly’. The food is wonderful. They use local, fresh and organic ingredients. The Maroilles cheese dip for the frites was devastating. And the 2% beer – ideal for driving – went down excellently.
It is an amazing experience to see the seals up close. Watching them twist their bodies to maximise the sun, or perhaps wind, they resemble overweigh contortionists. It is a wonderful to immerse ourselves in nature.
Unfortunately, the strong winds – there were massive floods that week in France – prevent further exploration of the coastline. Hence our little trip to Hardelot.
Returning to Le Touquet we make best use of the bars of this most lively town, before enjoying some fresh seafood at Café des Sports, which just like La Petite Charlotte the previous evening has a very local clientele.
Le Touquet Lighthouse
The winds have calmed by the following morning, which is fortunate as I have an appointment to climb Le Touquet’s lighthouse.
My guide Lucas explains that the original two lighthouses were built in 1852 to help sailors navigate their way around the Pointe of Touquet, a dangerous headland that had wrecked many a ship en route to the nearby port of Étaples.
Both towers were destroyed by the Germans in the second world war. The current 57-metre high lighthouse was inaugurated in 1951. Some 274 steps lead you to the top from where you have spectacular 360-degree views across the town towards the sea, or along the river Canche. The lighthouse is only open during school holidays, so I really would recommend you time your visit accordingly.
Le Touquet Forest and Le Touquet-Paris-Plage
The lighthouse also allows me to fully appreciate Le Touquet Forest which we drove through upon our arrival.
These trees in many respects tell the story of the rise of Le Touquet. In 1837, Alphonse Daloz acquired 1,600 hectares of dunes in the Le Touquet area. According to Lucas, his original plan was to plant potatoes here, but the Parisian lawyer soon realised the sandy soil was hardly ideal, instead he planted maritime pines to stabilise the land.
Daloz used to invite his friends to hunt in the forest, and it was on one of these trips in 1874 that Hippolyte de Villemessant, the editor of Le Figaro, came up with the idea of turning the area into a playground for Parisians, with the first building opened in 1882.
After Daloz’s death, the land was acquired by the aforementioned John Robinson Whitley in 1902, with the town being renamed Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, a decade later. The epitome of the Belle Epoque, it was viewed as the place to be seen, not just for well-to-do Parisians, but also for travellers from across the Channel.
The future Edward VIII played the casino tables at Le Touquet. HG Wells eloped here unsuccessfully with Amber Reeves in 1909. Noel Coward and the glamorous set came here in the 1920s. PG Wodehouse lived here from 1934 until the German invasion.
Le Touquet Town Hall
It is this close alliance between French and British that Lucas demonstrates to me in Le Touquet Town Hall, which we visit after the lighthouse. En route, he shows me the amazing Le Westminster Hotel, a prime example of British art deco that was built between 1924-6, and still hosts most fortunate guests.
Built between 1929 and 31, the town hall was funded by the taxes imposed on just two casinos in one year. It is opposite the Joan of Arc church – perhaps not the best example of Anglo-French accord – which has wonderful stained glass.
The first thing to note about the town hall is its carillon is the same as Big Ben’s. The building’s design is a mix of neo-Gothic, Norman and Flemish.
Inside, the Honour Room, where major civil events are held, resembles a Tudor banqueting hall. In the smaller registry office, Tony Blair is pictured with Chirac signing the Le Touquet Treaty that moved UK customs from Dover to Calais. Above hangs a painting showing the marriage of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, to Louis XII, who was 34 years her senior, at Abbeville. They are making a point.
Lucas bids me adieu at the town hall leaving me free to explore the town including its wonderful covered market. From here, I walk to the beach where I marvel at the glorious sands and dip my feet in the refreshing pools of water.
The World of Tomorrow
In the afternoon I visit the Edouard Champion Museum, which is based in the former home of a governor’s house – this time American not British. Turned into a museum at the end of the last century, it features a brilliant exhibition by JonOne, an American street artist based in France, entitled The World of Tomorrow, which finishes in November.
With all the gloom surrounding Brexit my timely trip to Le Touquet reminds me of the strong links between the UK and France, and of our great shared history – at least at Le Touquet.
Perhaps, the world of tomorrow will not be the same as the world of the past, but if we are looking for a more positive future then we really should note the advantages of a more entente cordiale with our neighbour across the Channel, as evidenced by Le Touquet, clearly the jewel on the Opal Coast.
Le Touquet Best Restaurants and Bars
There are so many great restaurants in Le Touquet that it is hard to recommend just one or two.
La Petite Charlotte on the first night had a great local atmosphere, as did Café des Sports. The plateau de fruits de mer at Le Paris Plage was excellent and the service impeccable. However, perhaps the best fine dining experience is at Perard Traditions. We had perfectly cooked sea bream served in the restaurant while watching the oysters being prepared for gourmands waiting at the bar. A wonderful gastronomic experience we know where we will be dining on our next trip to Le Touquet.
As for nightlife, Le Touquet has come excellent bars. We tended to have our aperitifs at Le Street Café before retiring to The Office Pub after dinner for calvados. Le Globe Trotter seemed an extremely popular Irish bar. All these bars and restaurants are based around rue de Metz and rue Saint-Jean in the heart of Le Touquet.
Le Touquet Accommodation
Although no place in Le Touquet can compare with Le Westminster Hotel at least in terms of grandeur, those of us on a more measured might consider the Hotel Castel Victoria. The rooms were excellent, beds extremely comfortable, breakfast expansive and the service friendly and efficient throughout. The interior has a lively contemporary vibe with the complimentary pool table an excellent way to wind down after a night on the town.
We took the Dover to Calais return ferry with DFDS. Our crossing was short and sweet, taking an hour-and-a-half. Check in was painless and immigration a breeze. DFDS advises you arrive an hour-and-a-half before your departure, which allows you to enjoy a coffee while having a final look at the White Cliffs. Highly recommended is the Premium Lounge with complimentary drinks (glass of prosecco), sandwiches and snacks.
Things To Do in Le Touquet
Mark was hosted on his trip by Pas-de-Calais Tourism. For more information on what to do in Le Touquet and the Opal Coast, click here. You can find more information about the Bay of Authie seals including times of the low tides here.
All photos by Mark Bibby Jackson.