The north coast of France is often ignored, particularly by visitors from the UK, who regard it as a place to drive through as fast as possible on their way down to the south. But they’re missing a treat. It’s a fabulous area with a long sweeping coastline, major attractions, and seaside resorts — some rather grand catering in the past to the English milords and Parisian rich; others beloved by sailors and fishermen. This neglected treasure of a coast is ripe for a road trip.
There are two ways to do this driving tour. If you’re in Paris, this tour makes an excellent few days outside the capital. If you’re in the UK, it’s a perfect short break that delivers the best of France in a nutshell.
DFDS offers ferry crossings from Newhaven to Dieppe, Dover to Dunkirk and Dover to Calais. Bookings include reclining seats; private cabins are available for a small additional fee. Crossings take four hours each way and DFDS provides three daily sailings during the summer. On the Dover routes, there is a choice of up to 54 sailings per day.
Day 1: Dieppe
If you're coming from the UK, take the DFDS ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe, leaving at 9.30am and arriving in France at 2 pm local time.
If you're coming from Paris, the 195-km (121-mile) drive will take around 2 hours 30 minutes.
Walk along the small streets parallel to the English Channel starting at the Estran-Cité de la Mer, the local museum of the sea. Seventeenth-century houses in white brick line the Grande Rue; continue onto rue de la Barre where number 4 housed a pharmacy in 1683. Voltaire lodged here with his friend the apothecary when he came back from exile in England in 1728 then went to live with his lover Emilie du Châtelet in Champagne. Other houses date from the 18th century.
The old section ends at the Château, originally a huge circular tower that was part of the 14th-century fortifications of this once vital seaport. Today the massive stone structure with its rounded defensive walls and small windows high up above the surrounding countryside houses a good museum. Ship models, maps and instruments along with Dutch paintings and furniture catch and keep your imagination. But don’t miss the superb collection of Dieppe ivories, made from the ivory imported from Africa and the Orient. The 17th century saw 350 ivory carvers in Dieppe; today you’ll only see a small workshop in the museum.
Beyond the Château, you come to the Memorial to August 19th, 1942. It commemorates the date when a force of 7,000 soldiers, mostly Canadians, was launched from the UK against the Germans in north France. It was a disaster; 5,000 men were killed or taken prisoner. But lessons were learned and during the later Normandy D-Day Landings, artificial ports were towed over, while heavily defended harbors like Dieppe, were avoided.
Eat in Dieppe, where the tang of the ocean means fish or shellfish. Oysters at the Comptoir A Huitres or a huge plateau de fruits de mer will hit the spot in this simple restaurant.
The Café des Tribunaux is a large brasserie-style café that started as an inn at the end of the 17th century. It was the favorite place for the Impressionists and was painted by Sickert, who spent his summers in Dieppe in the 1890s, moving there permanently from 1896 to 1905. It’s a great place for people watching, sitting on the terrace with a cold beer or glass of wine.
If you want to stay in Dieppe and like sea views, try the Inter-Hotel de la Plage. It looks just like a pleasant seaside hotel and has rooms for every budget. The sea-view options are the more expensive. There’s no restaurant, but with plenty of choice in Dieppe, this is no hardship.
Outside Dieppe, the Auberge du Clos Normand is everything you want from a former coaching inn. Today it’s a delightful old building with wooden balconies, rooms overlooking a farm, a restaurant with an old tiled floor and brick walls.
Day 2: Houses, History, and an Estuary in the Somme
Dieppe is on what is known as the ‘Alabaster coast’ (Côte d'Albâtre), an 80-mile-long stretch of white cliffs and wonderful beaches along the seashore. Just southwest of Dieppe on the D75, the road takes you the charming little resort of Varengeville-sur-Mer, where half-timbered houses stand shyly behind thick hedges. So near to the UK, this was a part always loved by the British. Le Bois des Moustiers should therefore not come as a surprise, but who would have expected this glorious house, designed by Sir Edwin Luytens in 1898, and a perfect example of the Arts and Crafts movement? The gardens were an extension of the house, designed by Luytens’ collaborator, Gertrude Jekyll. It’s a little piece of English architectural and cultural history, open to the curious from mid-March to mid-November.
A piece of French history awaits at the Manoir d’Ango, built as a summer palace for the invaluable ship owner, naval advisor to Francois I and privateer, Jehan Ango, between 1535 and 1545. Walk through the forbidding and huge wooden gate and you step into an Italian Renaissance jewel, built around a large internal courtyard with a pigeonnier in the middle. It’s open from April 1 st to November 1st.
Eat in Varengeville on the terrace at the charming Auberge du Relais.
Drive back through Dieppe and along the coast road, the D925. Go through the small seaside resort of Le Tréport and on to the golden beaches of Mers-les-Bains, a typical resort of Victorian villas that doesn’t seem to have changed since the 19th century. The coast road continues up through Picardy to Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, a charming seaside town where William, Duke of Normandy, embarked on his journey to conquer England in 1066.
Saint-Valery still has its medieval citadelle in the upper town, while the lower town has quays running along the estuary lined with brightly colored houses, restaurants, and hotels.
You can imagine the past life at the Écomusée Picarvie with its collection of tools, photographs, and artifacts. Or just spend the afternoon doing all those things people do in seaside resorts: digging for shellfish, taking a boat trip, cycle through the surrounding countryside with a guide. But be careful; the Somme estuary has strong tides that ebb and flow, creating dangerous currents.
Opposite, Le Crotoy is a pretty former fishing hamlet that faces south, giving you wonderful views and a landscape that inspired the likes of Jules Verne, who wrote Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea here; Colette and the Impressionist painters, Sisley and Seurat.
Take the road north along the coast, through now silted-up fishing hamlets that seem left in a time warp. You’ll arrive at the Parc Ornithologique du Marquenterre, a magical place of sand dunes and pine forests where you can hire binoculars and walk through the paths stopping at the observation posts and looking at the remarkable collection of nesting birds here through powerful telescopes.
In Saint Valery, book at La Table des Corderies, where the chef Sebastien Porquet champions the freshest local products.
Or, drive to Le Crotoy for dinner overlooking the glorious bay and dining on more excellent local, seasonal dishes at Bellevue.
The Hotel Picardia is a chintz-filled gem of a place, set in a 19th-century building. With only 18 rooms (seven are family rooms) and close to the waterfront, this is a favorite so book well in advance.
Day 3: Glorious Gardens, Saint-Valery-sur-Somme to Montreuil-sur-Mer
From St-Valery, head northeast into the countryside. Make for Crécy-en-Pontheiu which you’ll get to by driving on the D111 through the Crécy Forest. All that is left from the famous battle of 1346 when Edward III did such damage to the French troops using the new six-foot longbow, is the Moulin Édouard III 1km northeast of Crécy on the D111 towards Wadicourt. This was where Edward watched the battle.
The gardens of the delightful Abbaye de Valloires are your destination this morning. From Wadicourt, continue on the D111 to Dompierre-sur-Authie. You’ll enjoy the drive through the beautiful Authie valley before you reach this peaceful spot. The gardens stretch out from the ancient abbey, its warm stone walls forming the perfect backdrop for a series of five themed gardens. Have lunch in the Abbey restaurant.
If you’re a garden fan, cross over the river and take the D119 that runs along the opposite bank of the river Authie to Auxi-le-Chateau. From here take the D941 to Frévent, then the D82 to Séricourt. This is a wonderful, slightly eccentric private garden. The garden's 29 themes take you on a walk through war and peace, down a shaded alley of white cedars and under roses and clematis trained on a pergola. Séricourt is one of the top gardens of France.
From Séricourt, take the D340 to Hesdin and Montreuil-sur-Mer for tonight’s stop in the delightful small town abandoned by the sea.
If you're staying at the Château de Montreuil, eat at the Michelin-starred restaurant for a memorable meal or choose from various other options in the area.
The Château de Montreuil sits behind a front gate in its own gardens. It’s a gracious, 3-story white-washed building looking more like an Edwardian stately home than a top château hotel. Inside the rooms are a mix of periods and styles; choose the Tudor age in the room with a four-poster, or stay in this century with a more contemporary design.
Day 4: Montreuil-sur-Mer to Le Touquet-Paris-Plage
Montreuil itself is a sizable town. Once one of the major medieval ports of France, it lost all purpose when the river Canche silted up in the 15th century, leaving the town to remain in a time warp, ignored by the rest of the country. Today it's a quiet, pretty place with historic ramparts and a citadel that played a part in World War I, good shops and restaurants and a fabulous view over the river.
Spend the morning here then drive the short distance to Étaples, a working fishing port with an intriguing attraction about the local fishing industry, the Maréis La Corderie.
Aux Pêcheurs d’Étaples is the place for excellent fish and seafood. You’ll find it above the fish market on the quayside.
Le Touquet-Paris-Plage has always been a magnet for both Brits and vacationing Parisians. It’s a gracious, relaxed seaside town with a whole range of sporting activities from water sports to horse-riding. It is also a top golfing destination. Le Touquet has always been one of the top seaside resorts in France, once attracting the likes of Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward.
There are plenty of dining choices in Le Touquet for all budgets. If you stay at Le Westminster, you must eat in the Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Pavillon. Otherwise, try Le Café des Arts where the French classics are first-rate, served in a casual, relaxed restaurant.
Le Westminster is the top hotel in the area, a glorious embodiment of the elegant Edwardian age. It's kept its popularity; signed photos of all the stars and celebrities who stay here line the walls of the public corridors.
If you want to be outside the main town in a delightful forest and next to a top golf course, choose Le Manoir with its very English-club-like feel.
Day 5: Le Touquet to Wimereux
Drive along the Opal coast then take the turn to Hardelot-Plage. It’s a haven for children and for adults there’s the unusual attraction of Hardelot Château. Built on 13th-century foundations, it was the brainchild of Sir John Hare who used Windsor Castle as his inspiration to rebuild it in the 1830s. With its mix of French and English influences, it celebrates the entente cordiale. Today Hardelot Château has a delightful, domestic Edwardian interior that comes as a contrast to the very castle-like stone exterior.
In 2016, a new 338-seater Elizabethan theatre was opened in the grounds. The theatre is open all year round and is immensely adaptable for theatre and music. The main attraction is the Theatre Festival which runs from mid-June to mid-July each year.
The Brasserie L’Ocean looks over the sea from the large picture windows of the restaurant and from the outside terrace.
Boulogne-sur-Mer is a very short drive along the coast. The seaside town is lively, with a top attraction, the Centre National de la Mer (National Centre, Nausicaá). This is a great place for families, with tank after tank of hammerhead sharks, jellyfish, turbot and rays. Don’t miss feeding time for the sea lions who always put on a great show and the delightful penguins.
Take time to walk away from the harbor and the seaside up to a surprisingly interesting medieval upper town. You can walk around the old medieval walls with their paths, rose beds and garden benches to take time to look at the view.
If you're staying at La Matelote, you won't want to eat anywhere else. The restaurant is well known locally and is always full of locals as well as hotel guests.
In Boulogne itself, there are two good possibilities. In the upper town of Boulogne, book at this charming bed and breakfast. L’Enclos d eL’Evêché has just three rooms which are chic, decorated with great flair. There’s an excellent breakfast as well.
The town’s best hotel is the long-established, very comfortable La Matelote. Opposite Nausicaá, it’s been beautifully renovated and now has a pool, Jacuzzi, hammam, and sauna. If you can, book a room with its own balcony onto the sea.
Outside Boulogne at Wimereux, book at one of the most popular, and well-known hotels along this stretch of coast. The Hotel Atlantic has a lovely seaside feel, with rooms overlooking the ocean. It has a spa and the 1-Michelin star restaurant, La Liegoise.
Day 6: Wimereux to Calais
After a good breakfast, drive up the coast, past windy sand dunes to the headland: Cap Gris-Nez. All along this part, to Cap Blanc Nez, numerous turn-offs from the road take you to walking paths with stunning views towards England. At Wissant, you get to the long sandy beaches where Julius Caesar launched his assault on England in 55 BC.
Your final drive takes you up to Calais, the port which most people just use as a starting point for their journey through France. But Calais is a surprising place which has spent the last few years renovating its historic buildings.
Stop off at La Cote d’Argent on the seafront for top seafood in a modern, spacious restaurant.
Calais has some delightful surprises. The major don’t-miss attraction is the Lace Museum, officially the Cité Internationale de la dentelle et de la mode de Calais (International Center of Lace and Fashion). Calais was once a great lace making center; here you’re taken through the story. There’s something for everyone: fashion from the past and the present; demonstrations of lace making on a huge industrial machine bought in England, and videos that fascinate with their detail on making the patterns.
The Calais Town Hall and Belfry is a glorious extravagant building, looking much older than it 110 odd years. In the garden, one of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais statues holds pride of place. It commemorates the incident in 1347 when Edward III of England captured Calais and threatened a mass execution of the citizens. He changed his mind, instead deciding that six of the main leaders should be executed. This was too much for Edward’s wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault, who successfully pleaded for their lives.
There’s a lot more to see in Calais: the huge Notre-Dame church where a young Charles de Gaulle married Yvonne Vendroux in 1921, and the statue of the couple outside; the excellent Fine Arts Museum, and the old-fashioned but evocative Musée de Mémoire 1939-45, telling the story of occupied Calais.
And that’s all to do before you go shopping, which Calais is famous for.
The rue Royale in the medieval fortified part of town is full of restaurants and bars. Book at the Histoire Ancienne, a family-owned and run bistro-style restaurant that serves classic dishes in a friendly relaxed venue.
The old-fashioned but well renovated Hotel Meurice is near the beach and just a few minutes' walk into the center of town. A grand staircase at the entrance sets the scene, and the hotel is particularly popular with British visitors. It has a good bar that buzzes into the late evening.