Location spotlight: the Opal Coast
A short hop across the Channel, the Opal Coast spans north-eastern France. Solange Hando discovers a magical world of stunning beaches and poignant history
Just 40km or so across the Channel, the Opal Coast stretches from Calais to Berck-sur-Mer, a long ribbon of sand and sea where colours shimmer in the ever-changing light. Vast sweeping beaches hide a sprinkling of quiet coves, framed by headlands that you might see from the Kent coast on a clear day.
Getting there is easy: sail from Dover to Calais and take the train towards Le Touquet; book your car on the ferry or through the Tunnel and drive; or fly from Lydd Airport to Le Touquet in 20 minutes.
PARIS BY THE SEA
Once ‘a desert tortured by the wind’, Le Touquet has earned its place among top French resorts with its population of 6,000 multiplied by 10 at the height of summer. It all began at the turn of the last century when sea bathing became fashionable, and British aristocrats and Parisians came in their droves to enjoy the bracing air and frolic in the waves lapping the silky sands. Belle Époque villas popped up here and there and in this playground of the rich, celebrities followed; from Noel Coward to Mrs Simpson and the Prince of Wales, or Sean Connery who signed his first James Bond contract in Le Touquet.
Today, with its blend of French chic and quaint English charm, this ‘four season’ resort remains popular with Parisians, particularly at the weekend when visitors browse the market stalls, searching out homemade jam, local cheese, pâté and more, or head for a pâtisserie to nibble a juicy strawberry tart or some superb handmade chocolates from Beussent. Meanwhile, in the straight, narrow streets, exclusive boutiques and gourmet restaurants add an unmistakable touch of class to the new ‘sporty’ image of a discerning clientèle. Think sailing school, sand-yachting, super-sized riding stables, three golf courses, 33 tennis courts, plus cycle paths meandering down leafy lanes and walking trails rambling through the largest maritime pine forest in northern France.
But there’s far more to explore on the 120km-long Opal Coast. To the south are the broad sands of Stella Plage, a great place for flying kites; Merlimont, a discreet family resort; and Berck-sur-Mer, where the luminosity attracted many artists, including Edouard Manet who painted ‘On the Beach’ here and which is displayed in the Musée d’Orsay.
To the north, Etaples is a charming little place on the River Canche, complete with marina, nature reserve and fish market, while the sweeping sands of Hardelot are perfect for families and windsports enthusiasts. Ambleteuse claims a fort battered by the waves, while Wimereux boasts a stylish promenade lined with cafés and restaurants and fanciful villas bristling with turrets and conical roofs.
Then of course, there’s Boulogne, where beyond the beach, cobbled lanes climb up the hill towards the basilica, the medieval castle and ramparts with superb views. Down in the harbour, the fishing fleet unloads the catch, cormorants dive as fast as arrows, and pleasure boats bob in the marina. Visitors stroll along the river or lunch alfresco, enjoying fish fresh from the sea, or the mussels, which are celebrated with their own annual festival. White sands and parasols beckon on the beach but Nausicaa is a must-see, with its magical world of 35,000 marine creatures.
A short drive inland, the bucolic Sept Vallées reveal one of the prettiest areas in rural France, all pastures and fields, rolling hills, babbling streams and sleepy hamlets tucked in the hollows.
Here a flower-draped bridge, there an old watermill, an organic farm, a bistrot serving baguette sandwiches as long as your arm. Sheep and cattle graze in lush meadows strewn with ladies’ frock and golden cowslip. Look out for the hilltop citadel of Montreuil-sur-Mer, no longer by the sea but unwinding through a maze of cobbled lanes, old houses and churches with fabulous views of the countryside.
Inland or by the sea, much of the Côte d’Opale is protected by nature reserves and parks, ranging from pristine dunes to pine or mixed forests and the estuaries of the Canche and Slack rivers, a favourite spot for birdwatchers. Myriad trails invite you to explore, by walking, cycling or riding, but star attractions are the windswept Cap Blanc Nez, which rises to 135 metres and is sprinkled with orchids and fossils, and Gris Nez, which marks the meeting point of the Channel and North Sea. Sunsets are spectacular.
GOING TO MARKET
Property prices vary depending on location and style. As you would expect, Le Touquet comes top of the list and you would be hard-pressed to find a Belle Époque villa still on the market. A two-bedroom apartment with shared swimming pool will set you back €225,000 but expect to pay well over €1m for a spacious villa with garden. Look around, however, and you never know what you might find: we spotted a small farmhouse on the outskirts for a mere €212,000.
In Berck-sur-Mer, a modern six-bedroom house in a quiet location is priced at €315,650 and a small holiday apartment is on the market for €169,892, while in Merlimont a traditional villa with sea views costs €312,700. Heading up the coast beyond Le Touquet, we found a two-bedroom seafront apartment with shared pool for €308,000 in Hardelot, a semi-detached three-bedroom house in Ambleteuse for €286,000 and in Wimereux, a three-bedroom bungalow with patio and seaviews for €371,000. In Boulogne, a four-bedroom town centre house is on offer at €170,000, and a 10-bedroom mansion in the citadel, ideal for B&B conversion, is priced at €680,000.
Inland, Desvres (famous for its pottery), Samer and St-Étienne-au-Mont are worth investigating, with a fair number of affordable properties, while in Montreuil-sur-Mer a restored three bedroom home is on offer at €170,00, alongside a range of traditional properties in the Canche valley.
New developments include Les Terrasses du Monastère in St-Martin de Boulogne with 62 apartments ranging from €185,000 to €280,000 and in Le Touquet, Le Jardin des Arts where 18 luxury apartments are on offer from €680,000. In Stella Plage, new apartments are still available in the Cap au Sud development, while the Clos des Roses in Merlimont has new villas under €280,000.
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