Just a short hop across the Channel, the elegant resort of Le Touquet never fails to deliver a delightful beach holiday
Weekending Parisians are a savvy lot, often selecting great French hot spots to holiday in. What they probably don’t know is that their favourite weekend retreat on the coast of northern France will forever be a part of England – in spirit anyway.
Parisians have bought up much of the property of this seaside town for use as holiday homes, and are so precious about it that they have even imprinted their name on it. But the fact remains that Le Touquet Paris Plage was created by two enterprising Englishmen, John Whitely and Allen Stoneham. They bought Le Foret (a dowdy stretch of land) in 1903 from a failed vegetable-grower turned pine-tree-planter and built expensive hotels and villas and sold them to the rich and famous of London. In the 1920s, novelist PG Wodehouse and dramatist Noël Coward bought villas in the forest, and weekending aristocrats filled up the elegant hotels to sunbathe on the finely manicured beach. Perhaps this chic holiday resort should be renamed Le Touquet London Plage toute de suite...
Leisure over culture
Le Touquet had to be rebuilt after WWII, and a staggering 10,000 German mines were removed from an area just one-and-a-half miles long and two miles wide. By the Fifties the compact town re-emerged, maintaining its raison d’être as a pleasure resort. Countless celebrities, sports greats and heads of states have holidayed in Le Touquet, mostly staying at the Westminster Hotel Le Touque (Avenue du Verger), the oldest and grandest hotel in the region. And most of them have their personally-signed photographs hanging in the hotel’s hall of fame. There’s an eye-popping array of signed black-and-white photographs, including a young Roger Moore, Sean Connery with a full head of hair, an enchantingly moody photograph of Edith Piaf and a tellingly tense photograph of Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill.
Unlike the surrounding towns of Nord Pas de Calais, the words ‘quaint’ and ‘medieval’ have no place here. The resort is too young for cobbles and ramparts. The same goes for museums and cathedrals. The main event is Le Touquet itself – a case of leisure over culture.
The beach alone kept my young family busy for ages. We were there during the summer and the kids enjoyed the organised beach games but the most fun was had in the Aqualud tropical aquatic park (Blvd de Me). Lush plants grace the walls and ceilings, framing flumes, exhilarating black holes, rapids, Jacuzzis and even a wave machine. Temperatures inside the domed section reach 41 degrees and the water is maintained at a comfortable 29 degrees.
But for me, the star was the Thalasso centre (Front de Mer), also located on the beach. This fabulous spa centre offers a huge range of sea- and seaweed-based therapies said to alleviate stress, arthritis and rheumatism. A couple of days here and the world seems a brighter place; and because it is flanked by two hotels, (Novotel Thalassa Le Touquet and Hotel Ibis Le Touquet Thalassa),
you can saunter back to your room in your white fluffy dressing gown and tote bag as the mood takes.
And I didn’t flinch at all when, while gazing through the glass-walled relaxation room overlooking the beach, I saw hubby and kids whizzing across the sand dunes in sand yachts at breakneck speeds, at the whim of the wind. I knew that the sand yachting school was nearby and that they had been coached by the very animated World Sand Yachting Champion, Bertrand Lambert.
Strolling the streets
There is a lot to be said for simply walking around the town and gazing at the sometimes bizarre architecture, a result of wave after wave of architects keen to leave their mark. Mostly it looks great, especially in Le Village Suisse and rue Jean Monnet, with its neo-medieval style, but lately architects have played havoc with some of the beachfront buildings.
Sandwiched between the beach and the forest is a one-mile stretch of huddled, interlacing streets peppered with quaint shops and outlets. The main street is Rue St Jean, with the best in stylish shopping. Think designer names. I particularly loved the market. Le Touquet covered market, Rue de Metz, is entered through an imposing red tile-topped arch, shaped a bit like a puritan priest’s pointed hat (think Black Adder). It is housed in a crescent-shaped, whitewashed, wood-beamed listed building. Be sure to pick up a jar of the famous Le Touquetois fish soup.
At the market's tip, on Place Hermitage, is the casino. In its heyday this imposing whitewashed gambling joint had the likes of Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Marlene Dietrich, Charles Aznavour and a host of other film stars, royals and sportsmen posing around the roulette tables, elegantly attired in their long dresses and dinner jackets.
Behind the town is the alluring forest, dotted with widely-spaced-out gorgeous villas nestling amid pine and birch trees. None have fences, giving the impression that the residents have all the forest as their garden. The heart of the forest beats with the sound of horses' hooves. The equestrian centre (Avenue de la Dune aux Loups) is home to hundreds of stunning horses; you can see their heads poking out of their stables. Elsewhere, proficient horse-riders prepare for dressage in the Olympic riding-school. Anyone can hire a horse, and riders can horse-trek along the beach – especially romantic on a moonlit night.
The forest is also the site of La Foret golf course, renowned as the best in northern France. It is a gentle course that unfolds amid the pine trees. If a challenge is more par for the course, its sister course, La Mer, has been designed into the dunes and offers dramatic landscapes and vistas. Players be warned - it also exposes the ball to the unpredictable whims of the Channel winds.
But at the end of the day the greatest enjoyment of all can be had while relaxing in one of Le Touquet’s gastronomic restaurants tucking into the local fare with a glass of Sauternes, feeling smug that, for once, the British got there first!