Fine Fruit of the Opal Coast

Costa Rica

It's a short hop over the Channel and you're there already, in “Real France, Real Close” That's the advertising slogan for the coastal towns and countryside many of us miss as we dash south for sun or snow. Gareth Huw Davies takes a northern pause and recommends six things you must do on the Côte d’Opale, the “Opal Coast” in and around the fine old town of Boulogne. Picture of shark in Nausicaa, France's national sea life centre, by the writer.

Fish fireworks

Like the lavish pyrotechnics you expect after some big concert, Nausicaa saves its most exuberant colour show for its last big tank. Masses of fish of many different species glide and twist to kaleidoscopic effect, underlining the strong conservation message they have been sending for the previous two hours (the average time for a visit). The oceans are a fabulous place. It''s up to us to keep it that way. France''s national sea life centre gave us a taste of most of them, with close encounters with about 35,000 fish, from the shy cockatoo wasp fish, like a leaf swaying in the current, to rays that lie on the surface and let you tickle them. If you want big impact sea life, there are sharks cruising with menace, and sea lions diving like torpedoes in a 1 million litre tank. (Captive bred, and they don’t do tricks). The signs along the trail of 34 different displays are in English and French. And the name? Pronounced nausic–ay-yaa, after the sea nymph who cred for the wandering Odysseus.

Hill top triumph

Few spur-of-the-moment “It’s only €2 - let’s go in” decisions bring such rewards. They’ve refreshed and refurbished the museum in Boulogne’s 13th century castle, together with the walled old town which wraps around it. The museum is a delightful surprise. We started in the South Sea Islands. Then to France’s largest collection of Egyptian artifacts and Greek and Etruscan vases after the Louvre. Next, Europe''s largest collection of Eskimo masks, brought back by a Boulogne-born anthropologist. The big finale, deep inside the castle, is the town’s Roman foundations. I like to think Julius Caesar stood hereabout before he left for Britain in 55 BC. We stayed in the old town in Enclos de l’Eveché, a spacious (£82 a night) B+B in an old townhouse near the freshly scrubbed cathedral. Some good pavement cafes, restaurants, and shops are another good reason to take the steep walk up to the old town – but wear sensible shoes.

Rest in peace.

There are some places you just can''t drive on by. They sleep peacefully, next to a nature reserve, close to the coast were they entered France long years ago, the 10,773 soldiers from Britain and the Commonwealth. There are few physical sign of the horrors of the First World War left in N France - just the restrained dignity of the cemeteries, under the devoted care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The cemetery at Etaples, 20 minutes south of Boulogne, is the biggest of all, the resting place of many of the casualties who never made it home from the hospital tents among the dunes here. We entered under the cool, classical ceremonial entrance designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens and stood above the poignant vista of line after line of identical headstones in the green, neatly-tended amphitheatre below. Then we read random epitaphs, every one a tender memorial to a lost young man.

Pick of the chic.

True devotees of 1920s fashion will want to make the 20 minute hop over to the stylish little seaside town of Le Touquet from Lydd airport (£89.62 return, just as the smart young things went flipping over to play the casinos and sip champagne. We drove down from Boulogne (25 minutes) and found it in a quiet time warp behind a buffer of forest. It looks like a British garden suburb: two Englishmen remade this resort after they bought it in 1903. The architect-designed villas they commissioned still sit amongst the trees. The big appeal is the enormous west-facing sandy beach for those Jack Vettriano moments. It which stretches for miles to the south of the town. The tight little town centre retains its style, with some smart shops, and a big choice of restaurants. There a posh cinema for rainy afternoons. I think Brief Encounter would be just right – its writer Noël Coward had a place here.

Cosy catering

He runs a one star Michelin fish restaurant in Boulogne, the biggest fishing port in France. So what''s the first thing you see on entering Tony Lestienne’s restaurant? No, not fish, but two teddy bears under a glass bell. There were more surprises to come in the small and cosy La Matelote. After our main course they served us complimentary candy flosses. Then, in addition to deserts, a two tier plate of petits fours. And a choice of home-made chocolates. All of which, with effort, you could refuse and just concentrate on the serious business of fish. Tony works hard at presentation: my sea bass came with a filigree vegetable sculpture on top. My wife chose his specialty, roast turbot steak with thyme butter. (The adjoining La Matelote hotel is one of the comfiest in town. A good lunchtime stop is Brasserie de La Mer, its walls filled with photographs of trawlers, with nautical knots and wooden seagulls all about. It’s fine to just ask for a main course, with perhaps a glass of house Chablis.

Big Cheese.

Philippe Olivier (his shop is at 43 rue Thiers) is the biggest cheese in Boulogne. It’s official. At this year’s World Cheese Awards his Livarot (soft, pungent, cow''s milk cheese) won a gold medal. They make it with the care, and unchanging method the French devote to fine wine. It’s good with wheat grain bread. He took another gold for his Reblochon, a silver for the Mimolette and a bronze for his Pont l’Evêque. The other stars among Boulogne’s small independent shops include Chocolat de Beussent (also in rue Thiers) and Maroquinerie Florence in Rue Faidherbe, an Aladdin''s cave hanging with 600 handbags. If you take a cold box, buy fish at the stalls on the Quai Gambetta - ask them for ice - and cook something special for supper back in Britain.

* The writer travelled by PO Ferries from Dover to Calais. 08705 980 333.

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