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First stop in short-hop France.

Costa Rica

It’s always been our easiest foreign trip, that short Channel hop to Calais. And with plenty of room in Eurotunnel and on cross-Channel ferries, it’s never been easier to make the crossing. The writer recommends things to do in and around Calais, whether you are over for an afternoon shopping trip or a longer weekend break. (Picture: Gareth Huw Davies)

Grandstand view of England

For one of the most splendid coastal viewpoints on the entire Channel, take the 15 minute drive from Calais along the coast road to the south (signed to Boulogne) to Cap Blanc Nez (there’s ample parking). Choose a fine day, and you’ll swear you can see the sheep grazing in the green fields of Kent.
Because you’re so high, everything seems close. But failed invaders, from Napoleon to Hitler, would have stood near this point with mounting frustration, wondering how 18.7 miles could be so much of a barrier. We counted 20 or more large ships shuttling in all directions over those teeming narrows. This is where the pioneer aviators took off (there’s a museum nearby) and landed; today it is mainly swimming TV stars and the invisible Eurostars zinging through the tunnel beneath your feet.

Top up your glass

There are plenty of shopping opportunities in and around Calais. One of our favourites is the factory outlet at the massive glass manufacturer Arc International at Arques, a short drive away. We found glassware galore, from the ubiquitous basic tumblers found on many a British table, to useful salad bowls and all manner of crockery and stylish wineglasses. For wine, we called at the nearby Le Chais at Longuenesse (33 Route des Bruyeres), smaller-scale and less intimidating than the huge wine emporia around Calais. Lots of good Appellation d'origine contrôlée wines for not too much a bottle. It is quieter here, so you may get one of the knowledgeable English-speaking managers to yourself, as we did. He would recommend some unfamiliar vineyard, then pinpoint it on a big map. Our personal wine tour.

Rural France starts here

Explore the Calais hinterland, by car, bicycle or on foot. It’s a familiar, almost British, landscape of rolling fields, valleys and hedges, but with chateaux and quiet roads to underline the difference. We made a fine dawdle on the switchbacking coast road down towards Boulogne, (most traffic misses it out and takes the direct route). We like to cut inland to find a little village (Hardinghen has its own traditional lemonade factory) and take a drink at one of the many estaminets, little Flemish-style cafés meant for walkers. Look for the many locally brewed real ales. Last call was the amazing St Omer Marshes. Think northern version of the Camargues, but instead of horses France’s only farmed marshland features cauliflowers and wild birds. Take the boat tour.

Super St Omer

If you visit just one place on that shopping trip to Calais, make it the compact, pretty, inland town of St Omer. It’s immediate, quintessential France, an easy destination even on a day trip, just 30 minutes south of Calais, (take the old road, the N42), with easy (free) parking close to the centre in a network of little side roads, full of distinctive small French shops.

Dominating the town is the glorious cathedral, with a jungle of flying buttresses outside and the splendid 1717 organ and a Rubens (Descent from the Cross) within. There’s a richly-planted municipal garden, and a grand central square, surrounded by bars (including the Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens). The town hall is a statement of civic pride in golden stone. Roundabouts bedecked with flowers are a bonus.

Capital chateaux.

We arrived at our hotel, Château Tilques, in a gently ebbing autumn evening to the sound of an impromptu percussion band on the lawn. It temporarily put the peacocks to retreat, and set a herd of golden cows into a manic prance. This is a comfortable, manageable chateau, 35 minutes drive from the port, not so big they can’t keep on top of the work. There’s a restrained luxury, a very friendly staff, and an excellent restaurant with a gourmet menu. I took the 15 minute guided walk around the lake, where a heron eyed me disdainfully. Next time (in our dreams) we are hiring a 1930s Bentley in which to sweep up to the front door on the big, gravely, circular drive.

Cuisine with history.

Fine French cuisine begins just 10 minutes from the ferry port. L’Histoire Ancienne (Ancient History) is one of the best restaurants in the town of Calais, (20 Rue Royale), a short step from the 4 Boulevards covered shopping centre. It does the standard brasserie (see it prepared on an open grill) steak and fish, featuring whatever is fresh from the Boulogne fish market - it was skate on our visit. Chef Patrick Comte’s specials include Brochette Creole (salmon, duck, shrimp, pepper and pineapple kebab), pan-fried red mullet with tomato and onion tart, and some belt-bursting pudding such as warm chocolate cake, runny inside. We sampled the two good house wines: a white Burgundy and red Bordeaux, both inexpensive.

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