Discover the old France on this relaxed three-day drive past sleepy villages, windswept beaches and ancient battlefields
Cross-channel drivers often dash from the ferry and head for distant resorts, completely by-passing northern France, but this quiet corner is full of lovely traditional Frenchness - from family-run restaurants to grand chateaux peeping out from behind the trees. It’s just perfect for a memorable short break. Often the only traffic you’ll see on driving holidays in France is an old man on a bicycle carrying the day’s baguettes or a farmer in a rickety old 2CV with hay bales filling the back seat. Try this three-day drive around the prettiest small roads, towns and villages, visiting some classic French sights along the way.
For starters, don’t forget you’ve arrived in a wonderful historic city. It’s tempting to set off for your destination immediately but Calais isn’t just a good place to buy wine on the way home. It’s a busy stylish centre for a large area offering exciting shopping streets with lively markets on Saturday and Wednesday. There are museums of art, crafts (including the local speciality - lace-making) and the Second World War. If you feel energetic, climb the 271 steps to the top of the Calais Lighthouse for a bird’s eye view of the city and beaches beyond. Then it’s off into the countryside to explore the region known to locals as the ‘Pas de Calais’ - the French equivalent of ‘The Straits of Dover’.
Take the winding little D940 coast road out of town on this French driving holiday for a scenic route down to Boulogne. You’ll pass over the Channel Tunnel without realizing it and head along the Cote d’Opale, the Opal Coast. This is mainly a stretch of wide sandy beaches backed by sand dunes but watch out for the impressive Cap Gris Nez headland rising from the flats. It’s worth stopping at the blustery viewing point. You may be able to see Dover and you’ll certainly see the miles of sandy beaches in both directions.
Boulogneis another interesting historic port with a cathedral, old town with cobbled streets and squares, and an ancient chateau. This is France’s biggest fishing port so it’s a great place to try fresh seafood and there are certainly plenty of bustling restaurants and cafes to choose from. For a different kind of fish experience visit the amazing Nausicaa, Europe’s largest aquarium.
After Boulogne, carry on down the coast road to Etaples. This estuary port has streets lined with seafood restaurants overlooking the fishing boats. Turn right here heading through the pine forests to the smart resort of Le Touquet.
Drive through the upmarket suburbs with elegant 1920s buildings and tree-lined roads of expensive holiday homes until you reach the long seafront, with its wide promenade and huge sandy beach and dunes. The sea may be somewhere in the distance at low tide but there’s an exciting waterpark right on the Prom.
Le Touquet’s nickname is ‘Paris Plage’ - Paris’s beach. Certainly many Parisians escape here for holidays by the sea. That’s why you’ll find so many designer boutiques, fine restaurants, glamorous bars and an array of activities including golf, horse-riding, sand-yachting and water sports. There’s even a sophisticated spa and famous seaside casino.
The D349 to Hesdin weaves inland hugging the banks of the River Canche. It’s one of the prettiest drives in the Pas de Calais. Hesdin itself is a perfect spot for lunch - a peaceful little market town with old Spanish-influenced architecture and cosy local restaurants. Dare you try the local speciality: Rhubarb wine? The nearby Agincourt Medieval History Centre is a chance to relive the famous bloody battle of the Hundred Years War between England and France.
Head north on the D928 to the medieval town of St Omer. The grand town square is dominated by an elegant town hall, but the town is most famous throughout France for its beer. St Omer beer is a light continental-style lager - and you’ll find it everywhere in the town.
St Omer’s more conventional sights include the 800-year-old cathedral with a painting by Rubens, 18th-century Musee de l’Hotel Sandelin art gallery and interesting museums about the German rockets based near here in the Second World War.
St Omer is surrounded by 9,000 acres of marshland dug by medieval monks. Even now this area can only be visited by boats on the narrow network of waterways. It’s fun to take a boat trip from the town’s inland harbours and out into these ancient marshes. Or drive through them, taking the N43 north west. Head back to the ferry via the old hilltown of Ardres, the site of the famous lavish, no-expense-spared 16th-century meeting between Henry VIII of England and the French King Francis I at ‘The Field of the Cloth of Gold’. Henry stayed in the nearby village of Guines, within the English-occupied section of France.
Today Ardres is a sleepy little place with beautiful old churches, quiet bars and little shops, perfect for a gentle exploration before heading home. Those wanting a bit more activity can find a big lake and attractive canal among trees below the town. They’re great for walks, cycling, boating or fishing. At the top of the hill look for the views across the plains towards Calais, the sea, and home.
For more driving holiday ideas read our driving holiday in Spain and driving holiday in Belgium features.
P&Os drivng holiday expert
When former taxi-driver and garage-manager Simon switched to journalism he was soon described by Private Eye as "a miserable little squirt". Luckily he's grown a bit since then and cheered up slightly (so only the "squirt" part applies). Since then he's helped launch BBC Top Gear magaine, worked for Autocar and AutoExpress to name but a few. Simon has also been an editorial consultant for Toyota, Peugeot, Lexus and BMW. And he once broke the world record for motoring madness by driving to 12 countries...in one day.