Channel Ports: Le weekend? Les enfants . . . Le Touquet]: Anne Spackman finds a huge beach, a forest, good food and great shopping just a few hours from Frinton

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The Independent Travel
ON WARM summer weekends we pack up a picnic and head east for Frinton-on-Sea, a small seaside town tucked into the side of Essex but with its heart firmly in middle England. We go there for simple, old-fashioned fun. Frinton has a pleasant, shallow, sandy beach, a quaint row of beach huts and a wide green esplanade. It does not have neon, noise and fairground-style fast food; but nor does it have the kind of cafe or restaurant that could compete with the picnic, or provide a treat at the end of the day. To get that, the nearest place to us is Le Touquet.

Even without the Channel tunnel, Le Touquet is remarkably easy to get to. Working backwards, it is half an hour from Boulogne, which can be as little as 40 minutes from Dover, which for us, in north London, is two hours away. Even allowing for getting the car on to the boat - an increasingly slick procedure - you can do the journey in four hours.

We set off at 7am, and took a slower route over the water; nevertheless, by 1pm we were sitting down for lunch. What is more, our youngest was sitting in a high chair - no compromise here between quality of food and convenience. Both he and I could enjoy our meals, and I did not come away looking like the tablecloth.

The Restaurant aux Pecheurs d'Etaples, just across the bridge from Le Touquet, sits next to a boatyard on a kind of fisherman's strip. Over the river lies the airport where, in the Fifties, Silver City Airways planes would regularly arrive from Lydd. Sadly, the service is no more. From the upstairs windows of the restaurant you look down on rows of cupboard-sized stalls selling freshly landed seafood. Downstairs is a hall spread with every kind of fish: trout, sole, monkfish, eel, crab, langoustine, oysters, and so on. For Fr100 (which used to be pounds 10, but is now more like pounds 12), we had fish soup, sole in tarragon sauce, apple tart, wine and water.

The restaurant is a co-operative run by the local fishing fleet of 90 boats, as a note on the tablecloth explains. You can satisfy your principles as well as your appetite in the knowledge that every mouthful you swallow is helping to keep 500 people employed.

By 3pm we were digging Frinton-style sand castles in the warm autumn sunshine on Le Touquet's enormous beach.

If you told the clipped ladies in the tourist office that you had come to Le Touquet in October primarily for the beach, they would probably shrug and think, 'Ah well, les Anglais.' But we were there with two small boys. Their idea of a good weekend is one day on the beach and one day in conker-strewn woods. In Le Touquet, the so-called 'forest' creeps right up to the town's back doors, criss-crossed by unpaved footpaths. On Sundays, the paths are dotted with the town's beau monde, out on foot and bicycle.

In my pre-motherhood days I would have gone to Le Touquet for more indulgent pleasures. You drive into town along a road lined with fashion-house labels: Kenzo, Yves Saint Laurent, Sonia Rykiel, Georges Rech. Dotted in between are boutiques selling antiques, carpets, jewellery, ceramics, antique carpets, antique jewels and so on. And that is before you get into the town centre. It is hard to imagine any English town which could support such a concentration of high-class shops.

This mini-Knightsbridge also boasts a huge sports park with tennis courts, a casino and the municipal palace that houses the tourist office. A small sign pointed the way to the 'Centre International de Perfectionnement'. What was that? I asked. 'The international centre for perfectionism,' the tourist lady said helpfully. Could I book myself in for a week, I wondered? It sounded a lot less tortuous than the route to perfection offered at the Institut de Thalassotherapie.

This institute is for those who like to combine their retail therapy with a bit of body therapy. Its brochure, in hygienic blue and white, makes no bones about the kind of service on offer: 'heavy leg treatment with diet (full board) in a single room Fr7,620 for six days'. Outpatients pay considerably less - and are not subjected to plate after plate of immaculately presented raw vegetables. I do not know whether I could face up to the women in the white coats, but I could certainly take a bit of the lolling around in a towelling robe interspersed with a dip in the sea-water swimming pool.

Most English visitors to Le Touquet are neither mothers nor shoppers. They are golfers. You see them in their club jerseys, groups of three or four middle- aged men, on the ferry and in town-centre restaurants. Their Mecca is Le Manoir, a three-star hotel on the appropriately named avenue du Golf. It describes itself, quite accurately, as having une atmosphere tres british.

The weekend we were there it was full. The Manoir is in Le Touquet's stockbroker belt, a part of France that is for ever Surrey. Apart from golf, the major sport is house-spotting. Every drive offers another chance to gawp at a grand architectural creation - some new, some old and some, as in Surrey, just pretending.

One building that can be explored beyond the gateposts is the site that houses Le Touquet's museum. It is, in fact, more an art gallery, concentrating primarily on the work of a school of painters based in Etaples. A glance at their names and dates reveals that the English have been coming here for a long time - Barlow and Collingridge from the turn of the century, sitting next to painters such as the Scotsman Alastair Grant, who still lives and paints in Etaples.

Before leaving town we visited the food shop, an integral part of any weekend in France. The half- timbered Dutch gables that dominate the narrow streets of the town centre offer up the usual rich selection of bakers, butchers, delicatessens and chocolate shops. There is a traditional small-town market on Saturdays.

Le Touquet's best-known gastronomic highlight is the fish shop, Perard, on the rue de Metz, with its even more famous fish soup. Much more pleasing, however, was the unexpected discovery, behind a factory-style front window, of the cheese shop run by M and Mme Facchetti. This is artisan produce with a capital A. Mme Facchetti proudly showed us row upon row of small, perfectly formed cones, pyramids and squares of grey-mottled goat's cheese, rounds of camembert with crusts of cider or cognac and tubs of fromage frais. Each new name came with the refrain, clearly deemed necessary for a nation of Edam eaters: Il n'est pas fort - it's not strong.

The weekend threw up one other delightful surprise. We arrived at Boulogne to discover that P & O had given us incorrect sailing times for the ferry home. With an hour to kill we headed for the brand new aquarian complex Nausicaa, signposted on every street light.

To someone whose standards for aquariums is based on London Zoo, the Nausicaa is a spectacular surprise. Huge jewel-shaped tanks of tropical fish are set in a labyrinth of corridors filled with underwater sounds. Mirrors distort the water levels, so that one moment you are admiring sharks circling your head and the next moment you are down on the seabed with the rays.

If we had had more time, we would have stayed for lunch in the cool seafood restaurant. Instead it was back to the canteen display of grey burgers and frozen peas on the ferry. Welcome to England.

How to get there: This is a good time for cheap fares across the Channel. Using the P & O offer (see below), it cost us pounds 80 for two adults and two children.

Where to stay: The smartest hotels - Le Manoir (21 05 20 22), the Westminster (21 05 48 48) and the newest, the Picardy (21 06 85 85) - are in the green belt away from the beach. Prices for double rooms, in all three, are about Fr750 a night.

The modern chain hotels, Ibis (21 09 87 00) and the Novotel (21 09 85 00) are on the beach by the Institut de Thalassotherapie (21 09 86 00). Double rooms from Fr380 - but see our offer for better rates.

We rented an apartment in the Residence Orion (21 05 32 73) which cost Fr900 for three nights at the weekend. The apartments have a studio with kitchen, bathroom and a small space with bunk beds - good for children. They are small but well equipped, with a helpful concierge in the lobby.

Where to eat: Le Diamant Rose on rue de Paris is a small, family-run restaurant. The smart place is L'Escale at the airport (21 05 23 22). Chez Perard, the fish shop and restaurant which sells the soup, is on rue de Metz (21 05 13 33).

Further information: Office de Tourisme, Palais de l'Europe (21 05 21 65).

(Photographs omitted)

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