Fancy a short break? Hop over the Channel

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It needn't cost an arm and a leg to go abroad. Stephen Emms took the ferry to Boulogne

We are sitting on the steps at the back of the imposing Notre Dame Basilica in the fierce evening sun. It's peak tourist season, yet other than a gull's cry and the rattle of a woman's laughter, it is eerily quiet.

How can Boulogne-sur-Mer feel like such a secret? This seaside town in northern France might not be most people's prime choice for a birthday trip, but in honour of my impending 34th my partner, Russell, decided to surprise me with a perfectly retro ferry hop – something neither of us had done since childhood. And, even if you've no anniversary to mark, it's a good value short break for those who stayed on home soil this summer.

Standing on the deck of LD Lines' new fast ferry, staring at the hypnotic wash as the white cliffs recede, reminds one how pleasant sea travel can be. Just an hour later we pulled into the industrial hulk of Boulogne's harbour, the air fish-fresh as we dropped the bags at our elegant 19th-century courtyard hotel. We were soon walking the 13th-century ramparts that encompass a square kilometre dominated by an attractive belfry (a UN World Heritage Site), moated castle and basilica.

Boulogne's old town, which has been fortified since Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD43, crowns a steep hill. As the sun ducked behind pillowy clouds, I forgot I was just across the Channel: surely this was southern France? Tuscany, even?

Lunch was a disaster and we were reminded not to be seduced again by a pretty main artery – in this case Rue De Lille – lined with enticing brasseries engaged in a "moules" price war.

Later, we found more to enjoy in a quirky art installation, "Ephemeral Garden" on Place Godfrey De Bouillon, a surreal arrangement of Citroë*CVs, Volkswagens and Renaults overgrown with plants, or plunged into the grass, their wing mirrors, seats and exhausts scattered about. It claimed, rather grandly, to be an exploration of the "relationship between short life of consumer goods and the timelessness of nature".

The cathedral's dank crypt was more exciting ("the longest in France", chirrups a sign). It's a truly gothic, 400ft maze of chilly corridors and gloomy rooms teeming with gargoyles, one-armed angels, abandoned marble columns, Romanesque paintings, cavalry crosses and faceless statues.

After a restorative local beer at a tiny bar called Vole Hole, we opted for dinner at Aux Pêcheurs d'Etaples, its interior garlanded by boats, sails and lifebuoys. The €16 (£14) menu offered three delicious courses featuring lots of fresh fish; a real find (although even better was our lunch the next day at Les Terrasses de L'Enclos, at Enclos de L'Evêché, which has set menus from €€13).

A lively market is a must on a weekend break, so, next morning, we strolled in bright sunshine from the twice weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) happening at Place Dalton – where stalls offer everything from single mis-shapen courgettes to cheap watches – to the quayside fish market.

And we just had time to visit La Beuriere, the sailors' quarter. In 1900 around a quarter of Boulogne's population, including shipowners, fish merchants, and captains, lived on its stepped streets, but in the Second World War the entire community was almost wiped out in heavy bombing. Rue De Mâchicoulis is the only semi-preserved area left, with thought-provoking gaps where houses once stood. No 16 is open to visitors: it's a humbling experience of one-room, cupboard-bed living – and so quiet that you can almost hear the clatter of the women's mules on the stairway, selling mussels, or scrubbing steps.

Four more short breaks by ferry

Le Touquet

Pine forest, golf courses, neat villas and winding roads: it's just the place to imagine sharing a Martini with Noël Coward.

Where to stay: A few steps from the beach is The Bristol (0033 321 05 49 95; hotelbristol.fr), a 1920s hotel with a popular piano bar, which charges from €90 (£78) for a double room.

Where to eat: Côte Sud (00 33 321 05 41 24; le-touquet- cote-sud.com), a waterside brasserie, with a good-value three-course menu for €18.50 (£16).

How to get there: P&O sails Dover to Calais (08716 645 645; poferries.com) from £30 each way for a car and up to five passengers. Then it's a one-hour drive.

Dieppe

Dieppe became France's first seaside resort after the Duchesse de Berry started the fashion for sea-bathing. Its timeless charms include a market, pebble beach, ancient quay and windy jetty.

Where to stay: Villa des Capucins (00 33 23 5821652; villa- descapucins.fr), a former convent in the old fishing quarter, offers doubles from €75 (£66).

Where to eat: La Marmite Dieppoise, at 8 rue St-Jean (00 33 02 35 84 24 26) is popular for its fish stew. Lunch menus cost from €17 per head.

How to get there: Transmanche Ferries (0800 917 1201; transmanche ferries.co.uk/) sails Newhaven to Dieppe, for a car and two people from £78 return.

Ostend

Underrated Ostend has an esplanade, pier, and beaches, plus plenty of cultural interest including the St Peter and St Paul's Church, Fort Napoleon, and a Fine Arts Museum.

Where to stay: De Hofkamers (00 32 59 70 63 49; dehofkamers.be/en/index.html) is a charming family-run hotel 120 yards from the beach. Double rooms cost from €80 per night.

Where to eat: Au Vieux Port (00 32 59 70 31 28; (www.auvieuxport.be) is one of the top fish restaurants along Visserskaai, with three-course menus from €25 per head.

How to get there: Transeuropa runs from Ramsgate to Ostend (01843 595522; transeuropaferries.com) and offers return fares for a car and two people from £125.

Knokke-Heist

Knokke-Heist in north-east Belgium, has seven miles of sandy beach. Close to the Dutch border, this former artists' haunt has gradually become a resort town with an upscale clientele.

Where to stay: The Cosmo (00 32 50 61 16 17; cosmohotel.be) is a slick hotel in trendy Het Zoute. Rooms from €170 (£150).

Where to eat: Bartholomeus (00 32 50 51 75 76; restaurantbartholomeus.be) is a stylish restaurant with a four-course menu for €27 a head.

How to get there: Transeuropa (as above) has returns from Ramsgate to Ostend for a car and two people from £125. The resort is a one-hour drive.

Compact Facts

How to get there

Return fare from Dover to Boulogne with LD Lines (0844 576 8836; ldlines.com) is £22 for a foot passenger. Enclos de L'Evêché (00 33 391 90 05 90; terrassesdelenclos .com) offers double rooms with breakfast from €70 (£61) a night.

Further information

"Ephemeral Garden", Place Godfrey De Bouillon, open until 10 Nov; Vole Hole, 52 Rue de Lille; Aux Pêcheurs d'Etaples, 31 Grande Rue (00 33 321 30 29 29); Les Terrasses de L'Enclos, 6 Rue de Pressy (00 33 391 90 05 90); No 16 Rue De Mâchicoulis (00 33 321 30 14 52) is open daily.

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