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Get ready for Summer! Nord-Pas de Calais

Our fortnightly series of travellers' guides to holiday destinations goes to French Flanders. Adrian Phillips reports

Why go here?

Calais is just a place to stock up on cheap booze, right? Wrong.

Explore beyond the port and you'll find sights and flavours to rank among France's best. Nord-Pas de Calais – "Calais County", if you will – has pretty fishing villages and elegant seaside resorts, medieval fortified settlements and proud Flemish towns, sand dunes, rolling hills and fields of grazing donkeys. There's culture in Lille, beach-side promenading in Le Touquet, and the perfect backdrop for moules et frites at Boulogne harbour. All this is 20 miles from Britain; it's real France, real close.

The great outdoors

The 125km (78 miles) of coastline has plenty of beaches, from Bray-Dunes on the Belgian border to Berck-sur-Mer on the cusp of the Somme; try kite surfing, sand yachting or sea kayaking (longecote.fr). The lush Avesnois area in Nord-Pas de Calais' eastern toe is superb for cycling, walking and riding; consider basing yourself at ValJoly (valjoly.com), a family-friendly resort. Greener-fingered pleasure-seekers should visit the region's parks and gardens (parcsetjardins-npdc.com); Les Jardins de la Ferme du Mont des Récollets in Cassel is the top attraction of this kind. Local festivals see the region's communities at their most joyous. Douai hosts a three-day Festival of Giants (from 10 July), with 20-foot figures, while Maroilles has an event in honour of its pungent cheese on 14 August.

The history trail

With a dearth of natural features to protect the region's borders, settlements required sturdy defences, and the legacy is lovely fortified towns such as Le Quesnoy, Gravelines and Bergues. Nord-Pas de Calais bore witness to the horrors of trench warfare; tourist offices at Arras (ot-arras.fr), Béthune (tourisme-bethune-bruay.fr) and Lens (tourisme-lenslieven.fr) can provide information on tours of the First World War sites. The Wellington Quarry (carriere-wellington.com) at Arras – part of a network of tunnels used by allied soldiers to surprise the Germans during the Battle of Arras – houses a touching museum. Moving forward to the Second World War, La Coupole (lacoupole-france.com) is a vast bunker near St Omer, from which Hitler had planned to launch V2 rockets on Britain. It now hosts a fascinating exhibition about the history of rocketry.

The retail therapy

You don't have to stray far from the port to buy fine food and wine – in central Calais, Le Terroir (leterroir-calais.com) is renowned for its wines, pâtés and foie gras. Moving along the coast, the Philippe Olivier shop (philippeolivier.fr) in Boulogne is arguably the best for cheese in the whole of France – indeed, Philippe is known as "The Big Cheese". Lille's Wazemmes Market is one of the most colourful and sensual you'll find; visit on a Sunday morning, when bargain hunters sift through everything from puppets to swimwear, while the scent of flowers and fresh produce wafts from the covered market hall. If you want to pick up a piece of exclusive Caudry lace – whether a finished tablecloth or a stretch of material from which to make your own regal wedding dress – you can do so at the shop in the town's Museum of Lace and Embroidery (museedentellecaudry.fr).

The inside attractions

Nausicaä (nausicaa.fr), the French National Sea Life Centre in Boulogne, is a family favourite. Alongside star-turn species such as sharks and seals, multimedia displays carry visitors to exotic islands or into the deep on a 3D virtual submarine journey. Opposite the sea centre lies a street of typical 19th century fishermen's cottages on the side of the cliff. One of these dwellings – Maison de la Beurière (00 33 21 30 14 52) – has been opened as a museum, showing original furniture and personal effects. Fishing families endured a tough time; eight people lived in this house, and the children slept in a kitchen cupboard. Don't miss the top-quality Museum of Flanders (museedeflandre.cg59.fr) at Cassel (cassel-horizons.com), which casts a keen light on Flemish culture. Caudry is the place to get lace fit for a princess – the material for Kate Middleton's dress came from the town. Calais' award-winning Lace and Fashion Museum (cite-dentelle.fr) uses multi-media displays to show the importance of the craft to the region; there's a second museum at Caudry itself (museedentellecaudry.fr).

The places to eat and drink

Sample some Flemish specialities in a traditional estaminet, such as rustic Het Kasteelhof (00 33 28 40 59 29) in Cassel, one of the best, serving local beers and regional classics such as andouillette (a strong-flavoured sausage). For quirky character, head for Chez Tante Fauvette (cheztante- fauvette.com) in St Omer. This homely restaurant seats just 15 diners, and the menu changes daily according to the whim of the chef.

Compact Facts

How to get there

P&O (poferries.com) operates regular services from Dover to Calais; crossings with a car cost from £39 per person. Châtellerie de Schoebeque (schoebeque.com) in Cassel is an elegant conversion of an 18th-century château that once played host to both Marshal Foch and King George V, with rooms from £175 per night. La Grange de Saint Hilaire (grange.saint.hilaire .free.fr) offers chalet-style accommodation right in the heart of the Avesnois countryside, with rooms for two from £48 per night

Further information

Nord Department of Tourism (tourisme-nord.fr); Pas-de-Calais Tourism (pas-de-calais.com). Cross-Channel France: Nord-Pas de Calais, Bradt (£13.99; bradtguides.com) is the only guidebook devoted to the region.