Harbour dreams: exploring the Channel ports

Dunkirk

The northernmost town in France is home to 200,000 people, some dramatic creations at the Contemporary Art Museum, and perhaps the best moules frites in France. It also has a superb beach (Dunkirk is a Flemish name, meaning the church on the dunes) which offers easy access to picturesque towns such as Bergues, France’s uncrowded alternative to Bruges. Yet many British travellers know of it only because of the evacuation of 300,000 servicemen in 1940. It is well worth putting on your 21st-century map.

Calais

The closest port to Britain is also the premier gateway to France, and offers the best shopping of any of the Channel ports. The beach is excellent, as are the restaurants that crowd the seashore. In the centre, check out the handsome Flemish town hall and the speciality shops. Along the coast is the resort of Wissant (which offers a fine beach, good restaurants and, thanks to its proximity to Kent, UK mobile phone access). Beyond is the spectacular promontory of Cap Gris-Nez, where the Channel shore “turns the corner” at its nearest point to England.

Boulogne

The hinterland of this busy fishing port includes the beach resort of Wimereux, with the upmarket “Paris-on-Sea” of Le Touquet easily accessible. But many short-stay visitors are content to focus on the town itself, which climbs up from the quayside to an alluring Ville Haute, packed with history and ambience. The other great draw is Nausicaa, an aquarium where monolingual English speakers are well catered for.

Dieppe

For a time, it looked as though the historic link from Newhaven to this Normandy port might end. Not only has it survived, but the latest new route on the Channel connects Dover with Dieppe. New arrivals will discover a cheerful seaside resort (with shingle rather than sand), a fascinating Château-Musée (where Dieppe’s history of ivory carving is explained) and superb seafood restaurants.

St-Malo

The port (pictured) that lies south of the Channel Islands is, at first sight, one of the prettiest of France’s many ports. The town is walled against the sea, due to very high tides, and the defences provide a high-altitude walkway for taking in residences and restaurants in town and the impressive setting. A passage to St-Malo buys you two great Channel locations: just to the west lies Dinard – St-Malo’s twin town, and the beach resort that puts the grande in plage.

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