A trip to the Normandy coast is a curious experience. One moment you're at Portsmouth docks lining up for the ferry with the Francophiles and their MPVs packed to the gills with the bric-a-brac of summer holidays, next you're cruising along the coast road of one of France's most cosmopolitan seaside enclaves – the Côte Fleurie.
From Sallenelles in the west to Honfleur in the east, people have travelled to this stretch of France's northern coast since the Second Empire to dip their toe in the Channel and take in a little reviving sea air.
Its earliest visitors were the Paris elite, wooed by the Duke de Morny, who built a putative tourist resort on the marshes – a cluster of faux-medieval buildings with high pointed roofs and exposed timber beams – connected it to the capital with a train line, and called it Deauville.
The fashion for sea-bathing, and more importantly the presence of a railway line, affected the whole coast, transforming former fishing villages into playgrounds for the rich. One such, Houlgate, had, by the late 1800s, its own grand hotel and casino and bizarre architectural showcase.
These days, Houlgate may not be the preserve of Parisian socialites – the ladies strolling in the shade of parasols have been replaced by families sitting in the lee of windbreaks. But it still has a certain je ne sais quoi; its fantasy buildings haven't faded; the crowd here is still distinctly cosmopolitan.
Yet, today's visitors have more affordable accommodation options to choose from than grand hotels. One of the latest is the Pierre & Vacances Premium resort, set on a hill overlooking the town.
Predictably, the architects have gone for the neo-Norman look, but they kept their head when they positioned this small complex along a ridge in landscaped grounds to make the most of the sea views. The one- to three-bedroom apartments and houses are spread across two floors, each with a terrace or balcony. The styling of the interiors, like the exterior, is pleasant if uninspiring. Our one-bed was on the compact side and a little light on storage space – parents will inevitably take the double sofa bed in the living/kitchen/dining area and put any children in the twin bedroom. But it was clean, comfortable and functional, with useful access to a communal laundry. A TV and free Wi-Fi beat the boredom on rainy days (when you can go a little stir crazy). Bed linen and towels are purchased as kits. Service levels are erratic.
The food and drink
This is self-catering country and you'll soon learn to make the most of the small yet adequately equipped kitchen. Just give yourself enough room by sacking the sous chef. There is plenty of good fresh produce around to allow you to try your hand at a few locally inspired dishes. The resort does offer to help take the strain with shopping and dinner (featuring Normandy specialities) delivered to your door on request. Plus you can order a week's worth of breakfast provisions, including a daily delivery of Continental-style baked goods. When you tire of eating in, there are plenty of decent restaurants in the area, from pizzerias to bistros, to try out.
The resort has a heated open-air pool – a little more thought and a little less fencing could have resulted in superb infinity-style views to the sea. There's a spa, a gym, a playground for small kids, and a children's club for 4-12 year olds during the French school holidays. But what this place really needs is a restaurant and bar – the place shuts down at nightfall, which means you have to travel into town (a good stride or a quick drive down the hill) for a little atmosphere, a difficult prospect for most guests who generally have children with them. The neighbouring towns – Deauville, Trouville-sur-Mer, Honfleur, etc – are conveniently linked by the coast road. Head inland to the Pays d'Auge to learn about the art of making calvados – and to taste the results. Due west lie the beaches where the Normandy landings took place, as well as the cemeteries and museums that commemorate what happened here during the Second World War.
Children are welcome and pets are admitted. All communal spaces can be accessed by people with disabilities. Inquire about apartments that are suitable for people with limited mobility. There is signage in Braille.
A one-bed apartment sleeping four starts at ¤510 (£448) per week. Return crossings from Portsmouth to Caen with Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; brittanyferries.com) cost from £61.50 per person for a car with up to four passengers.
Pierre & Vacances Premium Houlgate, 3 Rue Charles Sevestre, 14510 Houlgate, France (0870 026 7144; pv-holidays.com).