Mildly eccentric sur la mer

Peter Moss offers a guide to the quirky yet sublime resort of Le Touquet, once a haunt of PG Wodehouse and Edward VIII

Bertie Wooster, the quintessential English gentleman, was conceived in Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, where his creator, PG Wodehouse, kept a home. This was home, too, to Noel Coward, often seen taking the midday sun along the rue St Jean with mad dogs and other Francophile Englishmen.

The rue St Jean is the heartbeat of Le Touquet. It cuts through town all the way to the sea, getting progressively less smart along the way, with antique shops and haute couture giving way to gift shops and creperies. The approach, though, is sublime - through pine woods dotted with thatched villas and front lawns you could play snooker on. With homes called ByWays and Lone Pine this is Chalfont St Giles-Sur-la-Mer.

Le Touquet is colourful; there are flowers everywhere. Lively and eccentric, chic yet a little tacky, the edges may be a touch frayed, but the town has undeniable style. If Cannes is Oasis - loud, brash, predictable - then Le Touquet is Blur - cheeky, quirky, full of surprises. And it has the best beaches in France.

When to go

Le Touquet's three-mile beach, with its clean golden sand, loses something when the weather turns. But, in truth, any time is good. If you live south of Watford it's closer than the Lake District, and most cafes and bars will let you sit from dawn to dusk with just an espresso or two. The millennium celebrations at Flavio's restaurant, on the edge of the forest, will be reason enough to head out this winter. The Thalassotherapy Centre at the beach front Novotel is worth a chill-out any time of year.

Getting there

You're spoiled for choice, really. Train, hover, ferry or fly. Eurotunnel (tel: 0990 353535) runs from Folkestone to Calais in 35 minutes from pounds 59 return, per vehicle. Hoverspeed (tel: 0990 240241) travels from Dover to Calais (35 minutes by hovercraft) and Folkestone to Boulogne (55 minutes by SeaCat). Prices are similar to the tunnel. P&O Stena (tel: 0990 980980) is slightly cheaper, but the ferry crossing takes 90 minutes. Sky-Trek Airlines (tel: 01797 320000) flies Lydd to Le Touquet in 18 minutes with its 16-seater Trislander, from pounds 49 return per person, plus tax.

Where to stay

Le Touquet is as much about the town and the forest as the beach. Hence just one seafront hotel to speak of, with countless others on and off the main drag and in the glorious forest. Le Manoir, L'Avenue du Golf (tel: 0033 321 062828), has a nice English country house feel, complete with championship golf course, tennis, swimming, and bar. Doubles cost from Ffr405 (about pounds 42), including breakfast and green fees.

The Westminster, Avenue du Verger (tel: 0033 321 054848), remains nicely faded and full of character. Rock stars stay there - I once saw Sting in the hotel's cage-elevator. Singles from Ffr 725, doubles Ffr825.

The Red Fox, Angle rue St Jean, et rue de Metz (tel: 0033 321 052758), works very hard for its two stars and is one of many small family-run pensiones in town. Singles cost from Ffr290, doubles from Ffr340, room only, right up to quadruples. The Novotel, Fort de Mer (tel: 0033 321 098500) is part of a rare chain - less Alan Partridge than Alain Delon - and is Le Touquet's one beach hotel, with health spa and hydro. The sea views at sunset are heavenly. Singles Ffr560, doubles Ffr680, room only.

What to see and do

The Aqualud (tel: 0033 321 056359) is great fun. A seafront water park extraordinaire, its water slides stretch like Jacob's ladder to heaven. A half-day ticket is good value at Ffr55.

Le Touquet's most revered institution is the Casino du Paris, a fixture since 1913. With more slot machines and roulette wheels to the square yard than Caesar's Palace, the effect is hypnotic. I saw one old-timer lose 150 francs to a cigarette machine. Back in the 1930s this was the place for royals and nobles to be seen and Edward VIII used to play the tables here. They say he won Mrs Simpson in one hand of five-card stud - worst excuse I've ever heard. Le Touquet's biggest attraction is the wonderful beach. Children are well catered for - with organised beach activities from trampolining to volleyball and bouncy castles. Sand- sailing - on a sail-driven skateboard - was invented in Le Touquet. There's also golf, tennis, and water sports, or try early morning horse riding through the dunes. Le Touquet Tennis Club and Coaching Academy (tel: 0033 321 051933) has 40 courts, indoor and out. Court fees from Ffr35 an hour.

Food and drink

Le Touquet has many restaurants. The neighbouring fishing town of Etaples ensures a constant supply of fresh seafood, while cafes, creperies and gelateries proliferate. Flavio's, 1 Avenue du Verger (tel: 0033 321 051022) has been going 50 years and still thrives. Mortgage your house, sell your granny, but sample the gourmanderie menu, the Cecil B de Mille of dinners. At Ffr790 it is scandalous. Worth every centime. Failing that, there's a set lunch for Ffr130.

La Petite Charlotte, 36 rue St Jean (tel: 0033 321 053211) serves quiches to die for and melt-in-the-mouth pastry-based desserts. The tarte fine au chocolat plays a symphony on the most tired taste buds. Terrific value, with main dishes from Ffr49.

At Perard, 67 rue de Metz (tel: 0033 321 057333), your food greets you as you walk in. Tanks full of lobster, bream, shrimp and turbot, alongside bubbling cauldrons of soupe de poissons. Expect to pay from Ffr180 including wine - and to loosen your belt a notch or two afterwards.

Le Lido, Angle rue St Jean et rue de Londres (tel: 0033 321 052231). Among countless cafes, this is my personal favourite. Great pastries, buttery brioche, and service that hovers between laid back and laid out. Very Gallic. Au Chat Bleu, 47 rue St Jean (tel: 0033 321 050386) is not a restaurant - it is, simply, heaven on earth. The finest chocolatier north of Paris.

Special events

An in-line skating derby along the seafront, regional petanque championships and Formula Two rally driving, all come to Le Touquet this autumn. October sees the Palais de l'Europe come into its own as a palace of fun, with a large antiques fair followed, through November and December, by a "Best of Broadway" musical extravaganza.

The town even hosts such diversities as the annual Festival de Scrabble and the beachfront "Bike and Run" competition. As the television advert goes, "it does exactly what it says on the tin". You run with a bike on your back. Don't ask why. Le Touquet's an eccentric place at the best of times, but always fun.

Out of town

Centuries have passed since Montreuil-sur-Mer was, in fact, sur mer, but its fortressed hilltop still affords wonderful sea views. The entire town is circled by 700-year-old ramparts, which provide an inspiring walk through avenues of lime along cobbled paths.

The monumental Citadelle can be visited throughout the year, and the ancient abbey of St Saulve is not to be missed. Stop for lunch at any village along the River Course, but Inxent in particular, where the river flows through the main street. L'auberge de l'Inxent offers truly great nosh. It's such a well-kept secret there's little need to book.

Bagatelle amusement park (tel: 0033 321 890999) at nearby Merlimont is not quite EuroDisney but is worth a detour when the children get bored. So, too, is Eurolac (tel: 0033 321 351391), a seaport in miniature, complete with trawlers, ferries and a Mississippi paddle steamer. Best of all, and my own favourite, is the Ducas go-kart track at Berck-sur-Mer (tel: 0033 321 944445). This is the best track I know and the fastest. At Ffr50 for 10 minutes it's not cheap, but I defy you to have fewer than four or five goes.

Further information

Le Touquet's office of tourism is at the Palais de l'Europe (tel: 0033 321 067200) and offers visitors free maps, flyers and leaflets. In the UK, the French Tourist Board is at 178 Piccadilly, London W1V 0AL (tel: 0906 824 4123).

Peter Moss travelled to Le Touquet with Eurotunnel.

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