Beyond the booze cruise

The Pas de Calais area, contrary to popular belief, does warrant some exploration. Here are three mini-tours to whet the appetite

The task: to visit Calais on a day return ticket, spend two hours piling inexpensive wine, beer and assorted goodies into your supermarket trolley, and yet still see and taste something interesting of France. The "booze cruise" experience doesn't have to be a gruelling dash around an industrial estate while downing mussels and chips in the first restaurant stumbled upon.

The task: to visit Calais on a day return ticket, spend two hours piling inexpensive wine, beer and assorted goodies into your supermarket trolley, and yet still see and taste something interesting of France. The "booze cruise" experience doesn't have to be a gruelling dash around an industrial estate while downing mussels and chips in the first restaurant stumbled upon.

The Pas de Calais near the ports and tunnel terminus is one of the most unjustly despised corners of France, boasting two regional parks and five forests, as well as the sandiest beaches for 150 miles. And dotted around this continuously surprising landscape is a number of excellent restaurants serving local ingredients at half the price of a London parking ticket.

Okay, so the exit from the ferry port - all greenhouse gas belching chimney stacks, electricity pylons and windowless factory units - is not exactly Arcadian. But here are three suggested itineraries, winding through sharply varying landscapes. Motorways, however delightfully traffic, flood and cone-free, are avoided because they are as anonymous as motorways everywhere. Each journey concludes both in a fine restaurant and, if the day happens to be a Saturday, a buzzing street market.

The first and most obvious excursion is to take the coast road - the D940 - between Calais and Boulogne. This takes you to the particularly ravishing sweep of coastline between the promontories of Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez (literally Cape White Nose and Cape Grey Nose), and here, a week ago, the coastline of Kent was clearly visible in the wintry sunlight. God was a Europhile that afternoon, and a rainbow linked the two countries.

Both Napoleon and Air Marshall Goering stood here, and one can imagine them believing that Britain was within their grasp. The turning tide of Goering's war can be seen in the legacy of giant German blockhouses.

Wimereux, on the outskirts of Boulogne, is a fin-de-siecle seaside resort par excellence, and home to Mille Vignes - aptly, since it's run by an Englishman, on Rue des Anglais. This is a rather more discerning wine shop than the stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap depositories around Calais. Wimereux also offers the most dramatic approach to the port of Boulogne, by way of the Colonne de la Grande-Armée, a huge column erected to the glory of what turned out to be a non-event: Napoleon's intended invasion of England in 1803. You can climb the 263 steps inside, perfect for tiring out fractious children, or working up an appetite for lunch.

I suggest that this is sated by turning about and heading for Le Grand Cerf in Marquise (00 33 3 21 87 55 05), where local produce is cooked with the most delicate use of spices. Beef in beer and cumin is something of a house speciality, although I went for the fishy 135-franc lunchtime set menu. A plaque on a stone bench outside the restaurant informs you that Victor Hugo rested on it on 2 September, 1837, which seems to be taking reverence for the great man to extremes.

My second itinerary takes you directly inland from Calais, along the N43, across part of the Parc Regional de Pas de Calais, with its surprisingly wild scenery, to St Omer.

Described by the youthfully dismissive Rough Guide to France as "cold and rather seedy", St Omer has been the first "real French town" for generations of British travellers, many of whom have parked their stomachs behind the tables of La Belle Epoque (00 33 3 21 38 22 93). One of the few restaurants in rural France to cater to the British and their strange idea of mealtimes, this family run establishment on the main square specialises in local Flemish cuisine, including rabbit with prunes and Armagnac and a warming beef and beer stew.

After lunch, head out due east of town and the canal system of the Marais Audomarois. You probably won't have time to go on a tourist cruise, but a drive and a stroll will take you into tranquil marshy landscape, barely disturbed by the occasional vegetable allotment grower passing by in his punt.

The last of the three excursions wanders about as far from the Calais booze shops as is advisable - due south beyond Boulogne to Montreuil-sur-Mer, although the sea around here has long since silted up and retreated to Le Touquet. The way to approach Montreuil is by way of Desvres and the delightful D127. This follows the little river Course through a lovely wooded valley landscape.

L'Auberge de la Grenouille (00 33 3 21 06 07 22) is just outside the town, in La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil, where again a delicate use of seasoning highlights the duck, lamb and fish dishes. After the 190-franc menu de terroir, you'll be more than fit to tackle those supermarket aisles.

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