Soft side of the sea

Linda Cookson finds a resort across the Channel where seaside means fin de siecle, not fairy floss
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The Independent Travel
Channel-hoppers wistful about old-fashioned seaside resorts of the gracious rather than the kiss-me-quick variety - and for French restaurant bills where the decimal point still seems to be in the right place - should take a detour to Wimereux. An easy 15-minute drive from the Tunnel or a 20-minute seven-franc bus ride from Boulogne, Wimereux is a pretty turn-of-the-century settlement on the Opal coast. It nestleswithin two sets of rocky cliffs and overlooks a long, wide stretch of level sands.

The focal point of Wimereux is its promenade - a broad and stately sweep of walkway edged with outdoor cafes, hung with flags and lined with painted bathing huts (still in use) which collectively act as a reminder of the genteel sensibilities that prevailed when the resort was first established. The architecture is unmistakably fin-de-siecle - the buildings tall, multi- balconied and defiantly individual with their shutters, towers, turrets and gables.

Bang in the middle of the town is the three-starred Atlantic Hotel - the poshest place to stay or dine. Its sea-terrace is open to non-guests for lunch and is a splendid vantage point for people-watching. So, too, are the bars next door, which are considerably cheaper. At the Aquarella and the JF Kennedy the price of a coffee or a croque-monsieur can buy you exactly the same sea-front vista.

Wimereux is not a place for jet-setters. Last time I was there the tide was out, the sea was opalescent, and the beach, wide and windy, was peopled with rock-pool scramblers, dog-walkers and kite-flyers. At the end of the promenade is a cheerful cluster of hut-like stalls selling candy-floss, windmills on sticks, children's fishing nets, buckets and spades. Wimereux is definitely a place for softies.

Back from the sea-front, festooned with bunting, is Wimereux's main thoroughfare, the dog-legged Rue Carnot. Again, this is a paradise for traditionalists - everybody's school textbook image of a little French high street, with a jumble of colours and smells emanating from the string of boulangeries, charcuteries, poissonierres, tabacs and so forth. There is a rather good cheese shop (Ma Normandie, at number 29) and, at number 61, my favourite, M Ryckeboer's junk-cum-antique shop, where Twenties china and glassware jostles for shelf space with ancient oil paintings of quite staggering awfulness. If you've ever yearned for a model galleon made entirely out of salt crystals, you could well be in luck. I first made its acquaintance years ago, and it still hadn't sold on my last visit.

Across the road from M Ryckeboer's is the Creperie St Michel, with good home cooking, strong local cider and prices starting at a mere Fr30. For a wider but still relatively inexpensive menu, you could also try Le Centre at number 78 and Les Arts at number 143. (Both also do rooms.)

The best place of all, for my money, is the Hotel Restaurant Speranza at 43 Rue de Generale de Gaulle. Housed on a corner site in a stylish 1890s townhouse, the Speranza has a snug basement bar, an outside terrace with sea views and a non-stuffy, high-quality restaurant specialising in seafood. I first fell for its friendliness years ago, when fate put me on the next table to an enthusiastic local member of the Friends of Charles Dickens Society. (Scandalously ensconced with his actress mistress, Dickens wrote much of Bleak House and Hard Times at nearby Hardelot in the 1850s.) I've been a fan ever since. Double rooms at the Speranza are about Fr250 per night, quite pricey for Wimereux.

There are 10 or so other hotels in town. And at the other end of the scale you could safely go for La Paix (55 Rue Carnot) or Bel Azur (85 Rue Carnot), both at about Fr120 per double room.

Wimereux's tourist office makes a fuss in its leaflets about sailing clubs and golf courses as the place tries hard to ease itself into the second half of this century. But they're not there yet. So for now, if you like your French seaside titivated with boutiques, casinos and what have you, by all means head for Le Touquet. If you want to stock up on candy floss, come to Wimereux.

Atlantic Hotel 21 32 41 01; Bel Azur Hotel 21 32 40 38; Le Centre Hotel 21 32 41 08; Les Arts Hotel 21 32 43 13; Speranza Hotel 21 32 46 09; La Paix 21 83 53 25; Creperie St Michel 21 32 51 87.

HOW TO GET THERE, WHO TO ASK

The closest port to Wimereux is Boulogne. The only link to Boulogne from the UK is the SeaCat from Folkestone, operated by Hoverspeed (01304 240241). Competition is intense on services from Folkestone and Dover to Calais, 15 miles north east of Wimereux. Travellers without cars can reach Wimereux on the regular train from Calais-Ville to Wimille, thence by connecting bus.

French Tourist Office, 179 Piccadilly, London W1 (0891 244123).

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