HOW FAR from Dover do you have to go these days to discover a society living under the iron fist of Communism? If you guessed China, you guessed wrong. The answer is much nearer home: Calais. From the heights of the white cliffs of Dover on a clear day, Communist-controlled Calais stares you right in the face.

But there is no sign of an iron heel. 'Perhaps you shouldn't mention that Calais has a Communist council,' suggested the nervous spokesman for the town's chamber of commerce. 'People get the wrong idea. It's not quite like it sounds.'

It would be fair to say that Calais's problem is not that people have the wrong idea about it, but that they have no idea about it at all. For 11 million British travellers, Calais is a sort of Continental Crewe Junction: the place where they leave the ferry and join the autoroute (reversing the process when they return home).

As far as these millions are concerned, Calais's greatest contribution to human happiness was constructing the highly effective by-pass straight to the motorway, which has reduced the town to a fleeting backdrop seen through the car window.

For another substantial army of British travellers - around 3 million this year - Calais is simply a place to go for cheap booze. They know nothing more than that it is an extended bargain basement off-licence where beer comes in cardboard boxes and costs as little as 10p a bottle.

This general ignorance is a shame. Not even the Calais chamber of commerce can pretend that this inelegant port is the Venice of the English Channel, but the place deserves some rather more serious consideration. Calais looks dull, but that is because Allied bombers flattened it during the Second World War. In the park near the railway station, an old German blockhouse has been turned into a fascinating museum which vividly details the town's grim wartime experiences.

The English have long had an intimate relationship with Calais - after all, for 200 years it was ruled by England, until the French won it back in 1558 (in the process, the name of Calais became engraved on Queen Mary's heart).

While it is in effect at the frontier with Britain, it is only during the past five years that Calais has taken on the character of a frontier town. It used to be content to please itself; there was no obvious effort to accommodate les anglais. Now it seems to do as much as it can to please the trippers - not so surprising, as we annually inject around pounds 60m into Calais's economy (about 20 per cent of local business turnover).

At the Holiday Inn - one of a crop of smart new hotels that has recently opened there - a young Englishman who worked locally asked me what I thought of the town. I said I liked it.

'I hate the place. There's nothing to do,' he complained. 'There's a couple of clubs; but they charge you 10 quid to get in and 50 quid for a bottle of drink. The locals don't go near them - they're for English trippers.'

But if your interests lie beyond night-clubs, there is much to amuse you. In front of the handsome town hall is Rodin's famous statue of the six burghers who, in 1347, were prepared to give up their lives to save Calais from being massacred by Edward III's English army. (Rodin's models and studies for the statue can be seen in the town's excellent museum in rue Richelieu.)

Calais also supports a large number of restaurants - including an astounding variety of very good pizzerias - whose menus in English indicate the provenance of their customers.

The town's chief charm is in its unexpected sights. The attractive fishermen's houses on the harbour front, for example, with their steep pantiled roofs. There is the beach (yes, a beach at Calais) with a monument commemorating Captain Webb's first Channel swim in 1875. Take a look at the Gare Maritime, which tells of another glorious era of cross-Channel packet steamers met by trans- European night trains heading for Nice and Ventimiglia.

There are only a couple of main shopping streets: the rue Royale, runs on beyond the Town Hall to become boulevard Jacquard which intersects with boulevard Gambetta running west and boulevard La Fayette heading east.

If time is limited, stick to the shops on rue Royale, because it seems to have the better bars and restaurants.

Boulogne is just half an hour's drive from Calais, but in terms of style and character they are worlds apart. Boulogne was heavily bombed in the war but afterwards they tried to put it back together as it was before.

Boulogne is middle-class and handsome, Calais is working-class and plain. But while Calais has a good-natured cheerfulness about it, Boulogne can sometimes seem a bit too pleased with itself.

In Philippe Olivier's famous cheese shop on rue Thiers, the staff are dressed for the operating theatre and have that particular French hauteur which suggests they might still be bearing grudges about Agincourt. When I tasted a few cheeses but did not buy any, the lady on the cash desk looked ready to phone the police.

While Calais is best for a day trip, Boulogne is the place to go for a weekend. It is a great town to amble about in, particularly the haute ville, with its 13th-century ramparts. The principal attraction for tourists up here is Notre Dame cathedral, with its distinctive Italianate dome - it looks like the result of a marriage between St Peter's in Rome and St Paul's in London.

Not content to rest on its Italianate laurels, Boulogne has invested pounds 16m in a stunning new tourist attraction. Nausicaa sounds like a particularly vicious form of seasickness, but in fact it is a magnificent aquarium.

The word 'aquarium' suggests a place with gloomy fish-tanks containing a few moth-eaten tropical fish. Instead, Nausicaa has more than 5,000 fish, ranging from terrifying 2.5m sharks to amazingly colourful inhabitants of coral reefs - all presented in as natural a setting as possible. It also has a well-regarded restaurant (yes, fish is a speciality).

Once you have exhausted the extensive charms of Boulogne, the surrounding countryside - Le Boulonnais - beckons: Le Touquet, Hardelot, Montreuil, Agincourt . . . With a car, as they would tell you at Nausicaa, the world is your oyster.


Getting there: For a car and two adults, Hoverspeed (0304 240241) offers a three-day return from pounds 90 and a day return for a car and up to five passengers at pounds 65 (Friday and Saturday pounds 80); foot passengers pay pounds 12. P & O European Ferries (0304 203388) has a three-day return for a car, two adults and three children for pounds 75, and a day return for a car and up to five passengers at pounds 45 (Saturday pounds 50); a foot passenger's day return costs pounds 8. A day return with Sealink (0233 647047) for a car and up to five passengers costs pounds 49 ( pounds 59 Saturday); a three-day return for a car and two adults pounds 70; foot passengers pay pounds 6 on 'early bird' sailings, pounds 12 at other times.

Finding the centre: After driving through passport control, the road to the centre lies immediately to the right (if you follow the traffic to the motorway to Paris, you could be out of town and thoroughly lost in minutes). All signposting for 'ferry port' appears to be designed to cause maximum confusion to visitors and minimum inconvenience to locals: consult a map before you arrive.

Hypermarkets: The Continent is a mile and a half from the ferry port, just off the road to Dunkerque. From the outside it looks old and shabby, but inside it is well kept with the usual wide range of hypermarket goodies. Perhaps its most compelling attraction is the Flunch restaurant, which offers good food at ridiculously low prices.

The Mammouth is two miles out of town on the N1 to Boulogne: open Monday to Saturday, 9am to 9pm. It is newer and in a nicer location, but the range of goods and the prices are more or less the same (the Continent has a better choice of wine). A 2p piece will release a trolley (you will get your 2p back - not somebody else's 10 franc coin - when you return your trolley).

Hotels: Calais has two check-yourself-in hotels: the Liberte on quai Danube (21 96 10 10) near the station, simple but clean rooms from pounds 16 a night; the better-known Formule 1 (21 96 89 89) chain has a place out of town, handily placed next to the Mammouth, with rooms from pounds 16 a night. The best place is the Holiday Inn (21 34 69 69) with rooms from about pounds 40 a night; lousy breakfasts but good off-street parking.

Restaurants: Top eating places include Cote d'Argent on digue Gaston Berthe (21 34 68 07, set menus from pounds 10), and Le Channel on boulevard Resistance (21 34 42 30, set menus from about pounds 9); but good, cheap restaurants abound.

Tourist office: Worth searching out at 12 boulevard Clemenceau (21 96 62 40, fax 21 96 01 92), diagonally opposite the railway station. Opening hours: Monday to Saturday 9am-12.30pm, 2.30- 6.30pm (Sunday 4.30-7.30pm).


Getting there: Hoverspeed (0304 240241) has a three-day return from pounds 75, and a day return for a car and up to five passengers at pounds 35 (Friday and Saturday pounds 45); foot passengers pounds 12. P & O European Ferries, fares as for Calais.

But if you are travelling by car, the quicker and more frequent service to Calais makes it advisable to take the ferry there, then drive the 20 miles to Boulogne. Much of the road is motorway.

Hypermarkets: Auchan, situated on the road to St Omer about five miles from Boulogne, is the best shopping place and well worth the drive from Calais. It is vast: 14,000 sq m, twice the area of the Calais Mammouth. Open 9am to 10pm Monday to Friday, 8am to 10pm Saturday, it has a superb Flunch cafeteria and plenty of parking.

Hotels: Boulogne's biggest drawback is a lack of decent hotels. The top two are the Ibis on boulevard Diderot (21 30 12 40), rooms from about pounds 30 a night; and the Metropole on rue Thiers (21 31 54 30), rooms from pounds 35 a night. Check Montreuil and Le Touquet for better hotels.

Restaurants: The smartest and most expensive are La Liegeoise in rue Monsigny (21 31 61 15), with set menus from about pounds 20; and La Matelote in boulevard Sainte-Beuve (21 30 17 97), with set menus from pounds 18.

For cheaper, good quality food, try the restaurant at the Nausicaa aquarium (21 33 24 24) situated on the seafront: set menus are from about pounds 10 (children's meals from pounds 5).

Shops: Maison Tellier, 7 rue Porte Neuve (21 31 65 47): upmarket food and wine shop immediately behind the old town. Philippe Olivier's Fromagerie, 45 rue Thiers (21 31 94 74).

Tourist office: Quai de la Poste (21 31 68 38). Opening hours 9am to 7pm; closed Sundays, Mondays and bank holidays.

(Photograph omitted)