Your Adventures

Swap the beaches of the south of France for the north

The Opal Coast in northern France is an overlooked gem. With soaring cliffs, white sand, watersports for all ages and lots of space, it more than rivals France’s south

Rachel Ifans takes a road trip along the coast and finds much to love, not least the fact she halves her carbon footprint…

Swap the south of France for the north

Northern France has the weapon of surprise in its arsenal when battling it out with the south as a holiday destination. If you ask a Brit about the north, they’re likely to look blankly at you or start muttering about WWII beaches, D-Day and ferry ports. However, there’s so much more to this under-the-radar area, including perfect beaches, chic resorts, history, heritage, culture and gastronomy and, most importantly a feel of la vraie France.

Discover authentic northern France

A view of Wissant beach and it’s groin fences at low tide, the sea is miles out and there are people walking and flying kites

Going north is finding the real France, away from the inflated prices and crowded beaches of the south in summer. 

Lille, for instance, is a fantastic city and art hub with a vibrant student population and nightlife. Then there’s the Lens area which tells the history of coal mining in France with its slag-heap-dotted landscape and old mining communities. Agriculture still reigns supreme in the north, with age-old places like St Omer’s Audomarois - the only cultivated marshland in France and UNESCO rated nature reserve – and the Hortillonages d’Amiens, an urban expanse of floating market gardens criss-crossed by waterways. There are charming seaside towns like St Valery Sur Somme, many of which – like Mers Les Bains and Wimereux – reek of nostalgia for times-gone-by. Finally, the region’s gastronomy mixes age-old traditions with innovative attitudes, knowledge, skill and incredible value for money.

A shorter drive can be more eco-friendly

There’s all this and more in the north – we’re getting on to the beaches in a minute! – and it’s closer to home, meaning it’s a greener holiday option. 

Having just spent our summer holiday on the coast between Calais and Dieppe, and been delighted by the fact we’d only used a couple of tanks of petrol in the whole 10-day break, I was interested to find out how much the carbon footprint of our holiday differed to a southern French beach break. 

I asked Charlie Cotton of ecollective, an organisation which helps businesses to measure and reduce their carbon footprint in a way that benefits the business and the planet, if he could give us a comparison on our holiday. He based his calculations on two people travelling and on transport alone and the results were compelling,

Option 1: North of France by car (from Bristol)

  • Drive from Bath to Folkestone
  • Eurotunnel to Calais
  • 5 days of driving an average of 50km daily

Total emissions: 158kg of CO2e

Option 2: South of France by plane (from Bristol)

  • 2x economy return flights Bristol to Nice
  • 5 days of driving an average of 50km daily

Total emissions: 328kg of CO2e

A woodend slatted footpath and a row of white beach huts on the white sands of the bay of the Somme

Great beaches that compare with the south

The beaches of Hauts-de-France have a real wow factor. There are wild ones, tiny ones, rocky ones and jellyfish-strewn ones (cue squeals). There are town beaches like the wonderful Le-Touquet-Paris-Plage; what’s not to love about walking a couple of streets back from a perfect beach and finding chic shops and bars to mooch in, and Belle Époque architecture to ogle? And we mustn’t forget the dizzying cliffs on this stretch of coast, from the protected Deux Caps in the north down to the cliffs of Bois de Cise, just south of the Bay of the Somme; views from these cliffs have made the likes of Victor Hugo giddy.

Here are some of my favourite beaches in the north:

Equihen-Plage, Nord pas de Calais

Take the steep wooden steps over the sand dunes to La Crevasse beach and explore the numerous coves on Equihen’s expanse. It’s great for rock-pooling, hiking and sunsets and you must check out the quirky ‘quilles en l’air’, the upturned fishermen’s-boats-turned-houses on the hill.

A view back at the seafront in Le Touquet, and its apartment buildings, from the beach at low tide

Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, Nord Pas de Calais

The north star. While some natives think ‘Le Touq’ is a bit touristy, I disagree. Its beautiful villas and leafy avenues, covered market, beach strip and dunes create a perfect holiday vibe and whenever I go there, the sun beats down on me, fanning the flames of my love for it. I’ll let you know when I’m next going so you can book some vitamin D too!

Fort-Mahon & Quend-Plage

In the Somme region, you’ll find the largest range of sand dunes in Europe. It’s excellent bike riding territory (part of La Velomaritime cycle path that runs from Dunkirk to Roscoff) and it’s also a great destination for twitchers as it neighbours the Parc du Marquenterre nature reserve.

A male tour guide holding a big wooden fishing net tells a group of three tourists about the wildlife in the sandy bay

Ambleteuse

This is the kind of place you can’t believe exists a stone’s throw from the Eurotunnel terminal. It’s a tranquil gem of a bay and village, a few KMs from Wimereux, that sits on the Slack estuary and dunes. Its 17th century Vauban fort becomes an island at high tide, adding to the place’s charm and Insta appeal.

If you fancy venturing further afield, here are a couple more favourites:

Baie d’Audierne, Brittany

The bay is part of one of the most beautiful stretches of coast in Brittany. Surf the waves in this unforgettable south-western corner, kayak around the headland at Pointe-du-Raz or walk part of the GR34 – one of France’s most beautiful hiking routes.

A tiny stone-built cottage sits nestled between two huge rocks on the seashore

Plage de Meneham, Brittany 

Great big rocks are strewn on the beach along the Kerlouan coastline; it’s a sight you won’t forget. Off the beach, look out for the tiny cottage squashed between two massive boulders, and the village itself, with its restored ancient dwellings and craft shops.

Plenty of activities to keep the family happy

As you’d expect, there are plenty of watersports to lap up, including windsurfing and kite surfing. There’s also the ever-popular paddleboarding, an activity that’s accessible for most on a calm day in Le Touquet and Wissant.

A family of four wearing wetsuits and holding paddles on the beach front in Le Touquet

In terms of walking, you can hike the many coastal paths or – something a bit different now – try your hand at longe-cote, a local exercise which involves wading waist-deep in the sea with a guide. I’d highly recommend a nature tour of the bay of the Somme too; you cross the 3KM bay barefoot at low tide, learning about the flora and fauna of the area and hopefully spotting a few seals. 

If two wheels are your preferred transport, La Velomaritime is a continuous bike path that runs the length of the region (and more) and – here’s a tip - you can cover much greater distances if you hire some e-bikes. 

Horse riding on the coast just north of Le Crotoy at St Quentin-en-Tourmont is memorable and there are also unusual places to visit on the coast like Bois de Cise, right down in the Somme, near the border with Normandy. It was a tiny but famous seaside resort in the early 20th century, but is now a quiet place to roam through leafy pathways and admire the eclectic villas that dot the cliffs and nestle in the woods. Magic!

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About the Author

I am a journalist and editor, covering a wide range of lifestyle and travel subjects but always returning to my first love, France. Born unfortunately to non-French parents, I have spent my life trying to make up for it by spending as much time as I can in France or writing about it, studying the language, tirelessly dragging my children round all six sides of l'Hexagone, and endlessly chuntering to my husband about moving there.

To read more from Rachel, click here.

Explore authentic northern France with Eurotunnel Le Shuttle

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