The nearest bit of France is an often-overlooked gem and is a perfect short-break destination.
Hands up who’s done it: driven off a cross-channel ferry at speed and made your way tout suite to the nearest motorway south, aiming to get wherever it is by nightfall. The thing is, you really don’t need to go to so much trouble. Picardy, with its rich, seafaring history, is right there.
We stayed in a Madame Vacances holiday flat in the small Picardy town of Cayeux-sur-Mer. Booking through Madame Vacances meant there was an English-speaking receptionist to get us checked in, explain how it all worked and give us pointers on where to eat, visit and so on. It also meant the place was very clean, there were made-up beds and plenty of towels ready and waiting for us. You can request a welcome pack with a few essentials if you think you’ll be arriving late. There’s an indoor swimming pool open generous hours on the ground floor and the building is walking distance to a couple of bistros, a supermarket and the tourist office. Most importantly though, is that it’s slap-bang on the seafront with fantastic views. All this means you could simply park yourself here and enjoy the view, the beach and Cayeaux, but then you’d miss the wonderful nearby towns and attractions.
During our four-day break, we discovered our favourite nearby spot was St Valery-sur-Somme. It has a medieval, hilltop bit with a gothic church, archways over roads and is the site of Joan of Arc’s imprisonment before being taken to be burnt at the stake in Rouen. It also has a terribly pretty, more modern – that is to say, mostly 19th century – lower town, with a very nice boardwalk along the canal, heaps of restaurants and cafés, a weekly Sunday-morning market and is the launchpad for both an steam-train line and daily boat trips around the bay.
Definitely do take the train. For a start, it’s a pretty old thing driven and it takes you through lovely sea marshes and fields of cows all the way around the bay to the town of Le Crotoy on about an hour’s journey. In Le Crotoy, a working fishing port, you can get a very good prix fixe lunch at one of the harbour-side restaurants, before hoping on the train for the ride back. A tip: as the train station is on the edge of town, about a 10-minute walk to Le Crotoy harbour, if mobility is an issue, think about getting a taxi for this bit. Another must-do is the seal-watching boat trip from St Valery. Even if you don’t see a seal, the views of the bay from the comfort of both indoor and outdoor seating makes a nice trip.
From Cayeaux you’re well positioned for day trips to the towns of Honfleur, with its picture-postcard harbour, and Etretat, which is like a French version of Dorset’s Durdle Door, with big, sea-eroded cliffs that have become arches and pinnacles, but with the welcome addition of moules et frites for lunch.
One more top tip, this one for travelling: let the French holiday start from the word go and take Brittany Ferries to Le Havre from Portsmouth and be sure to book yourself a cabin both ways. You can make it an overnight journey going, enjoy being gently rocked to sleep and wake refreshed and ready for the first day of your break. On the return, you have the cabin to retreat to, rest in and generally hang about in in comfort on the way back. Of course, if you get a sunny day, it’s a bit like cruising – just pull up a deckchair and enjoy.
Madame Vacances has hotels and holiday accommodation right across France. We stayed in Residence Les Terrasses de la Plage, on the Picardy seafront in Cayeux-sur-Mer. The apartments – for up to 8 people – are well equipped and most have a balcony or terrace with panoramic sea views. There’s also an indoor swimming pool with children’s area, terrace and fitness room. Free WiFi access is available at reception.
Example prices: for a studio apartment with sea view sleeping up to four, from £279 for a seven-night stay self-catering, based on a 19 December 2016 arrival. For the same apartment arriving 14 May 2017, the price is from £289. To book call Madame Vacances on 01273 358 071, or visit www.madamevacances.co.uk.
Brittany Ferries operates routes from Portsmouth, Poole and Plymouth to five destinations in Normandy and Brittany, from £320 return for a car and a family of four in 2017, including an en suite cabin on the outward overnight crossing. Book online at www.brittanyferries.com or call 0330 159 7000.