Travelling hopefully is all very well but sometimes it’s comforting to know what you’ll get when you arrive. So it is, for us, with Wimereux, on the French Cote d’Opale. A pre-Christmas sortie there has become a ritual.
Wimereux is a charming seaside resort, a half hour or so from the Channel Tunnel, another 10 minutes from the Calais ferry port. Though it was hit hard during the Second World War it has relatively few of those nasty butt probably unavoidable buildings thrown up during reconstruction. Rather, it is an eclectic mix of original and recreated Belle Époque and Art Nouveau villas, and some which are plain eccentric.
Its main street is full of small shops and restaurants. They include a splendid fishmonger – which makes us wonder why our ritual involves buying sole straight from the sea from stalls on the quay at neighbouring Boulogne – a traditional “quincaillerie” (ironmonger) and several patisseries. And there’s the Hotel du Centre, whose rooms are functional but whose moderately priced but excellent restaurant reminds us of France as it used to be, when you could get a fine meal in most villages for a third of the price of eating out in provincial England. On one recent visit there I ate the finest raie au beurre noir (skate in black butter with capers) I had ever tasted.
This November however – it being a birthday celebration for my wife – with stayed and dined at the Hotel Atlantic, on the broad, traffic free seafront. From our comfortable, recently renovated room we could look out across the sands to the Channel. In the main Liegoise restaurant we renewed acquaintances with the superb set menu titled La Promenade en Mer, which began with four fish courses – scallops with leeks, seaweed and a quail’s egg; delicious poached oysters with a shallot cream and a tarragon “emulsion”; red mullet with a sesame crust, and turbot with shrimps, parsley and a pepper jus. These dishes were followed by cheeses from Philippe Olivier’s estimable shop in Boulogne and a soufflé of intense lemon and molten chocolate so memorable I remarked that if I never ate another pudding I could die happy.
The ritual includes a big shop at E Leclerc’s massive supermarket on the far side of Boulogne, principally to fill the boot with French south western red wines – still a bargain for those with the most basic knowledge of what’s likely to be good, such as a decent St Chinian for around £5 – some dry Burgundy whites. It also involves buying for dinner back at home: baguettes and an apple tart and perhaps from shops in Wimereux, rillettes and pate from there or elsewhere and – because it was raining too hard to walk to Olivier’s – cheese from the supermarket.
Back home, door to door in a few hours, you might hardly think you had been away, except that the compressed enjoyment of a single night across the Channel somehow seems a better return on investment than many a longer trip.
Dinner in the Atlantic’s Liegoise restaurant cost €58 a head – or about £46. Add on a couple of glasses of Champagne and a bottle of white wine – plus the price of the room and buffet breakfasts for two and the total bill came to roughly £290. Whether to travel through the tunnel or by ferry on such a short break is a tricky question. The Tunnel is much quicker, of course, but there’s no denying the attractions of the business lounge on P&O Ferries, havens of tranquility, with free newspapers, coffee and champagne, and a light meal menu.