One of our favorite getaways from Paris is the charming seaside town of Le Touquet, on the English Channel two hours north by car. Unlike see-and-be-seen seaside French resorts such as Deauville or Saint-Tropez, Le Touquet is a genteel, proudly old-fashioned sort of place with a spectacularly pretty setting. Most of the town’s Belle Epoque villas are tucked away in a century-old forest planted on the edge of the sea dunes.
Aside from an unfortunate ’70s-era seafront, the town is an endearing hodgepodge of half-timbered “Norman”-style buildings and art deco shops. If Le Touquet’s main attraction is its long and expansive beach, it also has one of the best golf courses in France, some excellent restaurants and one of our favorite French hotels, the wonderfully frumpy 115-room Hotel Westminster (86), which the locals and regulars call “Le West.”
Built in 1925, the hotel has a fine location on the edge of Le Touquet’s forest. It’s a solid red-brick beauty with a red-tiled roof and limestone trim around its many bay windows. The front desk is an old-fashioned varnished oak affair with a slotted key rack, and this sets the tone for a place that runs on good manners, prompt courtesies and reassuring routines: afternoon tea on the terrace, a drink before dinner and perhaps a cigar and a single malt afterward. The height of bad manners here is to forget to firmly close the door of the beautiful old art deco vintage cage elevator when you exit, as this locks it in place.
Another aspect that makes Le West so pleasant is its welcoming multigenerational nature. Over a weekend, you see as many good-looking young professional couples from Lille, London or Louvain, Belgium, as you do people who might be their grandparents. Families are welcome; there’s often a table or so for 10 or more set in the hotel’s breakfast room. You’ll also find a gentle aura of Anglophilia here — the northern French bourgeoisie love their tweeds, tartans, Range Rovers and Springer Spaniels.
A few details are different since a change in ownership several years ago — regrettably, there’s no longer a bellhop, and several bedrooms have been redecorated in rather morbid color schemes (it’s hard to imagine who’d find a room done up in oyster gray, pink and black attractive). Still, Le West remains reassuringly Vieille France, with maroon carpeting in its large lobby and bar and spacious rooms in schemes of restful pastels with simple local furniture. The hotel recently added a Nuxe spa, but we don’t recommend it, because prices are steep and the personnel inadequately trained.
Unfortunately, it has also moved Les Cimaises, the main restaurant, from the lovely paneled space it formerly occupied to a regrettable add-on. Though it has a Michelin star, we find the menu too fussy and service rather wooden, so we prefer to head into town for a seafood feast at Perard (67 rue de Metz, Tel. 33-3-21-05-13-33, $130), a wonderful old-fashioned fish house that serves superb plateaux de fruits de mer (shellfish on big trays of crushed ice) and an outstanding catch of the day from the nearby ports. The fish soup is excellent, too.
If we’re in the mood for something a bit more adventurous, we’ll drive 15 minutes into the very pretty countryside of the Pas-de-Calais to the one-star Auberge de la Grenouillère in La Madeleine-sous-Montreuil (Tel. 33-3-21-06-07-22, $200), where talented young chef Alexandre Gauthier creates deliciously provocative dishes such as “sushi” of avocado and sea bass with soy-pickled cucumber, grilled gherkins with bacon chips and tarragon béarnaise, and lobster tail served in a tangle of singed juniper branches — all presented in a cozy old farmhouse.
We always pack three things when we’re heading to Le Touquet — a good book, perhaps to read by the fire in the lobby of Le West on a rainy afternoon, a sweater for walks after dinner, and a slicker to tuck away in the saddlebag of a rented bicycle in the event of a shower (Le Touquet has miles and miles of beautifully maintained bike paths). Inevitably, two items always find their way into our luggage on the way back to Paris: a jar of Perard’s heavenly lobster bisque and one of the salted-caramel sauce from Le Chat Noir (located on the rue de France), one of the oldest and most charming candy shops in all of France.
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