Côte d’Opale, Picardy and Normandy Coasts
In late October we took the ferry over to Northern France, and set off on a trip down the coastline. From Calais to Honfleur – as much as we could in between!
I love taking the ferry, it feels stress free and simple compared to airports. You can wait for passport control in the comfort of your own car, stroll about on board, get fresh air on deck and grab some lunch. It’s lovely for kids and really feels like a nice start to your little adventure.
Best of all is not worrying about what to pack. Chuck in all the coats and boots, snacks and toys! We arrived at our airbnb at 6pm on the Sunday evening. Assuming that most shops in rural France would be shut, I was well prepared with dinner in a cool bag, crisps and treats and obviously wine! I can definitely recommend it.
The worst part of taking the ferry (in my opinion) is the drive to Dover, which depending on where you’re coming from in the UK can be awful. I’d take that into account when you decide which ferry to get, and travel at a quiet time.
In contrast, the roads in Northern France seemed quiet and easy to navigate. In fact I couldn’t get my data to work on my phone, and managed to find a tiny village 3 hours away with no maps or instructions. Somehow!!
Useful to know
One thing I didn’t realise is that we would pass through several toll roads. And they are expensive! In fact I spent around £50 (60 Euros) in 3 days travelling up and down this coastline. I also had absolutely no clue how to pay and get through the barrier when I first pulled up to one… My son (1st Navigator) got very good at grabbing my purse and either tapping my card for me, or passing it to me while I jumped out and ran around the car to pay.
Once given the ticket, keep it safe! You’ll need it to get through the barrier on the other side and the last thing you want whilst driving abroad is to be hunting under your seat for it.
It’s also worth knowing is that out of season the majority of things will be shut. It really depends what you’re going for – if you want restaurant dining, cafes and shopping, you may be disappointed. I wasn’t looking for those things and I always love the opportunity to stroll on an empty beach or see a little town without masses of tourists. My only disappointment really was that all the beach huts had been cleared away – in my research I’d seen several towns with rows of little white beach huts along the promenade. Well, these do not exist in October!
Where we stayed
I chose an Airbnb between the towns of Saint-Valery-en-Caux and Veules-les-Roses, around a 2.5 hour drive from Calais. A one bedroom apartment situated in a thatched farmhouse on an equestrian centre – very peaceful, friendly and safe. The boys would have happily spent the whole 3 days talking to the resident cats and ponies, however I had grander plans!
On our first morning we set off to Honfleur, 1 hour west from our farmhouse and further into Normandy. This town has been on my photography wish list for such a long time, I couldn’t get so close and not go there.
Honfleur is an absolute little jewel of a town. I can’t emphasise enough how worth visiting it is, and of all the places we saw this is one town I feel very lucky to have seen out of season.
Most things seemed to be open, especially around the harbour. The carousel was spinning, and cafes and restaurants were buzzing, and luckily there was only a couple of large tour groups to contend with. High season here can get understandably very busy.
It’s easy to park in Honfleur (there is a large car park close to the harbour) and you will need several hours at least to wander the little streets and alleyways. Be sure to head away from the harbour and up the hill into the back streets too. There’s many charming buildings, narrow cobbled lanes and pretty squares. I took far more photos here than anywhere else – it felt like every corner and every building was photogenic!
Saint-Valery-en-Caux and Veules-les-Roses
Saint-Valery-en-Caux may not have the film set level of charm that Honfleur does, but it it lovely. Built around a large harbour filled with colourful boats, and some medieval buildings overlooking the water. Fishermen were selling fresh fish from carts, and just a short walk away there is a large stony beach. We walked around the harbour but didn’t explore deeper into the town as the kids were very tired. We let off steam by throwing stones into the sea instead.
Veules-les-Roses is only a 15 minute drive from Saint-Valery-en-Caux so it’s worth seeing both of these towns while you pass! Described as being one of the prettiest villages in France, it’s also one of the oldest. The half timbered houses will apparently be covered in roses in the summer.
Veules-les-Roses is full of restaurants, bakeries and shops, thatched roofs and water mills. Famed for the oysters caught on the beach at low tide, and the watercress grown in France’s smallest river, the Veules, which passes through the town.
Park at the top of the village and explore the pretty streets on the way to the beach. There is a gorgeous broad wooden pier jutting out over the beach which gives fantastic views up and down the coast. The beach itself is wide and sandy, and known for seal spotting, although we weren’t lucky on that day. I can only imagine how beautiful it must be in the summer and I’d definitely go back.
This steep sided coastal village was second only to Honfleur for me, and I’d highly recommend it. At this point on the coast you are only an hour or so away from Calais too, so we are even in day trip territory!
It is colourful, packed full of medieval character and full of joy, even on a gloomy wintry day. Meander down through the cobble stoned, flower filled streets towards the sea. There is one street that is the main attraction, but be sure to explore the ones parallel to it as well. There are colourful fisherman’s cottages and charm at every turn.
When you get to the bottom there is a wide limestone promenade with a wooden boardwalk, and shops and restaurants overlooking the estuary. It was reasonably busy when we were there out of season and there was plenty open. I can imagine it would be heavenly in the summer.
Our final stop was the town of Mers-le-Bain, a little further back along the Picardy coast towards Normandy. Confession – I didn’t take any photos here. After three days of travelling and working, I needed to spend some time chilling with my boys. I also had far more content than I knew what to do with!
So you’ll have to take my word for it that this is a lovely town! A bit bigger and less quaint than the others on the whole, but with a fascinating 19th Century promenade and rows of colourful Art Nouveau villas. With a wide pebbly beach and the white cliffs in the distance, this is a really charming spot.
The photos I had looked at in my research showed rows and rows of white beach huts at the back of the beach. These are cleared away at the end of the season, which is worth knowing to avoid disappointment. Nonetheless the building are really interesting to see, if not so easy to photograph.
If you do an image search as I did, note how the street level is cleverly cropped out of most of the photos. The beach huts will do this for you nicely if you go in high season!
I’d head here again like a shot if I came in the summer.
In summary this is a really special region of France, with tons of character and charm. And so easily reachable! I would have also loved to visit towns such as Le Touquet-Paris-Plage, Boulogne-sur-Mer, Wimereux and Wissant. These are all on the stretch of coast between Saint-Valery and Calais, and very easy from the ferry. Having your own car definitely makes life easier and you have the freedom to go whether you fancy.