Well, no, actually, and I’m here to urge you to reprogram your GPS – metaphorically and physically. Not only is the north a closer, greener and less touristy French vacation destination, but it also has what we all love about the south, with chic beach resorts, bustling towns, delicious food and drink, grandiose landscapes and seascapes, food markets, museums and culture. And all in just two gas tanks or a handful of charges from your electric car. Here is where to find your dose of South of France while remaining resolutely North.
Swap… Antibes for Le Touquet
I love ‘Le Took’. Created by Briton John Witley in the early 1900s, his dream of forests, dunes, white sands, and architect-designed villas on wide, leafy avenues is not far from what you get today. The resort rivals Antibes in terms of celebrity ties (HG Wells fled here, Edward and Ms Simpson vacationed here) and it beats hands down for romance, Belle Epoque architecture, fruits de mer (try Chez Pérard’s oyster bar for a snack and a white wine) and – let’s be practical – leeway on the beach and a glaring lack of traffic jams.
Exchange … Nice against Lille
Lille is booming after Covid with new things to see and do. Grand Scene is a prime example; it opened in June and brings together 10 street food stores in one location. The idea is for chefs to try new dishes, like Atalya, where delicious food is cooked by a Syrian refugee (try the babaganoush!). Hall U Need is another new concept in the suburb of Lille; a plush game room which houses karaoke, bowling, VR games and serves tasty local cuisine. Ten minutes away, I loved the vibe of La Friche Gourmande, where great food, from Thai to burgers to Greek, mingles with balls and darts in the roofless walls of a disused building .
Swap … a rosé from Languedoc for a craft beer
The north, thanks to the abundance of hops, fruits, nuts and cloves, is full of craft breweries. You could spend an entire vacation tasting craft beers, but I started with the Grand Bières de Garde, farmhouse beers designed to be stored and drunk later. Try Anosteke Saison, a light blonde with citrus and floral flavors, or Castelain Grand Cru, a great treat made from Belgian cereals.
Swap … cassoulet for stew
If you like to heat up stews, the Beef with Carbonnades Flamandes beer is sensational. The other must-haves are the Potjevleesh, a white meat terrine, and the pork tart from La Cœur des Flandres. I can no longer do without the fleshy, gravel-free Dunkirk mussels, sustainably grown on offshore ropes. And then there are the chips. What nice fries …
Swap… Carcassonne for Montreuil-Sur-Mer
The ramparts of Montreuil may not be as impressive as those of Carcassonne, but its gastronomy is out of this world. The range of restaurants is enormous; Alexandre Gauthier’s three two-star restaurants (haute cuisine, mid-range or rotisserie), excellent pizzas at the local restaurant Le Piccolino with the fantastic invention that is the Picnic Chic. The latter is a guided electric bike tour through the neighboring 7 Valleys region along bucolic rivers and quiet lanes, ending in a secluded spot for a lunch cooked by one of Montreuil’s best chefs.
Swap … lavender fields for salicornia spreads
“Meet me on the north dike, just past the pink house,” he said. Who was I to refuse? The Bay of Somme is 2 miles sideways if you go straight there but we meandered happily as my walking guide danced across the quicksand. We crossed the canyons left by the tide and walked to where the sand was cracked and untouched by the high tide. This is where salicornia plants grow like cacti in the desert; we researched the newest plants, savoring the crunchy fresh salty green.
Exchange… Espiguette en Carmargue for Wissant
Wissant means ‘white sand’ and you get 12 km of good stuff here. The beach is only a few minutes from the Eurotunnel and is located between the cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez and Cap Gris-Nez, both designated Grands Sites de France for their natural beauty.
Swap… Sommières for Saint-Omer
The marshes of St-Omer – or Audomarois – is a network of 700 km of canals and fertile places to grow food. Until the 1970s, the district had no roads and its Flemish inhabitants were mainly made up of market gardeners. The region still produces six million white cauliflowers a year, along with 50 other types of vegetables, so you can imagine how special the Saturday morning market is.
Exchange… MUCEM against Louvre-Lens
At MUCEM in Marseille, it is the astonishing building that remained to me, rather than its contents. The Louvre-Lens is something else; its main wing – the Galerie du Temps – is arranged chronologically, from the invention of writing in Mesopotamia to the industrial revolution in Europe in the mid-19th century. It is a huge building resembling a hangar on a former mining site, filled with 200 masterpieces that were in the Louvre in Paris.
Rachel took the Eurotunnel and drove inland to Lille and Lens, before heading south to the Baie de Somme and back north via Montreuil to Touquet.
Where to stay
The modern interiors of the Moxy Lille hotel blend into the historical context of the building; the beautiful old faculty of medicine. Central, with lively bar and good food.
Throw away all the euros you have in an apartment with a sea view at Pierre et Vacances Résidence de la Plage, Le Crotoy, and it will be hard to walk away. It’s calm and sunny – Le Crotoy is the only beach facing south on the Opal Coast – and very welcoming.
A shipowner and his wife have rebuilt the Domaine de la Timonerie in Bourseville, an old ruin that belonged to his grandfather, with incredible quality and good taste. I stayed at La Mansard, an upstairs paradise, 1970s wood, dark walled with kitchen and mezzanine. The pool in the jungle is beautiful.
Large and austere from the outside, the Best Western Hotel Hermitage de Montreuil, housed in a former hospital, is the most comfortable hotel I have stayed in for some time. My room was huge with a view from wall to wall windows, almost floor to ceiling.