Rather than spending hours stuck in the car, visitors who are driving south through France from the ferry ports can make the most of their journey in the Hauts de France region. Forget impersonal motels or rushed coffees on the autoroute. As the closest self-drive destination to the UK, home to the ports of Calais and Dunkirk, the region boasts historic sites, pretty towns and villages and huge sandy beaches and immerses you into a true flavour of France from the moment you arrive. From a relaxing coffee and croissant to perk you up after an overnight ferry, a lunch break with a spot of culture thrown in, to an overnight stop before an early return home, there are plenty of options to choose from.
Make Time for Calais:
As well as its rejuvenated seafront, with rows of beach huts, mini-golf, playgrounds and promenade, there are also great restaurants to enjoy. For families, there’s a unique experience to enthral the family, where visitors can hop on the back of a dragon. This 15-metre high, 25 metre long fire-breathing robotic dragon is made of steel and sculpted wood, spraying its misty breath and bursts of flame whilst thrilling passengers who can experience a ride along the seafront from up high.
Coffee and Croissant in historic Arras
Distance from Calais: 1 hour 15 minutes
Best for: En route to Provence or the Alps, via the A26
With its pretty Baroque Grand Place, Flemish style gabled architecture and tempting pavement cafes and terraces, Arras is a hidden gem and perfect for a relaxing stop off. A highlight is the historic Wellington Quarry – a museum and memorial to those who fought in the Battle of Arras in 1917. With an extensive network of tunnels that were dug under the city during WW1, it makes for a moving and evocative visit.
Visit the Cathedral or Benedictine Abbey of Saint Vaast, climb the UNESCO listed belfry or just relax and soak up the atmosphere of the Grand Place. Pick up some organic wines at La Dame Jeanne wine shop in the Place des Heros, or tuck into craft beers and meat and cheese boards at Chez Marcel. For art lovers, nearby Louvre Lens is a superb art gallery, situated on a disused coal-mining yard, showcasing works on loan from the Musee du Louvre, as well as ongoing exhibitions.
Stay Longer: The charming Au Coeur d’Eden is a stylish, boutique 1920’s townhouse B&B in the heart of Arras. Its spacious rooms are perfect to relax in and it also has a lovely garden. Breakfasts are a treat – including homemade jams, fresh pastries and breads, as well as charcuterie and eggs. One night for two people from £211, including breakfast, half a bottle of champagne and chocolates, loan of two bikes and a beer tasting.
Lunch in Laon
Distance from Calais: two hours
Best for: Historic stopover convenient for the A26 to the Alps or Provence
With its Gothic Cathedral, used as the model for Chartres, historic ramparts and medieval streets to explore, the hilltop city of Laon is ideal for a lunch stop with plenty of sightseeing to stretch your legs. Loved by Victor Hugo, the city is known as the ‘Crowned Mountain’ – thanks to the iconic cathedral hilltop skyline. Featuring an upper and a lower town – the walk from one to another is a steep one – reached by ‘grimpettes’ – historic pathways dating back to the Gallo-Roman period, but luckily there is a funicular to help you along the way. The journey to the top is well worth it, as the views out from the town walls over the Picardy countryside are phenomenal. Relax in the cafes of the piazza, soak up the views, shop in the elegant Rue Chatelaine and enjoy some of the local cheese – ‘Maroilles’ – reputedly one of the strongest smelling in France. Maybe not one to take home!
Stay Longer: Try the boutique B&B at La Prieure, with its gorgeous terrace, spa facilities, bikes to borrow and access to the pool at sister property Domaine de Barive. One night in a suite with a spa bath, on a b&b basis, including a bottle of champagne from £186. https://www.french-weekendbreaks.co.uk/couples-retreats-france/near-laon-a-chic-converted-barn-bb-hot-tub-champagne
An Evening in Amiens:
Distance from Calais: 1 hour 45 minutes
Best for: Stop off en route to the Loire or Dordogne via the A16
Often described as the Venice of the North and recently voted in the top three best destinations to visit in Europe, the lovely city of Amiens is well worth a visit, whether just for a stop off en route to the Loire, or overnight. With its majestic UNESCO-listed gothic cathedral – one of France’s most impressive – pretty cobbled streets and fascinating Jules Verne’s house to visit, it is also home to a 300 hectares of ‘hortillonnages’ or floating water gardens, which have been in operation since the Middle Ages, providing much of the city’s flowers and vegetables. Now comprising a combination of working farms and more than a thousand private gardens, they are a highlight of any visit and usually explored on a barge or small boat. Summer evenings are a treat, with the Chroma light show bringing the Cathedral to life in an entirely different light.
Stay Longer: Base yourself in the heart of the city, at the historic Hotel le Prieure, just a few steps away from the Cathedral. Prices from £174 for two nights, including breakfast and free bike rental, based on two sharing.
A Breath of Sea Air in Boulogne Sur Mer
Distance from Calais: 20 minutes
Best for: Overnight stay before an early ferry
The Opal coast, so-called for the effects of its magical iridescent light, stretches for 75 miles and offers a wonderfully diverse coastal walking route to explore, with magnificent cliffs, wide sandy beaches, dunes, marshes and estuaries.
Just 20 minutes’ drive away along the Opal Coast from Calais is Boulogne Sur Mer, France’s busiest seaport but also a beautifully preserved old town and home to the Basilica Notre Dame which has the longest crypt in France. With its cobbled streets, historic buildings, a chateau museum, great selection of shops and restaurants it’s definitely worth stopping here. There’s even a UNESCO listed Belfry with cannon balls on show that were fired on to the town by Henry VIII.
Boulogne Sur Mer boasts a long sandy beach with plenty of activities available, including trampolines and bouncy castles as well as sand-yachting, kite-surfing, and canoeing. Alternatively enjoy the peace and quiet that can be found in some of its beautiful parks and lush gardens. It is also home to Nausicaa – the largest aquarium in Europe.
Stay Longer: Facing the beach at Boulogne-sur-Mer is La Matelote hotel, ideal for seafood lovers who can combine fine dining in the hotel’s restaurant with a behind the scenes cookery lesson with Tony Lestienne mastering some of his recipes and tricks of the trade. The hotel and its restaurant overlook the port whilst the old town perched above the harbour with its cobbled steps and quaint cafes is the perfect spot to soak up the surroundings. Prices from £248 for a family of four on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis.
For more inspiration of what do and where to stay in the Hauts-de-France region, visit www.french-weekendbreaks.co.uk. Featuring a curated selection of 60 exclusive breaks throughout the region, there are options and ideas for accommodation, activities and days out in the most-accessible area of France from the UK.