The era of faster transport swiftly led to the era of the vacation. When, in its industrializing drive, France began covering itself with train tracks, well-to-do Parisians quickly saw the opportunity for quiet weekends away from the bustle.
Given 19th century steam trains, the only place where it was practical to spend a weekend at the beach from Paris was the North Sea. Thus enterprising entrepreneurs bought tracts of land alongside a desolate beach, albeit one with the finest sand in Europe, christened it Le Touquet, and built France’s first beach resort.
Since Le Touquet is pretty much France’s northernmost point, a swim away from England (a difficult swim sometimes, as many French monarchs found out), their Entente-era business plan called for attracting posh English tourists as well as French. So they built one of the best golf courses of the time and a city with the architectural look of an English seaside town, a grand hotel called the Westminster Hotel and street names like Avenue Reine Victoria.
This history explains the unique charm of Le Touquet. In reality, its buildings are as “fake” as those of any resort, but since they’ve been fake for more than a hundred years they’ve acquired the patina of reality. Since it was designed as French people’s idea of what an English town looks like, it doesn’t really look like anywhere else. Houses here are not called houses but villas (however small), and they all must have a name like ships, often poetic or amusing ones like Found Time, A Thousand Pleasures, Jalna) or Fifteen Minutes. Here, the sports of choice are golf, rugby, polo, tennis… (Don’t know about cricket, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) Le Touquet feels like it should be its own microstate, a sort of Monaco or Gibraltar on the North Sea.
And speaking of the sea… Those who can appreciate northern seas know this awe-inspiring beauty. I’ve already mentioned the sand, the finest that I’ve ever had the pleasure of resting my feet on, an angelic cushion. And the sea… Those tones of pale copper and steel blue, streaked with impatient foam, a carpet of diamonds glittering in reflection of the pale sun, arrayed against a sky of ever-changing colors and cloud patterns. The powerful wind, alive with salt and embers. This is a real sea, not the tepid lake of the Mediterranean.
Everyone should learn to swim in cold, living seawater. Once you realize in your bones that the cold resides in your mind and in its instinctive fear, once you learn to enjoy and even relish the cold sea’s reinvigorating properties, there are many more adventures you are ready for.
Le Touquet is its own tiny magic kingdom, a well-kept secret—and here we get to the most awkward reason why I love it so much. The city was born thanks to transport technology, and it changed, or rather didn’t, because of it. Lucky for me, the North Sea is not for everyone. As transport got faster, well-off Parisians quickly diverted their attentions to the warmer climes of, first, Normandy, and later, the Côte d’azur. Deauville and Saint Tropez have eclipsed tiny Le Touquet. Because of this change in fashion, the kind of people who come to Le Touquet aren’t just any rich people—they’re rich people whose families have been rich since the 19th century at least, and whose grandparents came to summer here. The friends who are letting us borrow their beach cabin have had it for 60 years, and other houses for longer (“Why go to the city museum? To see black and white photos of German officers living in our villa?”). My mother learned to swim here, and my uncle won tournaments at the Tennis Club. Here, people who go to the beach to get roasted by the sun like a steak don’t come. This affects not just the kinds of people you meet, but the character of the shops, of the restaurants, with the luxury understated and the focus on what’s on the plate. The best restaurant, Pérard, which makes the best fish soup in the Universe (the Universe, I tell you!) is decorated with cartoons that are only funny if you’re well versed in French and English history and literature. Le Touquet isn’t about bling. It’s Hermès, not Vuitton. BMW, not Ferrari. God, I know this is all so horribly elitist, but so be it. I would die if I had to spend my entire life in a gilded ghetto of “my people”, but for a week’s vacation at the beach, I refuse to begrudge myself.
Like every place in France, Le Touquet draws upon the rich treasures of a deep terroir. Here you can eat rattes, the tiny potatoes, grown in the sand, with their wonderful nutty flavor, made world-famous by Joël Robuchon. Maroilles and the other pungent cheeses of the North. And, of course, the wonders of the sea—mussles with fries, amazing seafood aplenty, and have I mentioned Pérard’s fish soup?
In short—the beach, the scenery, both natural and man-made, the food, the ambiance, the memories… Perhaps you’ll understand, then, why I think Le Touquet is the nicest resort in France, by far.