(Telegraph) – I was five years old the first time I visited Le Touquet – the chichi seaside French town just south of Calais that’s so near to the capital that it’s subtitled “Paris Plage”. For several years at Easter, my parents and sister and I would swap the tame suburbia of north-west London for the coastal chic of the French Atlantic. To me, as a young girl, Le Touquet became synonymous with the beach, searching for Easter eggs in the gardens of the grand Westminster hotel where we stayed, and some seemingly interminable meals of the old-fashioned, starchily formal French kind.
Why did we go there? The town was a favourite of my French grandfather’s and, as my grandparents lived in Paris, Le Touquet was a good midway meeting point for us all. What may have coloured my grandfather’s choice was the town’s allure as a fashionable resort, easily the equal of Deauville or Cannes.
It had been loved by the British smart set of the Twenties and Thirties, when the likes of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Noël Coward, P G Wodehouse and Winston Churchill were all regular visitors.
I hadn’t been back for decades but now, with a five-year-old daughter of my own, I was intrigued to learn that Le Touquet is one of 117 towns across France that have been designated “Famille Plus” – a seal of approval for places that are supposedly family friendly. This sounded like an excellent notion but begged the question: “What does the label mean in reality?” Are there hotels with kids’ clubs, restaurants with children’s menus, early supper times and a town centre dotted with playgrounds? Or do French parents and their famously well-behaved children look for something else? Workbooks in museums, perhaps? A look at the Famille Plus website reveals that the various criteria include such ground-breaking ideas as child-friendly, well-maintained attractions and prices specifically for children and families.
So far, so not-that-unusually child-friendly. Keen to find out either way, and armed with somewhat ambivalent nostalgia, off I set with my partner, Henry, and daughter, Georgie, to see for ourselves.
Thanks to the modern wizardry that is the Eurostar, we sped to Calais-Fréthun from St Pancras far faster than the ferry to Calais I had taken as a child. From there, it was only about an hour’s drive to Le Touquet.
I had a Proustian flash as we pulled up at the grand, red brick, art deco façade of Le Westminster, unchanged from the way I remembered it and, indeed, since it was built in 1924.
Inside, the plush, red velvet carpeting of the foyer, jazz-age chandeliers and the mahogany and brass lift in its geometric iron cage were similarly unaltered. As for the rooms, I couldn’t help wondering whether they would be as vast as I had remembered. Perhaps it had been simply the skewed spatial perspective of childhood that had made them seem so sprawling. Happily, upon arrival in our first-floor room, I found somewhere just as enormous as I had recalled, complete with 20ft-high ceilings and enough space for Georgie to leap around, despite the presence of an ample double bed, a sofa bed, two art deco-style armchairs and a desk.
Georgie loved not only the hotel’s grandeur but also the Jacuzzi in the hotel’s basement, which, although too deep for younger children to paddle in, had a large enough shallow area in which she could happily frolic.
In the streets near the hotel, meanwhile, while Hermès handbags dangled on the arms of well-heeled ladies who appeared to be the lunching sort, most striking was the number of families with children of all ages, from buggy-bound toddlers to gangly teenagers.
Like many French towns, Le Touquet has a “petit train” tour snaking through its wide, leafy boulevards, and we soon passed what looked more like a Home Counties village green than your average French park, amid streets full of decidedly English-looking architecture.
This, it turned out, is no coincidence. Large swathes of the town were built by two Englishmen in the early part of the last century, and the result is a peculiarly franglais mix of half-timbered Normandy beams and the art deco and mock Tudor features so beloved of the British in the interwar years. Throw in a soupçon of French flair, and what you get is somewhere between a more laid-back Deauville and Surrey-on-Sea.
You can take a two-hour architectural walking tour of the town’s most notable villas, organised by the tourist office, but, keen to see the sea, we ambled down to the seafront, where a giant sand sculpture of the Eiffel Tower and a Victorian-style carousel were flanked by nearly four miles of sand. We also found several mini beach clubs with trampolines and soft play areas where you pay per hour, as well as a small water park. Georgie, however, was happy running along the beach, chasing the waves and getting soaked.
Alluring things for families were everywhere. We went horse riding at Le Parc Equestre du Touquet (from €10/£8.50; centre-equestre-letouquet.ffe.com) – an elegant complex in the woods that encircle the town, complete with the kind of grand racecourse beloved of the impressionists, extensive stables and a small playground. Georgie was soon settled on a chestnut pony called Texas, and in what felt like a moment of time travel to Seventies pre-health-and-safety Britain, we were left to lead them both around the grounds at our leisure. Texas seemed more interested in stopping to eat grass than strolling. “I think she must be hungry,” said Georgie
We were soon hungry, too. Just off the town’s main pedestrianised shopping street with its smart boutiques and chic chocolatiers, the beamed-ceilinged, bustling Brasserie Les Sports looked a likely bet. Even though it was, by this time, nearly 9pm, the place was packed with families enjoying French classics such as buttery sole meunière followed by crêpes suzette, as well as crowd-pleasing pizzas; we were delighted to join them.
The next day, we set off on the half-hour drive to Bagatelle (admission €26.90 adults, €20.50 children; parcbagatelle.com), a vast amusement park set amid wooded parkland, full of wonderfully old-fashioned rides for all ages. Georgie was soon letting out yelps of delight (alongside my grimaces of terror) on a small, caterpillar-shaped roller coaster before we made our way round a lake in a pink flamingo-shaped pedalo. Elsewhere, there were pirate galleons, carousels, woodland trains and mini grand prix rides, as well as dodgems and Ferris wheels – all blissfully unbranded and free of talking pigs, action superheroes or otherwise.
After all that family fun, on our final evening, the temptation of dinner at Le Westminster’s grown-up Michelin-starred restaurant, Le Pavillon, proved too hard to resist. However, unlike the formality of my childhood memories, not only were the staff relaxed and welcoming to us all, but they instantly whipped up a plate of spag bol for mademoiselle, while we enjoyed veal sweetbreads with truffle shavings.
Had Le Touquet lived up to its Famille Plus credentials? Well, that depends. If you want to flop out on the beach while the kids are taken care of in organised clubs, then probably not. If, on the other hand, you want somewhere with family activities galore, art deco glamour, good food and a great beach, most certainly yes. Would we return? Yes again. And not just for Easter.