Surprising French gem is the ideal family holiday, with a fire-breathing dragon and endless beaches

An early morning mist enveloped us as we headed east towards Calais. Maybe it was a harbinger of things to come. We were not going on a ferry or the Eurotunnel, but to encounter a mythical beast.

12 m high (about the size of a four-story building), 25 m wingspan, 72 tons of steel, wood, leather, canvas and copper breathing smoke and fire, the Calais Dragon will stop you. marks.

It’s a living piece of architecture made by François Delarozière, artistic director of La Machine, the street theater company behind The Great Elephant, which traveled the world from 2005 to 2007 and now lives in Nantes, and La Princesse, the 20-metre mechanical spider. The one that stirred up the neighborhood of Liverpool in 2008, the year it became the European Capital of Culture.

Calais, France - March 11: The Dragon of Calais (La Compagnie du Dragon) carries people on the renewed seashore in Calais, France on March 11, 2022.  The mechanized dragon blows fire and steam and is controlled by a team of puppeteers both on the creature and on the surrounding road.  (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
The Calais Dragon (La Compagnie du Dragon) carries people along the renovated beach in Calais, France (Photo: Leon Neal/Getty)

This giant reptile, which took a year to design and two years to build, will wake up from hibernation and roar around the harbor from February 1st, with almost 50 visitors riding on its back at any given time. With its red eyes, steaming out of its 30 vents and flapping its wings, this creature feels completely real and frankly terrified our four-year-old. But minutes after we landed, even he couldn’t take his eyes off as he watched her set off again.

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A companion iguana sits on a nearby pedestal where tourists can use all the facial and bodily features that make the dragon so realistic, and next year a small family of lizards will be crawling around the city. Burning its first flames in 2021, the dragon is in the first phase of Calais’s planned 15-year transformation, from an industrial zone to a seaside city of arts and culture, to get tourists wanting to roam.

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Stunning French resort with pristine beaches, award-winning croissants and pet parrotsStunning French resort with pristine beaches, award-winning croissants and pet parrots

The quay has already been completely renovated and the 8 km sandy beach offers a pleasant view. Behind it are large playgrounds, exercise fields, beach volleyball nets, and in front of the Musée des Beaux-Arts, the area’s largest skate park, with 4,000 square feet, the historic 14th-century monument of Fort Risban.

That’s a promising start – though, it would be perfectly understandable if people were heading west from this unaware shoreline.

It’s clear why this part of Pas-de-Calais is known as the Opal Beach – not only for the soft quality of the light that attracted Turner, Monet and Manet, but also because this place is a true gem. And given the relatively low cost and ease of traveling here, it’s a miracle that more Brits aren’t vacationing here.

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Photo taken in Cap Blanc Nez, Escalles, Pas-de-Calais, France.
Cap Blanc-Nez, Escalles, Pas-de-Calais, France (Photo: Ellen van Bodegom/Getty)

Our base is in a chalet-style house in the seaside resort of Berck, an hour’s drive south of Calais and less than half an hour from Le Touquet, England (from €350 per week, ) we have established. The squad will be formed during the Rugby World Cup this fall.

The golden beaches at Berck are wide and seemingly stretch to the horizon – at least when the tide is low – and offer opportunities not only for swimming and sunbathing, but also for kitesurfing and beach volleyball.

Splendidly decorated carousels are a ubiquitous feature of the promenades here – most notably in Le Touquet, a town that is as much of the Cote d’Opale as the Cote d’Azur. A sophisticated, Art Deco-inspired glamor resort, its streets are brimming with high-end French fashion brands, while its restaurants serve plates full of seafood. At the northern end of town is the relaxing Canche Bay Nature Park, where you can spot seals.

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Halfway between Berck and Calais, Boulogne-sur-Mer is worth a visit with its magnificent beach, medieval castle and basilica with Europe’s longest cellar, but most come for Nausicaa. France’s largest aquarium and most impressive attraction is a 20m x 5m viewing window overlooking the Great Tank, which contains enough water to fill four Olympic swimming pools and is home to manta rays, sharks and countless shoals of fish.

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See the beach and chalk cliffs of Cap Blanc Nez (Cape of the White Cape), a cape on the touristy Côte d'Opale (Opal Coast) on the English Channel in northern France.
The beach and chalk cliffs of Cap Blanc-Nez (Photo: Ellen van Bodegom/Getty)

They were not the only animals we encountered. Farms are located around the countryside, including our old favorite L’asinerie du Marquenterre near Quend, where you can feed the pigs and chickens as they wander around – and in the case of the goats, as they climb the grounds. tables in the picnic area.

You can even milk goats at the microfarm La Halte d’Autrefois in Hesmond – and maybe stop at the old fortified town of Montreuil-sur-mer on your way back. miserables Fantine character.

There’s plenty to do, from the frequent brocantes (classy flea markets) that line entire villages to the hiker’s paradise of the Blanc-Nez and Gros-Nez’s Deux Caps cliffs that look back towards the White Cliffs of Dover. And then there’s the Unesco-certified biosphere reserve of St Omer marshes, a floating market garden where you can take a peaceful stroll in a traditional, flat-bottomed bacôve boat and buy from growers as you pass.

Temperatures may not reach the temperature levels in southern France (typically around 10C in March), but for those looking for a frugal (Calais hotel prices are about a third cheaper than in Nice) and accessible family vacation this year, Opal Beach shines with deals.

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