Review by Fiona Duncan, published 10th October 2004.
It's France, it's easy to get there, and you can stock up on cheap food and wine on the way home: those are the pros. It's dull and industrial, there's nothing to do and nowhere decent to stay: those, it is generally considered, are the cons of a couple of nights near Calais and Boulogne. Fair comment?
Only up to a point for there is actually some lovely countryside in the Pays Boulonnais, particularly around Montreuil, and the coastal resorts have spruced themselves up in the past few years. Family outings to the area might include the Nausicaa sealife centre in Boulogne, the battlefield and excellent new visitor centre at Agincourt, and the secret underground city, La Coupole, built by the Germans to launch their V2 rockets. And no one should miss the stunning central squares in Arras.As for places to stay, things are definitely improving.
Stylish seaside hotels, of the sort that now pepper the English coastline, are beginning to make an appearance along the Côte d'Opale, while inland there is a crop of châteaux, chambres d'hôtes and restaurants-with-rooms well worth the cross-Channel trek. Here are ten of the best.Le Beaucamp Wierre-Effroy (0033 3 2130 5613; www.lebeaucamp.com; doubles from £58) Beaucamp is the childhood home of Mme Bernard, whose son now runs her nearby hotel, Ferme du Vert. Imagine the most demure of French gentilhommeries, with slate roof and pale blue shutters, set back from the road in its own unpretentious little park, and that's Le Beaucamp. Inside, guests have the run of the house, with its elegant, light-filled salon, breakfast room and spacious kitchen (where you can make a drink or a snack) and five pretty bedrooms (the owners live in the adjoining wing). Everything feels fresh here, from breakfast, with produce from the local farm, to the new paint, pink toile de Jouy curtains and white, Swedish-style furniture. Le Beaucamp serves breakfast only but you can have dinner at Ferme du Vert.
Enclos de l'Evêché Rue de Pressy, Boulogne (9190 0590; www.enclosdeleveche.com; from £48) Another fine, privately owned mansion, this time in Boulogne's walled old town, with views of the cathedral dome. Like Le Beaucamp, the house has been restored with great care by the family who have owned it for generations: Mme Humez has style and taste and it shows in each of the seven different - and differently priced - bedrooms, from seaside simple to Egyptian exotic. There is nothing standard about this place; it has plainly been restored with love. No dinner, but that couldn't matter less in Boulogne.
La Matelote 70/80 boulevard Ste-Beuve, Boulogne (2130 3333; www.la-matelote.com; from £65) Red and gold is the theme here, from the façade (opposite Nausicaa) to the last bedroom. Immaculately turned out, the hotel has grown up around Tony Lestienne's prestigious restaurant of the same name. With its uniform decoration and purpose-made mahogany furniture and fittings it has a rather masculine air, but the colour scheme does create a feeling of warmth and I wouldn't mind spending time in one of the well-equipped bedrooms (with pristine bathrooms), especially in winter. You can save money by taking a "standard" room - they are just the same as the "prestige" rooms, only a bit smaller. Spend your savings on Lestienne's sublime food.
La Chartreuse du val St-Esprit 1 rue de Fouquières, Gosnay (2162 8000; www. lachartreuse.com; from £62) Hemmed in by industrial Béthune, La Chartreuse is set in a rural pocket, built on the site of a medieval convent. I don't often recommend a hotel for its corridors but with its sweeping curtains and chequerboard tiles, the corridor on the ground floor of this recently redecorated, privately owned, 18th-century château really is something special. Its (67) bedrooms and reception rooms are more predictable - even slightly corporate - though smart. It has three restaurants with food that is firmly above average and prices (for the rooms as well) that are less than you would expect.
Hôtel Clery Rue du Château, Hesdin L'Abbé (2183 1983; www.hotelclery-hesdin-labbe.com; from £70) Properly called the Château d'Hesdin l'Abbé, Hôtel Clery has a dignified façade which dominates the fine tree-lined approach to the house. But there is no need to be intimidated: this is not a stuffy place. There is a very fine Louis XV wrought-iron staircase, but essentially the style is bright, understated and modern. There is an attractive bar and a log fire in the sitting room when the weather calls for it. The food is pleasant enough, though unexceptional. Many guests are golfers, attracted by the excellent course at nearby Hardelot.
Auberge d'Inxent 318 rue de la Valle, Inxent (2190 7119; £42) This simple, whitewashed building with blue and white shutters in the pretty valley of the Course has been an auberge for more than 100 years, and though the present owners have only been there for eight, it feels as though little has changed. An old range stands on a hearth in the entrance hall, and there is a country dining room where hearty regional dishes are served. Bedrooms are simple, sweet and neat. A delightful place.Chateau de Montreuil 4 Chausse des Capucins, Montreuil-sur-Mer (2181 5304; www.relais chateaux.com/montreuil; from £125) A substantial, luxurious country house dating from the 1930s; beautiful English-style gardens scattered with tables and chairs; a Michelin star for Christian Germain's cooking, and an exceptional breakfast. These are some of the attributes of this popular hotel, with charming hosts. Madame Germain is English and, except in the restaurant, which is frequented by locals, Château de Montreuil feels like an English country house, with English guests to boot.
Auberge de la Grenouillère La Madelaine-sous-Montreuil (2106 0722; www.lagrenouillere.fr; from £52) There are only four bedrooms at this Picardy-style farmhouse in an idyllic setting, so book well in advance. You have to eat in, but it's no penance, because the auberge, affectionately known as the Froggery, is celebrated for the cooking of chef/patron Roland Gauthier: serious, classic stuff. Lunch on a sunny day is even better: the spacious riverside terrace rather overshadows the gleaming brass and polished wood of the restaurant, complete with murals, painted in the 1930s, of Fontaine's fable of the frog who ate until he burst. As for the bedrooms, they are excellent, with attractive bathrooms. Don't be put off by the British voices: this is a serious French enterprise.Les Tourelles 2-4 rue Pierre Guerlain, Le Crotoy (2227 1633; www.lestourelles.com; from £40) Once the home of parfumier Pierre Guerlain, Les Tourelles stands on the Somme estuary, famed for its pearl-grey light. It's very odd, at least from the outside, painted dark red and topped by two blue-capped, rocket-like turrets. Not so inside, where a pared-down version of seaside chic has been applied, with wooden floors, driftwood sculptures and natural materials in the airy bedrooms. This is a happy-go-lucky place, perfect for children, who can even sleep together in a special dormitory. The food is no more serious, but it's carefully cooked and presented.
Jean de Bruges 18 place de l'Eglise, St Riquier (2228 3030; www.hotel-jean-de-bruges.com; from £68) This is what a good small French hotel should be. A compact, handsome 17th-century house, it once belonged to the abbot of the adjacent medieval abbey. The rooms are decorated with unpretentious style, and there's an elegant patio and light-filled salon de thé, which doubles as a breakfast room. The multi-lingual Belgian owner, Bernadette Stubbe Martens, is engaging and her welcome warm.