Eurofile | The Paris Plage
At a recent Saint-Germain-des-Pres dinner party, the conversation turned to perfect destinations for a seaside weekend near Paris. A Los Angeles-based architect wondered aloud about Deauville, provoking a quorum of shaking heads, so our hostess set him straight. “Deauville, c’est trop bling-bling,” she told him. “Bling-bling?” “Flashy,” a fashion P.R. executive volunteered. Then someone suggested Cadaques, on Spain’s Costa Brava, which drew approving murmurs but was ultimately nixed because getting there requires a plane ride and a rental car. Belle Ile in Brittany got a heads up, too, but not for a weekend, since it’s too far away. Honfleur met with general approval, too, but it also requires a rental car. We all agreed that the perfect place would be only a train ride away.
“Et vous, Alexandre?” asked the aristocratic woman next to me. I love Le Touquet, I told them, and there was a collective pause. “How do you know about Le Touquet?” she fired back, and several other guests nodded eagerly. I knew they’d react this way. France is the world’s most visited country, so it’s not surprising the French would rather keep a few places to themselves.
I’ve been going to this compact little resort town on the English Channel for 20 years. It’s about two and a half hours north of Paris by train (you get out at Etaples and then take a cab), with a majestic forest right in the heart of town and an array of villas that form a kind of primer on the changing architectural tastes of the French bourgeoisie from 1874 onward. There’s also a wonderful art-moderne market and the stately Westminster Hotel, a red-brick Edwardian beauty that regulars refer to as Le West. It has a fabulous vintage Otis elevator, cozy rooms — my favorites are the doubles under the eaves — a great bar and an excellent restaurant. No one who stays there cares that it’s a five-minute walk from the town’s broad, flat, beautiful beach.
“Americans wouldn’t like Le Touquet,” one of the other dinner guests insisted hopefully. “It’s too quiet, too bon enfant, too, well, French!” Yes, Le Touquet isn’t the kind of place you’ll spot P. Diddy water-skiing. For that, you go to Saint Tropez. But you will find a lot of youngish Parisian fashion-and-design types sipping single malts at the Westminster Bar or lapping up lobster bisque at Perard, the venerable seafood restaurant everyone still goes to despite complaining about its prices and uneven service. And, actually, there are loads of Americans who’d appreciate the slightly sepia tone of a well-mannered Vieille France seaside resort.
Last September in the bar at La West, a Chanel executive who lived in New York for several years astutely described it to me this way: “The difference between Le Touquet and Normandy beach resorts like Deauville and Trouville is like that between the North and South Forks of Long Island. Just like you go to the North Fork to really escape from Manhattan, you go to Le Touquet to leave the orbit of Paris. Le Touquet is all about old bicycles and Peugeot station wagons, while Deauville and Trouville are clogged with Porsche Cayennes, and the irony of Le Touquet is that it was the ’70s misfortune that probably saved the town.”
The misfortune he was referring to was the architectural wrong turn the town took during “Les Trente Glorieuses,” the three decades of prosperity that ran almost unbroken from 1945 to 1975. During the 1970s, before France enacted a law to protect its littoral from overbuilding, builders snapped up many of the old villas along the seafront and replaced them with charmless modern apartment buildings. Happily, however, the town plan that Hippolyte de Villernessant (founder of Le Figaro) put in place when he acquired the village in 1874 remained untouched, as did the extraordinary inland villas that give the resort its cachet. And although the crowned heads and maharajahs who made Le Touquet so fashionable in the roaring ’20s are long gone, the tone of the place is still set by the multigenerational presence of the northern French bourgeoisie whose affection for the town has never flagged.
Still, Le Touquet remains a decidedly confidential destination. A weekend here always includes a Saturday stroll through the horse-shoe-shaped covered market and a long walk on the beach. Then there’s bicycling in the woods, then lunch at the good and reasonably priced Cote Sud on the seafront. I always stop at Touquet Fruits (101 rue de Metz; 011-33-3-21-05-42-99) to pick up some of Philippe Olivier’s fabulous northern French cheese (maroilles and mimolette extra vieille) and at Le Chat Bleu (47 bis Rue Saint Jean; 011-33-3-21-05-04-86), a terrific 1929 vintage chocolate shop. And for dinner it’s Le Paris (88 rue de Metz; 011-33-3-21-05-79-33) for oysters and sole meunière with delicious locally grown ratte du Touquet potatoes, or a cab ride over to La Grenouillère in Montreuil sur Mer. Here, the young chef Alexandre Gaultier cooks some of the best contemporary food in France; his foie gras with basil and green strawberries, and poached lobster tail served on a bed of smoldering juniper boughs are totally worth the cab fare. Sunday’s all about sea air and idleness before catching the train back to Paris with the refreshing sense of having been somewhere very far away from Saint- Germain-des-Pres.