Experience the life aquatic at Boulogne-sur-Mer

The 13th century castle Château de Boulogne-sur-Mer, was built in the eastern corner of the city’s medieval walls.

The charming town of Boulogne-sur-Mer has much to offer, but it’s the spectacular French National Sea Centre that makes it a must-see, writes Barry Coughlan.

Over the years I skipped past it, perhaps came close to it, en-route from the ferry port to the delights of western France further south, but until late last year I hadn’t heard of the Opal Coast.

France does have a habit of throwing up great destinations to entice a new brood of visitors, and having finally found my way there after a circuitous route from Cork to Luton, and then by Eurostar from London St Pancras to Calais and onwards a bit, it wasn’t much of a shock to find another wonderful piece of French landscape.

The area of Pas-de-Calais, of which Boulogne-sur-Mer and the Opal Coast is part, is so close to Britain that it actually shares a nominal border with the English county of Kent halfway through the Channel Tunnel. For how long, of course, is up in the air rather than underground as the Brexiteers plough their furrow.

I spent four days there in mid-November, not a time when one would expect to be able to enjoy walks on the beach or venture out in a t-shirt. But it was a time of pretty fair weather and the winter sunshine was bright and tantalisingly warm enough to imagine what it might be like in the height of summer.

Boulogne-sur-Mer is a major fishing port in France, the type that sadly appears to be disappearing rapidly in Ireland. For instance, fishermen still land their catch locally and there is a vibrant fish market on the quayside near where they actually land. For a few hours every morning, restauranteurs and locals line up to buy the catch from any one of a number of stalls.

Performing sea lions are a flagship attraction at Nausicaá.
Performing sea lions are a flagship attraction at Nausicaá.

But if Boulogne’s fame is with the fishing industry, as well as a really decent beach to attract tourists, it is the development of Nausicca, the French National Sea Centre, that has pushed it into becoming a very important part of France’s tourism industry. Figures suggest this hugely influential venture attracts over 600,000 visitors per annum. The goal is to increase this to over one million in a short few years, and the product is so good that there’s no reason why it cannot achieve what the marketing people are hoping for.

See, it’s not just an aquarium, as such; it’s a centre for the discovery of a marine environment, a facility that focuses on the relationship between mankind and the sea.

Yes, there are giant fish tanks and some giant fish within, there are some tiny fish as well, coral and all related marine things to allow the public to imagine a life underwater, but everything supports the centre’s main goal of raising public awareness and the need for better management of our oceans and resources within.

The man behind the venture, Guy Lengagne, was regarded as a genius, and his legacy is that over 16 million people, one third from outside France, have already visited, making Nausicaá the most popular tourist attraction north of Paris after the Parc Asterix.

While Boulogne-Sur-Mer is France’s biggest fishing port and has Europe’s largest seafood processing centre, people are flocking to the massive aquarium, which is much more than just an exhibition of sea life for the amusement of visitors.

The performing sea lions, an endangered species, may well be a flagship attraction on the one hand but Nausicaá is one of the few centres which run educational activities involving the animal’s wellbeing and physical and mental development.

Much of what happens in the centre is about education. Nausicaá participates in many research programmes and activities to include breeding for different aquariums — for African penguins, bluespotted ribbontail rays, guitarfish and many more species. It operates a ‘Mr Goodfish Programme’ to raise public awareness of sustainable seafood consumption and is hugely proactive in educating young people about the need to clean up our seas from pollution.

Nausiccá will take up a day of your time, but it would absolutely be worth staying in the Opal Coast area longer. I spent my nights in a couple of surrounding towns rather than in Boulogne, and my early anxiety of being stuck in the middle of nowhere was unfounded, given that nightlife is no longer a major priority.

I stayed two nights in the beautifully appointed small Hotel des Arts in Wimereux, a village of less than 7,000 people a few kilometres north of Boulogne. Wimereux has become a residential suburb of Boulogne and also attracts Britons and Belgians who come to buy holiday homes or settle permanently. Dinner was at the elegantly appointed L’Aloze restaurant overlooking the seafront and it was full on a Monday night in November, which was indicative that it lives up to a lofty reputation as one of the best family-run restaurants on the coast.

I moved on to the larger town of Le Touquet, where French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigette have a country residence right in the centre of a busy street. Although it has a smaller population than Wimeroux, Le Touquet has a more vibrant nightlife with a couple of busy clubs that attracts out-of-towners and it is also home to a casino. It’s further known for its wide beach, one of many on the Opal Coast, a water sports hub, and attractions which include the Phare Le Touquet red-brick lighthouse with far-reaching views of the sea and countryside, as well as a museum that displays modern and contemporary art, alongside works by regional artists.

Golf enthusiasts have many options to enjoy a round that won’t break the bank, including those with courses of character and reputation in Hardelot, known as Les Dunes and Les Pins.

But there is so much more in this area of sun, sea and spectacular sandy beaches, including a huge range of family activities, making this a worthy addition to the list of delightful French travel destinations.

Highlights

What to see: NAUSICAÁ, French National Sea Centre Boulevard Sainte Beuve BP 189 62200 Boulogne-sur-Mer FRANCE www.nausicaa.co.uk Entry prices: Full price (over 12 years of age): €25.90. Full price (3-12 years of age): €19.50.

Bars and refreshments: NAUSICAA has three areas to eat: the Beachside Bistro, the Tropical Lagoon Village Bar and a self-service restaurant with beach and sea view (from July 2018).

How to get to there: Fly to Luton, transfer to Eurostar from London St Pancras to Calais Fréthun, then local train to Boulogne-sur-Mer. Or, fly to Paris or Brussels. Then travel by train or car to Boulogne-sur-Mer.

Where to Stay: Many good hotels in Boulogne-sur-Mer, but recommended are the Hotel des Arts in Wimereux (from €120 for double room) and the Bristol Hotel in Le Touquet (from €140 for double room).

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