Why Dunkirk isn’t just for history buffs – with beautiful beaches and cheap duty-free wine a short ferry ride away
THE Dunkirk spirit describes the bravery shown during one of the most significant operations of the Second World War.
But today, this phrase is taking on a new meaning.
On Dunkirk’s seafront, pointing towards the Channel sits a war memorial, built to commemorate Operation Dynamo, where more than 300,000 Allied soldiers were rescued from the French coastal town to escape advancing German forces.
The heroic event in 1940, saw thousands of military and civilian boats sail to this very beach to save the fighters, as portrayed in the 2017 film, Dunkirk.
But you only have to look away from the memorial to see how the Dunkirk spirit has transformed.
The Malo-les-Bains neighbourhood — once filled with solders hiding in sand dunes, trying to avoid the Luftwaffe — has now become a bustling beach resort.
The 2.5-mile sandy stretch is crammed with art deco and baroque buildings, ice cream shops and restaurants.
Radisson Blu is even opening a 110-room hotel there in October.
We could easily have been on Poole’s posh Sandbanks as we strolled along the immaculate promenade.
The absurdly peaceful scenes are wildly different to those of 80-odd years ago.
Limits on vehicles mean the only noises heard are crashing waves and laughter, along with the clink of crockery as diners devour Flemish and French grub on the seafront.
On top of the laidback atmosphere, there are colourful beach huts, volleyball courts, mini golf and water activities, including Dunkirk’s own pastime longe côte, which involves wading through the sea in a line at armpit level.
I managed to dip in as far as the North Sea water felt warm for a June evening.
There is more to see inland, including a zoo and parks, too.
We toured the 100-year-old Goudale brewery in nearby Saint-Omer, which produces traditional and flavoured beers, including a powerful 16 per cent-strength version.
Unfortunately it wasn’t available for tasting, but you’ll get to sample others as well as learn how the beers are made.
What really makes Dunkirk stand out from any ordinary beach city, though, is the blend of cultures and its extraordinary history.
The Port Museum highlights the region’s shipbuilding heritage and role as a trading point.
There is also a Contemporary Art and Action Museum, featuring more than 1,500 artworks including paintings, photos and sculptures.
And, of course, you can learn more about Operation Dynamo and take a closer look at war artefacts at the Dunkirk 1940 Museum.
For those keen to drink in the views, enjoy a posh meal, tea or a cocktail on the Princess Elizabeth, a 1927 paddle steamer which took part in Operation Dynamo.
The ship’s roof deck offers a great view of the city and sea.
Inside, in the main restaurant, you can tuck into caviar or roasted duck breast from a 1940s-themed set menu.
And all this is just a two-hour car ferry from Dover, so perfect for a day trip or longer — though book an early sailing to avoid port queues.
We travelled with ferry company DFDS, which has a phone-free relax lounge (from an extra £6pp each way), with first-class-style reclining seats to watch the sea from.
Or there’s the premium area, which is worth shelling out for – there we sipped Prosecco and gorged on French macarons as we watched the White Cliffs disappear into the distance.
And, best of all, if you travel by ferry you can fill your car boot with duty-free wine and beer to take home.
The new Dunkirk spirit is certainly worth raising a glass to.
GETTING THERE: DFDS offers up to 24 daily two-hour sailings from Dover to Dunkirk from £68 each way for a car and four people.
STAYING THERE: The Ibis Dunkerque Centre hotel is located in the city centre, close to the beaches of Operation Dynamo.
Prices start at £83 per night, based on two people sharing a standard room. See ibis.accor.com.
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