Photograph by John Kernick
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The White Cliffs of Dover have been memorialized in poetry, song, and film.

Photograph by John Kernick

Now Leaving London: Dover and Calais

From the May 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler

One hour 20 minutes from St. Pancras Station, then 90-minute ferry to Calais, France

With the French ports of Calais and Dunkirk so close to the U.K., you could very easily be sitting over sole meunière for lunch at a Calais bistro, having tucked into bacon and eggs in Blighty (as the Brits call their island home) a couple of hours before. It takes just an hour and a half to cross the 21 miles of English Channel from Dover to Calais, with boats departing approximately once an hour (to Dunkirk takes two hours). Links between these international ports have long been strong, forged by the dramatic events of two world wars—most significantly when, in 1940, a massive flotilla of British warships, pleasure boats, fishing boats, and private yachts evacuated more than 300,000 soldiers from Dunkirk’s beaches.

A new exhibition on the evacuation of Dunkirk opened last year at the secret wartime tunnels at Dover Castle. Dover itself is “steeped in history,” says Jon Iveson, curator of the Dover Museum. The city is home not only to one of the oldest boats in the world, thought to be around 3,550 years old, but also to one of the finest medieval castles in Europe, with the best maintained freestanding Roman lighthouse in the world. “The forts of the Western Heights are also well worth a visit,” says Iveson, “forming some of the most impressive fortifications in Britain.”

The best place to stay in Dover, which lies 76 miles southeast of London, is actually three miles outside the town itself (an easy taxi ride from the train station). The Marquis at Alkham has six sleek guest rooms and an elegant restaurant that recently earned a rising Michelin star. A night at the Marquis offers the chance to experience the best of modern English cooking before nipping across the Channel to see how contemporary French cuisine compares.

Both Dunkirk and Calais still send out working fishing fleets, and French eateries such as Au Côte d’Argent in Calais and Restaurant L’Estouffade in Dunkirk serve a range of classic seafood dishes that change according to what the boats bring in each morning, from langoustines to haddock.

But lunch doesn’t have to be a formal affair: When the weather is warm, stock up on pâté, olives, and smoked salmon from Dunkirk’s Comtesse du Barry and gâteaux from Aux Doigts de Jean Bart patisserie, and picnic on the wide golden sands of Malo-les-Bains, the town’s 4.3-mile stretch of beach. Operation Dynamo War Museum gives further insight into the wartime events that lifted this northern French town onto the world stage.

In Calais, don’t miss the original “Burghers of Calais,” a famed sculpture by Auguste Rodin located outside the Town Hall, itself a masterpiece of Flemish architecture (in medieval times, Calais and Dunkirk were part of Flanders). On Saturday mornings on the Place d’Armes, the air is thick with shouts of market stallholders and tempting smells: great slabs of Brie, hot waffles sizzling on open griddles, roasting coffee. Before boarding the ferry back to Dover, browse main shopping street Rue Royale’s fromageries (cheese shops) and wine and chocolate shops for an edible souvenir.