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New facilities in Northern France


National Sea Experience Centre to net more corporate business
(Roger St Pierre reports)

The bustling Channel town of Boulogne sur Mer is France’s premier fishing port. It is therefore an obvious location for Nausicaá – the superb French National Sea Experience Centre. As much as 330,000 tonnes of fish and seafood are processed in the town’s port for the table each year. Meanwhile, the 5.4m litres of water that fill Nausicaá’s 45 aquariums and terrariums provide a safe haven for more than 36,000 sea creatures.

It all makes for a venue with a difference and within easy reach of the UK, thanks to the Channel Tunnel and the high-speed ferries operated by P&O Ferries and its rivals DFDS and MyFerryLink into nearby Calais. In fact, as P&O’s Brian Rees is quick to point out: ‘For corporate groups, business meetings and activities can be commenced as soon as our vessels set sail as they are now fitted out with comfortable, roomy, well-equipped private meeting spaces that can be set up for banquets, cocktail parties, seminars or conferences.’

Nausicaá is actively pursuing the corporate market and is geared up accordingly: ‘Our guided group tours are great ice-breakers while we have a range of both formal and informal areas that can be sectioned off for privacy,’ says Claire Dessaint, who showed me round the impressive seafront building. It was on a day when the facility was coping admirably with a potentially difficult mix of pre-teen schoolchildren and mature business people.

French National Sea Experience Centre
Latest addition to a huge array of attractions is a spacious one-million-litre pool that has been purpose-built for six lithe Californian sea lions. Nausicaá visitors can admire these intelligent creatures up-close thanks to an underwater glass tunnel.

For this much hunted and now endangered species, the waters around the nearby Channel Islands have been given protected national park status.

A 2,300sqkm marine crossroads at the confluence of two seas fed by seven rivers, the Picard Estuaries and Opal Coast Natural Marine Park, is home to 200 animal and plant species, 69 species of sea birds, 16 species of marine animals and 90 species of fish.

But Nausicaá also showcases a host of more exotic creatures, gathered globally, from the warmest tropical waters to the cold Arctic and Antarctic wastes, making this a sea life centre well worth a visit.

Boulogne’s close proximity to the British coast ensures a huge influx of visitors to the attraction from across the Channel – families, school groups, corporate groups and individuals. Appropriately, the signage, audio guides and information panels are in English as well as French and there are English-speaking guides and attendants.

In the 21 years since the venue opened it doors, in 1991, it has welcomed some 1.3m visitors. One in eight have come from the UK.

Claimed to be the only discovery centre of its kind, Nausicaá presents the marine environment in a manner that focuses on the relationship between mankind and the sea. It manages to be scientific, educational and good fun at the same time.

There’s a year-round calendar of special events, including April’s Festival of Sea Imagery, June’s World Oceans Day, and the temporary ‘Islands Stories’ exhibition, which runs to the end of 2014.

And a mini-Louvre at Lens
Groups can also, depending on the time available to them, take in another exciting venue on the same visit. I was keen to drive inland to visit the magnificent new – free admission – outpost of the Louvre in the old coalmining town of Lens. A vast Japanese-designed building housing a huge selection of mainly sculptural works, this wonderful new facility is part of the French government’s ongoing programme to decentralise the nation’s major cultural institutions.

While maintaining strong links with the Louvre in Paris, this state-of-the-art new museum has largely been funded by the Nord/Pas de Calais local government and is already drawing large crowds as well as securing bookings for its spacious, superbly lit special events spaces.

‘This project has brought new life to the region,’ says Nord/Pas de Calais president Daniel Percheron. ‘Our last mine closed in 1986. France abandoned us and Lens became a ghost town but now we’ve been re-born.’

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