Fabulous France, done two ways
We sent two writers from Dover to France to discover the joy and freedom of ferry travel. Taking to the open road, they both fell in love with Northern France for very different reasons…
Jonathan McAloon, 29, headed to Calais from Dover, aboard P&O Ferries’ Pride of Canterbury, with his friend, Hector, for an off-grid adventure.
Jonathan McAloon, 29, headed to Calais from Dover, aboard P&O Ferries’ Pride of Canterbury
Calais is often seen as a stopping-off point, and the region around it somewhere to merely pass through. A trip around the Pas-de-Calais countryside with my mate taught me not to listen to received wisdom.
The fun started on the ferry from Dover. You don’t get restless. You’re not cramped. You can wander, shop and enjoy yourself, rather than sit in a tunnel, an airport, or a hot train compartment.
We made a thing of it in the P&O Ferries club lounge, which affords brilliant views of the ship’s motion, calm blue waves coasting by. To the side, sunlight gave advantage to Dover’s white cliffs.
And at just £12 per person online, factoring in a free glass of Champagne, newspaper, snacks, hot and cold drinks and Wi-Fi, it basically pays for itself.
After a sandwich, saving room for French food, we explored and changed our money. So much of being in transit normally involves rushing before, then having time to kill. Here, I could get most of my errands done while already moving, and enjoying myself to boot.
Hector takes in the stunning view at a road-side stop along their journey
By the time we had docked, we already had our car. We were in road-trip mode, ready to take control of our holiday.
Looking for the coast road down the Côte d’Opale, we wound up by chance at a bay alive with kite surfers. The sandy beaches round here are perfect for it.
Making our way to an off-grid gravel road outside Boulogne, we came to Trésors du Puit-du-Sart. Flore and Gauthier Paques, the farm’s second generation, showed us their poultry and the 40 products they make. We tried their delicious foie gras saucisson, laced with pistachios, and left with more.
Flore and Gauthier Paques, the farm’s second generation, showed the pair their poultry and the 40 products they make
The sandy beaches of Côte d’Opale, are perfect for kite surfers
Heading south again, we basked in the sun-drenched beauty of the countryside. The Pas-de-Calais region has a reputation for being heavily industrialised. I certainly didn’t notice.
A northern climate not being ideal for vineyards, the locals have always come up with unique ways around this. East of Montreuil-sur-Mer, I sampled Hubert Delobel’s Perlé de Groseille, a delicious fizz adapted from a family recipe, made from redcurrants, raspberries or cherries.
Refreshing, fruity, and just sweet enough, it’s perfect for the English palate. We stocked up for people at home.
After stopping over in Montreuil-sur-mer, whose ramparts inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, they awoke to a book fair outside
Just over the road we visited La Halte d’Autrefois in time to milk the goats ourselves. Valerie Magniez, who started the farm in 2001 with a single goat to provide milk for her family, brought out a plate of their cheese and apple juice which we ate on a bench in the late evening light.
After stopping over in Montreuil-sur-mer, whose ramparts inspired Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, we awoke to a book fair outside. We had planned to try char à voile, or sand yachting, but when we got to Boulogne we were told the weather was, in fact, too perfect for it! We took a moment on the beach instead, before heading for Calais.
Jonathon and Hector enjoying steak frites and stunning views in the P&O Ferries brasserie
On the ferry back, extremely grateful for the lack of luggage restriction when travelling by ferry, we left the cheese in the boot, safe in the knowledge it wasn’t stinking out our suitcases, and went for a slap-up lunch. Next to the club lounge and away from the bustle, but open to all passengers, the brasserie has dazzling port-side views of the calm sea.
We took a table at a wall-length window and saw off a great weekend with steak frites. Though slightly more expensive than the food court, getting the two-course fixed menu pays for itself, much like the club lounge.
Still, it felt like a well kept secret. As a steward brought our food, he asked if we wanted English or French mustard. Both, we said.
Pearse Lehane, 46, a seasoned traveller, sailed from Dover to Calais aboard P&O Ferries’ Pride of Kent
Pearse Lehane, 46, a seasoned traveller, sailed from Dover to Calais aboard P&O Ferries’ Pride of Kent, in a bid to discover the hidden cultural gems of Northern France.
I’m standing in the doorway of the Musée Vivant in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire. It’s 1pm. A sleepy, unapologetic Frenchman is turning the lights on. You see, there’s no one else inside. Just me, the old man and a cat (possibly also a stray). He unlocks the door to the museum, waves his hand in a vague way – then closes the door behind me. I’m all alone. In a First World War museum. Wow.
I’m absolutely not supposed to be here. But that’s the beauty of being a 40-something Road Tripper.
I missed a left-hand turn to somewhere else, turned right – because, what the hey – and now I’m standing beside a genuine Vickers machine gun. I know it’s a Vickers, because that’s what the handwritten note says it is. This is an absolute gem of a place.
The stunning view on his P&O Ferry crossing meant Pearse didn’t just start the adventure early, he started it in some style
Pearse was delighted to stumble accidentally upon a war museum in Ablain-Saint-Nazair
I also feel foolish. Ablain-Saint-Nazaire really should have been on my itinerary – it should have been the place I was trying to find. But that’s the joy of travelling in your own car, off the clock, off the beaten track, to the beat of your own drum. Whatever you were supposed to find, I guess you find it.
For me, travelling with P&O Ferries from Dover to Calais isn’t just about the 46 sailings per day; or the on-board shop where you can save up to 50 per cent on high-street prices; or the cheeky Starbucks; or the 90-minute crossing; or even the option of priority loading and disembarkation.
No. What I love is the freedom it affords me, to travel the way I want on the roads I find before me.
From March through to November, the volunteer ranks of the local ‘Guards of Honour’ stand in silent vigil for the fallen
I arrive at Dover in good time, and, without even asking, am offered an earlier sailing (when does that ever happen at an airport?). My adventure starts the minute I set foot on board, and, a mere 25 minutes after check-in, I’m sitting on the aft deck with a tall caffè mocha. As the sun beats down on the white cliffs, I’m sorry I didn’t go for a frappuccino #highclassproblem.
We see the French coast within 20 minutes, which I take as my cue to head to the shopping precinct. Because my boot will be doing all the carrying, I go large – ensuring all I have to think about when I hit the motorway is where I want to go, what I want to do. This isn’t just starting the adventure early, it’s starting it in some style.
L’Anneau de la Mémoire is a World War I memorial in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire
Wandering out of the Musée Vivant, I learn that Ablain-Saint-Nazaire is the largest French war cemetery anywhere in the world, and from March through to November, the volunteer ranks of the local ‘Guards of Honour’ stand in silent vigil for the fallen. Every day. This is truly a breathtaking place.
It’s just a short walk to the Anneau de la Mémoire (‘Ring of Remembrance’), a structure designed absolutely in keeping with the environment and spirit of the scene.
The Louvre-Lens is the overflow site for its much grander, much crowdier Parisian namesake
In under an hour I’m parked up outside the Louvre-Lens (is it très British to mention the parking is free?). In a nutshell, the Louvre-Lens is the overflow site for its much grander, much crowdier Parisian namesake.
The main exhibition space is smartly laid out. You arrive at a point 3,500 years in the past and walk forwards in history to the Romantic period. If you were expecting a poor showing from a satellite museum, think again. There’s a Botticelli, a Rembrandt, a Raphael, and a Reynolds (Sir Joshua, if you’re asking). There are also some impressive marbles, one of which serves as a crisp reminder that the internet’s fascination with Kim Kardashian’s posterior is a tale older than time. I take a selfie in a 200-year-old Turkish mirror, #unembarrassable.
I dine at Le Derby Brasserie, a three-minute walk away. There isn’t a menu, just a waitress who says, ‘We have, potchevlech – how do you say, you know, three kinds of meat?’ That’s my kind of haute cuisine. Three kinds of yum.
I drive to Wimereux. A splendid Pinot Noir awaits on the balcony of my room at the Hotel Atlantic. I watch the sun set on a day of random chance, random choices and wonderful outcomes.
Celebrate 180 years of P&O with one of our surprise gifts
Book your Dover-Calais crossing by June 26, 2017 and you’ll receive one of three surprise gifts, from a free Flexi Upgrade allowing you to sail four hours earlier or later than planned on one leg of your journey to a £15 food voucher (great for feasting in the Food Court) or free priority boarding on one leg of your journey.
And with everything from fine dining in the Brasserie to a chance to catch some rays on the Sundeck or the luxury of the club lounge and the Junior Crew Kids’ Club during the summer holidays, you’ll feel as if your holiday has started before it’s begun.
Book before June 26 – poferries.com
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