At the beginning of last week I went on a little expedition and did something I haven’t done since I was 17: j’ai voyagé en France en ferry (I travelled to France by ferry)!
The last time I crossed over the English Channel was with my parents on a holiday to Brittany in 1989 (I’m the youngest of four so it was their last holiday with one of their children before we were ALL grown up enough to go on our own holidays) and it did seem like a lifetime ago. So when I was contacted by P&O Ferries and offered the chance to visit Calais on a day trip via ferry from Dover I was curious as to what it’d be like as an adult. It’s amazing how you take the organising of trips for granted as a kid (or even a young adult as I was then) because I remember NOTHING about having to be at a certain place at a certain time, remembering tickets, passports or anything…!
As Keith was unavailable (i.e. couldn’t get time off work at this time of year) I asked my two lovely friends Lisa and Michelle if they wanted to come and spend the day with me, checking out what Calais had to offer and to see what the trip over would be like. Unfortunately Michelle got a chest infection at the eleventh hour (poor thing!) so it was up to Lisa and I to get the Christmas spirit kicked off with a day in the French port after catching the ferry from Dover.
So how did the trip go, what did we do, and what can I recommend? Let’s start with the ferry trip…
The P&O Ferries experience
Going at the very end of November meant that the ferry was extremely quiet – I’m sure it’s not like that in the height of summer but it was nice to seemingly have the ferry to ourselves! It meant we didn’t really have any queuing to do anywhere so we sailed through passport control [pun intended]. As I didn’t have the car (Keith wanted to drive the 18 miles to his work rather than walk it, how selfish can you get? 😏) we went as foot passengers.
THE LOVELY FEMALE MEMBER OF STAFF SHOWED US EXACTLY WHERE TO GO AND THEN PROMPTLY ARRANGED FOR US TO HAVE A FREE BREAKFAST
The first thing I must do is praise the P&O Ferries staff for being absolutely wonderful. Every member of staff we came into contact with was friendly, polite and incredibly helpful. In fact we shared a cab with a couple of P&O employees from Dover train station to the terminal and I insisted on paying as they got the cab first. They didn’t know I was reviewing the experience for a blog, but when we arrived the lovely female employee showed us exactly where to go and then promptly arranged for us to have a free breakfast as a thank you.
How nice was that…?
We did actually sail out on a morning with gale force 8 winds, so unfortunately the trip over was pretty choppy. I’m not affected too badly by it, but Lisa isn’t so happy about the motion of a ferry so only I had the breakfast. It was a good, hearty English breakfast, but my only criticism was that the one tea they had on offer was standard Tetley – very few establishments these days don’t offer you at least green tea, peppermint or fruit teas. (I don’t drink tea with milk and am not a fan of black tea.) Some herbal options please, P&O!
Duty free shopping – heaven for beauty junkies
This is the part where I was actually salivating. You know when you shop online and manage to get a discount code for makeup and beauty products? Well, the duty-free onboard a P&O ferry is pretty amazing, especially where beauty is concerned. Just check out some of the brands that were available tax free (20% off RRP):
Smashbox, Chanel, Dior, Estee Lauder, Benefit, OPI, Bare Minerals, Givenchy, Soap & Glory, Clarins, Clinique… the list goes on. Plus ALL the perfumes you can think of.
Therefore if you’re a beauty junkie and you want to stock up, knowing that everything is discounted, THIS is the way to do it. It’s quite literally beauty junkie heaven.
Like the P&O staff I mentioned before, the staff in the duty-free section were out-of-their-way helpful. Lisa was after a specific lipstick in a true orange and couldn’t find one, but the assistant knew where to find one and Lisa came away really happy with a tangerine-coloured lippie and several other bits and pieces as well. I stocked up on a few essentials like my Bare Minerals Mineral Veil and Touche Eclat which I’d run out of, as well as getting a couple of gift sets for Christmas presents.
(I’m not going to list them here as the relevant people may be reading this!)
I honestly could have gone absolutely mad – when you know everything is duty free it’s hard to resist the temptation to throw EVERYTHING into your basket. My advice? Make a list of what you’re after before you go. Think of all the products you use regularly, and of all the products your friends and family use so you know what to get them in duty free. Everyone likes receiving their favourite perfume or aftershave as a gift, don’t they…?
Eating out and things to do in Calais
I’d already looked up where I wanted to eat lunch online, so it was off to the Café de Paris after grabbing a cab at the ferry terminal.
Our choices were somewhat limited for places that were open – several restaurants were closed on a Monday (more on that in a bit) and then many places close every day at 2:30pm, so you have to plan ahead a little and make sure you don’t lose track of time and find yourself hungry at 3pm with nowhere to go.
Café de Paris was lovely – it had a nice atmosphere and pretty chandeliers (see above) – but the waitress didn’t attempt to speak English to us and the menu was all in French so be warned if your French is lacking! Luckily my French is passable and Lisa’s husband is French and they regularly go to Paris, so we were fine.
As with most restaurants in France, the food was delicious. I had escargots as a starter (you know, when in Rome…) and a huge, beautifully presented salad which totally defeated me – I NEVER leave food, that’s how huge it was.
Then it was onto looking round Calais:
As we went on a Monday we soon discovered to our misfortune that Monday seems to be a “everything’s closed” day which we didn’t know – more than half of the shops we would have gone into were shut, which was such a shame. Luckily the weather held out (despite pouring rain predicted) and we went and saw Calais’s beautiful town hall and the well-known sculpture The Burghers of Calais by Auguste Rodin.
We did visit a few pâtisseries that were open which were filled with Christmassy delights – I bought as much as I could carry, though unfortunately I couldn’t think of a practical way to get that “St Catherine” tarte home with me…!
Duty free shopping – gifts and drink
On the return ferry we checked out the duty free again, this time with serious shopping in mind (obviously you don’t want to be carrying bags with you all day if you’re a foot passenger, so getting most of your purchases on the way back makes more sense).
This ferry – the Spirit of France – was a newer ferry so the duty free was even bigger again than the Pride of Burgundy on the way out. There are so many brands and products which would be perfect for Christmas shopping:
Designer sunglasses, Jellycat soft toys, wine and spirits, Christmas chocolate (Toblerones, etc.), foodie gifts, Radley handbags, Cath Kidston products, all the beauty products I mentioned earlier and much more besides.
I stocked up on things I could physically carry for Christmas gifts (and I might have treated myself to one or two small things!), though alcohol was a problem because it’s so heavy. If I could have carried them I would have bought a bottle of Baileys, a gin and a whiskey which always go down well at Christmas. The duty free prices mean that you can stock up the drinks cupboard for Christmas at a hugely discounted price which is SUCH a good idea if you enjoy a little tipple during the festive season.
My Dover to Calais recommendations and tips
So Lisa and I had a lovely day, despite the grey weather and the lack of shops being open. However, if I were to do the trip again I wouldn’t go as a foot passenger, I’d go by car for a few reasons:
- You can take advantage of the duty free on the ferry without worrying about how to carry it home.
- You can drive to one of the shopping centres just out of town to stock up on cheese and wine for Christmas.
- Ferry tickets can be really, really cheap – prices vary depending on when you go and whether you need the ticket to be flexible, but we went on a weekday and return tickets were about £50 for the two of us. However, if you take the car, prices start at just £39.50*. You will have made your money back by the time you’ve bought two Toblerones, a bottle of whiskey and some Smashbox primer.
*There is an even better offer on at the moment with P&O Ferries – see below…
I did a little research online for places to go if you’ve gone by car – these are the recommended places to go:
- Cité Europe – in the village of Coquelles just 15 minutes drive from the ferry terminal, it has 147 retail outlets, 20 restaurants in the Cité Gourmande area and parking for over 4,000 cars.
- Auchan Hypermarket – also in Coquelles, you can get wines and beers and everything you need for Christmas lunch with savings of up to 20%. The complex it’s situated in has three restaurants, clothes and shoe shops and a Belgian chocolate shop.
- Calais Vins – the place to go for wine where you can taste everything before you buy, plus they now produce their own range of beer and sell cheese too. Just on the edge of the town centre.
- Inter Caves – this French wine chain in the town centre specialises in bag-in-the-box wines which are perfect for parties and don’t lose their quality for up to a month after opening.
- Calais Christmas market – with up to 80 chalets, Forum Gambetta in the town centre will be a winter (shopping) wonderland on Wednesday 13th December. Free entry.
There is a fantastic offer at the moment with P&O Ferries if you book before 10th December and travel by 17th December 2017: Foot passenger tickets are only £10 per person and a car is just £35 (with up to nine passengers). See here for details of how to book.
The question is: Is Calais a worthwhile sightseeing destination? I’d say no, but the Brits have certainly got it right by looking upon Calais as THE place for discount shopping. If you plan ahead, make a list and take the car you’ll have found the perfect, most convenient way to get a huge bulk of your Christmas gifts and Christmas supplies shopping done in one day. If you go when the Christmas market is on it will make all the difference.
So I may not have done a “booze cruise” as it’s fondly referred to, but I’d definitely recommend a “beauty cruise” and a “cheese and wine cruise”. At the prices that P&O offer you could easily blitz Christmas in one day at the fraction of the price it costs to buy it all at home.
WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ON USING FERRY TRIPS FOR CHRISTMAS SHOPPING? COMMENT BELOW, OR TAKE IT TO TWITTER @NOTLAMB!
Disclosure: This post was sponsored by P&O Ferries (click here for my full disclosure). All content is original, however, and opinions are my own and 100% honest.