The English and French have always been contriving ways of getting at each other sooner, even going so far as proposing a channel tunnel as early as 1804. The current quickest invasion route is Ashford International Station to Calais in France at a mind-boggling 31 minutes. In literally less time than it takes to board the ferry in Dover, you can have crossed the channel or, more precisely, crossed under the channel in the comfort of a high-speed train.
And frankly if you’re travelling in the dark under 50 km of open sea you might just as well get it over with as rapidly as possible. It’s at best a little dull and your phone won’t work.
If, on the other hand, you’re of a mind to treat the journey as part of your trip, you might consider at least once not taking the fastest route possible and dedicating just one part of one leg of your voyage to the sea.
P&O Ferries operates between Dover and Calais and destinations in Belgium and offers an appreciably different experience to the inimitable Eurostar. For one thing, it might actually be more efficient if, for instance, you’re selling your car in Dover or popping over to France to fill your trunk with low-tax cigarettes and wine. But it’s also a proper throwback experience — it’s an actual boat on the sea and it’s susceptible to waves and fog and the rain and it feels like actual travel in a way that a high-speed drawing room in a tunnel simply never can. And your phone works — at least mine stayed on an English carrier until about twenty minutes out of Calais when it switched seamlessly to a French network.
To the pedestrian passenger — or the driver who leaves his car during the voyage — the ferries are more like junior cruise ships then they are vehicle transports. There’s an expansive view to be had foreship in the pub that wraps itself entirely around the view of flat France as you depart or, much more inspiringly beautiful, the famous white cliffs as you arrive. Or you can pass part of the short 90 minute voyage on the observation deck, complete with telescopes, in the aft. I recommend this very much because you’re outside with the elements and the smell of the sea and sound of the gulls and it’s magic.
Making the trip from, say, London, means getting first to Dover and I recommend arriving early and seeing a bit of this charming little seaside town, particularly the monstrous 12th century Dover Castle and its stunning views. A Dover pedestrian departure is surprisingly uncomplicated — Dover Priory train station is within the town and a delightful walk from the ferry docks. From the terminal you’re taken by bus to the gangplank and board the ship the way people have been boarding ships for hundreds of years. By car it’s even easier if considerably less romantic.
The best that can be said about the Calais side, if you’re not going there specifically for cheap tipple, is that it’s easy to leave. That’s slightly less true if you’re on foot from the ferry docks but there’s a handy bus to Calais train station. In fact the train station is technically within walking distance but the walk is anything but charming characterised largely by hideous corrugated tin depots. In any case the approach to the ferry terminal is very distinctly designed for automotive traffic and walking to or from it would be like walking to or from an airport.
Remember that the crossing is only 90 minutes and make a point of taking in as much sea air and scenery as you can. There’s no perspective of Dover’s moving white cliffs like that which you get from the sea and while there are obviously quicker and more convenient crossings there’s no experience exactly like a channel crossing.
You can and should book your crossing a bit in advance at www.poferries.com but these aren’t flights — you can book as late the day before departure and a one-way crossing for a pedestrian is around €30. If you don’t book in advance you can buy your tickets right at the terminal — it’s not like they’re going to run out of space — but it’ll cost you about €100.