Channel hopping: The complete guide to Channel hopping

The British are notoriously bad at making the most of the Continent on their doorstep. We may like swimming the Channel for kicks, or nipping over for a few trunkfuls of Customs-beating booze'n'fags, but we tend to ignore the rest of the riches on the other side of those few miles of choppy grey water. Still, with more ways than ever of going European, the time is right to take the plunge... By Brian Harris

WHEN DID CHANNEL CROSSINGS COME WITHIN THE REACH OF BRITISH TRAVELLERS?

The forerunner of P&O Stena was Townsend Bros Shipping Ltd, which saw that it was possible to undercut Southern Railways fares across the Channel by 50 per cent and duly started a service in 1928 with return car fares of pounds 3 15s.

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO CROSS THE CHANNEL THESE DAYS?

That all depends on where, how and for how long you want to go. For most of the day, Eurotunnel (0990 353535) runs four trains per hour and usually charges pounds 125 return to take you and your car between Folkestone and Calais in 35 minutes. Between now and Christmas, however, it is offering promotional day-trip fares (booked in advance) of between pounds 29 (if you leave after 6pm and return before 6am the next day) and pounds 59 (if you leave anytime between 7am and 2pm and return before midnight). Be warned though that the return times are not flexible. Also make sure that you don't pay the pounds 5 insurance supplement unless you want it.

Crossing by ship is by far the most romantic way to travel. If you want to travel by ferry, you'll have to pay a bit more these days than in 1928, but stiff competition means that there are some good fares around. Here are some of the most popular routes. Make sure you ask the reservation clerk for the best available fare - an hour's difference in sailing time might save you pounds 30 or pounds 40, the price of a decent prix fixe lunch when you arrive - and bear in mind that these are the current sailings: there are often more (but sometimes less) services at different times of year. P&O Stena Line (reservations 0870 600 0600, information 0870 600 0611) runs between Dover and Calais 35 times a day. The standard return price is pounds 155, but current rates for a car and up to five passengers are from pounds 35 for 12 hours, pounds 59 for 24 hours and pounds 135 for five days. Prices are all subject to availability and carry restrictions.

Sea France (0870 571 1711) also runs 15 services a day between Dover and Calais, and costs from pounds 49 for a car and up to four people if you can book in advance.

Between Portsmouth and Cherbourg or Le Havre, P&O Portsmouth Ferries is the operator you need to contact (0870 242 4999). From 3 December there will be three sailings a day to each of those destinations. Return fares for a car, two adults and two children cost from around pounds 54 for a day return or pounds 90 for a five-day return (more for a night sailing because you will need a cabin).

If you're travelling to the west of France, Brittany Ferries (0870 536 0360) runs three services a day between Portsmouth and Caen, one a day from Poole to Cherbourg, six per week between Portsmouth and St Malo and, currently, one a week between Plymouth and Roscoff. Two adults and two children in a standard car could normally expect to pay from around pounds 120 for a standard return (more on overnight sailings) but a current promotion is pounds 19.95 per person and pounds 19.95 per car (for a 24-hour return).

To travel to Belgium, you can either sail to Calais and drive across the border or go with P&O North Sea Ferries (01482 377177), which operates daily services between Hull and Rotterdam and Hull and Zeebrugge. Two adults and two children with a car and a cabin would pay from pounds 276, for any length of trip.

Finally, there's also Hoverspeed (0870 524 0241) which currently runs three - fast (35 minutes) but bumpy when the weather's rough - services a day from Dover to Ostend. There are also 10 services daily from Dover to Calais, four services daily from Folkestone to Boulogne and one service a day (on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays only) from Newhaven to Dieppe.

As a rough guide, a family of four, taking a car and staying on the Continent for a few days, could currently expect to pay around pounds 135 from Dover to Calais, pounds 125 from Folkestone to Boulogne, pounds 145 from Dover to Ostend and pounds 144 from Newhaven to Dieppe.

BUT I WANT TO TRAVEL IN STYLE

Book a flight on Love Air (01279 680144) from Biggin Hill to Le Touquet (pounds 150 per person), or take one of the company's overnight packages to the Chateau Montreuil (including flights, B&B accommodation, a bottle of champagne on arrival and a seven-course dinner for pounds 290 per person). Sadly, you will have to wait a while for this - flights only operate between April and October.

Alternatively, travel by Eurostar (0870 518 6186) from Waterloo or Ashford to Lille or Frethun (about 12km from Calais). A standard day return would normally cost you pounds 210 but between now and 12 December, you can buy a day return on Saturdays and Sundays for pounds 39 and from 13 December to 16 January, on any day of the week.

If you really want to travel in style get there early to avoid the chaos. Even better, upgrade to the tranquillity of P&O Club Class (pounds 7 per person each way) and enjoy a glass of champagne, free coffee and newspapers.

THAT SOUNDS EXPENSIVE

Try swimming then. It's cold and wet and it takes a lot longer than the ferry but, if you really want to, contact the Channel Swimming Association Ltd (01303 814788). The Association organises cross-Channel swimming attempts (of which there are about 50 solo and 20 relay attempts each year) and gives advice on regulations, medicals and training. If you're still determined, start saving now. A solo attempt will cost about pounds 1,800 - including the necessary escort boat.

WILL I BE OK TO DRIVE?

Driving in France is faster than in the UK and the autoroute out of Calais is, in my mind, very confusing. Autoroutes are also expensive but, to get from A to B quickly, they can't be beaten. If in doubt take a break at one of the autoroute cafes or stretch out at one of the many super lay-bys - they have real grass and, often, children's play equipment for them to let off steam.

Get your driving lights adjusted, and carry spare bulbs and a couple of warning triangles. And if you have an "unusual" car like a Saab of mine a few years ago, check ahead to make sure spares are readily available.

SO, WHERE SHOULD I START?

Avoid the motorway and take the D940 coast road from Bleriot Plage, a kilometre west of Calais - the place where Louis Bleriot took off to become the first person to fly across the Channel in 1909 - to Boulogne. On the way you'll pass through Sangatte where the Channel tunnel works was based and where refugees from the Balkans now live in a Red Cross camp.

The road follows the Cote d'Opale and beaches that are impressively white and wide. In Wissant, fishermen drag their boats home with them and Cap Blanc-Nez soars majestically above the marshland below, peppered with bomb craters and blockhouses. Stop off to explore the area on foot - paying attention to the cliff edge - and enjoy the view across to Dover's white cliffs, along the coast to Calais and south across the Bay of Wissant to Cap Gris-Nez, the closest point to home. If you need to sleep over before an early-morning ferry, almost every small village along the coast has a good choice of places to stay.

ACTUALLY, I'VE JUST COME FOR THE BOOZE

The price of booze on the ferries is fluid. Last weekend a litre of Bell's was pounds 11.99, a litre of Gordon's pounds 10.99 and 24 cans of Grolsch pounds 9.99. These are a third or more less than UK prices and, although cigarettes have gone up by about 25 per cent since the abolition of duty free, you still pay just pounds 21 for 200.

The savings don't stop there. Once you're across the Channel, supermarkets such as Auchan (on the N42 just out of Boulogne) and those at the mammoth mall, Cite d'Europe (next to the tunnel), are packed with cheap (and often vile) wine - as are the giant wine warehouses.

Alternatively, head to Le Chateau de Cocove (off the A26 south of junction 2), a beautiful chateau hotel (00 33 321 82 68 29) which has an excellent restaurant and a fine cellar. You can either buy some of what you had with lunch or dinner or discuss alternative requirements. This is wine- buying in style, yet you probably won't pay more than 45F (about pounds 4.50) a bottle.

HOW MUCH CAN I BRING BACK?

The answer to this question largely depends on your ability to argue and convince HM Customs that it is for your personal use (how many weddings or 21st birthdays can you feel comfortable with?).

If you need more sensible advice, the guidance levels issued by HM customs are: 800 cigarettes, 200 cigars, 10 litres of spirits, 90 litres of wine, 20 litres of sherry or port and 110 litres of beer (per person). Try putting that lot in your Ford Ka.

SURELY THERE'S MORE TO LIFE THAN DRINK

You're absolutely right. The area around Calais has a great deal of history and the result is that there are lots of places to occupy visitors. From the battlefields of Agincourt and Crecy (where Edward III's archers defeated the French during the Hundred Years' war) and the Camp du Drap D'or (where Henry VIII and Francois I tried to outdo each other with ostentatious displays of wealth) to Hitler's Atlantic wall (built using tens of thousands of slave labourers during the Second World War), there are all manner of worthwhile detours.

On every visitor's itinerary should be the Blockhaus at Eperlecques (00 33 321 88 44 22, currently open every afternoon from 2.15pm to 6pm). Here you will find the most terrifying vision of what might have been. This is where Hitler intended to launch V2 rockets with one ton warheads (at over 5400km per hour) on London and other parts of the UK.

Fortunately for us, the RAF and the USAAF dropped everything they could lay their hands on (including Barnes Wallis's "Tallboy") on the site and production stopped there in late 1943. Prepare to be moved - even the construction's blasted concrete seems to weep.

Back in Calais (outside the Town Hall) stands Rodin's memorial to the "Bourgeois de Calais," six people who offered their lives to spare the town and its remaining citizens during Edward III's 1347 siege. The townspeople were eventually evicted and Calais remained English until 1558 - although by the amount of English words advertising cheap booze it would appear that we are back with a vengeance.

Opposite the statue is the quiet of the Saint Pierre park and yet another German blockhouse, this time turned into the magnificent War Museum (00 33 321 34 21 57). Inside you will find the usual detritus - bits of Spitfire engines, displays of uniforms and weaponry - but also one of the most explicit photographic depictions of the camps and the destruction of Calais in 1914-18. Look out for the prisoners' tobacco juice paintings and the commemoration to the Jean de Vienne resistance network (named after the town's governor during English occupation in the 14th century).

For further information contact the tourist information office in Calais (00 33 321 96 62 40).

AND BEYOND CALAIS?

Flanders is a good place for cross-Channel excursions. For information on Ypres (Ieper) and the battlefields of the first war, contact the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Maidenhead (01628 634221). It can also supply overprinted maps showing the hundreds of cemeteries in both France and Belgium (pounds 3 each).

While you're in Ypres, visit the rebuilt Cloth Hall and its new interactive In Flanders Fields Museum (00 32 57 22 85 84 or: www.inflanders fields.be).

If the war doesn't hold your interest, take a tour of the Flemish cities instead. You could do worse than start with Bruges. A day-trip to this picturesque city doesn't really do it justice but, for a brief overview, at least spare the time to climb the belfry in the old marketplace - and peer out across the medieval skyline - and to try some of the 400 locally brewed beers. For museums, try Ghent and for art, go to Antwerp.

If food is higher on your agenda, stay at the coast and try out the excellent seafood restaurants near Ostend's quayside.

For further information on this part of Belgium and details of Christmas markets, contact Flanders Tourism on 0171-867 0311.

I JUST WANNA HAVE FUN

If you prefer to watch fish rather than eat them, you can visit one of the best Sea Life centres in the world at Nausicaa in Boulogne. Open all year from 9.30am to 6.30pm, it costs 65F (pounds 6.50) for adults and 45F (pounds 4.50) for children (00 33 321 30 9999).

Even if you have already been, go again - it's now twice as big as it was in 1998 and there's a very good bar which looks down over a tropical lagoon. As you walk through a glass tunnel, sharks swim around you, seals and sea lions swim above and below you, and lobsters peer at you haughtily through glass domes, as if to say "don't even think about it, pal". I've now been four times and would happily go again.

In fact, it's worth a trip to France just to spend the day here and stop for a lunch break at one of the restaurants up in the old town - or at one of Boulogne's cheese shops. Fairs and food festivals often take place in and around Boulogne and, at this time of year, Christmas markets, so make sure you contact the local tourist office (00 33 321 31 68 38) before you go to find out what's on.

WHAT ABOUT THE BEACH?

This isn't really the time of year to be hitting the Channel beaches but, if the sun shines and the wind abates - and you're well wrapped up - try Deauville (which must have the most cosseted beaches on the planet, preened and cleaned to perfection) and Le Touquet (which has great facilities for children).

Many of the fancy shops from Paris will have shut up for the winter but you can still attempt to gorge yourself at Au Chat Bleu in Le Touquet (00 33 321 05 0386), which sells some of the best and most expensive chocolate around, or at the elegant Hotel Normandy in Deauville (00 33 231 98 6622, double rooms from around pounds 115) for lunch, dinner or drinks.

WHAT ABOUT THE FOOD? IS IT ALL BAGUETTES AND BRIE?

One of the joys of French food is putting together a picnic. As well as shops selling delicious plump tomatoes and fantastically pungent cheeses, practically every town and village has a patisserie (cake shop) stuffed with tartes de pommes and a boulangerie (bread shop) filled with delicious crusty bread. Packing a picnic is a real pleasure here but, for the perfect croissant, in my opinion, you're better off sticking to your local Waitrose.

For something more sedate, one place I have never been disappointed at is Le Cafe de Paris in the Rue Royale, Calais (00 33 321 34 7684). The service is slick, the food better than average (the sole must have jumped out of the Channel it was so fresh) and the prices reasonable (250F - around pounds 25 - for three courses, including a couple of glasses of Beaujolais and a glass of champagne). It is not haute cuisine, but for the price it's far better than anything you would get at home.

For a lunch stop, try the top of a German bunker, the Restaurant Panoramique at Le Thome de Gamond (00 33 321 82 3203, lunch pounds 15-20). Better still would be a place that specialises in sea food. Le Vivier in Wissant (00 33 321 35 9361) is easily recognised by the tractor and boat outside, but it gets busy. Just after Cap Blanc-Nez, the hotel and restaurant L'Escale (00 33 321 65 2500) is also worth a visit but, if you want to eat at the water's edge, try La Sirene (00 33 321 32 9597) at Cap Gris-Nez, a small but appealingly traditional establishment.

AND IF I WANT TO STAY THE NIGHT?

For atmosphere, the Chateau de Cocove (00 33 321 82 68 29, double rooms from around pounds 50) is as good as it gets. For convenience, you try the modern Copthorne Hotel right next to the Tunnel exit at Coquelles, Calais (00 33 321 46 6060, UK reservations 0845 30 20001). Double rooms here are 750F (pounds 75) per night, without breakfast, and the hotel has a bar, restaurant and swimming pool.

Other options are: Gites de France, which has self-catering properties from 900F to 4000F (pounds 90-pounds 400) for a week (00 33 149 70 75 75; brochures for each department cost between pounds 4 to pounds 8); and the Logis de France (00 33 145 84 70 00), whose brochure lists individually-owned French hotels (for a copy, send a cheque for pounds 1.45 to the French Travel Centre at 178 Piccadilly, London, W1V 0AL).

For a bit of luxury, contact the Chateaux & Hotels de France group in Paris (00 33 140 07 0020 or website: www.chatotel.com) for a brochure (40F or pounds 4). The 487 hotels listed here are beautiful and, for me, this has been a bible of sorts for the past 15 years.

Several companies also run weekend break packages across the Channel. Try Eurotunnel Motoring Holidays (0870 333 2001), which offers weekend breaks at various destinations throughout northern France and Belgium. Until the end of December, two nights B&B accommodation, including return Eurotunnel crossing, costs from pounds 72 per person.

BATTLEFIELD TOURS

THERE ARE many organised battlefield tours to northern France and Belgium but I have always preferred to make my own discoveries, poring over maps, reading up on history and working out what happened where.

This way you are free to imagine what it would have been like being in the front line. Even in Calais, take a short walk along the beach to the west of Calais, stop to wonder what would have happened if Hitler had succeeded. Look at the fortified long-range gun emplacements, collapsed like the beaten monsters they represent, as the wind blows hard and the surf breaks.

I would not recommend you went on a tour but, if you must, Holts Tours (01304 612248) are the most well known and run tours of between two and 15 days (pounds 150-pounds 2500).

A MINI GUIDE TO FOUR FRENCH TOWNS

ARRAS

Stunning architecture, rebuilt in Flemish style after the First World War.

ROUEN

Wonderful cathedral but traffic a nightmare.

CAEN

Ugly apart from the Abbaye aux Hommes/Dames, which was built by William the Conqueror.

LILLE

Home to Vauban's masterpiece - the fortress and trains without drivers.

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