Chic and cheerful

Philippa Czernin on the joys of festive shopping in Calais
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Stocking up for Christmas means anticipating lots more of everything: more consumption of food and drink, definitely more expense, probably more rows, and, if you're lucky, more fun, too. But to achieve the fun bit, you need to heed the motto of every great organiser and "Be prepared" or, as the French say, "Soyez prepare!" And with cross-Channel ferry and hovercraft fares at an annual, seasonal low, a day trip to Calais becomes a happy option, particularly as the pound is getting stronger against the franc.

You need to plan carefully. Not only will you have to calculate whether what looks like a bargain in francs actually is when converted into pounds, but you also have to make sure that the ferry, trains and buses connect so you don't waste valuable shopping time. If you go by ferry, bear in mind that the crossing takes an hour and a half and that the system of "turn-up and go" means that at peak times you might not be able to get on to your first-choice sailing, and that France is an hour ahead of GMT.

Make the trip easier for yourself by taking a shopping trolley, however bad this may be for your image. The one restriction imposed by the ferry companies and Hoverspeed on walk-on passengers' baggage capacity is that you can only bring on board "as much as you can carry". Alternatively, take a car and exercise your packing skills in filling it up.

You can find your first bargains even before you arrive in France. In the ferry departure terminal at Dover, currency-converters, maps, phrase books and other "essential" French shopping accessories are for sale at discount prices. On board, queues form immediately for duty-free - not surprising when pre-Christmas promotions mean you can buy a litre of spirits for pounds 5.99 which would cost around pounds 14 at home. Since the EU border controls were relaxed, you can buy your duty limit all over again on the return journey, which accounts for the passengers who head straight back to England, touching only a foot on to French soil to satisfy Customs.

But the real attractions of a shopping trip to Calais are the hypermarkets. Mammouth is the nearest to the ferry terminal and easy to get to. Those without cars should take the free daytime bus from the Calais ferry dock, get out at the station and then catch the No 5 bus. Alternatively, take the No 7 bus to Cite Europe, the megalithic shopping centre at the head of the Channel Tunnel. With over 150 shops, including the newest Carrefour hypermarket, Cite Europe demands stamina. If you are driving, follow the signs out of Calais - they're impossible to miss.

Mammouth is a hybrid of the familiar and the unusual: the first shop you see is Sainsbury's! But this is Sainsbury's with a difference - it sells only alcohol. Beer and wine are probably the best bargains of the trip; all the supermarkets in Calais have good ranges and French duty on wine is considerably lower than in the UK. You can buy Sainsbury's Cuvee Prestige Claret for Fr34.90 or treat yourself in Mammouth to three bottles of 1992 St Emilion Grand Cru for Fr119. Seasonal promotions on beer feature such bargains as 24 bottles of locally-brewed Saint Omer for Fr32.95 or 26 bottles of Kronenbourg for Fr48.50 with six bottles of "Biere de Noel" thrown in. Watch out for cheap champagne, however: it can be undrinkable and back in the UK you can buy a Grande Marque champagne in Majestic or Oddbins for less than in a French supermarket.

The choice of food is overwhelming. On the cheese counter you'll find there are 12 varieties of Camembert at every stage of ripeness, goat's cheese in all shapes and sizes (a pyramid of Chavroux pur chevre costs just Fr10.95) and Brie on promotion at knock-down prices. French delicacies make good Christmas presents: look out for marrons glaces, huge, sweet chestnuts beautifully presented in wooden boxes (at Fr64.95 for just 24, they're expensive but worth it), saucissons, ranging in price from Fr14.90 to Fr89, bars of white chocolate (four for Fr9.70) and tresses of plaited garlic (Fr32.95). If you can eat them quickly enough, why not buy some oysters - a dozen cost from Fr19.95 to Fr27.50.

You'll find children's clothes are good value and quality, as well. But even as you shop, there lurks at the back of your mind the thought that most of the goods you flock over to France to buy are actually available in Britain, too. But then you'd miss out on the fun, the choice, stylish French packaging and novelties such as genuine French boules sets, packets of French lollipops and "Boite Cotillons", party kits filled with masks and streamers.

Day trips are not for the faint-hearted - you leave early, get back late and shop like mad in the middle - and there is a strong possibility that you won't find time for that wonderful French seafood meal you promised yourself. To make the outing a success and the start of happy Christmas, do some comparative price research before you go and work out a basic shopping list - it's easy to get carried away. When you get to Calais keep one eye out for seasonal promotions, the other eye for Continental luxuries and a finger firmly on your currency converter.

Comparative prices

IN FRANCE IN UK

Sainsbury's Cuvee Prestige Claret Fr.34.90 (pounds 4) pounds 4.75

Kronenbourg Fr.48.50 (pounds 5.57) pounds 4.99

12 bottles of Becks beer Fr.69.90 (pounds 8) pounds 9.95

Fosters lager 24 cans Fr.105 (pounds 12) pounds 17.38

24 cans draught Guinness Fr.160 (pounds 18.39) pounds 19.77

Bars of white chocolate (4 for) Fr.9.70 (pounds 1.11) pounds 3.76

Pyramid of goats' cheeze Fr.10.95 (pounds 1.26) pounds 1.64

Tresses of garlic Fr.32.95 (pounds 3.79) pounds 2.95

oysters per dozen Fr.1995 (pounds 2.29) pounds 5.88

Brie de Meaux for 1kg Fr.59.90 (pounds 6.88) pounds 11.70

French leave

P&O European Ferries: 0990 980980. Walk-on pounds 1 per person. Car pounds 15 plus pounds 1 per person with a pounds 10 supplement payable on Saturday.

Stena Line: 0990 707070. Foot passengers pounds 1, Dover/Calais return, or pounds 5 including rail travel from London Charing Cross and connecting South Eastern Train stations to Dover (book five working days in advance). Car pounds 15 plus pounds 1 per person with a pounds 10 supplement payable on Saturday. Ferry takes one-and-a-half hours but the Sea Lynx, which runs at specific times, takes only 45 minutes.

Seafrance: 0990 711711. Foot passengers pounds 1. Cars pounds 5 plus pounds 1 per person (book in advance).

Hoverspeed: 01304 240241. Book in advance at pounds 5 for foot passengers or pounds 17 for a car with two passengers and pounds 19 for more than two passengers. The earliest leaves at 7.30am and the last back is at 8.30pm. See tomorrow's Independent on Sunday for a special Hoverspeed/Independent offer of free travel for foot passengers on day trips and pounds 5 day-trip tickets if you take a car and up to five passengers. Journey time, 35 minutes.

Le Shuttle: 0990 353535. Three departures every two hours. Booking essential. For travel before 6am, a day-return ticket for a car and up to five passengers is pounds 49. After 6am, pounds 59.

Tours: Eurolines: 01582 485591. Day trips to the Cite Europe shopping complex for pounds 18, Wednesdays and Saturdays until 21 December, plus every Sunday in December. Leaves London Victoria coach station with additional pick-up points in south-east London and Kent.

Local branches of Going Places offer a special Christmas shopping trip to Calais on Le Shuttle from only pounds 25 for up to five people in a car or pounds 35 Friday to Sunday.

Other information: Calais Tourist Office (English spoken), 12 Boulevard Clemenceau, 62100 Calais (00 33 321 96 62 40). Opening times: Mon-Sat 9am-7pm and Sun, 10am-1pm.

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