Twenty years ago, the Channel Tunnel opened – and it was widely assumed that the undersea link from Folkestone to Calais would kill off most of the ferry traffic between Britain and the Continent. If offered the option of a 35-minute storm-proof crossing, it was assumed motorists would naturally switch to Le Shuttle. Yet the ferry has flourished, with more operators sailing between Britain and France – and a range of choices from state-of-the-art mega-ferries to a new no-frills option. Most of the ports they serve are well worth exploring, either on a day-trip or before the long drive south.
This survey picks out the most appealing gateways and key cross-Channel developments. Wherever you're heading, you can expect great deals between now and Easter; and if you plan a summer getaway, watch for short-term promotions – some expire at the end of this month.
Dunkirk, the northernmost settlement in France, is a fine city with Flemish roots and plenty to fill a short break (DFDS Seaways has a three-day return from Dover for a car and four people for £39 between now and 2 April). At this time of year the wide, safe beaches that stretch to the Belgian border may appeal more for the seafood restaurants lining the shore. In town, the maritime history is revealed in the Musée Portuaire – which also covers the 1940 evacuation of Dunkirk by the Allies. Flemish heritage is celebrated in paintings at the Musée des Beaux-Arts and in three dimensions a short way inland at villages such as Bergues – with a frisson of the atmosphere of Bruges.
The port for Dunkirk, some way west at Gravelines, is not set up for foot passengers. In contrast, Calais has long catered for car-less day-trippers. An impressive town hall, with the Rodin sculpture of the Les Bourgeois de Calais outside, is the main sight. In summer, the beach is fun but far more appealing bathing locations can be found west and south along the coast, with Wissant and Wimereux both outstanding. Dover-Calais is the route with the strongest competition. P&O Ferries is the leading operator, with Spirit of Britain and Spirit of France the largest and most modern vessels on the Channel. MyFerryLink is the successor to SeaFrance, with the same high-spec fleet. And DFDS also sails, allowing "mix-and-match" fares sailing one way to Dunkirk and coming back from Calais.
Pretty and historic Boulogne remains off the network, with a series of operators failing to make the route pay. Newhaven-Dieppe is the domain of the French firm LD Lines and provides the shortest (not necessarily quickest) route from the London area to both Paris and the Mediterranean. Dieppe is a cheerful town, with lovely resorts, such as Le Tréport nearby and the atmospheric city of Rouen just inland.
Le Havre is France's second-busiest port (after Marseille), rebuilt since it was devastated in the Second World War. Out of town, a spectacular bridge crosses the Seine to give access to the dreamy fishing port of Honfleur. Le Havre is also the main 2014 battleground between ferry operators, with LD Lines facing fresh competition from Portsmouth. Brittany Ferries made its name with cruise-style on-board service, but from 25 March it will launch a new no-frills Portsmouth-Le Havre service. It is branded Brittany Ferries économie, with one-way fares for a car plus two people from £79. Le Havre will be one of the main ports visitors to the Normandy beaches this summer, 70 years after the D-Day landings. Ouistreham, sold by Brittany Ferries from Portsmouth as Caen, is centre-stage and also gives easy access to the depiction of another invasion: the Bayeux Tapestry.
The fastest sailing among the western Channel routes is from Portsmouth to Cherbourg with Brittany Ferries, providing quick access to the Loire Valley and the beaches of western France. But for Brittany itself, there are two better options. St-Malo wins the prize for most attractive Channel port with an old city, complete with cathedral and chateau, wrapped in sturdy walls. With a range of family-run hotels in St-Malo itself and along the coast at Dinard, it makes an excellent base for excursions deeper into Brittany and to Mont St-Michel. Brittany Ferries sails from Portsmouth, with Condor Ferries also offering links from Weymouth and Poole (summer only) via the Channel Islands.
Roscoff is a small village on the rocky Breton coast with a large Brittany Ferries link from Plymouth – a faster option for motorists from western Britain and an excellent gateway for the ports and beaches of southern Brittany.
All these routes offer access (eventually) to Spain, but there are two new options to sail direct from the UK to the north coast of the Iberian peninsula. Given the vast range of flights between Britain and Spain, you might imagine there is no room in the market for more ferry links. But LD Lines began sailing last month from Portsmouth to Gijón, opening up the fascinating province of Asturias. Next month, Brittany Ferries adds to options between Portsmouth and Santander with a new économie option. The company promises cabins will have "en-suite facilities, but without carpets".
Brittany Ferries (0871 244 1400; brittanyferries.com)
Condor Ferries (0845 609 1024; condorferries.co.uk)
DFDS Seaways (0871 574 7223; dfdsseaways.co.uk)
LD Lines (0844 576 8836; ldlines.co.uk)
MyFerryLink (0844 2482 100; myferrylink.com)
P&O Ferries (08716 64 21 21; poferries.com)
Note that most operators' numbers are premium-rate, and surcharges are usually made for telephone bookings