Kate Simon: The tide has turned for the humble car ferry

I never thought I'd board a ferry again once the Channel Tunnel opened to passengers in 1994.

Taking a slow boat to the Continent seemed, well, so 1980s. And as plans advanced for a Eurostar station at Stratford in east London, less than 10 minutes from my home, I was sure I'd use only trains or planes in the future.

But a couple of years ago, a last-minute change to my family's summer holiday plans saw us sailing from Portsmouth to Caen in northern France. And, I must admit, I was won over by the experience.

We didn't have to wrestle with our luggage on public transport, pay an extortionate taxi fare to get to the station, or shell out expensive car park fees at the airport. Not only could we weigh down the car boot with as much luggage as we liked, we could leave it there until we reached our holiday destination. And it was good to have an enforced break from driving for more than the half-hour or so you get if you pass through Eurotunnel.

Also, the actual experience on board the ferry was far more pleasant than I'd remembered. Once we'd parked, we caught up on some shut-eye in a perfectly comfortable berth, took in a movie, strolled around the shops and ate a more passable meal than you might get at a service station.

Plus the atmosphere among the massed ranks of folk heading off on holiday had a jolly edge of anticipation, especially as we crowded the decks on the approach to France, waving at people on the sands as our ship cruised along the estuary. What was there not to like?

And, it seems, we are not alone in our re-appreciation of this form of travel. The ferry industry is doing brisk business in leisure passengers, though freight operations remain beleaguered. SeaFrance, which operates services between Dover and Calais, reports a 13 per cent rise in car traffic in 2010. And the latest figures show that the number of vehicles riding up SeaFrance ramps rose by 4.5 per cent, year on year, last month, while forward bookings for the summer season are strong.

No doubt the ash cloud, snowed-in planes and broken-down trains have all helped to keep the ferries' fortunes on the up. John Crummie, the passenger director at DFDS, which sails from Newcastle to Amsterdam, Harwich to Esbjerg and Dover to Dunkerque, doesn't believe this is just a blip. "We have seen an increasing trend over the past few years as more and more people chose to travel by sea," he says. "The ease, flexibility and convenience are second to none; luggage is unrestricted and, importantly, sea travel offers excellent value for money."

The confidence of the ferry companies is palpable. P&O is launching two new ships for the Dover-Calais run this year, the Spirit of Britain and the Spirit of France, at a cost of €360m. Brittany Ferries also has a new ship, Cap Finistère, the culmination of £500m worth of investment since 2002. It will set sail from 27 March on twice-weekly crossings from Portsmouth to Bilbao, the company's first new destination for 24 years.

We're considering heading for Spain for this year's family summer holiday. I suspect we'll be sailing our way across once more.

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