Simon Calder: Calais tourism gets a helping sand

The Man Who Pays His Way

The beach stretches lazily towards a hazy horizon, while the sun alights on a huddle of huts marooned in the sand. Fringing the shore is a line of well-appointed hotels and restaurants. A walk into town along the Rue de la Mer takes you past a couple of dramatic monuments: one to an aviator who disappeared in the Arctic in 1928; the second to the crew of a submarine that, like Russia's
Kursk, was lost with all hands close to its home port.

The beach stretches lazily towards a hazy horizon, while the sun alights on a huddle of huts marooned in the sand. Fringing the shore is a line of well-appointed hotels and restaurants. A walk into town along the Rue de la Mer takes you past a couple of dramatic monuments: one to an aviator who disappeared in the Arctic in 1928; the second to the crew of a submarine that, like Russia's Kursk, was lost with all hands close to its home port.

A little further, past the Place des Armes and a forlorn 13th-century watchtower, even the least worldly tourist is left in no doubt about what country they are in, thanks to a neon-lit, tricolour-topped 80-foot Eiffel Tower that announces the Café de Paris. One final clue, as you approach the station, is a hostelry celebrating a defunct form of transport: the Café-Pub l'Hovercraft. The last craft may have hovered off to oblivion, but l'aeroglisseur (as it is officially known here) lives on in a place much closer to London than to the French capital. Bienvenue à Calais, the Channel port enjoying a tourism boom.

This conclusion is reached after a survey that was exhausting rather than exhaustive. When my first choice of hotel, the Pacific, declined to take a telephone reservation, I should have realised something was up. Calais, the port that one guidebook struggles to describe politely, then settles on "unavoidable", is chic. And full.

I have a penchant for the Metropol' Hotel, near Calais Ville station, because of the large phone numbers that have been neatly chiselled on the back wall: "4, 95". That choice was sufficient when the Calais telephone exchange had only a handful of subscribers, but now 03 21 97 54 00 works better. "English spoken," asserts a lower portion of the back wall, which means the no-vacancies sign reads "full" as well as " complet".

The same concise, depressing story was told at the Belazur, the George V and the Folkestone. Hope was fading as fast as the light, when I stumbled across the Hotel Bristol. " Chambres libres", fibbed a sign. Yes, they had a single room, and gladly took my euros. But the chambre libre turned out to be in a different hotel entirely, the Tudor, which was across the main road, past a nightclub and down a sidestreet. I shall not dwell on the place, beyond repeating the final words of the concierge back at the Bristol: "Oh, don't worry about the broken window."

THE ENDING of duty-free has done Calais a favour, I concluded after talking to Bill Dix, the managing director of Eurotunnel's shuttle services. Day-trippers still make up one in three travellers from Folkestone, but they are more likely to be "people going across to France for lunch" rather than to stock up on cigarettes and liquor by the warehouseful.

This week, the sun has beamed down benevolently on La Manche, revealing one advantage that the Pas de Calais region has over Kent: sand. Après le hypermarché, British visitors are rediscovering la plage – so says Robin Wilkins, the managing director of SeaFrance: "The French have all the sand and we've got all the shingle." Go far enough along the coast and you find the crunchy stuff, but Calais is golden.

¿ For a good definition of the word "lonely", take a Eurostar train to Paris – or, at least, wait for a cross-Channel express train at Calais Frethún station.

Anyone who wants to make a midweek trip on Eurostar from London to the French capital faces a comically high fare: £298 return from Waterloo International. To slice two-thirds from this is a trivial matter, at least for those with time to spare. Take a train from Waterloo to Dover, hop across on a ferry to Calais and join the London-to-Paris Eurostar there.

The Channel Tunnel rail company has dozens of empty seats to flog off on the Calais-Paris stretch for a bargain £21 each way – exactly the same as the "classic" (ie slow) French Railways train. Not bad for a journey of over 200 miles, taking just 85 minutes.

I obeyed the instruction to turn up for check-in half-an-hour ahead. At Calais, the process involves nothing more challenging than perching on a luggage trolley, there being no chairs on the empty platform.

With 10 minutes to go, a trio of other passengers showed up, together with a charming SNCF inspector. She plodded over to my trolley for the intensive check-in procedure: glancing at my ticket and wishing me bonne journée.

The train glided out of the tunnel, paused briefly to pick up our quartet, then took off across Picardy at 186mph.

¿ Talking of quartets: any budding musicians who like to travel should think small when choosing an instrument. The flautist or violinist is at an advantage over a large brass or stringed instrument when travelling by air. The cello sounds lovely in the right hands, but is a handful when flying.

Erin Headley, the American cellist, always books an extra seat for her beloved instrument; having worked closely with baggage handlers, I can confirm that her caution is warranted.

Airlines are used to such requests, as they are to people booking more than one seat because of anything from obesity to a leg injury. You pay for two basic fares, of course – but only one set of "taxes, fees and charges", those annoying non-optional extras that can add £30 or more to a return trip. The add-ons are calculated per person, so an inanimate object such as a cello avoids them. Or so Ms Headley had believed, until she travelled with Buzz.

"I have never been charged tax on the extra ticket on major airlines, but when I recently booked tickets on Buzz both the telephone agent and his manager insisted that the extra seat had to be taxed. Since the tax is on people leaving the country, Buzz presumably then pockets it rather than pass it on to the government."

Buzz is not the only airline with a discordant policy about cellos: Bmibaby, the newest no-frills airline, does the same (though strangely the parent, BMI, does not charge), as does easyJet. Toby Nicol explained the easyCello policy by saying "we pay the airports and exchequer on the basis of seats occupied". So under-twos, who perch on a lap, pay nothing, but large stringed instruments contribute to the airports' and government's coffers.

Only Go agrees to refund the cash, though you need to write in and pay a £2 administration fee. If I were Ms Headley, I would try inflight busking to defray the unwarranted extra cost.

¿ For decades, airlines have penalised people who want to get home for the weekend. The "Saturday night stay" rule for discount fares was invented to oblige business travellers to pay top whack. Yesterday, British Airways brought in low, unrestricted domestic fares: if business or pleasure takes you on a day trip from London to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Manchester or Newcastle, the fare is as low as £64 return (though people who prefer not to book on the internet pay a fiver more).

Those far-flung Scottish isles that were previously more expensive to reach than Sydney must surely be delighted? Unfortunately, the new, fairer system has not yet reached as far as the Hebrides, so Stornoway remains a stonking £535.70 return from London. No wonder Calais, rather than the Isle of Lewis, is full these days.

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