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Channel Ports - Which is best?

FRANCE | Saturday, 23 July 2016 | Views [194]

I’m going to be clever this time. The blog is not going to catch me out and delete my story as it has done twice before. The first time it disappeared I was editing my existing blog but the save was not saved. The second time I thought I had saved a new story by hitting the save button but as I rushed away I failed to see ‘could not save, no location specified’ and when I came back the hour had passed and everything had gone. This won’t happen again! I’m writing this in Microsoft Word and then I’ll cut and paste! Gottcha!

As I said in my first blog, for over thirty years I have been crossing the English Channel with my car or as a foot passenger. I want to put down some memories for posterity and maybe give others something that lets them make a more informed (?) decision on travelling from the UK.

English Ports 

I won’t linger too much on UK ports, suffice to say – don’t bother lingering around. Most are seedy, dilapidated towns that have seen better days. Portsmouth is the exception with a fine naval dockyards, activities and night life. Also Newhaven is sufficiently close to Brighton but on no circumstances waste a second in this rather sad dump. Go to Brighton.

Approaching Newhaven there is a road sign in English and French directing drivers to the Town Centre/Centre Ville of Newhaven. It is a great place to go if you wish to pawn a wedding ring or bet on the horses. You could get drunk – plenty of cheap booze at the cut-price shops. It is not attractive and gives a really bad impression of Britain – as does Dover – a larger and seedier town than Newhaven. Shame really, both ports have had a fine history and good attractions nearby – Newhaven’s Fort documents the history of Concrete (yes, it is fascinating), there is the nearby Cuckmere Valley is a nature park and, of course, Dover has the White Cliffs – that bulwark against the continent and its foibles. Sadly the good times are past.

I said in my last blog Poole was a disappointment – but this was due to its awful location and poor road communications. Oddly it is in a place with some of the highest house prices in the UK. Expect the port to close sometime soon and a gentrified marina rise in its place.

The Continental Ports

From East to West: Ostend, Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne (sadly no longer a ferry port), Dieppe, Caen (actually Ouistreham) and Cherbourg. I haven’t been to Roscoff or Le Havre.

For each of these ports there are two aspects I want to focus upon. Firstly their qualities as a destination in their own right and secondly, on their usefulness as a port of entry to Europe for onward travel.

Ostend –

What can I say? – ‘Frites’. The best anywhere. I have spent many a lazy hour awaiting a ferry strolling around the port savouring frites from the take-away vans. Actually Ostend is a lively seaside town loved by Belgians as much as Blackpool is loved by the people of Lancashire. There are great similarities – the neon lights, the music and a certain brashness that either jars or you go with. Sadly I associate Ostend with an awful night. We had arrived in the town late, having missed our ferry, with nowhere to stay. It was a summer public holiday and all of Belgium was there. Definitely no room in any inn. So the three of us in a small car tried to sleep in a public car park. Funny goings on meant that sleep was haphazard. Youths kept coming up to cars and they seemed to have quick conversations, things were exchanged and then they were gone.

This happened on a trip back from Romania. Ostend is a great port for hitting the European motorway system and getting somewhere fast. Good roads to the East and South mean fast journeys to Germany, Austria and Scandinavia. Also great for such more local treats as Brussels, Bruges and Ghent.

Dunkirk –

The British Army and soldiers from France, Belgium and Holland couldn’t wait to get out of this town in the summer of 1940. Not much has changed since. No one wants to stay a minute longer than necessary in this commercial port. Fortunately it has good links with roads that will send you south very quickly. In fact the extra 30 minute ferry time compared with going to Calais is well worth it – more time to rest and a better place to start your onward journey.


Calais –

The last part of France to be given up by the English. Of all the places in France to keep, this must be one of the least wanted. Get off the ferry, leave La Shuttle and GO. Calais is trying to vie with Dover to be the most depressing port on the Channel. There was a time when cars and vans came from Britain on day-trips to load up with booze and fags to flog in run-down housing estates. Probably today they are loading up with illegal immigrants instead. I’m sure beyond the razor wire fences the town has some soul but I have never found any.

Boulogne –

Just a few miles from Calais but in a different world. When this was a thriving port (i.e. before the Channel Tunnel) with visitors arriving on Ferries and by Hovercraft the town exuded charm. I visited the town many times and always enjoyed being there. I remember going with a school party at the end of the school year. There must have been a hundred or more teenagers and half a dozen teachers. One of the teachers had too much to drink so much several of the strongest boys had to carry him onto the hovercraft. Others scoffed their cheap baguettes and cheese before they got home. The town was great for a dirty or even a romantic weekend with plenty of hotels and restaurants. Sadly no ferries or hovercraft go to this lovely town but it may be worth a visit if you are too early for your transport back to the UK from Calais.

Dieppe –

A wonderful town. Well worth a weekend stay with great activities for couples and families. As the ferry enters the sea-wall to the right is a long beach with cliffs beyond and gardens inland. The marina is full of small boats and the dock-side has cafes, bars and restaurants offering sea-food and good beer. Beyond the quayside are typical French shops. There are hotels galore.

It was not long ago that the ferry stopped alongside the quay, disgorging passengers directly onto the trains that came straight alongside. The rail tracks are still there but now the ferry docks a few hundred yards to the north in a purpose built quay that allows drivers to leave without ever seeing the town. Which is a real shame.

Dieppe cannot be mentioned without thinking of the heroic Canadians who raided the town in 1942. The attack was a disaster. The troops were trapped on the sloping beach and the tanks they had could not climb on the pebbles. From their many vantage points the Germans could pick off the attackers with relative ease. From its failure the Allies learnt many lessons that were useful a couple of years later – but at great cost. The attack was not just a frontal invasion and there are many books that allow the interested observer to follow in the Canadians’ footsteps. There are defences built into the neighbouring cliffs still with the remains of their guns partially intact. A fascinating trip for modern historians. My son and I spent several days retracing the battle prior to my son’s history exam.

Dieppe is a good location. The long drag from Calais along the A16 is so utterly without commendation, a slow progress that never seems to get anywhere – and so easily avoided by using Dieppe.

Getting to Paris or Rouen is easy from the port. In fact an interesting way of getting to Paris without a car is to use the ferry and then take a short walk to the railway station for direct trains to Paris, much more exciting than a Eurostar or a plane but somewhat slower!

If you don’t get lost in Rouen (I defy you! Worse signage, ever, anywhere) you are onward to the south really quickly but a stay in the old part of the city is supposed to be great and there are plenty of night clubs. I must stop by sometime. Normandy and southwest France are easily reached on the excellent motorways.


It’s a bit of a long drag from the UK and the ferry prices are quite steep. But if Dieppe was a worthy destination in its own right that Caen is even more worthy. Actually the ferries come into Ouistreham, just north of Caen. For many the peripheral route around the town allows a quick onward journey. The city itself was rebuilt after the devastation of June 1944 creating a rather characterless city centre but there are tourist attractions like the old castle and many small shops (although many have seen better days).

The area around is dominated by the events of 1944. The D-day beaches, the many little museums and of course the cemeteries to the fallen soldiers of both sides are really essential visits for anyone interested in modern history. Probably the most moving visit is to Pointe du’hoc where brave US Rangers scaled steep cliffs under fire to capture an important German gun emplacement. The rows of crosses at the cemeteries tell a tale of foreshortened lives and great sacrifice, many in a noble cause.

Not just modern historians will find the region interesting. The museum at Bayeux charts the story of the Norman invasion of England a thousand years ago.

As an entry point to Europe Caen is well placed for Spain and Southern France saving a great deal of driving but at some cost.

Cherbourg -

I have only used this port once. Put off by the long drive down the Carentan peninsular, I have preferred the port at Caen. However, the drive is quite short and the journey crossing is a little shorter than to Caen, so not too disagreeable. The port is quite large ad there is plenty to keep you occupied if you arrive early for the ferry.

Tags: best route, caen, calais, channel, dieppe, dunkifk, ferry, ostend

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