Remember the infamous booze cruise? Every weekend the cross-channel ferries would carry thousands of Brits over to Calais where they’d frenziedly strip the local supermarkets of as much cut-price beer, wine, spirits and ciggies as they could cram into the boots and back seats of their Fords and Vauxhalls.
It was an unedifying spectacle, from the shoppers’ refusal to explore a France beyond the shopping mall to the almost mandatory obligation some of them had to vomit the moment the vessel set sail. There were other certainties too, such as someone always pointing out that the white cliffs of Dover ‘arent really that white’, or that on a smooth crossing the Channel is ‘like a millpond’.
British retailers were quick to exploit the trade, with branches of Oddbins, Tesco and Majestic soon opening up in the northern French ports. Other, less well-known stores sprang up, although with names like Eastenders, Cheers and Boozers Wine & Beer Warehouse, they left you in no doubt as to who their target market was.
I used to do the booze cruise as well. Living in the south-east of England made it easy, and competition between the ferry companies and the channel tunnel made it pretty cheap, too. Usually there’d be four of us, my wife and another couple. The men would take it in turns to drive. Some undefined but well-established law exempted the ladies from driving. They’re clever like that.
We gradually discovered the best way to do the journey, at least the seafaring part. For around £10 more per person, you could go P&O Club Class. Boy, is it worth it. Not only do you get complimentary champagne and coffee (plus biccies); not only do you have a great view of the sea and, in some vessels, a working radar that lets you see how close you are to a mid-channel shipping disaster; not only do you get comfortable seats and free newspapers. Crucially, you also get to avoid the noisy mayhem of the lower decks: the slot machines, the shouty kids, the curry and chips, the pints of lager.
Another useful refinement is Priority Boarding. This means you’re amongst the first to drive on to the ferry and so are amongst the first to drive off. It’s another additional expense, but you weigh that against your hatred of queueing. What we tend to do is have the priority boarding thing on the outward journey but not Club Class. The reason? By being first on you can be sure of grabbing a table at the on-board Langan’s and can enjoy their mighty breakfast. By the time you’ve finished that you’re virtually docking anyway, so you’ve no need of Club Class.
On the way back it’s the other way round. Don’t bother with Priority Boarding but do make sure you’ve booked Club Class. You’ll appreciate the rest, the quiet, the bubbly etc and, if you’ve still got some money left after all that shopping, you’ll love the massage.
It’s not just about saving money. Luckily
When the credit crunch hit, day trips to France suddenly became a lot less justifiable for many people. The potential savings you could make on a case of wine or beer no longer seemed that great. Indeed, such was the reduction in booze cruise shoppers – ourselves included – that the Calais outpost of Tesco closed its doors in 2009. How often does a Tesco close?
But then a recent mailshot from Majestic made me reconsider: choose wisely and it’s still possible to make some pretty good savings. You can get a decent Cotes du Rhone for around £3.45 while a bottle of the delectable Montana Pinot Noir costs £5.99 in Calais – in the UK you would expect to pay £12 or more.
But for me and my friends, the shopping is only part of the day out. (With the ability to order in advance, it’s quite a small part. All you have to do is turn up, pay up and load up.) We see it also as a fantastic opportunity to take advantage of our proximity to another country. It’s a holiday, albeit a very brief one. So after the shopping we visit local towns or villages, in the summer we might go to the beach, we’ll check out a few bars and, of course, enjoy a humungous meal. French roads being far less congested than in the UK, it’s amazing how far you can get in a day.
Mind you, we always end up getting lost. Once we had literally no idea where we were when we happened upon a load of breakdown trucks parked at their base in an air de repose. We tracked the drivers down to a concrete hut. Seated around a table, they were all playing cards, smoking Gauloises and drinking brandy. This was about 10.30am. Don’t break down in France.