Is the annual ‘booze-cruise’ another motoring thing of the past?
Judging by unhurried queues at Dover, reports Iain Robertson, when he tripped to France and Belgium between Christmas and the New Year, it would appear that the annual flood of Brits onto European soil may have reached a political denouement.
Linked geographically to Europe, no matter what happens in political terms, our nearest neighbours still offer a cornucopia of attractions, all of which are within deliciously easy reach. My target was the canal-crossed gem of Belgium’s ancient and beautiful City of Bruges, which shares innumerable similarities with the City of Lincoln, my present home. While the original intention was to make the return road-trip in a Volvo V90 CrossCountry, thanks to pre-Christmas adverse weather conditions, that exercise was cancelled.
However, with the use of a Suzuki Vitara 1.4S AllGrip, over the festive period, my plan was to complete the trek within 24 hours and as close to the car’s posted 52.3mpg official fuel return as possible. With a need to catch a 7.30am DFDS Dover to Calais ferry sailing, I departed Lincoln at 3.30am. By the time I had reached Grantham, a heavy snowfall for the next 30 miles looked set to scupper my best-laid plans. Thanks to the Vitara S’s exquisite dynamic balance and programmable 4×4 system, I ploughed through, nerves unrattled, albeit at a reduced speed of between 35 and 50mph. The pressure was on but my arrival was bang on target.
A stormy Channel crossing to France (£39 each way) confirmed that nature can unsettle even the most intrepid of travellers. I was grateful for the quiet comfort of the ferry’s Premium Lounge and its ‘extra’ services (free snacks, free fruit, free Champagne and other beverages, newspapers, magazines and Sky TV, all for a £12 premium), as well as a Full English breakfast (£14.95) taken in the 7 Seas Restaurant. On Europe’s shores, 90 minutes later, the drive north to Belgium was breezy but brisk, bright sunshine enhancing the late-morning mood.
A city of great contrasts, the ancient heart of Bruges is surrounded by modernity and, even in a post-Christmas vein, it was vibrant with visitors. Its tourist attractions, from the Halle and 83m high Belfry that predominates the Markt, or central commercial area, to the boat tours and walking trips, seemingly endless groups chattered, snapped and enthused about this lovely Medieval capital. All of the prestigious retail brands are on sale in the many modern and quaint shops that spear out from the pedestrian-focused centre and there are packed restaurants galore, serving up Belgian specialities, such as stews, soups and the inevitable white, black or meat-based sausage (boudin), all accompanied by frites, naturally.
Famed for its chocolates, beer and lace, a shopping stop beckoned, fresh fruit and awesome breads making up the list. They’d still be daisy-fresh a day later, back in Blighty! The local Delhaize supermarket served purpose and a fine selection of comestibles was acquired for a little over £30 (in Euros, of course) that included three bottles of Champagne and a rather large bag of seedless, sweet clementines.
Finding a convenient parking spot in town, with the intention of grabbing a late lunch, was less easy, necessitating a trip out to Le Plage at nearby Ostend to seek out an eatery. The ‘Opal Coast’ is visually-appealing in all weather conditions and accessibility to its WW2 attractions is made easier with an efficient and inexpensive tram system.
A little further south, in Middelkerke, Westende, is the delightful Villa Marie-Joseph, a fine family restaurant, where a 26 Euros late-lunch of fresh shrimps and tomato starter, entrecote steak main (with obligatory frites), crème brulee dessert and an excellent glass of house vin rouge seemed like conspicuously good value for money. A brisk, sun-kissed walk along ‘The Prom’ supplemented post-prandial satisfaction.
Rejoining the motorway south to Calais, near Jabbeke (the sometime base for Jaguar Cars and its maximum speed motorway runs in the 1950s and 1960s), the weather took a turn for the worse, winds hastened by the flatlands around Dunkirk, the rain blustered into horizontal fury. Suzuki’s stability provided a welcome respite. With touristic, shopping and dining duties performed to perfection, my next aim was the return ferry to Dover, with DFDS. It was 5.10pm CET. Departure was delayed slightly by grim conditions in the Channel.
As a measure of today’s security issues at ports, my passport was checked unsmilingly on no less than three occasions. Yet, the car was not subjected to a search, the impressive sniffing instincts of the dogs were not employed and I could not hear the disquieting snap of rubber gloves in my vicinity. Other travellers were less fortunate.
Boarding the vessel was uneventful. Taking the lift from Car Deck 5 to the Premium Lounge was convenient and our DFDS hostess took orders for ‘croque monsieur’ and provided a chilled complimentary glass of Champagne. The multi-awards-winning ferry operator surely knows how to look after its customers.
In the post-Duty Free era, there are still good value prices available for on-board shoppers in perfumery, gifts and booze, although the ferry was subjected to severe pitching and tossing in the first half of its scheduled return crossing, which precluded much perusing of the hastily clingfilm-wrapped shelves. Still, its normally relaxed pace is still preferable to the feature-free rush-job of the Chunnel, where my ears pop disconcertingly and I harbour, even after many uses of its services, a fear of flooding!
You do not need to search too deeply into the archives to find out my thoughts on the Suzuki Vitara 1.4S. It is a blindingly impressive car, as dynamically superb off, as well as on-road. Listed from £23,034, in 6-speed manual form, it delivers eager performance, leggy gearing, delicious steering, great brakes, phenomenal handling, as well as first-rate grip and stability. It is also comfortable enough to tolerate almost eleven hours of driving in one day, without incurring backache, or discomfort.
Back on British soil, the Vitara S needed fuel. Free of toll booths but not the Dartford toll (£5 both ways paid on-line prior to making the trip, actually amended from the original Volvo plan), the drive north was breezy but clear thankfully of snow, despite the much-reported issues prevailing at Stansted Airport. The car had performed faultlessly and in total comfort. Topping-up the tank at 11.01pm, on the same day that I departed Lincoln, revealed a return of 51.7mpg, over the 615-miles trek, which more than proved the viability of a day trip to Bruges in a first-rate Suzuki SUV!
Conclusion: While the once-popular booze-cruise may seem to ended, Brexit will certainly not bring an end to visitor trips across The English Channel, where shopping can be cost-effective but the change of scene is often more than welcome. It is competitively priced from £35 each way and ferry operators, like DFDS, offer 30 crossings daily between Dover and Calais (90 minutes), 24 between Dover and Dunkirk (two hours) and four sailings between Newhaven and Dieppe (four hours).