My uneventful visit to Kent was doomed by a UK holiday weekend and some incredibly crappy weather. So, as I found myself awake at my normal time (that being 0500 in England), I decided to hop the ferry and spend the rest of the day poking around France, Belgium, and then getting home before dark.
I hit the internet to book a P&O ticket. The Peninsular and Oriental Line is the largest ferry operator in the world, and runs ferries between Dover and Calais and Dover and Dunkirk. The Calais route was a bit cheaper and 30 minutes shorter, so I selected that one. I chose an 8.25 departure – I’d surely make that, and perhaps they have the same deal as le Shuttle – arrive early and leave early when possible.
The Port of Dover is nothing to mess with. It’s huge, with four ferry operators moving mostly freight across the English Channel at all hours of the day and night. P&Ois the largest with the most ships and two berths. The arrival process is virtually identical to that of the train – first clear your ticket/reservation, then immigration and customs. I was not checked out of England, only checked in to France, and customs was again a wa(i)ve through. After finding the right lane – as you leave customs, you must find the lane for the ferry you have chosen and the type of vehicle you are driving – you receive a hangtag with a time on it, and a slip with a lane number. You then are signed through the port along a snakey route to your departure lane.
From the departure lane, you enter the ferry. Freight boards on the lower deck, cars, caravans, and bikes on the upper deck. I was on deck seven. Riding up the ramp made me quite happy to have my little billy goat of a bike – it’s a bit steep and steel. Bikes are strapped down over the seat at the rear of the ferry – there is room for up to 24 bikes on the Spirit of Britain and its sister ship, the Spirit of France. Both are among the newest and most up-to-date ships plying the Channel waterway. It is the rider’s responsibility to insure that the crew have secured the bike. Within minutes, the crew was uncoupling the ferry from the dock and we were off, but not before the crew had shooed me upstairs – unlike le Shuttle, the rider does not remain with her vehicle. Once again, the last to load, this time by mere minutes.
Upstairs, the boat is quite well-fitted out. Several cafes, a room full of video games, another room full of slot machines, a food court, a Club Lounge, a family area, and a reserved area for freight drivers all compete with the ubiquitous duty-free shop. I was disappointed again to find no stickers for sale. I spent most of the time out on the rear observation deck, watching the cliffs fade into the distance. The 90 minute trip is just right – time enough to explore without getting bored. The ship is well-maintained, and like all good ships, contantly being cleaned and observed by the staff. I was not prepared for the drinking Englishmen – it’s 9AM, people… even the Germans are not in the beer that early.
Disembarkment was the reverse of loading, with the exception that riders can scoot off behind the first lane of exiting cars. Like in Dover, the Port of Calais is simple to navigate on the exit. I stopped in Dunkirk to see the belfry and St Eloi church, and on the way into town could not resist snapping a pic of a very silly restaurant. It was market day, and the entire downtown was crowded with shoppers.
The next stop was an architecturally interesting rest stop, which like so many other things in France, was not functional. Pretty to look at in a weird 80s way. I headed over to Brugge to grab a Belgie sticker. My trusty Garmin navi then took me on a bunch of backroads, where I found that whereever Donk is, it wasn’t there. I had to ignore it for a while on the next leg, as it was trying to route me around a traffic jam. I wanted to stay on teh highway, as the lanes are wider and easier to split. The 32 minute posted delay was more like a five minute delay for me. My last stop was the Circuit Zolder in Belgium, where a testing day was taking place. Then it was into the ridiculous rain and wind and on to home, with a few more countries on the bike, and the Channel crossing complete.