Within just a few miles of the Channel ports you’ll find everything that the country is renowned for, including excellent food and wine, historic towns, activities and attractions, theme parks, voluptuous rural scenery and, of course, beaches.
There are eight French ports to choose from, each one a gateway to a region that’s as different from its neighbours as Cumbria is from Cornwall. Depending on your final destination and how much driving you want to do, you can cross the Channel by one of the shorter routes in the east or choose one of the longer, more cruise-like crossings on the western Channel.
Although often neglected by British visitors as flat and uninteresting, the countryside just across the Channel is stunning. The Pas-de-Calais’s landscapes roll rather than drift out of sight in ever receding horizons. There are farms and hideaway villages, quiet winding roads, picturesque rivers such as the Aa and the Slack, Hansel and Gretel forests at Guînes and Tournehem-sur-la-Hem, historic towns such as Montreuil-sur-Mer and half-timbered auberges that manage to appear just when tummies begin to rumble.
You might want to make a detour from Calais to Boulogne to see sharks in Nausicaá, France’s National Centre for the Sea. Built on the site of the town’s old casino, it cleverly manages to put marine life in a broad environmental context while injecting plenty of ‘wow’ factor. All the signs are in Englishand it has an excellent seafood restaurant. The Parc Bagatelle theme park is nearby, too.
The Dunkirk hinterlands, unlike Calais, have a Flemish accent. The old centre of the main town of Lille has lots of elegant 17th-century Flemish architecture. The city’s Palais Des Beaux Arts, the second most important museum in France after the Louvre, is well worth a visit. This is the heart of Flanders, and will be squarely on the map this year as many Brits visit the century-old battlefields of World War I. In both regions you can visit museums and memorials, reconstructed trenches and moving cemeteries.
The further east you travel, the more Disney is bound to beckon. The easiest approach with a car is to stay at or near the theme park and take a side trip to Paris, just 20 miles and a 40-minute train ride to the west. Don’t forget Parc Astérix to the north of Paris, for a more Gallic approach to fun. It’s less than a three-hour drive from Calais, Dieppe or Dunkirk.
The west of France (Brittany, Normandy and the Pays de la Loire) has an astonishing number of natural attractions, from beaches to forests, waterways and historic villages. Families who love the great outdoors will love exploring Brittany’s scenic islands and nature reserves, sand yachting on Normandy’s wild beaches or exploring the Loire’s Brière Regional Natural Park.
This coastline, the agricultural landscapes and vineyards mean there’s a wealth of regional food and wine to enjoy, too. And since they’re all so easy to reach, these three regions are perfect for a weekend break, too.
From beaches, rock pools and lighthouses to historic towns and remote islands, Brittany has lots to offer families.
Find out more about travelling by ferry to Brittany
Pays de Loire
Think of the Loireand you immediately think of châteaux, but the region has so much more to offer.
Find out more about travelling by ferry to Pays de Loire
Normandy offers a rich slice of French life, ?including lots of cream sauces and cheeses and, ?for the grown-ups, apple brandy and cider.
Find out more about travelling by ferry to Normandy
So many routes, so many ferries. The shortest crossing from Dover to Calais is operated by DFDS, P&O and MyFerryLink while DFDS also operates the route between Newhaven and Dieppe and from Dover to Dunkirk.
In the west you can sail from Poole to Saint-Malo with Condor Ferries (via the Channel Islands) and to Cherbourg with Brittany Ferries. The latter also sails from Plymouth to Roscoff and St Malo and from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo, Caen, Cherbourg and Le Havre.
Condor also sails from Portsmouth to Cherbourg and from Weymouth to Saint-Malo (again via the Channel Isles). DFDS sails from Portsmouth to Le Havre. There are several additional services that link Irish ports with those in France.
Price: Sample fare for a short crossing (eg Dover–Calais) for a car plus two adults and two children with P&O Ferries: day trip from £60, short break (up to five days) from £78, long stay from £100.
Sample fare for 2 adults, 2 children and a car with DFDS: Dover to Dunkirk from £45.
Sample fares for a long crossing with Brittany Ferries for a car plus two adults and two children: Portsmouth–Le Havre £518, Portsmouth–Caen £378 (£430 with cabin), Portsmouth–Cherbourg £438, Portsmouth–St Malo £563 (£658 with cabin), Poole–Cherbourg £398 (£450 with cabin), Plymouth–Roscoff £438 (£533 with cabin).