Calais is not a place I would usually consider for a family day out. I had, however, been promising my eldest daughter for some time that we would visit France.
This is where things got a bit messy. To quote Harold Macmillan, “events” just kept happening. Time and again plans to travel across the English Channel were scuppered. When school broke up for summer, I picked a date and booked a couple of ferry tickets so that Helen and I could spend a day in Calais. I knew that if I didn’t just go ahead and do it, I was never going to fulfill my promise.
Okay okay, a short break with the entire family in Nice, Paris or Cannes would have been preferable, but it wasn’t possible. Mrs Adams couldn’t get the time off work and I only had one day’s worth of childcare in place for Toddler Adams. Calais was, therefore, going to have to do.
It’s a place I had only passed through and never actually visited. As I looked into it, I discovered there was more than enough to keep a five year old entertained. I guessed Helen would enjoy the ferry crossing and she might also say a few words in French (I’ve been teaching her).
Here’s what we did:
Light House / Phare de Calais
Our first stop was the Calais Light House, a short drive from the ferry terminal. At 53 metres in height, I guessed Helen would like the view from the top.
You climb 271 steps to reach the summit where there is a viewing platform. From here you can see out cross the English Channel, across Calais itself and out to the French countryside. The steps are fine for young children but just be warned the final few are more like a ladder and I wouldn’t recommend for anyone under the age of five.
Ever the engineer, Helen wanted to know all about the light itself, which is still used to this day. The light has been automated and only comes on at night, but the rotation mechanism is never switched off, just in case it breaks down or won’t restart.
Entry was EU6.50 for the two of us. It made a good starting point for the trip and, having seen Calais from a great height, Helen was keen to explore from ground level.
Having decided to go on foot to the beach, I took us off in completely the wrong direction. As a result we stumbled across a small fairground near the harbour (apparently it’s not a permanent attraction but visits Calais twice a year). We killed a little time while Helen went on a ride costing EU2. It wasn’t a highlight of the trip, but Helen was happy.
Way back through the mists of time I was a travel journalist. Travel writers do not go on mini trains for tourists. Even former travel writers like myself don’t do such things. It’s rather like a premiership footballer reading a broadsheet newspaper; it just doesn’t happen.
My daughter wanted to go on the mini train. How did I deal with this situation? I went on the mini train.
Having been hopelessly lost trying to find the beach, we had jumped in the car and I drove us to the Hotel de Ville (town hall), where I knew the train departed from. While my pride and street cred took a massive battering by riding on this thing, it was worthwhile because it went round all the main tourist sites and I learned the lay-out of the town.
The commentary is in both French and English and it is very detailed. Did you know Charles de Gaulle got married in Calais in 1921? Neither did I before we did this train journey.
By this point the sun had come out and it was very warm. The early start and heat affected Helen and she spent most of the journey asleep in my lap. The journey took 45 minutes and it cost EU9 for the two of us. If I were giving advice to a first time visitor, I’d probably get on the train at the Hotel de Ville and jump off at the beach. You won’t miss much if you skip the last part of the journey.
Helen had wanted to go to the beach since we arrived. Towards the end of our day in Calais she got her chance. It was worth the wait because the day had started wet and overcast but it was a gloriously sunny evening.
The things I’d heard about Calais made the beach sound very uninviting. This couldn’t have been further from the truth. It was incredibly clean and absolutely awash with lifeguards.
We went for a little paddle and Helen loved it. We also collected some sea shells and bought a couple of ginormous ice creams. This gave Helen the opportunity to say “merci” to the guy that served us.
Needless to say, this is a journey you can only realistically make if you live near Dover (just over an hour’s drive for us). That said, we had a great day. There was easily enough for Helen to do and see and we there was lots more we could have done.
On this occasion we took the car so the crossing cost £40. As foot passengers, the crossing would have cost about £10 for us both. Taking the car worked well for us, although I hadn’t realised P&O Ferries runs a shuttle bus into the centre of town or that there is a free Balad’in bus service operating in central Calais. If I’d known, I might have taken a gamble and booked as foot passengers to save money.
There are nicer parts of France to visit, but for a day trip during the summer holidays, this was great fun. We would definitely go again.
Like this blog post? This image was taken from on board the Pride of Canterbury as we sailed home.
With thanks to the Calais Tourist Office (Office du Tourisme de Calais) for the suggested itinerary.