La France par ferry

Hive of activity: boarding at Portsmouth for France. Copyright David Robertson


(Six ports, five people, four crossings, three vessels and two companies: France by ferry, summer 2016)

With holiday bookings for summer 2017 in mind, David Robertson injects a French flavour into CRSC’s reportage by sharing his impressions of cross-channel travel.

On holiday in Dorset, the New Forest and the Isle of Wight in recent summers, I was able to see a number of Brittany Ferries vessels arrive and depart, heading to various ports on the other side of the English Channel. This, coupled with the fact I had not been abroad since a visit in 2007 to France (where I once lived), made me eager to revisit this country and sample the delights of my preferred cross channel operator.  My last visit had been just my wife and I; this time we had our three children in tow.

Departure from Portsmouth: you’re never short of anything ‘boaty’ to see. Copyright David Robertson

Monday 4th July

Now, in order to maximise the number of ferries, I opted for day sailings in both directions on different routes and different vessels.  We overnighted in Portsmouth, and at 0715 in the morning we were checked in and waiting in the Hampshire sunshine to board Normandie for her morning departure to Caen/Ouistreham. Portsmouth is always a hive of activity. At an adjacent berth Condor’s Commodore Clipper, recently returned from the Channel Islands, was alongside while Brittany Ferries’ high speed ferry Normandie Express was lying opposite. The Naval Base is nearby, too, which ensures one is never short of anything ‘boaty’ to see. Given the ports I mostly frequent are Wemyss Bay and Rothesay, it was quite a contrast.

As we were waiting, Bretagne arrived on what was an unusual Sunday overnight sailing from St Malo.  She berthed adjacent to Normandie, and as we drove up the upper linkspan we had a commanding view of her as we were directed on the latter’s upper deck via the stern. Safely parked, we set off to find our day cabin. While not essential on a day crossing, we felt this would be a good base for us and somewhere for the children to let off steam during the six-hour crossing. As we were part of a Brittany Ferries holiday, we opted to take advantage of the discounted rate and booked a Commodore Cabin. This included two berths, a sofa, desk, TV and en suite shower and toilet. In addition to this there was complimentary fresh fruit, mini bar and, my wife’s particular favourite, macarons! All in all, well worth the extra.

Excellent views in all directions: Normandie top deck. Copyright David Robertson

Included in the price was continental breakfast served in the cabin. The steward, however, informed us that we could go the restaurant above and enjoy a full breakfast for a small supplement, so we duly headed upstairs to the spacious restaurant and were shown to a table overlooking the stern. Breakfast was a delicious fusion of continental and cooked all served by friendly French crew. We left bang on time at 0815. We were able to enjoy the magnificent views as we sailed out of Portsmouth Harbour, passing the Spinnaker Tower as well as the Gosport ferry and Wightlink passenger and vehicle ferries.

Once suitably fed and clear of the harbour, it was time to explore. During my last visit to France, we had sailed back on Normandie and her lines certainly defy her age. She entered service in 1992 and has benefitted from a recent refurbishment, in particular in the cabin areas. There was plenty on offer in the way of onboard entertainment – two cinemas, cafés and onboard shopping. The upper deck also affords excellent views in all directions. We opted to spend a lot of time in the cabin and were able to sleep and relax.

Shortly before 1500 French time, we were approaching the berth at Ouistreham. Normandie executed a well practised 180° turn and berthed bow on to the linkspan. Within a few minutes we were disembarking two by two and snaking our way round towards the main terminal area. Within five minutes, we were heading out of town and made our first stop at Lidl! We had a two-hour drive to our gîte which was our base for the next two weeks.

Sunday 10th July

This particular Sunday afternoon, we took advantage of the special day return rate to Jersey from St Malo operated by Condor Ferries. Check-in for the 1330 to St Helier was swift but I thought 60 minutes in advance for foot passengers seemed excessive. However, given we had to pass through customs, have our bags and passports checked, wait in a further departure lounge and board a shuttle bus before we even got near to the vessel, I could see how the 60 minutes could easily disappear.

Condor Rapide at St Helier. Copyright David Robertson

Once off the shuttle bus, to board Condor Rapide we still had to walk down the linkspan via a designated walkway and negotiate the stairs from the car deck to the passenger accommodation. Each passenger has an allocated seat which is shown on your boarding pass — a system that works well as long as people actually sit in the seat they have been allocated. After kindly asking others to move on who had misread their seat numbers, we were ensconced in our own row of airline-style seating, in time to watch the airline-style safety briefing which was relayed via screens at various points around the lounge areas.

As this was a particularly busy sailing, the onboard experience was not too pleasant, especially as there was not a great deal of outside deck space to escape to. Given the choice I would always opt for a conventional ferry over a fast craft, but Condor does not operate a conventional ferry between France and the Channel Islands. Onboard catering was expensive but the price of coffee was reasonable and we took advantage of the coffee-and-cake offer. We arrived in a rather wet St Helier at 1340 – granted the crossing hadn’t lasted 10 minutes but we were back on UK time once more. We disembarked via the car deck and were soon navigating through a series of tunnels to reach immigration. Our passports were checked and then we were released into the arrivals hall, which was like an airport terminal with many people waiting for loved ones. Just after our arrival, Condor Liberation (Condor’s other fast craft which links Jersey with St Peter Port in Guernsey and Poole in Dorset) arrived and was alongside the adjacent berth. We had a lovely visit in St Helier and were able to enjoy high street shops more familiar to us than those in France. It was unfortunate that it was Sunday as I’d promised my wife a visit to M&S but it was shut! 

Our return ferry was at 1945 so we had plenty time for a dinner out before the sailing back. The return was far more pleasant as it was much quieter: lots of space to move around and my children had the run of the children’s area with soft play and TV. We returned to St Malo just after 2145 in glorious conditions. We were soon driving through the deserted streets of St Malo heading back to our accommodation. The final of Euro 2016 was underway and most of the population were glued to their screens or devices to watch France’s eventual defeat to Portugal!

Departure from Roscoff — a terminal with links to no fewer than four ports in three countries. Copyright David Robertson

Monday 18th July

Our time in France was coming to an end. To travel back to the UK, rather than retrace our steps and head north east to Ouistreham, we opted to drive two hours west to Roscoff, visiting an area of France we had never been to before. We reached there in good time and had a chance to explore the unexpectedly charming town prior to heading for the terminal to check in for the 1500 sailing to Plymouth on Armorique

The ostensibly unassuming terminal in western Brittany actually has links to no fewer than four ports in three countries operated by two different companies. Brittany Ferries has a daily service to Plymouth (Armorique and Pont Aven), a Friday overnight service to Cork in Ireland (Pont Aven) and a weekly service to Bilbao in Spain (Cap Finistère). The latter is part of a two-night journey from Portsmouth, which calls at Roscoff for a couple of hours on a Monday morning to facilitate a crew change as this vessel is not otherwise scheduled to call at any French port. Irish Ferries also operates to Rosslare using Oscar Wilde, alternating its French port between Roscoff and Cherbourg.

We were safely checked in and ready to board by 1330. Loading commenced half an hour later. We boarded via the huge stern ramp, drove up one of the internal ramps and turned and were parked facing the stern on the upper vehicle deck. The method of loading was both efficient and well executed and very entertaining for my children. Once in the passenger areas, we made our way to our well appointed ‘Club Plus’ cabin which is the highest level of cabin available on Armorique. Four berths, table, chairs, mini bar, TV, DVD player, en suite and the complementary fresh fruit and macarons. The cabin was on deck nine and its window afforded a lovely view of the quayside and out to sea. As we were aboard a good hour prior to the scheduled departure, we were able to explore the most recently built of the Brittany Ferries fleet. Her extensive upper deck was busy with sun bathers as the temperature was over 30°C. She has a fresh, modern feel with the colours of Brittany evident throughout. Having recently had scrubbers fitted, she now has a rather squat funnel. 

Boarding Armorique. Copyright David Robertson

Our departure was on time and soon we were powering our way across the western channel towards Devon. Time on board to relax in the cabin, have a meal in the restaurant and for the children to enjoy some of the children’s entertainment. The onboard experience with Brittany Ferries is second to none and the meals prepared on board represent excellent value.

The crossing was calm and relaxing and all too soon the Devon and Cornish coastlines were on the horizon. Having never been here before, I found the approach to Plymouth very interesting. We weaved our way towards the berth past the breakwater and were soon alongside on schedule at 2010. Unlike in Portsmouth, the ship seems to berth slap bang in the city centre and I remember thinking it was funny to see people playing tennis in the evening sunshine just a stone’s throw from the top deck.

Disembarkation was quick and was a reverse of boarding insofar as we turned around again, drove down the internal ramp and disembarked via the bow. Here we experienced the only downside of the whole journey. The entire load of cars was marshalled again directly next to the berth and then took the best part of 45 minutes to clear passport control. This, in my opinion, was not the ferry company’s fault. Two booths for a very full ferry seemed slightly inadequate. It was clear in my view that the Plymouth terminal is their oldest and perhaps most restricted in terms of space to expand. Once through passport control we were soon on our way.

I would recommend anyone considering a self-drive holiday to France to travel with Brittany Ferries. The onboard experience is excellent and everything from the online booking to the facilities is first class. I would also suggest taking a cabin as it’s worth the extra and gives you somewhere to fully relax. I can’t wait for my family’s next Brittany Ferries adventure. Even my wife, neither a ferry lover nor hater, said the whole travelling experience had been amazing and my eldest asked ‘Why can’t Brittany Ferries run to Rothesay?’

Bretagne at St Malo. Copyright David Robertson

Sunbathing on Armorique in 30-degree temperatures: a fresh, modern feel with the colours of Brittany evident throughout. Copyright David Robertson

Loading at St Helier. Copyright David Robertson

Cap Finistère sets off from Portsmouth on a two-night voyage to Bilbao via Roscoff. Copyright David Robertson


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Published on 16 May 2017