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Barely 20 miles separate England from France across the Strait of Dover. And though the Channel Tunnel now takes a lot of traffic that might hitherto have gone by sea, there are still plenty of ships anxious to berth in Dover – which remains Europe’s busiest ferry port. This week, we’ll take a look at ferries that ply this narrow stretch of water between Kent and the continent.
Of course, there are plenty of other ferry options, many of them with much longer crossing times than the short but sweet shipping routes which we highlight here. Those longer options includes several North Sea crossings from the eastern England ports of Harwich, Hull and Newcastle to the continent. And there are also a range of routes linking the south and southwest England ports of Newhaven, Portsmouth, Poole, Weymouth and Plymouth with France and Spain. The “short-sea” routes on which we focus below are all year-round services.
Four companies compete with ferry services from the Kent coast to the continent, three running from Dover to France and the fourth operating out of Ramsgate to Belgium.
Cruise-ferry comfort with P&O
Top choice from Dover to Calais is P&O, which offers cruise-ferry comfort on the 90-minute crossing to France. The company currently shuttles to and fro 46 times each day, but services will be a shade less frequent in the quieter winter months (from early January to mid-March 2012).
These are wonderful, well-appointed ships. Crossing the Channel by sea is a chance to relax, see the White Cliffs of Dover and recall how that short stretch of water separating Kent from the French coast so powerfully shaped English identity.
Daytime-only for foot passengers
This P&O ferry route to Calais is the only route from Dover on which foot passengers are permitted. And remember that foot passengers may not use night services. They are restricted to daytime sailings (viz. sailings that leave Dover between 8:10 a.m. and 7:35 p.m. or those that leave Calais between 6:30 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.).
One-way fares for a car (including up to nine passengers if you can squeeze that number in) start at £25 single, and that fare also applies to car travelers wanting to return the same day – good for shoppers making a day excursion to France to stock up on cheap wines and French deli produce.
By coach and ship to France: Eurolines
Selected departures on Eurolines’ London to Paris express bus service also use the P&O shipping service from Dover. (Others take the less romantic option: the Eurotunnel vehicle shuttle). Services using the ferry are marked as such on the Eurolines timetables.
Grab one of Eurolines’ Advance Single fares and you may pay as little as £29 for the one-way ride from London to Paris, with a short cruise with P&O along the way.
DFDS and Sea France
Two other companies operate from Dover to French ports, namely Sea France (to Calais) and DFDS (to Dunquerque). Neither carry foot passengers, although the DFDS services will carry cyclists – and they have a very reasonable £10 one-way fare that covers both cyclist and bike.
Ramsgate: A link to Belgium
Kent’s second port at Ramsgate is very much smaller than Dover. Ramsgate is north of Dover and the travel time from London to both ports (whether by car or by train) is broadly similar.
Transeuropa Ferries offer thrice-daily services from Ramsgate to Oostende in Belgium. Crossing time is 4hrs 30mins (so more than twice as long as on services from Dover to France). Transeuropa do not carry foot passengers – a travesty as the ferry port in Oostende is right by the train station and this route would be so convenient for rail-sea travellers.
And – surely this must be against the law – Transuropa say that, for the time being, they will not accept cars that have a passenger who relies on a wheelchair. We have never used a Transeuropa ferry, but we understand from those who have that there is little by way of creature comforts.