Getting there and away
European Union (EU) nationals, including those from the UK, may visit France as indefinite tourists providing they have passports valid for at least three months beyond their length of stay; visitors from some EU countries need only a national ID card. No visa is needed for visitors from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the USA and non-European countries, who can stay for up to 90 days; visitors from non-EU countries, however, may have to justify their reason for entry and have sufficient funds to pay for a return journey.
Further information for UK visitors can be found at www.fco.gov.uk or www.worldtravelguide.net/france; non-EU visitors should consult their respective French embassies or consulates.
While it’s wiser to book in advance, it is also possible to turn up and wait for the next available space. However, what ever way you buy your ticket, one thing is certain. Thanks to a sea change – literally – which saw the introduction of almost cruise-type vessels, the predicted drop, or even demise, of ferry crossings following the opening of the Channel Tunnel never happened – though one cheeky cut-price interloper went bust a few years back. Instead you have a straight choice to go under or over the Channel – the advantage of going under is that the Tunnel offers a 35-minute journey time and is not prone to bad weather, especially handy in the winter. It is good, too, to see renewed interest in Boulogne, with at least one company now operating the popular short-break route. Another, at the time of writing, was still promising to start a similar service to Boulogne from Ramsgate.
Getting there and away
Before the opening of the Channel Tunnel in 1994, a virtual cross-Channel cartel kept car-ferry fares fairly high. Since then keen competition, not just between major ferry companies but also with the car shuttle service through the tunnel, has seen some great deals and a wider range of fares. Online booking, which is what both the ferries and the shuttle now prefer, gives you a better chance of tracking down discounts. These can be seasonal, along with deals available for early or late bookings. Ringing first to check what’s the cheapest is a good bet; you can still book online to get the discount.
Check out flat-rate fares; these include the car and up to nine passengers. Minibreaks, too, can help cut costs. The most expensive fare period runs from early July to mid-August, also around Easter and school holidays. Weekday and night crossing fares are invariably less expensive than those at the weekends.
International flights, including those from the UK, fly direct to Paris’s Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport. Of the major scheduled airlines, American Airlines (www.americanairlines.co.uk), Delta Airlines (www.delta.com) and Continental Airlines (www.continental.com) offer direct flights from major US cities (New York, Boston, Chicago, Boston, Miami and Dallas among them); Air Canada (www.aircanada.com) likewise serves Paris from Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. Flights from Australia and New Zealand are feasible with both QANTAS (www.quantas.com.au) and Air New Zealand (www.airnewzealand.com) respectively, with a host of handy one-night stopover flights from a huge variety of national airlines flying from mainland Asian airports. Consult the major airfare comparison websites for further details.
From Roissy-Charles de Gaulle take the 51-minute TGV train to Lille from the station at the Air France terminal; Air France (www.airfrance.com) sells through tickets to Lille. These run daily every 20 minutes from 06.00 to 23.00. There is a further 50-minute TGV service to Arras that runs from 06.45 to 21.00. There are connecting or direct links to other major centres in the region, including St-Omer, Calais and Boulogne.
Alternatively, international flights to Brussels airport across the border, though more limited in number, connect with a regular 42-minute TGV rail service to Lille. Tickets for this can be booked in advance.
A few flights operate to other European cities from Lille Lesquin airport which is heavily used for charter flights to the Mediterranean. This is 8km by shuttle bus or taxi from the town centre.
This is the high-speed passenger train which runs at up to 300km/h on its own dedicated line from London St Pancras to Paris and Brussels via the Channel Tunnel. Some trains make intermediate stops at Ebbsfleet International and/or Ashford International in Kent and, on the French side of the Channel, in Calais Fréthun (three services per day) and Lille Europe (generally eight services per day). Journey time is one hour from London to Calais and one hour 20 minutes to Lille. Advance booking is essential, and during busy periods the earlier you book, the greater chance you have of getting a cheap fare. Tickets can be purchased up to 120 days in advance, although this is reduced to 83 days if you are combining your Eurostar ticket with a National Rail ticket from one of over 100 UK stations.
Travelling with a disability
While accessibility is given high priority, travel in a wheelchair can have its difficulties. You can’t, for instance, avoid the cobbled streets which add so much to the character of many towns. What you can be pretty certain of is that at least most hotels, gîtes and other types of accommodation show the ‘tourisme et handicap’ label. So do many sightseeing attractions. This indicates accessibility for those with a variety of visual, oral and mental impairments. Many are old buildings so watch out for stairs, or check that a lift is available if needed. Of the seaside resorts, Berck-sur-Mer among others can provide beach-buggy type wheel-chairs.
Driving through Nord-Pas de Calais is the simplest way to see the region. Traffic on what are some of northern France’s busiest roads is still relatively light compared to those across the Channel. Admittedly, driving around Lille in rush hour can be horrendous; the same, to a far lesser extent, applies to Valenciennes. Le Touquet’s grid system is interesting/confusing… take your pick. But, peak periods apart – the busiest time being around 17.00 – even those cities are less daunting than some UK ones. Lunchtime, being quieter, is an ideal time to arrive, though restaurants will be busier so it is advised to book first if you can. Calais and Boulogne are ideally suited to introductory sorties, especially along the quieter coastal region roads.
by French rail travel expert Peter Mills
While most visitors to Nord-Pas de Calais opt to go by car, there is a lot to be said for taking the train. The combination of Eurostar, which gets you from the UK to the region in a remarkably short time, and an extensive network of local trains serving towns both large and small, makes for a relaxing way of getting around. Not only is rail travel far less polluting, but it has the added advantage of allowing you to have a drink or two with lunch. And while a little forward planning is, of course, necessary, it’s easy when you know how.