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Euro Holiday Value

restaurant Terasse

I love the BBC and am extremely grateful to be able to tune into BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4 through a free-sat receiver here in France.

I rarely look further than the beeb’s listings when planning a night-in in front of the box and to keep up with the news I join Bill and Sian on most mornings. I do however feel that sometimes they get the wrong end of the stick especially when reporting on comparisons between the UK and France because I reckon I know better!

Today (it must be a slow news day) they are discussing the expense of holidaying in the Euro-zone and I suppose that they may have a point when looking at the prices of eating out in say Venice or many of the Mediterranean resorts. Here in the Pas de Calais however, it is very different. Our local shops and restaurants are not in it for the fast buck to be made during a short 8 week season they cater to an all year round trade which seems to make for good value for money.

I must admit that when sterling fell against the Euro around 3 years ago I started to “do a shop” when passing Tesco or Sainsbury’s on my way back from the occasional visit to the UK and I must admit that for around 18 months I considered I was a few quid in. After that I began to notice that what used to cost around £80 was creeping up to 90 then it nudged 100 and finally on my last trip I shelled out £120, it was then that I actually started to make proper comparisons. Of course there are things that I just can’t get in France, baked beans and Marmite to mention just two but for those items that I can substitute or if I can get the same thing here I am back to confining my shopping to our French supermarkets.

Wine, cheese, pate croissants and bread are cheaper, better and tastier in France. A simple baguette is subsidised by the state so will cost you only around 50 pence and French wine is still a bargain, if you search the supermarket shelves you will find a very decent tipple for next to nothing. I have discovered in our local branch of lntermarche, a palatable Muscat Sec for just 1 Euro 80 centimes.

General tourism wins hands down too, entrance fees to most tourist attractions compare very favourably with those in the UK and if you’re visiting a city for culture and sight seeing, remember, in France you don’t have to negotiate heavily congested roads. You just glide through the picturesque countryside of France until you reach your destination then joy of all joys  parking is easy and usually free or cheap.

For a short time petrol seemed cheaper in the UK but now prices are a bit lower here and if diesel is your vehicle’s tipple you will find it well worth waiting to fill up in France.  Which brings me to crossing the water, whichever carrier you chose I am absolutely sure that it will be more enjoyable than the usual “airport experience”, it’s cheaper too and even helps with your carbon footprint.

I think what sums it all up for me is that the top hotel in Fort Mahon, Hotel La Terasse, which has an excellent restaurant, offers a 3 course menu for less than 16 Euros and in most cafes you can sip an excellent coffee for a little over one Euro. Yes France is a great place for a family holiday or a break for couples it’s easy to get to and will not break the bank – so what are you waiting for an invitation from Sarkozy?

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Holiday comfort: it’s all in the detail

Last week we took a break from our Sandboys gites and went to Brussels for a short stay.

Scanning the last-minute booking sites on the internet for a decent city centre hotel, we came across the Hotel du Grand Sablon, one of the NH Hotels group, 4 star rated, conveniently situated in the centre of Brussels and offering a bargain discount rate for the period we wanted. “Grand Sablon” sounded an ideal place for the sandboys, so we booked it.

4 star hotel not as comfortable as Sandboys Gites

The NH Hotel du Grand Sablon in Brussels - it needs a bedroom re-design

You would expect a hotel in a major group to offer pretty much everything its guests wanted, and at first glance our room seemed adequately roomy, comfortable and well equipped. It should be, after all, they probably have a whole design department that exists only to ensure that their rooms appeal to their clients. But it wasn’t long before we started to notice the errors and omissions.

First, the TV didn’t work – a maintenance worker was sent for and dicovered a loose aerial connection. The WiFi didn’t work, either, but that wasn’t of much interest to us so we didn’t make a fuss. The room’s major drawback, however, was a basic design error – something the corporate design department should have identified before investing group money in thousands of identical rooms, in dozens of their hotels all over Europe. The problem was one of a serious lack of mirrors.

Exterior of European Parliament building, Brussels

The European Parliament building

Now, we had been invited to Brussels to attend an event at the European Parliament building, so obviously a reasonable standard of turnout was required. Since the only mirror was in the bathroom, it wasn’t possible for Sue to put on her makeup or do her hair while I was in the shower creating lots of steam and condensation. After the shower, and an interval to clear the steam from the mirror, Sue could start to get her face on. Meanwhile I was choosing my suit (yes, I have more than one!) and trying on shirts but I couldn’t get to the mirror to see the effect, because the space in front of the mirror was now occupied.

Things got worse when Sue started to do her hair. Although there was a hairdryer fixed to the bathroom wall, her hair styling gizmo could only be plugged in in the bedroom, so she couldn’t get it closer than about 10 ft from the mirror. While she cursed, squinting through the bathroom door at her distant reflection, I dodged backwards and forwards in different suit/shirt combinations, trying to check my appearance without getting in her way.

Interior of Sandboys Pearl, one of our luxury seaside gites in Northern France

Inside one of our Sandboys gites

So, to come to the point, a little forethought in the NH Hotel Group design department would have led to the realisation that a full length mirror and a dressing table mirror, with an electrical socket nearby, would be absolutely essential to guests’ comfort. A little routine maintenance would have solved the TV problem before it became a problem, and if you advertise WiFi, you should make sure it works.

Now, we may not be running 4 star hotels at Sandboys, but we’re not charging 4 star hotel prices, either, so our bedrooms ALL have full length mirrors and, though there may not be space for a dressing table, there is somewhere for you to plug in your gizmos (safely) within reach of the bathroom mirror.

And our TVs are checked every week.

By the way, Brussels is about 3 hours easy driving time and Paris only 2 hours, from the Sandboys gites in Fort Mahon.

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Oh, No! Not Gatwick Again!!

Originally posted at 1:00 am, March 19th 2011.

We’ve just got back from Guernsey where our son and daughter-in-law live with our adorable grandchildren. Each time we visit them we take what looks like a rather roundabout route. First we cross from our home in France to the UK. The Channel Tunnel terminal near Calais is an easy and comfortable hour’s drive from our home. We usually have only 20 – 30 minutes of waiting for our shuttle, then we’re whisked through the tunnel in just 35 minutes. Unfortunately our arrival at Folkestone heralds another 75 minutes or so of driving on busy British motorways to Gatwick Airport (otherwise known as Hell-On-Earth).

And that’s where the worst part of our journey starts. Here we endure a couple of hours of waiting, among crowds of other anxious but hopeful travellers, before boarding a Flybe no-frills flight to Guernsey. After 10 minutes or so of sitting on the plane waiting for the ready signal, we enjoy a 10 minute trundle across the airport tarmac before bracing ourselves for take-off. We’re usually in the air for only about 50 minutes, so there’s hardly time for the staff to wheel the coffee trolley the length of the aisle before the landing. There’s a 3 minute walk from the plane across the tarmac into the airport building, a mere 5 minutes wait for our baggage and finally, at last, a pleasant 10 minute car ride to our destination.

So, after a long 7 hours of travelling we have arrived at our destination – just 200 miles, as the crow flies, from the place we started from.

Dinard Airport - the Islander aircraft boards for Guernsey

The only reason we take this route is because the alternative is an almost 5 hour drive – albeit on wonderfully quiet and unobstructed French roads – to St Malo where a rather unreliable and spasmodic ferry service operates to Guernsey. It doesn’t run in fog or other sorts of bad weather, and they sometimes cancel scheduled crossings if there aren’t a lot of passengers booked.

True, there are flights from Dinard airport. It’s only 15 minutes or so more driving time than the ferry terminal at St Malo, but unfortunately the tiny Islander aircraft operated by the Channel Islands Aurigny airline, are just as weather dependent as the ferry, perhaps even more so.

So, to be sure of a relatively reliable journey, mostly unaffected by fog or strong wind, we are obliged every couple of months to brave the horrors of Gatwick airport, where families queue sometimes for 15 minutes just for the opportunity to remove their shoes, belts and any metallic contents from their pockets before being frisked by someone they’ve never met before. Many of them will undergo the indignity of having their hand-luggage unpacked and searched in full view of all, and everyone has an unnecessarily long wait in a shopping centre so that the airport can make a profit on shop and restaurant rents.

Fortunately for most Sandboys customers, getting here from UK usually involves no more than taking a ferry or the channel tunnel for a quick, comfortable, reliable and relatively cheap start to their holidays.

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