Taking children on the ferry to France

Ferry or not to ferry, that is the question.

Whether is nobler to fill up the petrol tank and cram everything you own into the family hatchback or suffer the high-season airline check-in queues, baggage weigh-in dread and hire car roulette?

For the first time, we are trying the ferry to France as a family. 

The crossing from Portsmouth to St Malo on the Bretagne with Brittany Ferries is 11 hours and we selected an overnight voyage in the hope of sleeping the time away and arriving in the morning, fresh for our onward journey to the Vendee.

We decided to treat it as a bonus extra day of the holiday rather than a seemingly endless trek to decent weather and myriad French pastries.

Chugging out of the harbour as the sun was setting afforded a backstage peek at the Portsmouth’s Navy docks with close-ups of frigates and sailors in uniform, fascinating for the kids (and others if that’s your bag).

Brittany Ferries

The unexpected entertainment onboard is enjoyable holiday hotel fare for all ages, with kids disco/entertainment show, followed by singers and magician/comedian.

So, dump your stuff in the cabin, join the audience and have a drink, or eat at Le Cafe, the self-service restaurant Le Baule (mains around £8, children’s menu – meal, drink, dessert and toy bag £5.50) and the more upmarket a la carte restaurant next to the piano bar.

The onboard cinema had two shows at 9pm – the very current Despicable Me 3 or War for the Planet of the Apes.

I was hoping to be rocked to sleep the gentle motion of the waves – we were lucky enough to have a calm crossing – but in fact we felt very little movement in the pull-down bunks in our Deck 8 cabins.

Sailing into St Malo the next morning accompanied by guard of leaping dolphins as the dawn light turned the clouds, sky and sea every shade of blue was a beautiful welcome to La Belle France.

Full details of prices and times can be found on the Brittany Ferries website.

The view of Portsmouth from the Bretagne
The view of Portsmouth from the Bretagne

Big Planet Travel’s top tips for taking the ferry

  1. Pack a separate overnight bag as there isn’t time or space to rifle through suitcases for a toothbrush and spare pair of knickers when you embark and you aren’t allowed to return to your vehicle once the ferry has left port. Children arriving in onesies seems like an eminently sensible idea.
  2. Get some of the off-on-our-hols giddiness out of the kids before bed by dropping into the bar for singing and dancing fun with the entertainment crew.
  3. The snack cafe serving pizzas and sandwiches was scheduled to shut at 9.30pm but we missed out on its hot food offering by turning up at 9.20pm. On an 8.15pm sailing that is quite a tight turnaround to watch the ferry sail out of the harbour, have a drink while kids watch the children’s entertainment show then start thinking about getting something to eat. There are other, more expensive, options.
  4. Once out in the middle of the Channel take advantage of lack of light pollution on a clear night. There is a spectacular light show to be witnessed while lying on one of a bench on the upper decks of the Bretagne courtesy of the stars.
  5. Definitely get a cabin. The free chairs are very comfy and slightly reclinable, and the ferry is surprisingly quiet overnight other than the engine noise, but as with most people we were driving some distance afterwards so a decent night’s sleep was a must. Even if we weren’t, spending the first two days of any holiday absolutely wrung out is no fun for anyone.

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