Eurotrip!! So, this is the big test. A jaunt over to Disneyland Paris and going via road, in the TD4. The anticipation is palpable. The child is manic. The wine is flowing. The main question on everyone’s lips, once they stop laughing, is: ‘Will you get there…?’. Now, I am not overtly religious, however I have a crucifix blessed by Benedictine Monks on top of the CB, a St Christopher (from the same monastery shop) near the gear stick, and the assurance from AVS garage that the car ‘should be ok’. After all, its only a Land Rover Freelander with over 180,000 miles on the clock. Good enough for me!
There has been a great deal of preparation for this trip, as things are vastly more complicated than they were a few years ago when I last went over there (in the Range Rover in 1998). This is a list of some of the things you have to do before going to Europe from the UK:
- Car Insurance – ensure yours covers Europe, and make the necessary changes!
- Breakdown cover – The AA was 3 times the price of the RAC – guess who got the business?
- Dartford Crossing – we have to use this to get to Kent (from where we live), and you now have to go online to pay
- Clean Air Certificate – You cannot drive in Paris without one (or a few other French cities)
- European Driving Kit for the car – including, amongst other things, Hi-Viz vests for all and a breathalyser kit
In light of this, I have written a separate ‘Guide to Driving in Europe’, which you can read by clicking here.
All of tis is before booking tickets, hotels and so on! It also included an argument with the AA, as they were so expensive. Turns out they will not bring your car back to the UK if the cost of the car is less than the cost of getting it back home. My car is basically worthless, so it was not a good policy! The RAC will do it regardless on their top package, which as almost £100 cheaper than the AA. Shame, as the AA are very good in the UK.
Preparations began on the Sunday (13th August) as I started to get the car packed. With the new Roof Box, I had hoped to get lots of adventuring kit loaded up (90% of which will probably never get used), thus freeing up the boot for less essential things – like out luggage. I had masterfully packed the roof box to perfection when I was informed we would be taking the wheelchair. This single act meant a complete repacking of said roof box and boot, and in the end it left us a bit short on space, with one wheelchair wheel becoming Erin’s travelling companion in the back seat.
A good clean was next on the agenda. The car may be old, but I wanted to present a good impression of British drivers by displaying a clean and tidy vehicle. It took a while, as everything was cleaned – including ‘Back To Black’-ing the bumpers and cleaning all the plastic bits in the engine bay. The car had never looked so showroom fresh. After a couple of hours of profuse sweating, the car was ready. Clean, packed, fluids and pressures checked. She was ready for the off. Now it was a case of charging up anything with a battery and getting some sleep. Easy for me, not so easy for Erin.
The morning of the 14th was a pleasant one. We were up and ready nice and early, and despite my plans of leaving later in the day to avoid rush hour traffic, we were off around 8 am. In terms of driving, this was probably the worst part of the trip. There were about 5 junctions worth of ’50 mph Average Speed Camera’ road works, followed by a complete standstill 4 junctions before Luton. It was a complete crawl down the M1. Although we were in no hurry, it was still very annoying. By the time we got to South Mimms service station (junction 23 on the M25), it was 10.15 am. We had a fry up at Harry Ramsden’s and were back on the road by 11.30. We cracked on with the journey down to Folkestone, and the Premier Inn next to the Channel Tunnel, just off the M20. It was a straightforward run, and we all enjoyed the Queen Elizabeth Bridge crossing at Dartford. I remember when the bridge was being built. It is an amazing piece of engineering, and never fails to impress. We got to the hotel around 2 pm, and had a bit of a rest before deciding what to do next.
As seems to be our way these days – one thing sprang to our attention – the National Trust. They have loads of places in the South East of England, so we aimed for an obvious one; The White Cliffs of Dover. It is an awe inspiring view. Steeped in history, mentions of the Battle Of Britain everywhere, and there is a truly English feel to the whole place. This was offset by a large group of eastern Europeans yelling at an old man in the car park as he merrily smashed his way out of a parking space by ramming the cars both in front and behind him as he did a 490 point turn. Ahh, to be in England in the summer. The walking and the heat were getting to Shani who was struggling to cope with either (she had her crutches but the wheelchair is not designed for off-roading). We had a quick wander up to look down over the passenger port of Dover, and to catch our first glimpse of Calais across the water. The narrow footpaths that took you further along the coast were very crowded, so we went back to the shop and grabbed an ice cream. We then took a leisurely drive westwards down the coast looking for interesting places. We found one not too far away.
This came in the form of Samphire Hoe. The name alone grabs your attention, and the method of getting there (via a single lane tunnel through the cliff, controlled by traffic lights and CCTV) makes it even more intriguing. It turns out that this area was once home to a couple fo small fishing shacks, but in the late 1980’s when the channel tunnel was built, for some reason they decided to dump everything taken out of the tunnel into this bay, thereby reclaiming a chunk of land. It is now a huge rectangle of concrete jutting out into the ocean, the concrete covering all the rock taken out from under the channel and dumped there. There is also a monument/large plaque commemorating all those who lost their lives during the construction of said tunnel. Good for fishing, with a small visitor centre and a little shop, thee was not a huge amount to do there. We had a quick look around before heading for our final destination of the day – Dungeness.
Dungeness is, it transpires, a nature reserve which is on a spit of land that just out the bottom of the country. When we got there, it actually looked like a scene from a Zombie Apocalypse movie. Small shacks were dotted around a barren wasteland, with a large volume of flying insects populating all available airspace. We drove around it quickly for fear of a Deliverance style ending to a good day. Safely back at the hotel, we ambled over to the Table Table restaurant for a lovely meal, delivered by some lovely people (Mel, the manager and Chloe, our waitress for the night being two of them). Suitable fed and ready for bed, we crashed out in nice comfy beds ready for a stupidly early start on Tuesday.
By the end of day one we had already amassed 242.8 miles. The car was holding fast, and despite all the abuse we and it had taken from the naysayers, there were no problems so far. Things were looking good.
The holiday proper starts! In a manner befitting any holiday, it was chucking it down with rain outside. We made a very early start, as the train was departing at 20 past 6 in the morning. We were up at 4 am. I say we, Shani and me were up. It was another battle to raise the little one from her slumber. Getting to the channel tunnel was not straightforward. I have written a more adult version of events, which I will not put here. Email me for details! Suffice to say that a lack of signposts, a lack of light, a lack of sat nave help, a lack of human interaction and an abundance of rain made it the challenge of the day. Once we eventually found the entrance, everything is electronic until you get to passport control. Once there its fairly straightforward, and getting on the high sided vehicle carriages was easy enough. The mileage sat at 247.5 miles when we got on the train. I reset the trip clock to 0 in anticipation of the second leg. The train left on time and 30 minutes later we had arrived in France.
As we emerged from the train (around 10 to 8), it was self evident that the weather was equally as bad in Calais as it was in Folkestone. The upside was that it was getting light, and the rain was easing up. The road out of the terminal is a one way street which spits you out onto the A26/E15. Now, there is an interesting thing about the roads in France. Their main motorways are all prefixed by the letter ‘A’. Alongside that you will see a letter ‘E’ with a number. The ‘E’ number designates the European network of roads as decided by the United Nations. It stretches across Europe and there are even E road designations for UK roads, which the UK government choose not to show on signposts. This can be a bit confusing (read all about the E road system here) but it is, in fact, quite an easy run from Calais to Disneyland Paris.
Just to be consistent with the blog, the roads we took were the A26/E15, A1/E15 and the A104. That is essentially the route in a nutshell. Not far along the road we pulled in at a service station to grab some breakfast. Pretty much everything was in English and the British vehicles outnumbered the French at this juncture. From there we ploughed on down to Disneyland with only one brief stop to pay a toll (21.70 Euro’s). It was a very boring drive. The main difference I noticed between the French motorways and the British ones is the French ones run through the countryside. There were literally only fields around us until we get very close to Paris itself. At one point we passed through Charles De Gaulle airport, the second biggest airport in Europe after London Heathrow. From a driving point of view, you go under a series of bridges, above which were the runways. Planes were taxi-ing above us as we drove through. We eventually arrived at the Hotel at 12 noon. From Calais to the hotel was 200.6 miles. The car had done us proud, and got us to Paris without breaking down. Big hugs for the Freelander!
There was a huge amount of security at the hotel we were in (The Newport Bay, one of the Disney park hotels). There were guards on the road with a checkpoint, barrier and anti ramming devices that drop down into the road to let you in. Then every bag you take in is X-Rayed (in a small tent outside the hotel entrance). This is followed by Airport style wanding metal detection as you go into the hotel. You appreciate this level of security up until the third trip to the car, then it becomes annoying. After the fourth trip you wish you had stayed in a different hotel and the fifth time you wish you hadn’t bothered going! Anyway, after that annoyance, a superb member of staff got us checked in early, and we were able to unpack and hit the park.
The sun had decided to show itself at last, as we walked from the hotel down to the park. There is a large lake at the back of the hotel, the path down the side of this leads you to the Disney Village. This is a conglomeration of shops and eateries of various types. Most of the food was based around the Burger family of foods. Accordingly, our first meal was at Planet Hollywood. Erin’s excitement was growing, and she had to be forcibly dragged away from the shops after we had lunch, and went to the park proper.
The look on the face of an 8 year old as they gaze down ‘Main Street USA’ in Disneyland is worth the price of admission on its own. I was slightly concerned that her head was going to physically explode with excitement! We made a quick stop so Shani could get her disabled pass, then we went exploring. We found the park a bit tricky to navigate initially as the signage is not great, and each section is almost hidden from the others, but we sussed it eventually, having walked around Skull Island half a dozen times. The first ride of the day was Big Thunder Mountain. A Disney classic and a good introduction to grown up roller coasters for Erin. Not much queuing thanks to the disabled card, and we were loaded into the rear car. I sat with Erin, as she held me in some form of death vice. As the ride began, she relaxed a little, especially during the outside sections. As we headed back to the start line, we entered a tunnel and the top of the final drop, and the coaster stopped. We sat and waited in the darkness, then the crying began. After about 5 minutes or so, the lights came on and an announcement that the ride was experiencing ‘Technical Issues’ came over the tannoy. It was then announced that Shani had to be rescued by the Fore & Rescue services and everybody had to wait until they turned up before hey were allowed to get off and walk out. Erin went into meltdown. I lightened the mood by playing the Indiana Jones theme tune on my phone. It broke the tension, and calmed everyone down.
A few minutes later, the Fire & Rescue guy turned up, and all passengers bar us got off and walked out. Backup was called for as they had to lift Shani out of the car and carry her out to her wheelchair. This took a bit of time, and was not the best start to our Disney odyssey. Not much of an apology was forthcoming from the staff either. We moved on. Next we went to Pirates Of The Caribbean. We had got a ticket with a time on it before we went on Big Thunder Mountain, as we had the wheelchair. Owing to the breakdown and a massive thunder storm that saw us taking shelter in a cave near Skull Island, we had missed our time slot for Pirates, but they took pity and eventually let us on. We all, Erin included. loved it. After the earlier trauma’s we called it a day and went back to the hotel for food and sleep.
The first meal we had in the hotel was at the ‘Yacht Club’ restaurant. We had the Half Board Plus food package, so expected something great from an A La Carte restaurant in a 4 star Disney hotel. It turns out there is a single page from said menu for this option with a couple of limited choices. It was, without any shadow of doubt, the single worse meal I have ever had in a hotel. The main course (pictured right) consisted on a couple of giant spring onions with what I presume was some form of anorexic chicken. Vile. I decided to get a bottle of red. This was extra, as were any other drinks (bar a single free soft drink each). We then ordered 2 cokes and a fruit mocktail for Erin. It cost 46 Euro’s for these! We made a unanimous decision to never eat there again. Ever. At all.
We went to bed a little deflated after a broken down ride and some form of warm mush for dinner. We were pinning our hopes on the rest of the week to make up for this faltering start.
DAYS 3 & 4
With one minor trip down the road to the Esso garage to get some snacks, the car took a well earned rest. Our time was spent Disney-ing it up in and around the parks. Undeterred by the disasters of Day 2, we were determined to make the most of days 3 and 4. We kick started Day 3 early, taking advantage of the Early Bird entry for Disney Hotel guests. We got there around about half 8 and headed straight for the Star Tours ride. It was shut. We did find another Star Wars themed ride open – Hyperspace Mountain. This is a roller coaster formerly named Space Mountain. See what they did there? Yes – the Star Wars brand was once again being given a good Disney thrashing. Being a huge SW fan, I was not complaining. I had not been on this ride before so was unsure what to expect. Erin was also very apprehensive but the bribe of 2 stuffed toys if she went on it worked. Retrospectively I probably should have listened to Erin. The whole thing is in pitch black with holographic Star Wars movies playing at various intervals. It was fast, very fast. We were shot up, down, left, fight, upside down – basically thrown all over the place. After the 4 minutes or so was up, we all staggered off the ride. Erin absolutely hated every second of it, and Shani was in full agreement with her. Even I felt a tad nauseous. Still, one down!
We grabbed a bit of breakfast with our vouchers (a Pain Au Chocolat and an orange juice) before going back to Pirates Of The Caribbean again, at Erin’s insistence. We were first on and only 6 were in our boat. It was as good as ever. Just what we needed after the hectic Hyperspace earlier. We then took a little stroll and had a couple of goes on the very gentle Tea Cups ride. The weather was still holding out in our favour, which is good news on the outdoor rides. After that it was off to my favourite – Star Tours. A cunningly named Star Wars themed ride. They are ingenious! It was awesome, although Erin was a little unsure. The Star Tours shop made up for it and I had to leave before a re-mortgage on the house would have been required.
Hunger kicked in, so we went back to the Village and had a late lunch a Planet Hollywood. It was then back to the Hotel for a swim. The pool is awesome, half inside and half outside, with a small bridge over the gap. The sun was still out so swimming outside was acceptable. Shani had a sleep while we did this. The day was pushing on, and by the time we had showered and dressed it was close to dinner. We opted for the ‘Cape Cod’ restaurant, which offered a buffet. The difference was remarkable. Very acceptable, and in some cases great, food. Beer still expensive, but the food made up for it. We retired at the end of Day 3 a lot happier than the previous day.
I had hoped for another early start on Day 4, however owing to tiredness all around we didn’t get to the park until 9. We wanted to go to the Walt Disney Studios park which is next to the main area, but that didn’t open until Half 9, so we grabbed some breakfast in the main park before heading over to Studios.
Walt Disney Studios Park opened in 2002, 10 years after the main park. The rides are geared up around movies of one sort or another and concentrate on ‘Behind The Scenes’ elements of the movie industry. We had a brief wander around first, to get our bearings (and to take some photos with the ‘Boo’ door from Monsters Inc.), and then headed over to the Stunt Show. It was a 40 minute or so show where stuntmen demonstrated driving skills around a fake movie set. It was very loud, very clever and did not involve us getting spun around in any way. As we left this show, we saw the Armageddon Special Effects ride. It was great fun, and put you in a recreation of the Space Station set from the Armageddon movie. I will not ruin it for those who have not been, but do try it out if you get the chance.
When we left, the rain started again. Luckily we caught the whole of the Star Wars tribute on the outdoor stage before the heavens opened for a short burst of misery. We didn’t let this spoil the day, and went to (what turned out to be) our last ride of the day – the Studio Tour. It was excellent, with a great special effects bit halfway round and the recreated London set from ‘Reign Of Fire’. We all loved it. We then attempted (for the second time that day) to go on the Ratatouille ride. It was closed due to ‘Technical Issues’. This was a phrase applied to any ride that broke down. It happened many times we were there – Thunder Mountain (whilst we were on it), Hyperspace Mountain, Rock N Roll with Aerosmith and Indiana Jones were all the other ones we heard had broken down. It was a disappointing end to the day in Studios. Food next, and we had a relatively cheap snack in the Sports Bar in Disney Village. Shocking food but lovely staff. I was the dragged around a couple of shops before we headed back into the main park to watch the daily Parade.
If you have a young child, and if you can get your family to any of the Disney parks, I would make a viewing of the parade an absolute must. No matter how much technology, peer pressure at school, US teen TV show consumption or just general growing up the have done or imbibed over years – all of the nonsense in their heads evaporates and they become children again. It is a parents dream. Nothing, and I do mean nothing, can compare to the pure joy they experience as the characters and floats pass by, waving at one and all. It is 45 minutes or so of bright colours and big sounds. I could rave on about this for hours. I won’t. Just grab your kids and go see it. You will not regret it.
Back at the hotel afterwards we went for the buffet option again, then back to the room to pack. Our Disney adventure was drawing to an end.
The final day in France. Up early again, and the rain was falling once more. I got myself ready, then began to load the car as we had to vacate the room by 11. During one of my many trips to the car, I noticed Donald Duck was doing a photo call in the hotel. As a last minute thing, I got Erin and we joined the queue. 40 minutes later we were having a photo taken with Donald Duck himself. I thought Erin had loved the parade so much that she may have been Disney’d out. I was wrong! She hugged Donald as if he were the last person on the planet. My little girl is still a little girl, and I could have cried! Any rate, not to be out done, I also joined in and had a photo with Mr Duck. Then that was pretty much it for Disneyland Paris.
It had been wet, expensive with terrible food. However, we had plenty of exercise, plenty of fun and had regained a child from the clutches of modern life, if only for a few brief days, it was worth it. We set off from the Newport Bay Hotel and nipped up to the Esso garage to tank up with fuel. A few snacks were purchased for the road and that was it. Au revoir Disneyland, and bonjour to some long driving.
In order to see a little bit of the country before returning home, a map was examined to determine what was either en route or interesting. We opted for interesting and made tracks for Dunkirk. Bar a quick service station stop and one other ‘comfort break’ as the yanks would say, it was an easy trip up. We had a brief delay on one motorway due to a truck crash, but aside from that it was plain sailing. Getting to Dunkirk was fine. Finding the beaches, however, was problematic. Lack of sign posting and a Sat Nav ‘malfunction’ threw us off course, but like our forebears we persisted and eventually found the famous beach. It was incredibly windy, however the sun was out. We had a wander down the promenade, and were surprised by the distinct lack of commemorative material on display. It was like any other seaside town, rows of cafes and tourist shops. I was hoping to be overawed by a sense of history, but it did not happen. Still, it was hard to forget what happened here and we made a mental note to see the recent film about said beach [which we did see, 1 week later – it was excellent]. We did not stay too long, and headed off to Calais.
Calais was a stones throw from Dunkirk. Another industrial town, I headed straight for a Hypermarket. We eventually found a good one and went for a wander round. They also had a restaurant in the same complex, so we decided to grab a bite to eat there. Shani was not feeling well and did not partake in the food. After a bit of food and a bit of shopping we went to the Tunnel check in. It was a lot more Human orientated than Folkestone, and was a straightforward process. They put us on an earlier train and we were back in the UK by around 10 pm. Stupidly we had not booked a hotel for the return leg. We tried the one we stayed in on Monday and then another round the corner but both were full. We eventually got a room courtesy of lovely receptionists at the Days Inn off the M20 near Maidstone. We had made it back to Blighty and the car was still performing admirably. As it was almost midnight, we hit the sack and crashed out.
Heading home. Although we were off home, it seemed a shame to waste the daylight hours on the motorways, so we set off south to see what we could see. An unusual move you may think, given that most people thought the car would not make it down the M1 on day 1, but we are foolhardy and always seeking adventure! We fuelled ourselves with a MacDonalds breakfast at the service station where the hotel was, then fuelled the car. What could we hope to see? A brief look at the National Trust book (our Days Out Bible) and we chose Birling Gap in Sussex. It is a beach made up of pebbles and gives a great view of the Seven Sisters cliffs. The sun had come out and the drive was somewhat longer than I had anticipated. It turns out there was an air-show in Eastbourne, so all the back roads were clogged.
The last couple of miles drive into Birling Gap is amazing. A twisty road that cuts through impressive countryside of steep banked fields which climb the cliffs they adorn. The sea can be glimpsed through the gap as you get closer to the car park. It is a small car park, and many people had parked up along the road leading up to the it. We found a space and got a ticket. It is free for NT members, but you still have to get your membership card scanned to obtain a ticket. An odd way forward as this will probably cost the NT more money in the long run (in terms of paper and the car stickers). We checked in and got a pamphlet of blurb then headed down to the beach. This is accessed by a platform jutting out over the beach with a large, rusty, metal staircase that takes you down to the shoreline. Once down you are faced with a stunning view of the Seven Sisters as well as a clear view of the Channel. We had a walk along the beach, as Shani could not manage the cliff top walk, and Erin chased the sea as the tide went out.
We returned to the car windswept and salty. A quick look at the map showed us we were only 17 miles from Brighton, so we took the coastal road and enjoyed more views of the south coast as we headed over there. Parking in Brighton is a nightmare. We eventually got a Pay And Display space at the far end of the sea front promenade. It was such a huge distance back to the piers and restaurants that we had to deploy the wheelchair. Luckily, the sun was still out and the fresh air and brisk walk woke me up a bit. We had a brief look at some shops before grabbing a bite to eat at a beachfront restaurant called Al Fresco. Food was good, service was questionable! The rain then began to fall. Luckily it had dissipated by the time we had done eating. We headed back to the car where we began the long trip home.
I went back Anti Clockwise around the M25, just so Erin could experience the Dartford Tunnel. It added a few more miles to the trip, but what’s a few extra miles between friends? We had another brief stop at the M25 services, which was our first stop on the way down. An uneventful run home, we were back by 10 past 8. The Freelander had made it. The holiday was done.
As I finish writing this, the last drop of Ricard sipped away, the feeling of wanderlust is well and truly rooted in us all and we cannot wait to load up the car, grab our passports and journey out along tarmac arteries to experience even more exploration and adventure.
Total Miles: 994.4, Breakdowns 0, Freelander Lover 100%.