Thursday, 28 March 2013

Modern day booze cruise - a day trip to France with a difference

Banish from your thoughts memories of booze-sodden day trips to France in the good old days of duty free.  Back then it was all double gin and tonics on the ferry over, feverish stacking of hypermarket trollies with litre bottles of vin very ordinaire, before a dash back to the ferry terminal and the last chance to down some cut price booze on the way home.

Gone is the era when Calais resembled a British retail park, with Tesco and Sainsbury’s superstores rubbing shoulders with French hypermarkets at Cité Europe and discount booze stores such as Eastenders piling ‘em high and selling ‘em cheap.  The demise of super-cheap cross channel ferry tickets, the lack of Euro-buying power of the pound and the plentiful supply of discounted wines and beers in supermarkets back home have all conspired to make selling wines to Brits abroad less commercially rewarding.

However, for those who would like to sample a little morsel of life in la belle France – and pick up some bargain-priced wines at the same time – then a quick trip across the Channel could be just the ticket.

Majestic Wine still has two outlets in Calais and they offer £2 a bottle saving versus the UK price on wines (£3 a bottle on sparkling wines).  You may not be able to cross the channel for £1 anymore, but there are still good discounts available, especially if you can travel off peak. 

Calais old town, close to the port, has its charms, especially if the sun comes out.  Restaurant Le Channel, round the corner from the main square, Place d’Armes, is a good place to head for a civilised blow-out cum leisurely lunch.  If it takes a dose of moules marinières for you to know you’ve trodden on French soil, then Brasserie de la Mer, on rue de la Mer, is as good a place as any to head for.  Do not, however, be tempted, as I was, by their long list of alternative ways to prepare mussels.  Moules à la flammande are, apparently, supposed to be sweet – a weird and unwelcome surprise.
Wednesday and Saturday are market days, held, of course, on Place d’Armes.  On other days a quick trip to La Maison du Fromage et du Vin may have to suffice.  And, frankly, what more could you want?

If you have more time or are prepared to do a little driving, then you could venture further than Calais and call in on the Wine Society.

The Wine Society is a wine retailer with a difference:  a mutual society which exists to benefit its customers, who must all purchase a share in order to join (currently £40).  There is a showroom cum shop at their headquarters in Stevenage, but most customers buy over the phone or online. 

The Society’s French outlet is located away from the coast at the genteel town of Montreuil-sur-mer which, despite its name, has not been “sur mer” since the 1300s.  A forty minute drive from the Channel tunnel at Sangatte (count on an hour from the ferry port at Calais), Montreuil is a picturesque town with intact ramparts around the old town in this surprisingly hilly part of the Pas de Calais.  The ramparts play host to an annual “son et lumière” performance of Les Misérables in the summer – Victor Hugo set much of the action of his novel there, following a brief visit years before with his mistress (don’t let me give you ideas).

Walking the ramparts

The Wine Society guarantees a saving of £18 per 12 bottles:  the actual amount can vary with the sterling to Euro exchange rate.  Because of this fixed price discount, you stand to gain more at the lower end of the price range.  If you are paying £1.50 less for a bottle that would cost you £7 back in the UK, that looks like a healthy discount.  £1.50 off a bottle of £50 claret is not going to set the pulse racing.  Therefore, the core range of 200 wines stocked in Montreuil concentrates on sub-£10 bottles.

Members can also use the Montreuil shop to pick up wines that they have pre-ordered in the UK, in which case they are free to choose from the Society’s full list of over 500 wines.

Having got the wine buying business out of the way, the rest of the day is free to explore the dining options of the town.  Choose from the rustic bench seats and rotisserie meat fest at Froggy’s Tavern (nowhere near as cheesy a place as that sounds), to the Michelin-starred refinement of Le Château de Montreuil – and lots more in between. 

Or, of course, you could make a night of it and stay overnight in Montreuil, fitting in a sortie to the well-stocked cheese shop, window shopping at one of the appealing but eye-wateringly expensive chocolate shops – and of course a bracing walk around the ramparts to make up for any over-indulgence the night before.

Names and addresses

Majestic outlets – 1 rue de Judée, Zone Industrielle Marcel Doret, Calais; and Unit 3A, avenue Général Charles de Gaulle, Zone la Française, Coquelles
Restaurant Le Channel – 5, boulevard de la Résistance, Calais
Brasserie de la Mer – 30, rue de la Mer, Calais
La Maison du Fromage et du Vin – 1, rue André Gerschell, Calais

The Wine Society in France - rue de Tripot, 62170 Montreuil-sur-Mer (behind the Hôtel Hermitage on Place Gambetta).  Detailed directions and lots more information are available on The Wine Society’s website:
Froggy’s Tavern – 51 bis, place du Général de Gaulle
Le Château de Montreuil – 4, chaussée des Capucins
Fromagerie Caseus – 28, place du Général de Gaulle
Les Chocolats de Beussent – 10, place Darnétal
Chocolaterie les Misérables –9, rue Pierre Ledent


  1. Hi Heather,
    I enjoy your blogs but have never commented on them yet.
    The best place to go booze shopping by far in Calais is The Calais Wine Superstore - it's independent, owned by the ex-Oddbins crew and it is fantastic!

  2. Thanks for reading and for the comment. I do hope an independent wine retailer is managing to make a go of it in Calais, as times look pretty tough there.

  3. Hi Heather, I am looking to cross over to buy some spirits. Can you recommend anywhere to purchase spirits?

    Whenever I have crossed in the past, I have purchased on the ferry....

  4. Hi Tarun, I don't have any experience of buying spirits in Calais, but I'm sure Majestic's outlet there (or perhaps the Calais Wine Superstore mentioned by Anonymous in their comment above)would be able to help. Definitely check out their websites before you go though!

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